I’ve written a version of this post in each of the past two years, suggesting a bunch of fringe bullpen options that could come cheap at the trade deadline, while acknowledging how few examples we have of the Dodgers doing this. That list can be found in this post, while adding Zach McKinstry going to Chicago for Chris Martin last year to the list, a trade that led to Martin getting a 2-year, $13.5 million deal that’s working out pretty well for Boston.
Given the struggles of the bullpen, which has had to throw the 8th-most innings in the majors this season due to an injury plagued and inexperienced rotation, this post is going to include a few names that would certainly cost more than past deadline relief deals.
- Jordan Montgomery (July 19)
- Brent Rooker (July 20)
- Teoscar Hernandez (July 23)
Lucas Giolito (July 25)– Traded To Angels
- Nolan Arenado (July 27)
Among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched this season (more on this very arbitrary number below), the Dodgers have a total of two pitchers among the top 75 in K%, with the same two also the only pitchers to rank at or higher than the 80th percentile in Whiff% on Baseball Savant. That’s Alex Vesia (31.7 K%, T-31st) and Evan Phillips (31.3 K%, 33rd), while Caleb Ferguson just missed out at T-77th with a 27.3% and Shelby Miller landed at 100th with a 25.8%. And to get Vesia in the ranking, I had to move the innings total under 30 as he’s at 27 innings this season.
The innings caveat is also the case for Joe Kelly, whose 32.0 K% is a career-high in his 29 innings of work and ranks him 28th, with Mark Leiter Jr. just ahead of Phillips at 31.4% to rank 35th, and then Jordan Hicks just behind Phillips at 31.2% to tie for 37th. Then there’s Paul Sewald and his 35.8 K% to rank 13th on the list, the highest of any pitcher on the rankings I am following who may even be possibly available at the deadline other than Josh Hader, who I just personally can’t imagine the Padres would send to Los Angeles. While Kelly doesn’t have a Whiff% on Baseball Savant, the other three would all rank near the top of the Dodgers bullpen, where Leiter Jr. (92nd percentile) and Sewald (88th) would actually be leading the team and Hicks (82nd) would rank behind only Phillips (87th) and Vesia (83rd).
The point I am clearly getting at is if the Dodgers are actually going to trade for bullpen help — and not just rely on a combination of Tony Gonsolin/Michael Grove/Emmet Sheehan/Bobby Miller or whoever gets bumped from the rotation following a trade for a starter — and they need to look for someone who is going to miss bats.
The Dodgers’ bullpen has a 24.3 K% this season, 11th overall in the league for 2023, but is behind Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco in the National League. The Swinging Strike% drops even lower, sitting in a tie for 17th and behind just about every playoff contender except for the Rays, Brewers and Giants. This is a pretty basic look at it all, but Brusdar Graterol‘s 19.3 K%, 2nd percentile Whiff% ranking and a 7.2 Swinging Strike% while sitting behind only Yency Almonte in bullpen innings for 2023 is the point.
The four names here can all help with that in varying degrees with varying costs and even varying levels of availability.
Before getting to each guy specifically, it’s worth noting that three of them may not/will not be traded to anyone. The 52-50 Mariners may still not sell despite sitting 10th in the American League, as they are still just 4.5 games back of the Wild Card, though the Angels decision to buy could influence that. The 50-51 Cubs are also just 4.5 games back of the Wild Card as they are 9th in the National League and are 6 games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers. Lastly, while the Cardinals are clearly selling, Hicks may end up with an extension from St. Louis and take him off the market, though those talks apparently haven’t gone far.
Kelly is almost certain to go, as are a few of his bullpen teammates with the White Sox, but he’s specifically included here because the Dodgers have seemingly been connected to him more than Keynan Middleton, Aaron Bummer or Kendall Graveman for now, and he has struck out more than that trio while also outperforming all of them in one way or another.
Joe Kelly, White Sox
Kelly has spent some time on the injured list in 2023, with a right groin strain costing him two weeks in April and right elbow inflammation taking him out for two weeks of July.
