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San Diego signing Cahill for $1.75 million this offseason was meant to provide a little stability to a questionable (at best) rotation, but no one thought that the former top prospect would suddenly ramp up his strikeout rate in such startling fashion while transitioning back to the rotation. I certainly didn’t. After all, Cahill’s career as a starter was punctuated by ground ball after ground ball, mediated by a perfectly normal strikeout rate for such a sinker-heavy starter. But this guy, injuries and all, turned out to be the best pitcher in an otherwise-terrible Padres rotation thanks to his regular use of five different pitches.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has written wonderfully about Cahill’s ability to get hitters to chase out of the zone. This is true! His curveball has been a bit of a difference-maker, and it seems as if the quality of his pitching could be sustainable, at least in the near term. DRA sees him not just as a solid starter, but as a very good one. Cahill’s 2.63 DRA puts him in Chris Archer/Zack Greinke territory, but you have to balance that against the fact that he's thrown just a little over 60 innings this season.
This performance could be the result of a solid run, but it's kind of out of whack with the rest of his career (save the sparkly ground-ball rate) and he’s a pitcher with a laundry list of injuries. We have to be cognizant that regression could be coming and that injuries are certainly coming, but for now the Royals have added a certifiable no. 3 starter to a team that desperately needed one. And Cahill is on a path to earning himself a neat little two- or three-year contract this offseason. Perhaps the Padres and/or Cahill imagined this as something of a best-case scenario, but to say that this move was in the cards or part of the plan would be disingenuous. This is a best-case scenario for everyone involved.
Meanwhile, the hot new trend is buying a bullpen. Between the Nationals-Athletics swap, the Yankees-White Sox trade, and this move, teams appear to be more inclined to buy two relievers in one deal. But unlike those other two moves, these two relievers don’t pack quite the same punch. While Buchter and Maurer are both good hands with years of team control and potential, they’re not exactly names that jump off the page; “Maurer and Buchter” sounds more like the name of a salvage operation on a lost season of Fargo than K.C.’s new seventh-inning tandem.
I’ve secretly been a fan of Buchter ever since I saw him pitch in San Diego last year. From my view in the cheap seats, he looked like he was shoving his fastball past the weak swings of Cardinals hitters. But despite his ability to get copious whiffs, Buchter is an extreme fly-ball pitcher, a trick that works well even in the new version of Petco Park—and that might serve him well at Kauffman Stadium—but doesn’t scream sustainable excellence. In 2016 he got away with it, surviving a tiny 20 percent ground-ball rate, but this season he’s been far more homer prone. While there’s still a chance he can settle in and continue to produce ERAs in the twos and threes, his DRA this season, his fly-ball rate, and his continued lack of control paint the picture of a more fungible relief lefty.
Maurer was the next big thing in Seattle for a hot minute, but since going to San Diego he’s worked his way into the role of a closer no team really wants. While his FIPs have sat reliably in the mid-3.00s, his peripherals and ERAs have waggled about like one of those inflatable dancing guys you see in front of a used car dealership. This year, he’s had a tough time stranding runners (54 percent LOB rate) and his ERA looks rough, but he’s … fine. Plus, he has closing experience, which is something the Royals might like to see on the nights Kelvin Herrera can’t go. His velocity is actually slightly up this season, which is a good sign for the short term, but he’s likely not the type of pitcher you’d want to regularly use in close-and-late situations; despite his closing experience, he’s not an elite strikeout maven, and he’s recently had his troubles in the clutch.
Both of these relievers are slight upgrades over guys like Wood and Scott Alexander in the short term, and they’re both on contracts that should keep them in Missouri for at least a couple more years. But as much as I like Buchter’s potential and Maurer’s experience, these two aren’t game-changers so much as they are the guys who can sort of hold things in place for an inning at a time. While they are nice-to-haves, it’s clear that this deal really revolves around Cahill, and what he could possibly bring to the Royals’ rotation for these next couple of months.
Like most of Cahill’s major-league career, this didn’t exactly work out like we planned. Fortunately for the veteran right-hander, he’s done some of his best work at the right place and the right time. Now, he and two of his teammates get to disembark from the stranded vessel that is the Padres and sail towards an uncertain—but brighter—future. If he can keep this up for another 10 starts, the Royals will be thrilled and he’ll probably make a hefty sum in 2018, so perhaps finally things are looking up. —Bryan Grosnick
The 29-year-old’s unexpected renaissance campaign has gone relatively unnoticed in San Diego. Over 11 starts, Cahill averaged nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings while posting a DRA that ranks 11th out of 171 pitchers with 60-plus innings. Unfortunately, he’s gotten a bit unlucky. After missing nearly two months with a shoulder injury, his four July starts have been a mixed bag, and his ERA sits at 3.69 with a 1.34 WHIP. It’s easy to point to the Padres' lackluster defense as the obvious culprit. Despite an elite ground-ball rate, Cahill owns a .329 BABIP, which is nearly 40 points higher than his career mark.
