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The market for quality relievers has inflated to regions beyond our recognition, and it still feels as if we’re struggling to adjust to modern valuations. Teams with question marks in their starting rotations have been able to effectively compensate with shutdown bullpens—i.e. the Orioles and Royals in recent years. The price tag for quality relievers hasn’t seemingly caught up in free agency; however, the trade market is an entirely different story. Teams gotta pay through the nose if they want to add a premium piece to the back-end of the bullpen.
The Milwaukee Brewers somehow succeeded in further bolstering their suddenly stocked farm system, while addressing what figured to be a Jonathan-Lucroy-shaped hole in their major-league roster.
Susac was our 97th-ranked prospect prior to the 2015 season. He hit .268/.379/.451 with 10 homers and a 13.4 percent walk rate in Triple-A in 2014 before missing much of the 2015 campaign with multiple injuries, including a wrist injury that has lingered into the current season. He also had little opportunity for playing time in San Francisco, due to the existence of Buster Posey, the Clayton Kershaw of catchers.
A move to Milwaukee will offer him an opportunity to feature his patience/power combination at the plate and carve out a job as an everyday regular for the Brewers. Miller is a wonderful ballpark for a hitter like him, and a move to Milwaukee further benefits the 26-year-old backstop because the Brewers have the luxury of time—the luxury of allowing his wrist to fully heal and to stick with him as he develops defensively and offensively in the majors. It should be noted, though, that his recent hot streak (.326/.365/.596 in July) bodes well for the health of his wrist.
For the Brewers, Susac is a potentially massive upgrade over Martin Maldonado, who is a career .219/.293/.341 hitter and is nothing more (and nothing less) than the perfect reserve catcher. Maldy boasts plus defensive tools behind the dish and has a great rapport with the Brewers’ pitching staff, which should help Susac transition to a no. 1 role in Milwaukee. The 29-year-old veteran can occasionally run into one, especially to the pull side, but has too many issues with his hit tool to be a desirable starting catcher. Susac gives the Brewers a potential league-average starter who has yet to hit arbitration, while allowing the organization to not rush top-10 prospect Jacob Nottingham—an offseason acquisition who has promise, but who has struggled to a .236/.299/.332 line in Double-A.
Here's what our own David Lee says of Bickford:
After seeing and writing Bickford several times this year, my Futures Game note best sums up my thoughts: “It’s tough to count out such a quick arm with deceptive qualities as a starter, but it’s an arsenal best suited for relief.” I’m also convinced his value within the industry wasn’t as high as public perception.
Every scout I’ve talked to on Bickford gave me a similar report as what I wrote by projecting relief. He throws a low-90s fastball that can touch 94 with minimal movement. It relies heavily on deception by appearing to rise above the bat with late life up, and he takes advantage of it by working up and changing eye levels. His command of the pitch is below average, but he knows what he wants to do with it by trying to work up. Bickford’s slider continues to just flash because of below-average feel, but there’s enough to project average with three-quarters tilt, and decent bite and depth. His changeup remains show-me quality by coming out of the hand firm. Bickford has a wiry frame with plus arm speed, and his delivery is clean enough to mostly repeat, though he’ll occasionally drop his slot or lose feel for his release by spinning out, and he doesn't take advantage of his length with proper plane. The arm is quick and he has two usable pitches, but there’s just not enough to project more than late-innings relief based on a thin arsenal and below-average command.
Even with those limitations, Bickford is another quality prospect that Milwaukee adds to one of the more exciting minor-league systems in the league. That’s been new GM David Stearns’ primary goal over the past 12 months, to acquire potential everyday big leaguers on the cheap (such as Jonathan Villar and Junior Guerra) while stocking the farm system with enough depth that they can afford to “miss” on multiple guys and not doom their rebuilding project. Add this to what is turning into a nice, long stretch of successful trades.