That being said, Kelly’s five pitch mix in 2023 has led to the aforementioned highest K% of his career, second lowest BB% of his career and second-best Whiff% at 30.2%. Moving away from his curve in favor of his slider and fastball behind his sinker to right-handed hitters has led to a 37.7 K% with a .219/.275/.328/.603 line and a 1.82 FIP. Left-handed batters still see plenty of curves, along with an even mix of sinkers, sliders and changes. They are striking out much less, at 25.4% with a 5.10 FIP and a .240/.356/.500/.856 line, but that work would seem to fall on Ferguson or Vesia anyway.
The 35-year-old Kelly still has a club option for 2024 at $9.5 million with a $1 million buyout. Making $9 million in 2023, Kelly has around $3 million remaining this season.
Jordan Hicks, Cardinals
A little more than a month away from his 27th birthday, Hicks’ 31.2 K% is well ahead of his previous career high of 28.2% back in 2019, and ranks in the 90th percentile or better in exit velo, xBA, K%, xSLG, fastball velo and Barrel%. Similar to Kelly, Hicks’ sinker and sweeper combination to right-handed batters has led to a 33.0 K% with a .248/.322/.366/.688 line and a 2.75 FIP. Lefties have hit similar, holding a .237/.392/.288/.680, with a 17.6 BB% (up from 9.6% to righties) the largest issue. Left-handed hitters are still at a 28.4 K% against the sinker, fastball and sweeper mix.
The sinker usage has Hicks at a 58.3 GB% to rank 11th among qualified relievers, one of only a few pitchers to rank that high in ground ball rate while also holding a K% above 30. That group is essentially Jhoan Duran, Camilo Doval and old friend Josh Sborz.
In his final year of arbitration, Hicks is making $1,837,500 for 2023 before hitting free agency, while looking at that possible extension with the Cardinals.
Mark Leiter Jr., Cubs
When I last wrote Mark Leiter Jr.’s name, it was before a start against the Dodgers back on July 7, 2022. Leiter Jr. was in and out of the Cubs rotation at the time with mixed results. The Dodgers hit three home runs off of him in that game, leading to four runs across 5 innings, and it happens to be the last start he made, with 66 appearances out of the bullpen since going much better for him.
That might have something to do with electing not to throw a 91 mph fastball as his primary pitch.
Trading in the fastball-curve combination for a splitter-sinker, Leiter Jr.’s ground ball rate is slightly up at a career-best 50.5%, and his K% has skyrocketed to a career-high 31.4% from last season’s 25.9%. Sitting at 26.9% and 26.5% last June and July, Leiter Jr. dipped to 25.4% last August and then 29.2% in September and October. That’s carried over into 2023 as he went 36.2%, 36.4% and 35.7% before dipping down to 16.7% in July. That has seemed odd, but in his past six outings, Leiter Jr. has allowed one hit and two walks in 5 2/3 innings since allowing six runs in four appearances against the Brewers and Red Sox to start the month.
It’s actually been lefties who have struggled most against Leiter’s 39.4% splitters, 25.7% sinkers and 17.3% cutters with a 33.6 K%, a .147/.218/.248/.466 line and a 2.51 FIP. The splitter usage drops to 25.9% against right-handed hitters as the sinker becomes the primary pitch at 45.4% and the cutter 17.1%. Right-handed batters have smashed the sinker to a .421 BA/.362 xBA, a .947 SLG/.720 xSLG and a .576 wOBA/.502 xwOBA which has led to a .244/.357/.467/.824 line and a 26.8 K% thanks to the splitter’s 50.0 Whiff%.
Leiter Jr.’s eventful career means even at 32 years old, he’s just entering arbitration in 2024 while making $850,000 this season.