It may seem counterintuitive to upgrade a starting pitcher leaving San Diego, but Cahill should benefit from the Royals' stellar defense. There are obvious red flags in his profile, most notably his checkered injury history. However, the underlying metrics suggest that he’s vastly outperformed his surface statistics and is due for a rebound. Cahill’s fortunes should improve in Kansas City and there’s a legitimate buying opportunity here for fantasy owners in shallow mixers.
The 27-year-old right-hander's fantasy stock takes a hit transitioning from the undisputed closer in San Diego to a Royals setup man. In addition to converting 20 of 23 save chances, Maurer owns a 5.72 ERA (4.24 DRA) with 38 strikeouts and just eight walks over 39 1/3 innings this season. Incumbent Kelvin Herrera has struggled at times this year, but he’s not in danger of losing his job, which means that Maurer can be safely dropped in shallow re-draft leagues. —George Bissell
|SAN DIEGO PADRES
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Acquired LHP Matt Strahm, LHP Travis Wood, and INF-R Esteury Ruiz from Kansas City Royals in exchange for RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Brandon Maurer, and LHP Ryan Buchter. [7/24]
The present-day Padres’ mission, which general manager A.J. Preller has fervently chosen to accept, is to strip the major-league roster of any and all parts that won’t be useful in constructing the next good team in San Diego. The goal, of course, is not just to get rid of the ultimately superfluous players of 2017, but to discover potential gems for the future. In shipping out a mid-career starter reclamation project gone right and two prominent bullpen pieces, the Padres collected at least one young player who stands a chance at developing into a true asset given the time they are willing and able to provide. Maybe they also acquired the left-handed ghost of Cahill future.
A lefty taken in the 21st round of the 2012 draft, Strahm represents the largest reservoir of potential. He reached the majors last year as a reliever and struck out 34.1 percent of the batters he faced over an admittedly small sample of 22 innings. His 2017 has been … less encouraging. Turns out, that strikeout rate—which ranked in the top 20 of 2016 pitchers with at least as many innings—was also covering for an elevated walk rate. This year both lines have crept a bit in the wrong direction, he’s allowed his first six major-league homers, and his surface results have cratered.
However, there’s a very good reason to want Strahm. His four-seam fastball could be an elite offering. What’s held steady in both the eyebrow-raising 2016 and the somewhat deflating 2017 is a mid-90s fastball that generates an extreme number of whiffs—on par with Sean Doolittle, and within range of any lefty in baseball. Unsurprisingly, it’s also gotten Strahm a good deal of popups. The question is whether he can put it where he wants often enough to keep hitters swinging. San Diego has every reason to give Strahm—who’s currently out with a knee injury—time to harness the fastball and the slider and curve he uses off it. With some development, they might unlock a coveted lefty starter with a go-to heater. If and when things proceed less optimally? They probably still have a good reliever on their hands.
As for Wood, Preller and the Padres' coaches get a year-and-a-half of the swingman type on the Royals’ dime. Most of that time will be devoted, presumably, to building up his value in whatever way possible in hopes that he might appear more prominently in a Transaction Analysis about a year from now. —Zach Crizer
If Ruiz wasn't a familiar name to you before this trade, you're forgiven. The 18-year-old hasn't played above complex-level ball after signing for $100,000 in July of 2015. While we haven't seen him in-person, our sources spoke highly of his bat, both in terms of power and hit, and gave him a chance to be an above-average defender at the keystone, with positive marks for his arm and run. That's just about all the tools, though it's worth noting that many of the compliments on his pop were couched in "for his size," and given he's listed at six-foot, 150 pounds, it's a worthwhile caveat. Still, as far as fliers go, Ruiz appears to be a good one. —Craig Goldstein
It’s only a matter of time before the Padres elect to deal Hand as well. The 27-year-old southpaw is a virtual lock to be traded within the next week, but he should rack up a few saves in the meantime. Obviously his long-term value remains in flux, but he owns a sublime 2.12 ERA with 66 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 51 innings this season. Even if he ends up back in middle relief, he’s a viable mixed-league asset.
Save chances will be sparse in San Diego over the final two months, but Yates, who was claimed off waivers in April, is the logical candidate to inherit the role. The 30-year-old righty has evolved into a strikeout machine with the Padres, whiffing 49 batters in just 32 1/3 innings. His 94 mph fastball is generating a staggering 36 percent whiffs per swing, which ranks fifth out of 147 relievers. At a bare minimum, Yates merits a speculative pickup in deep mixers. —George Bissell
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