My Cahill To Die On

When I wrote about the Trevor Cahill trade on Monday night, I didn’t spend too much time on the players the Padres gave up, including The Great Cahill. I did figure, however, that the thinking on their relative value was somewhat of a forgone conclusion. Turns out, reasonable people disagree with me. In the spirit of scraping for things to write about, and discussing the overarching topic of trade value heading into the deadline, I figured I’d collect some thoughts on the issue here.

So—drumroll please—here’s my ranking, in terms of perceived trade value, of the three players the Padres sent to Kansas City.

1. Trevor Cahill

When teams are looking to acquire someone at the trade deadline, they’re often looking for some type of impact player. Cahill is maybe not an impact player, but he’s the closest thing to one out of the three players San Diego gave away. I totally get that he’s a 29-year-old vet with a mostly uninspiring track record. Over the last four or five years, he’s seemingly had more injuries than innings pitched, and prior to this year he had been almost exclusively a reliever since 2014.

Here’s the thing, though: He’s pitching like an impact player. By Baseball Prospectus’s catch-all pitching metric, DRA, Cahill’s 2.64 mark is eighth in all of baseball among starters with 10 innings or more. Eighth. By cFIP, BP’s other ERA estimator, he falls all the way down to ninth overall. If you like plain old strikeout percentage, Cahill’s 27.4 percent ranks 23rd out of 224 starters who’ve reached the 10-inning threshold, in between pitchers like Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers. There are random 60-inning samples where a pitcher gets lucky on balls in play, or whatever, and posts an undeserving 2-something ERA. Then there are random 60-inning samples where a pitcher kicks ass. This is the latter.

You can go back even further, too. By BP’s cFIP, Cahill hasn’t had a below average season since 2014, and overall he’s right on league average for his career. So we’ve got a guy who was a solid, (mostly) healthy starter for a three or four year stretch back at the start of the decade, has struggled with injuries and some uneven performance since, and has finally put it all back together in 11 starts in 2017. He’s still an injury risk, sure, and he’s probably no better than a projected average starter going forward. But even then, he’s a projected average starter, and that’s being conservative. There’s value there.

Consider the Rich Hill trade last July. Hill, who had made just 18 starts since resurfacing from indy ball at the time of the trade, was sent from Oakland (along with Josh Reddick) to Los Angeles for Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Grant Holmes. The kicker: Hill, always an injury scare, was actually on the DL at the time of the trade, dealing with prolonged blister problems. It’s not a direct comparison, because nothing ever is, but it’s pretty close. Teams are always interested in a starter throwing the ball well, especially when the underlying performance doesn’t indicate smoke and mirrors.

For a team like the Royals, clinging to the fringe of the playoff race, Cahill slots in as probably their third-best starter currently, behind Danny Duffy and (maybe) Jason Vargas. They’re gambling that he’s even better than average, which doesn’t seem too outlandish given the early season performance. But even a more realistic outcome serves them well, and gives them some additional depth for the rest of the summer. If he gets injured, oh well. They took their shot, and didn’t have to give up the farm for it.

Cahill only has the rest of this year remaining on his contract, but, frankly, who cares. The Royals aren’t thinking about next year right now; they’re trying to patch together a good enough rotation to get an aging core to the playoffs one more time. Cahill was the guy they wanted, given the reasonable price tag, and the rest of this deal likely fell into place around him an the centerpiece.

2. Brandon Maurer

I like Maurer as something of a sleeper, but I’ve been saying that since he got to San Diego. He does have at least a few advantages over someone like Ryan Buchter, however:

  1. He’s younger. Maurer’s 26 and Buchter’s 30. You can just about always dream on a younger player more than an older one.
  2. He has better stuff. Shoot, I’m really just talking velocity here. Maurer throws 97-98 mph, and he can get it up there at 100 when he catches a jet stream and/or a hot gun. Buchter works around 93-94.
  3. He has more pedigree. Maurer’s been something of a prospect (or project) throughout his career. Teams don’t quickly forget that. I believe Buchter was discovered on a cattle ranch somewhere in Colorado.

Even if you don’t really buy into much of that, Maurer has similar peripherals over the last couple of years. It’s close enough to hardly read into much, but Maurer’s bested Buchter in each of the last two seasons in cFIP, although Buchter does turn the tables, narrowly, in DRA. Basically, the ERA estimators say these guys are the same, but Maurer probably comes with a dose more upside, some name recognition, and that vaunted closer experience.

3. Ryan Buchter

Buchter is under control for the rest of this season, and then four more years. When we think about value the way teams think about value, we love when players are under control, and cheap, for a long time. But I’m not sure teams think about relievers like that, especially when those relievers aren’t named Craig Kimbrel or Kenley Jansen. You don’t really plan on a reliever like Buchter, a 30-year-old middle-to-late inning lefty, sticking around much longer than the popcorn vendor.

He’s an interesting arm, sure, and while he’s striking out a good percentage of batters, he’s also struggled with walks, forever, and home runs this season. His 18 percent K%-BB% ranks 91st in the majors this year. That’s better than average, but it underscores the fungibility of the solid yet not great reliever. And, further, there’s just no track record for Buchter, outside of last season; drafted in the 33rd round back in 2005, he owns a career 5.9 walks per nine in the minor leagues.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade: Buchter was a nice find by the Padres, evidence of more good work from Darren Balsley and Co., and a fine pitcher. But he’s like one small mechanical hiccup away from life in the bush leagues. Buchter hovers in that grey area between an average relief arm and a replacement level one, and nobody’s really looking to give up value for that guy even if he’s signed through Armageddon.

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