By Joshua Iversen
In the week before Christmas, baseball’s hot stove finally began to heat up. A handful of mid-tier free agents found their 2019 homes and two major trades went down involving significant Major League players.
The first was a three-team deal between the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. The biggest name in the deal was former top prospect Jurickson Profar, who heads from Texas to Oakland. The 25-year-old switch-hitter is coming off a breakout season and will replace free agent Jed Lowrie at second base for the A’s. Profar comes with two years of team control remaining before he hits free agency.
The only other Major Leaguer in the deal was right-handed reliever Emilio Pagan, who heads from Oakland to Tampa Bay. The 27-year-old struggled to keep the ball in the park in 2018 but is very effective against right-handed hitters with his high-spin fastball. The Rays also received a Competitive Balance pick in the 2019 Draft (from Oakland) and right-handed pitcher Rollie Lacy (from Texas). A large part of this deal for the Rays was clearing 40-man space and shuffling assets.
The Rangers received four prospects (as well as $750,000 in international bonus pool money) in exchange for Profar and Lacy. Oakland sent utility man Eli White, while Tampa Bay sent lefties Brock Burke and Kyle Bird and righty Yoel Espinal.
The headliner of the deal for the Rangers is 22-year-old lefty Brock Burke. Burke was drafted in the third round in 2014 out of Evergreen High School in Evergreen, Colorado. He didn’t really make much noise for his first few years of pro ball, posting inconsistent walk and strikeout rates from year to year.
Burke’s real success didn’t come until 2018. He started the season at High-A, where he posted a 3.84 ERA (3.20 FIP) in 16 games (13 starts). This earned Burke a promotion to Double-A where he really turned it on, posting a 1.95 ERA (2.19 FIP) in nine games, all starts. His velocity ticked up and he now touches 96 MPH from the left side. Further, as Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs writes, his velocity plays up “because Burke creates huge, down-mound extension and has an uncommonly vertical arm slot.” His changeup has also become a much more effective pitch and is now his main secondary offering.
Burke’s biggest challenge will be consistency. He needs to show that these changes he has made are legitimate and can stick. For now, he projects as a back-end starter. However, he has notable upside and is perhaps only a few small tweaks away from becoming something more. Burke is ranked the sixth-best prospect in the Rangers’ system by MLB.com.
The other main piece Texas received in the deal, Eli White is a versatile player coming off a breakout 2018. In college, White stood out for his above average plate discipline and speed, and was selected in the 11th round out of Clemson University in the 2016 draft. In his first two minor league seasons, it was more of the same for White – high walk rates, a handful of stolen bases and very little power. He played all but a handful of his games at shortstop. Entering 2018, White was not ranked on either John Sickels’ Top 20 prospect list for Oakland or AthleticsNation’s top 30 list.
Everything came together for White in 2018. He slashed .306/.388/.450 with nine home runs and 18 stolen bases while playing in a pitcher-friendly park in Double-A Midland. Defensively, he split his time between shortstop, second base, third base, and even a few games in center field. He finished his season with a .344/.385/.459 slash line over 15 games in the Arizona Fall League. His stock went way up and he is now ranked the 12th-best prospect in an above average Rangers system.
I got a good look at White during the AFL this year and I was impressed. He showed a strong eye at the plate and moved very well, both while running the bases and on defense. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and isn’t likely to stick at shortstop long term, but he can play the position in a pinch. White is more of a doubles-hitter than a home run threat and is unlikely to ever hit more than ten or so homers in a season. However, he is a versatile player and should make a very nice bench bat in the near future.
The Rays believed in Bird enough to add him to their 40-man roster and protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, and the Rangers believed in Bird enough to trade for him. Bird was selected in the 35th round of the 2014 draft out of Flagler College, where he had been an unimpressive but projectable starter. The southpaw pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen with Tampa Bay and developed into a very solid lefty reliever.
