A’s Add to Rotation While Rangers Get Comparatively Minor Returnon August 31, 2020 at 8:15 pm

A’s Add to Rotation While Rangers Get Comparatively Minor Return

Just over a year ago, Mike Minor was the subject of much debate as far as whether the Rangers — a middling team as the deadline approached — should trade the lefty at or near the peak of his value given that he was pitching well and signed through 2020. Ultimately, the club chose not to move him, finished below .500, and saw his stock drop considerably with a rough start to the abbreviated 2020 season. On Monday, the Rangers did their best to salvage some value by dealing him within the AL West, sending him to the division-leading A’s along with cash considerations for a pair of players to be named later and international slot money.

While the players headed to Texas can’t officially be named since they weren’t part of the A’s 60-man pool, a source told The Athletic‘s Levi Weaver that they’re a pair of 2019 draft picks: third-rounder Marcus Smith, a center fielder who was 27th among A’s prospects on THE BOARD, and 11th-rounder Dustin Harris, a third baseman who did not crack the list of 39. More on them below.

Per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Jeff Wilson, the Rangers are also sending Oakland half of Minor’s remaining salary (about $1.4 million remaining, prorated from his $9.5 million full-season salary) but are getting back $133,000 worth of international slot money. Interestingly enough, though interest in Lynn was said to be very high, so was their asking price, to the point that they again kept him

As for Minor, the 32-year-old southpaw entered 2020 riding a streak of three strong seasons since returning from a two-year absence from the majors (2015-16) caused by May 2015 surgery to repair a small tear in his labrum. He threw 77.2 innings out of the bullpen for the Royals in 2017, good for 2.2 WAR, then signed a three-year, $28 million deal with the Rangers.

His return to the rotation was impressive in light of his time missed. He pitched to a 4.18 ERA and 4.43 FIP in 157 innings in 2018, good for 2.5 WAR, then made his first All-Star team last year while posting a 3.59 ERA and 4.25 FIP as he made a full complement of 32 starts while setting career highs in innings (208.1, fifth in the AL), strikeouts (200, the last one a wee bit controversial), and WAR (4.1, eighth in the AL).

Minor was considered a top trade target last year even as the Rangers reached their high-water mark of 10 games above .500 as of June 28. At that point, they were 46-36, albeit with Playoff Odds of just 7.5%. They proceeded to lose 18 of their next 26 games to fall to 54-54 and 0.0% by July 31; about two weeks before that, Dan Szymborski checked in on the pitcher and the team and estimated their chances at 1.5%, concluding that Minor, who was forecast to finish the season with 3.0 WAR and due for considerable regression given his ZiPS zHR rate (“Minor has allowed eight fewer homers than you would expect, the sixth-largest over-performance in baseball in 2019”), would never be more valuable as a trade chip. Nonetheless, the Rangers held onto both Minor and righty Lance Lynn, but they finished just 78-84.

Texas started this season 10-9 but have since lost 12 of 14 to fall to 12-21. Minor has rarely gotten results consistent with his previous two seasons, posting a 5.60 ERA and 4.83 FIP in 35.1 innings. And while his strikeout and walk rates have edged a bit closer together, the real difference comes down to regression in the home run department:

Minor’s xFIPs, which use a regressed HR/FB rate, have been consistent year-to-year even if his ERA and FIP have not. Note that he’s serving up more homers despite the Rangers moving from the notoriously hitter-friendly Globe Life Park to what appears to be a pitcher-friendly Globe Life Field:

In 2019, a year of record-setting home run totals and rates, Globe Life Park had the 14th-highest rate of home runs per fly ball. But the new venue, despite being a few feet shorter in some measurements (left field, left center, right center) and a few feet longer in others (center, right field), has played very differently in terms of home runs, resulting in the majors’ second-lowest rate and one that’s just over one-third of its predecessor’s. While I imagine that we should expect some amount of noise in the above data given that the total number of games played is only about 20% of that in a normal 162-game season, note that the MLB-wide rate has only dropped from 15.3% to 15.1% from year-to-year. The good news for Minor is that he’s moving into a pitcher-friendly park; the Oakland Coliseum had the majors’ eighth-lowest HR/FB rate last year and the 10th-lowest this year.

