In an trade deadline puzzler, the Padres held onto Brad Hand. Back in June, I was so sure that Hand was going to be dealt by July 31 that I traded him to every other team in the league, an article that now reads like a graveyard of what could have been. When I updated Hand’s most likely landing spots a few weeks back, I didn’t even consider the Padres as a top five contender.
What happened? In the simplest terms, it appears that the Padres set a high asking price—a fair initial stance for a pitcher of Hand’s quality—and the rest of the league failed to meet it, or even get close enough to make A.J. Preller & Co. budge. The complicated answer is, well, more complicated, and also unknown. Maybe it involves bits and pieces of some distrust of Preller, some distrust of Hand. Maybe it involves the Padres not budging enough from that initial asking price. More so, probably, it appears that the league as a whole decided to back off on dealing marquee prospects for last-ditch deadline improvements.
Yankees add Todd Frazier, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Jaime Garcia, Sonny Gray ….
and give up only 1 top-50 prospect (B. Rutherford)
— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) July 31, 2017
Justin Wilson, Hand’s most similar deadline comp, was traded to the Cubs, with Alex Avila, for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, neither of whom cracked Baseball America’s midseason top 100. That’s a modest package, considering Avila, a one-year rental, is still a catcher OPSing .869. Addison Reed, another rental, was dealt from the Mets to the Red Sox for a trio of unexciting pitching prospects. Sonny Gray, mentioned in the tweet above, is a superb starter with 2.5 years left on his contract, and even he didn’t pry away one of the Yankees top prospects.
This year the contenders are split into two groups. There’s the Really Talented Group (Dodgers, Astros, Nationals) and the We’re Just Okay Group (everyone else). The former group determined that they didn’t want to mortgage some large portion of the future for a bullpen upgrade, and the latter, well, they figured that paying up for someone like Hand wasn’t going to get them close enough to the Really Talented Group to be worth it. Outside of a couple big deals (Yu Darvish to the Dodgers and Gray to the Yankees) most teams played it conservatively this year, making a fringier move or two just to prove they weren’t asleep at the wheel.
When it was all said and done, the Padres were caught with one Hand in their pants.
Hand’s a really good reliever, though, so it was an inopportune time for other teams to suddenly decide they didn’t want to overpay for his ilk. For as good as he’s been over the last year and a half, he’s been even better lately. Since the start of July, he’s pitched 11 1/3 innings with two walks and 19 strikeouts, and he’s working on a scoreless streak dating all the way back to June 14. By Baseball Prospectus’ cFIP, Hand’s 69 mark is tied for eighth in baseball among relievers with at least 20 innings this season, within shouting distance of guys like Andrew Miller (drink) and Kenley Jansen. Plus, he leads the world in relief pitcher innings since the start of 2016.
To steal an analogy from Padres Jagoff and take it in a different direction, if list your house for $1.3 million, no, it doesn’t mean it’s worth that. Then again, if you don’t need to sell it, you don’t have to. You can just keep living in it, wait for a better time to sell, and hope that termites don’t find it. The Padres still have Hand under control for two-plus years. If they’re able to guide him through the next two months healthy and performing well, I’d still argue that his value will go up in the offseason (more good performance from a pitcher with a somewhat limited track record.). That’ll give the Padres all winter to deal Hand to any number of teams that fancy themselves offseason contenders, and if the trade doesn’t get made then, there’s always next summer.
Of course, the risks are obvious here. Relievers are volatile and pitchers are injury risks, and Hand is both a reliever and a pitcher. There’s a decent chance his performance ticks down some in August and September, and a chance—a lesser one, but still a chance—that it collapses. There’s also a chance he gets injured, or that termites find him. We’ve seen it happen before, and we’ll see it happen again. It’s a risk that the Padres were apparently okay living with over dealing Hand for some package of prospects they didn’t feel was worth it.
Sure, it’s disappointing to not be talking about a couple of nice prospects here, especially since we talked about a potential Hand return for the better part of this season. The Padres found Hand off the scrap heap and rehabilitated him into a great, durable relief pitcher with a nice contract. Leading up to the deadline, he was pitching better and better, with no signs of wear and tear. He even struck out Robinson Cano in the All-Star game, advertising himself to major-league teams that don’t have a subscription to MLB.tv. In other words, everything was going just right. Then baseball pulled the rug out, deciding that cheaper, lesser alternatives were better options than paying Preller’s price for Hand.
The front office deserve some criticism if it doesn’t work out, I suppose. But there’s something to be said for sticking to your guns, fluctuating markets be damned.