Woo-hoo, a trade!
Trades are hard to write about these days. The more credit we’ve given to teams for getting smarter and smarter, the easier it is to look at a deal and nod along: “yup, yup, makes sense. yup.” It’s really no different with this deal. The Padres had obvious trade candidates like Cahill, picked up for pennies and reconfigured into a legitimate starter, Maurer, a still-pretty-young reliever who’s consistently shown better peripherals and stuff than surface stats, and Buchter, something of a throw-in who offers some value as an always coveted lefty with good strikeout numbers, so they traded them. In return the Padres got back a pair of younger, interesting players and in the process made the major-league team worse for an anticipated, and choreographed, second-half swoon.
The Padres got back three players. One of them, Travis Wood, is unlike the others. He’s a 30-year-old veteran having an absolutely miserable year. So far in 41 2/3 innings out of the Royals ‘pen, Wood’s posted a gaudy 8.49 DRA, seventh-worst in all of baseball (min. 20 innings.). In fact, among pitchers with at least half their innings in relief, Wood is dead last in the majors. His cFIP, 112, offers some hope for non-disastrous performance going forward, but he’s fallen a long way since masquerading as a league-average starter a few years back with the Cubs.
If there’s a disappointing aspect of this trade from the Padres perspective, it’s not necessarily the acquisition of Wood. It’s that the Royals are eating up just about all of his salary. That might sound A-okay on the surface, as the Padres get a big-league veteran for the league minimum to chew up innings and, hopefully, swallow at least a few of them. In reality, however, the Padres took cash for Wood instead of, most likely, more prospect value in the deal. Both the Royals and Padres still operate as small-market clubs, so Wood’s modest remaining salary of ~$10 million through next season, plus a buyout, is more than just loose change. It’s the opposite of what the Padres did in the James Shields–Fernando Tatis Jr. trade, although on a much smaller scale.
The other two players heading to San Diego are more intriguing. Strahm is an injury-prone, left-handed pitcher. He underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted out of junior college back in 2012, then he dealt with some bicep tendinitis toward the end of last season, and finally his 2017 campaign was ended earlier this month thanks to a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. In between were occasional bouts of wildness in the minors, but enough swing-and-miss to entice, as Strahm struck out nearly 11 batters per nine in his minor-league career while also whiffing 34.1 percent in his 2016 big-league debut.
Strahm ranked second (Baseball America) or third (Baseball Prospectus) in a relatively thin Kansas City system coming into 2017, though he was more well-regarded by Keith Law and Eric Longenhagen. The combination of injuries, some control issues, and age (he’ll be 26 by the time he pitches again) are all concerns, but lefties with strikeout stuff will get multiple chances to fail. As Chad Hamner said over at Padres Prospectus, what we have here is “a classic buy-low move.”
It’s hard not to compare the third player in the deal, Esteury Ruiz, to Tatis Jr., however silly that may be. There are clear differences (Tatis was younger when acquired, hadn’t played professionally yet, plus he’s a big, physical shortstop with easy power, etc.), but there are some similarities, at least of the big picture sort. Like Tatis when he was acquired, Ruiz is hardly as established prospect. Not only did he not crack Baseball America’s Royals top 30, he didn’t even get a mention in the depth chart section, where BA adds two or three guys at each position who didn’t make the write-up section of the book. He did, however, rank 27th on the Royals Review top 80 back in March.
Back in April, though, BA’s Ben Badler wrote a glowing report on Ruiz, noting strong wrists, explosive hands, excellent bat speed, and an exciting combination of hitting ability and power. If you’re into Arizona Rookie League numbers, Ruiz is slashing .419/.440/.779 in just 91 plate appearances so far this year. His walk and strikeout rates have actually gone the wrong way, when compared to last season (where he OPSed .889 in the DSL), but he’s gone 9-for-9 on steals after a poor 13-for-23 showing in 2016. Don’t pay too much attention to the numbers yet, but they’re certainly encouraging.
Ruiz isn’t Tatis, no. He’s three inches shorter, 50 pounds lighter, and limited to second base currently. The bigger point, though, is that the Padres are good at scouting international players. Whether some members of the front office liked this guy back in 2015, when he signed with the Royals for just $100,000, or whether they like what they’ve seen more recently, there’s a certain amount of confidence we’re allowed to have in San Diego’s front office when it comes to super young, foreign-born players. The hope is that, like Tatis, Ruiz is able to establish himself as a bonafide prospect over the next 365 days or so. It won’t happen every time, but it’s the kind of gamble worth taking.
There are a couple of legit gripes with this trade from the Padres perspective. Given how good Cahill has been this year, it stings just a bit to have to include someone like Maurer, who’s under control through 2019 and could bump his trade value up significantly next year if he puts it all together. Further, the money involved with Wood’s contract likely diminished the return package some.
Overall, though, it’s hard not to like this move. The Padres got another reclamation project to work with in Wood, who has enough back class to avoid lost cause status. They also add a good left-handed arm with upside and a guy tearing up the AZL with scouting attributes to back it up. If we’re to the point where we trust A.J. Preller and the Padres baseball operations staff to find underrated prospects and reshape them into good players, it’s hard not to be excited whenever the team targets more of them.