Padres Trade Relievers With Yankees

A recent lull in Padres-related news almost had me dipping back into the “Letters They Never Received” vault, but AJ Preller and the Padres came through with another trade on Monday afternoon.

In a deal with the Yankees, the Padres acquired RHP Shawn Kelley for RHP Johnny Barbato. To clear room on the 40-man roster the Padres also had to DFA another RHP in Keyvius Sampson, likely ending his six-year run in the Padres organization.

At first glance, Kelley isn’t a particularly exciting addition to the bullpen. The 30-year-old spent the first four years of his major league career in Seattle before shifting east to New York in 2013. Overall, his 3.94 ERA sits right around league average, but once you throw the relief pitcher penalty in there, he’s just a tick better than replacement level for his career.

Upon closer inspection, there are a few reasons to believe that Kelley might have something more to offer in San Diego:

  • The peripherals — Kelley significantly under-performed his FIP during his two year tour of the Bronx, posting a 4.46 ERA and a 3.33 FIP. That ERA, even considering the home run friendly dimensions of new Yankee Stadium, makes him the type of reliever you designate for mop-up duty. That FIP, on the other hand, makes Kelley a perfectly reasonable late-inning option out of the pen. Other peripheral-based ERA estimators like xFIP and (particularly) SIERRA agree with FIP, and Kelley’s 3.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks him 46th of 129 qualified relievers since 2013.
  • Contact rates — This is a subcategory of peripherals, but hitters have been making less contact with Kelley’s offerings in every year since his debut, both in terms of outside-the-zone contact and overall contact. On pitches outside the strike zone, for instance, hitters made contact with 60.7 percent of Kelley’s pitches in 2009. That number dropped to 51.5 percent by 2014. Kelley’s 51.7 O-Contact percent between 2013-’14 puts him in rarefied air, 11th overall among relievers and just behind shutdown closers like Aroldis Chapman and David Robertson. Further, Kelley’s 12.7 swinging strike rate — the percentage of strikes that were swung at and missed — ranks 24th among relievers over the same period.
  • The Yankees Stadium for Petco Park swap — Kelley’s main issues as a pitcher have stemmed from his proclivity to surrender the long ball. For his career, he’s given up 32 home runs in 233 innings, not terrible for a starting pitcher eating up innings, but more worrisome for a reliever whose appearances tend to come with the game in the balance. In fact, that 1.1 home run per nine innings figure rates as the 13th worst mark among relievers over the last two seasons, and his HR/FB rate of 11.1 percent is the 24th highest figure over that period. A fly ball pitcher in Yankee Stadium is not a good match. Per FanGraphs, Yankees Stadium was the third friendliest home run park in the majors last year. Even a fence-modified version of Petco Park should provide Kelley with a better venue to ply his trade. (Of course, Kelley also struggled with home runs in spacious Safeco Field while with Seattle, so it’s not a given that Petco will cure the home run ailment.)

Kelley is a power fastball-slider guy — he throws the slider more frequently than former Padre Luke Gregerson — with swing-and-miss stuff, and as Corey Brock mentions in his article on the trade, he profiles to slot in towards the back-end of the Padres 2015 bullpen. If everything breaks right and the bouts with home runs subside, Kelley’s potentially a lock-down setup man. If Petco doesn’t provide shelter from the long ball, he turns into just another guy in an already deep bullpen. Kelley’s arbitration-eligible for a third a final time next season before heading to free agency in 2016.

(Eno Sarris’ analysis of the deal at FanGraphs touches on a lot of the points I hit on above, but also contains some interesting discussion on the two types of sliders Kelley throws along with his ability to avoid platoon problems. Sarris believes Kelley might be able to close if given the chance, which would work out nicely if the Padres ever decide to deal Joaquin Benoit.)

Johnny Barbato, a sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft who signed for a well above slot $1.4 million, heads to the Yankees in the reliever-for-reliever trade. Barbato began in the Padres organization in 2011 as a starter in Low-A Eugene, but the slender righty found himself in the bullpen almost exclusively since 2012. And outside of a hard-earned 5.01 ERA in the hitter-friendly Cal League in 2013, he’s been consistently solid in the pen. After converting to a reliever in 2012, Barbato improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.61 in Eugene to 2.71 in Single-A Fort Wayne. Despite the ERA blip in Lake Elsinore in ’13, the strikeout-to-walk ratio held steady at 2.7. Last year in Double-A San Antonio, Barbato cut another chunk into his walk rate (which shrunk to 2.9 per nine), which led to a career-best 3.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.87 ERA, but his season was shortened to just 31 and 1/3 innings after he was shutdown in the summer with elbow issues.

Barbato ranked 30th in the Padres system by Baseball America in each of the past two years:

He pitches with mid-90s velocity and verve, attacking hitters with a live fastball that sinks and runs as it nears the plate. He throws a true curveball in the high 70s that features extreme break through the zone, and he locates and mixes his two pitches well enough to boast a career strikeout rate of 9.2 per nine innings. Assuming he recovers his health, Barbato has the raw stuff to zoom to San Diego in 2015 and gradually work his way up to a setup role.

Keyvius Sampson is an example of just how quickly a well-regarded prospect can become an afterthought. He ranked no lower than 13th in the Padres system from 2011 through 2013 per Baseball America, peaking at ninth in the system after the 2013 season. (Baseball Prospectus didn’t rank him in their top 10 last year, but they did tab him as a potentially dominant reliever: “Sampson has the makings of a deep and intense late-innings arsenal.”) One disastrous year later and Sampson is no longer in the picture, as he was designated for assignment to clear room for Kelley.

After mixed results as he progressed slowly through the Padres system, everything fell apart for Sampson in Triple-A El Paso in 2014. He pitched 91 and 2/3 innings last year mixed between 14 starts and 24 relief appearances, ending the season with an ugly 6.68 ERA and 1.38 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also gave up 19 home runs. Combine that miserable showing with 38 Triple-A innings in Tuscon in 2013, where Sampson struck out 25 and walked 29, and it’s not hard to see why the Padres have moved on.

The positives for Sampson: it’s only one bad year (plus part of another), he’ll turn just 24 on January 6th, and he still possesses a mid-90s fastball and an above average change that leave some with optimism about his future role. With a full-time conversion to relief work, there’s still plenty to like with Sampson, even if the dreams of an impact starter have vanished.

While Sampson isn’t gone from the organization for certain, it’s seems close to a lock that a team will take a flyer on him in waivers, unless the Padres trade him before that.

AJ Preller has again dealt from a deep farm system he inherited from previous regimes, surrendering a mid-level prospect with some upside to bolster the 2015 roster. It’s an interesting small-scale move that fits with the win-now mode the Padres suddenly find themselves in. Barbato has more upside than Kelley simply because of the age advantage, and the solid minor league performance to date, and the stuff. But he’s also coming off a season abruptly ended by elbow concerns, and he’s yet to be tested beyond Double-A. There’s a decent chance he isn’t ready to contribute at the major league level in 2015. Kelley comes with warts of his own, but he’s big league tested and gives the Padres additional depth in next year’s pen, an area that doesn’t stand out as a weakness but, like the starting rotation, is one that deserves some light reshaping.

It’s a minor deal in the backdrop of recent blockbusters, but it’s one that has New York and San Diego reversing traditional roles, with the Yankees shedding salary and acquiring a prospect and the Padres continuing a frantic attempt to overhaul the roster and compete right away.

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