As the 2020 Trade Deadline approached, only a little over a month into the 60 game season and with less than a full month to go, Pittsburgh Pirates Reliever Richard Rodriguez was discussed as one of the potential trade pieces for General Manager Ben Cherington. After giving up what turned out to be the game winning 2 run homer in the season opener versus the Cardinals, Rodriguez became nearly touchable as he struck out 17 batters in 12.2 innings of work. He also did not allow many base runners as his WHIP hovered around .8025. When the deadline passed on August 31st plenty of fans were surprised that the 30 year old pitcher was still a member of the Pirates bullpen.
The anticipation that led up to this point in the year has carried over into the impending off-season, as Rodriguez is being considered by many as considerable trade piece yet again. These feelings have been reinforced by the fact he finished the season strong with 16 strike outs and 2 walks in 9.2 innings, not allowing a runner to cross the plate in the last month. Also taking into account that he is just entering his first year of arbitration, with 3 years of team control, it is possible that the predictions of RichRod being moved before the start of the 2021 could come true. However, I am of the belief that the chances of this happening are not very high.
The main reason for me being of this opinion is that the performance level of relief pitchers from year to year are extremely unpredictable. Just look at Rodriguez’s history in Pittsburgh. In 2018 he emerged as a stalwart out of the Pirates bullpen as he earned a 2.47 ERA and a 1.067 WHIP, with 88 strikeouts in 69.1 innings. Then came a disappointing 2019 as he gave up 14 homers and only struck out 63 over 65.1 innings. He also saw his WHIP rise to 1.347. Even though he rebounded this past season to his 2018 form, who is to say that he won’t revert back to the struggling reliever he showed that he could be during the previous year?
Another reason arises out of something that occurs every off-season as additional options for bullpen help become available in free agency. The major benefit of going the free agent route is that it does not require you to give up any prospects in order to acquire a player. It can also be the cheaper alternative, depending on the level of signing that a team chooses to make. For instance a player signed to a Minor League Contract with an invitation to Spring Training has the opportunity to earn up to $1.25 million dollars if they make the opening day roster, which would be right around the $1.1-$1.7 million Rodriguez will be due in his 1st arb year.
Now let’s consider for a moment that my expectations are incorrect and Rodriguez does end up being dealt, what is the potential return that Cherington could expect in return for the setup man/possible closer? In an attempt to figure this out I wanted to find an example of reliever being traded in the off-season. I didn’t have to look too far back as the Tampa Bay Rays traded their closer Emilio Pagan during last year’s off-season. In 2019 Pagan had emerged as the Rays go to pitcher out of the bullpen in his year 28 season, having been acquired from the A’s during the previous off-season. In 66 appearances for Tampa Bay, Pagan posted a 2.30 ERA and a .829 WHIP, with 96 strike outs and 20 saves. This was good for 2.3 bWAR and 1.5 fWAR respectively.
After having such a productive season it was quite a surprise that Pagan was traded for the second off-season in a row. However, the Rays were ultimately unable to resist the trade offer from the Padres. In return for Pagan they received a young controllable outfielder in Manuel Margot and catching/outfield prospect Logan Driscoll, who San Diego had drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2019 MLB June Amateur Draft. In three full seasons Margot had hovered in between .263 and .234, but he had shown power potential by hitting 12 homers in 2019. Mostly known speed and defensive Margot was seen as insurance in the off chance that Kevin Kiermaier was traded or more than likely was unable to remain healthy. Driscoll’s appeal appeared to be based more on the Rays fascination with players who have displayed position flexibility as he sits near the bottom of Tampa’s top 50 prospects as reported by Fangraphs with a future value of 35+.
So, how would RichRod’s value compare to that of Pagan? Well, Pagan was almost couple of years younger at the time of the trade, with one more year of control. He had accumulated a higher WAR in his best year than RichRod, who’s WAR was 1.4 according to Baseball Reference and 1.3 on Fangraphs in 2018. Although, no one can be certain what it would have been in 162 games in 2020, so the argument can be made that the return could be fairly similar. However, you would then have to ask yourself if you would be satisfied seeing a Margot and and a Driscoll coming back to the Pirates as they said goodbye to RichRod.
Manuel Margot has performed exceptionally well in the playoffs to this point; batting .296 with a .959 OPS and blasting 5 home runs. He has also shown up on the defensive highlight reel more than once. For his career, prior to arriving with the Rays, he has slashed .248/.301/.394 with 33 homers in 3 full years and short stint in 2016. During this time he accumulated 6.4 bWAR and 4.3 fWAR, mostly thanks to his defense. He did however, come with 3 years of team control.
Driscoll on the other hand is an unknown as he only played in 39 games in Low A ball while in the Padres System, along 6 games in the Arizona Fall League back in 2019. Prior to being drafted he was a stand out at George Mason University for 3 seasons, but has yet to really get his professional career started mostly due to the cancellation of the 2020 Minor League Baseball season.
For me it is hard to say if this level of return would be enough to move the needle in favor of letting go of Rodriguez. I would much rather see him moved at the in season trade deadline to a team that is desperate for bullpen help, but this would be gambling on the fact that RichRod shows off his 2018 and 2020 form for the majority of the year. It also doesn’t take into account that the eventual goal or plan could be to flip a Margot level player down the line if he continues to perform as well as he has in the playoffs. This is one of the reasons why trading is so difficult and the answer isn’t always as clear as it may seem.