Contact-wise, while Minor’s average exit velocity is up just a hair, he’s getting hit hard more often:

The big concern besides Minor’s home run rate is his falling four-seam fastball velocity; it’s down 2.0 mph relative to last year (92.6 to 90.6) according to Statcast and 1.6 mph according to Pitch Info (92.7 to 91.1), and he’s lost a bit of velocity via his secondary arsenal as well. That has to be a concern given his injury history, but the short ramp-up to the season might explain it as well. In any case, it’s some thing to keep an eye on.

In donning the green and gold, Minor joins a team that at 22-12 owns the AL’s second-highest winning percentage (.647) and is running 2 1/2 games ahead of the Astros (19-14). Even so, the A’s have gotten mixed results from their rotation, which ranks eighth in the league in both ERA (4.84) and FIP (4.57). Jesus Luzardo (3.67 ERA, 4.28 FIP) and Chris Bassitt (3.72 ERA, 4.43 FIP) have both pitched reasonably well, but Frankie Montas, Mike Fiers, and Sean Manaea have been various grades of disappointing. Montas posted a 1.57 ERA and 2.52 FIP over his first four starts totaling 23 innings, but he’s been torched for 18 runs in 9.2 frames over his last three, walking nine and serving up four homers against the Diamondbacks, Angels, and Astros to send his ERA to 6.05 and his FIP to 4.45. As Jason Martinez noted, both Fiers (4.86 ERA, 5.51 FIP) and Manaea (5.64 ERA, 3.79 FIP) have been solid over their last three turns; his initial estimate has Bassitt moving to the bullpen.

As for the prospects, Smith — who turns 20 on September 11 — is a fleet-footed lefty swinger with 70-grade speed who was drafted out of a Kansas City high school and hit a sizzling .361/.466/.443 for the Athletics Gold team in the Arizona League last year. Here’s what Eric Longenhagen had to say about him when writing up the A’s prospect list in June:

Smith has a promising contact/speed offensive profile enabled by his uncommon feel for all-fields, line drive contact. This is a classic tweener teenage outfield profile that’s shaded a bit differently because, unlike most others, Smith is actually kinda stocky and physical-looking, which perhaps means he’s less projectable. His lower half is very upright throughout his swing and he struggles to get underneath some pitches because of it. There’s a path to an everyday role here, one spearheaded by contact and good center field defense, but Smith has to clear some strength/power checkpoints.

In notes that he shared with me, Longenhagen added the following while passing along some video and noting that Smith will be 41st on Texas’s BOARD — a much deeper system than Oakland’s:

He hit well against curated amateur pitching during his pre-draft summer and showed advanced ball/strike recognition, to my eye, during his first pro stint in the AZL, which was impressive for a hitter his age, let alone one from a part of the country where varsity pitching isn’t that great. He performed well despite the huge leap from a Missouri high school to pro ball, and he has some leadoff traits in the speed, ball/strike recognition, and feel for contact. But I don’t think the frame allows for a lot of power projection, and his swing is of the downward cutting/slashing variety, which also makes me want to round down on the power projection. He has an avenue to an everyday role via his bat, but only his bat.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=diX5FrDykXw&w=560&h=315]

And as for the 21-year-old Harris, the top “Honorable Mention” prospect on the A’s list, Longenhagen noted that his AZL stats (.328/.400/.448) aren’t that meaningful because he was a little older than the competition, “but he has a good frame and visually pleasing swing. I think he has a chance to develop an average hit/power combination and play a bench/platoon role as a first base/left field type. Some scouts think he has a shot to play third base too, but I do not. He’ll remain a 35 FV prospect until he performs at an age-appropriate level.”

In all, this is certainly a lesser return than the Rangers would have gotten from any team had they traded Minor last year, a cautionary tale when it comes to long-shot contenders deciding whether or not to deal at the deadline. Still, the team does get something for its trouble, and the A’s get a pitcher who, if he can recover his 2018-19 form, should bolster the rotation despite his warning signs.

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