Bird throws his fastball in the low 90s, but pairs it with a plus slider and curveball, each with an insane spin rate. He has below average command but makes up for it by missing tons of bats. Already 25, Bird will likely begin the 2019 season in Triple-A, but he will probably reach the majors at some point this year.
Similarly, Espinal is a relief-only prospect. The righty was re-signed by Tampa Bay as a minor league free agent this offseason. The 26-year-old posted a 1.98 ERA over 54.2 innings in Double-A last season.
Espinal throws harder than Bird, sitting in the mid-90s, but also has much severer control problems. His velocity and pure stuff probably give him a higher ceiling than Bird, but he is much riskier and more likely to flame out altogether.
The lone prospect headed to Tampa Bay in this deal, Lacy was part of the return Texas received from the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline for Cole Hamels. Lacy was drafted in the 11th round of the 2017 draft out of Creighton University. At Creighton, he posted a 2.80 ERA over 43 starts (253 innings) in his three seasons.
The 23-year-old struggled in 2018 but still projects well as a back-end arm. He tops out in the low-90s with his fastball with a plus changeup. What Lacy lacks in velocity, he makes up for in movement, as both his fastball and changeup have plenty of run and help him generate ground balls and other weak contact.
Lacy doesn’t have the same upside as a pitcher like Burke, but perhaps more importantly for Tampa Bay, he is not yet on their 40-man roster and will not need to be added for some time. He reached High-A in 2018 and could move quickly, as his ability to work multiple innings out of the bullpen fits the Rays’ nontraditional pitching staff.
The second significant trade of the week was a blockbuster between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. In the deal, the Dodgers sent outfielders Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, lefty Alex Wood, catcher Kyle Farmer, and seven million dollars to the Reds in exchange for righty Homer Bailey and two prospects, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray.
The Reds are trying to move towards contention in 2019, and this deal helps with that. Wood becomes their best starter and Puig one of their best hitters, while Kemp had an offensive resurgence in 2018 and should provide some value as a bench or platoon bat. Moving Bailey in the deal makes absorbing the salaries of those three players much easier. Altogether, this deal is almost a financial wash due to the deferrals in Bailey’s contract. The Reds will also have the option of giving the qualifying offer to Wood and/or Puig when they become free agents after 2019.
For the Dodgers, this deal is all about the luxury tax. They have already released Bailey, but because of the way the luxury tax value is calculated, this deal will save them roughly $17.5 million. Some have speculated that they could be gearing up for a run at top free agent Bryce Harper. Even if they aren’t, this should give them much more financial flexibility. They also received two very solid prospects in this deal.
Downs is a 20-year-old middle infielder that does a little bit of everything. Named after former Yankees shortstop and current Marlins owner Derek Jeter, Downs was drafted in the Competitive Balance A round of the 2017 draft out of Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Florida.
He spent the 2018 season in Single-A, where he slashed .257/.351/.402 with 13 home runs and 37 stolen bases. Downs is a bat-first prospect, but he does have a decent chance to stick at shortstop. If not, he could move to either second base or the outfield. His 37 stolen bases are a result of his aggressive baserunning, although he will likely not have the same kind of success as he climbs the minor leagues. However, Downs has a simple swing and performs on both sides of the ball. He might not have superstar upside, but he has a high floor and should be a solid contributor. He is ranked the Dodgers’ seventh-best prospect by MLB.com.
Gray was selected in the Competitive Balance B round of the 2018 draft out of Le Moyne College. There, he had just converted from shortstop to the mound, and the Reds liked what they saw enough to pick him early in the draft. So far, the gamble has proven successful. Gray posted a 2.58 ERA over 12 starts in Rookie ball in 2018, with more than a strikeout per inning and only one home run allowed all season.
Gray’s fastball touches 96 MPH with movement. He is very athletic and throws plenty of strikes. Most of his shortcomings can, for now, be attributed to a lack of pitching experience. As he develops, he needs to settle into a smoother, more repeatable delivery and sharpen up his offspeed pitches. If he can do so, Gray has big upside. He is ranked 16th in the Dodgers’ system.