Smith was a high-strikeout reliever without a clear path to the closer’s role in Milwaukee, and that’s precisely what he will be in San Francisco. While the strikeouts will remain, one could argue that his run prevention will take a step forward as he moves from Miller Park to the spacious AT&T Park. Still, this isn’t a move that should make fantasy owners scramble to acquire him. He’s still behind Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo in the pecking order for the ninth inning.
|SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
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Acquired LHP Will Smith from Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for C-RH Andrew Susac and RHP Phil Bickford. [8/1]
The Giants sit 17 games above .500, with a two-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers. But they've done it despite a shaky bullpen. If there's anything consistent about the club's three-title run, it's been—well, okay, the even year thing, but other than that it's been a bullpen core that has been unusually permanent, with Santiago Casilla, Javy Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt and Sergio Romo all claiming three rings apiece. Affeldt's retired, Lopez has been terrible, and the group as a whole no longer looks postseason-ready, with a collective DRA of 4.21 that checks in at no. 20 in the majors. It was clearly an area of need heading into the trade deadline.
The Giants’ needed especially to determine how they were going to retire left-handers in key spots down the stretch. Lefties are hitting .255/.319/.430 against the club’s bullpen this year, and that slugging percentage ranks in the bottom half of the league. The Giants’ historical southpaw ace, Lopez, has an unsightly 13.3 percent walk rate and his worst ERA since Boston. In fact, he’s walking more lefties than he has struck out this year—and while that should be caveated with the fact that he’s only seen 62 lefties this year, he’s also 39 years old, struggles to touch 85 mph, and has battled with tendonitis in his biceps this year.
Smith should add a dynamic weapon to the back-end of the bullpen. His 3.68 ERA doesn’t look special, but he’s only just returning to the mound after a knee injury that cost him much of the campaign thus far. He has struck out north of 30 percent of the batters he has faced as a reliever and doesn’t have a platoon split: righties only hit .193/.264/.281 off him last year.
The 27-year-old lefty features a breaking ball that’s affectionately known as the Slider of Death in Milwaukee. Over the past four years, it has a whiff rate over 30 percent and opponents are only hitting .137 with a .228 slugging percentage against the pitch since he broke into the big leagues in 2012. It’s a devastating pitch that can make even the most accomplished big-league hitter look foolish.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses. His average fastball velocity is down from 94.0 mph a year ago to just 92.7 mph this year—though the optimist can easily ascribe that to injuries and his three months on the disabled list. Regardless, even if we’re assured that his velocity drop isn’t due to an underlying arm issue, it’s still real. The Giants don’t have the luxury of waiting for him to build up arm strength, as they’re in a pennant race in the NL West. In that way, Smith isn’t an ideal pickup.
This isn’t just a two-month rental, though. Smith has three years remaining on his contract and should be a key piece in the Giants’ bullpen for the foreseeable future. In that way, leveraging a key surplus piece in Susac, who was injured, and an A-ball pitching prospect who has seen his velocity dip a bit this year isn’t a bad deal. The Brewers received great value for their rebuild; the Giants didn’t part with anything that should impact their window of contention for the next couple of years. Two happy cities tonight.
As with most trades featuring an above-average reliever, we’re still trying to adjust to the current market. If we concede the fact that relief pitchers are going for far more than they did a couple of years ago, it seems the Giants did a nice job. Just credit the Brewers for exploiting the inflated relief market to address more wide-ranging needs that come with being a rebuilding club.
Finally, the 26-year-old backstop has an opportunity to earn an everyday role. In a fantasy landscape that lacks quality catchers, Susac could be a sneaky upside play in the second half of the season. The Brewers acquired him with the plan to groom him to be the no. 1 catcher, and while the timeline is a bit hazy at this point, his .326/.365/.596 slash line with a half-dozen homers in July suggests that his wrist is feeling better. He’s unlikely to be a high-average hitter at the major-league level, as he has a history of swing-and-miss issues, but it’s easy to project him as a .260 hitter with 15-20 homers in the bandbox that is Miller Park. This move to Milwaukee represents a massive uptick in his fantasy stock. There’s risk in his profile, but if he hits, he could be a top-15 catcher, at least, going forward.
Throughout the trade deadline, it appeared that Maldonado would step into the starting catching role for Milwaukee. That ship has seemingly sailed. Not that it should have mattered. He’s hitting .202/.330/.357 this year in very limited playing time and has a career .634 OPS. The fantasy market for catchers is bad, but it’s just not that bad to make Maldy attractive whatsoever, —even if he does assume the everyday job for a few weeks while Susac makes the adjustment to a new organization and a new pitching staff.
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