Paul Sewald, Mariners
Since arriving in Seattle in 2021 after leaving the Mets, Sewald has recorded a 39.4 K% in 2021, a 29.8 K% in 2022 and now a 35.8 K% in 2023. All of that has come with plenty of work as he reached 64 and 64 2/3 innings the past two seasons before sitting at 42 so far in 2023. The ground ball rate has flowed with the K% changes, going from 26.1% when he was striking out his most in Seattle, up to 30.6% and back down to 28.9% in 2023. The ERA has been 3.06, 2.67 and now 3.00, while his FIP has been 3.08, 3.88 and 2.95 in the three seasons.
That’s a pretty consistent asset for the Mariners, as Sewald’s percentiles for 2023 look like this:
As it has for many pitchers, the sweeper increase for Sewald has led to his success. It’s a pretty even split for right-handed batters, 51.2% sweepers to 48.8% fastballs, while lefties get 57.8% fastballs and 42.2% sweepers. Sewald has slightly altered the horizontal movement of the fastball and sweeper over the past three years, as well as the latter’s vertical movement, but they basically overlap in total horizontal movement now.
The splits are pretty minimal for Sewald, with a 37.7 K% to lefties and a 34.1 K% to righties, and a .580 OPS for lefties to a .609 to righties. Lefties walk a bit more and righties get a few more hits, but it nearly equals out.
Similar to Leiter Jr., the 33-year-old Sewald is in just his second year of arbitration in 2023, with one last year of team control for 2024. Making $4,100,000 in 2023, Sewald got a raise from 2022’s $1,735,000 and will be due another after the season he’s having.
As I said to begin, I assume most of these guys will not come as cheap as past bullpen deals have been given their clear success (for the most part) in 2023. Kelly would come the cheapest given his club option, but the year of control for Sewald and multiple years for Leiter Jr. mean they aren’t rentals (which I guess also leads to some risk), while the age and pedigree of Hicks means he has a bit more value.
Looking at the deadline deals from 2022 that included relievers, David Robertson cost the Phillies their No. 26 prospect as a rental, Michael Fulmer cost the Twins a prospect not even in the Tigers’ Top 30 for two months, and Jorge Lopez cost the Twins a package of four players that included their No. 22 prospect and Yennier Cano, who went from a 9.22 ERA to an All-Star appearance in the past year. Sitting at 29 years old at the time, Lopez had three years of control remaining but has already been flipped to the Marlins for old friend Dylan Floro.
To CHW: UTIL Devin Mann
To LA: Kelly
Already 26 years old but sitting with a .959 OPS in Triple-A, Mann would need to be added to the 40-man to avoid being picked in the Rule 5 Draft in the winter. If his positional versatility isn’t going to be used by the Dodgers, the White Sox could probably find some use for him in exchange for Kelly.
To LA: Hicks
Assuming the Cardinals may send out some of their outfielders at the deadline, Ramos might make some sense. A better prospect than Mann, the 22-year-old Ramos will also need to be added to the 40-man before the next Rule 5 draft. I’d assume something else may need to be added with Ramos if the battle for Hicks picks up, so I am going to add in Knack as the Cards need as many close to MLB-ready pitching prospects as possible.
To LA: Leiter Jr.
Three years of control, even for a pitcher that is already 32 years old, probably means a bit more in the pitching market the Angels created. While Lopez was better than Leiter when he was traded last season, that return brought four players. I’ll go with just three in Ramos, the near-ready Hurt, and include the upside of Duran, who is missing 2023 after Tommy John surgery.
To SEA: RHP Landon Knack, 2B Jorbit Vivas
To LA: Sewald
Last year, Dustin included a pair of Top 10 prospects and another mid-teens to mid-20s piece for a then 29-year-old Scott Barlow with two additional years of team control remaining. I am going to just roll with Knack again while adding in Vivas for Sewald, who is older than Barlow was with one less year of team control.
As I’ve made clear throughout this post, a big move for a reliever at the deadline would be pretty out of character for this front office. However, the bullpen’s ERA has never been this bad under their watch, while the FIP is the second-worst, the K% is tied with 2020 for the worst, and the K-BB% of 15.2% is only ahead of 2019’s 15.0% and well behind the next lowest of 17.1% in 2019. It truly is that bad, and while there’s been some improvement recently, there’s clearly room to get better.