A.J. Preller Is Overplaying His Hand

Credit: USA Today Sports

 

I will start by saying this: Brad Hand is very good at baseball.

Selected off waivers from the Marlins at the beginning of last year, Hand almost immediately parlayed a newfound opportunity on the mound into a career revitalization.

He struck out over 30 percent of the hitters he faced. He also carried a 2.92 ERA through 89.1 innings, the heaviest workload of any relief pitcher in the league last year. His best pitch, a slider he seems to enjoy sweeping off the plate to his glove side, drew reasonable comparisons to Andrew Miller’s best offering.

The best part? He was (and still is) controllable through 2019, the latest diamond in the rough discovered by general manager A.J. Preller.

None of that has changed this season.

Hand has upped his strikeout rate to a career-best 32 percent, cut down on his walk rate by almost a third, and improved on his ERA, now down to 2.25 over 48 innings.

That production out of the ‘pen, combined with the Padres’ ongoing project to rebuild a long-struggling franchise, has made Hand one of the hottest names on the trade market this summer, the perfect combination of a team-friendly contract and a lights-out arsenal.

There’s just one problem: Preller’s stubbornly-high price tag on him.

As the calendar neared July, reports began to emerge about the kind of return the Rock Star G.M. was seeking for his star lefty. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports started the rumor mill, reporting that the Friars were looking for an “Aroldis Chapman-type return” for Hand.

Last summer, the Yankees turned the fireballing Cuban into a four-prospect package that included shortstop Gleyber Torres (baseball’s #2 overall prospect) and outfielder Billy McKinney.

Torres, as it turned out, quickly became one of the first players Preller reportedly asked about in negotiating with the Yankees about a possible deal with Hand. Not surprisingly, the Yankees laughed. Such a theme reportedly continued in negotiations with other teams as well, with the Dodgers refusing to trade Alex Verdugo (#50 on MLB Pipeline) and the Nationals shaking their heads at an offer for #6 overall prospect Victor Robles.

Within a couple of weeks, the Padres seemed to have backed off slightly, with ESPN’s Buster Olney comparing expectations to the return the Phillies got for Ken Giles two summers ago – an MLB-ready youngster in Vince Velasquez, a former #1-overall pick in Mark Appel, and two other lower-level minor leaguers.

In either scenario, that’s a pretty penny’s worth of prospects to pay for a guy with just over a year and a half of proven production in the big leagues.

“But he’s been so good this year!”

(Yeah, I know, I can hear you).

Here’s the thing though – there’s a lot separating Hand from those two names and the many others available this year.

For one, there’s the aforementioned lack of established success. Two years ago, Hand was a middling reliever in Miami. Yes, he’s been extremely successful in the season and a half since, but for a rival team to sign off on a blockbuster deal, they want to be able to believe in what they’re receiving as much as possible.

The same can be said when considering Hand’s role thus far. While he’s made for a great option in the late innings, he’s still extremely green when it comes to shutting the door in the ninth, with just four career saves to his name. A team with eyes on a playoff spot and a gaping hole in the bullpen is going to focus first and foremost on someone who can close if needed. Would you feel comfortable throwing Hand out there to hold down a one-run lead in a playoff series clincher? I’m not so sure I would.

Cedit: AP Photo

That leads into another discount on Hand’s value to a contender: his lack of high-stakes experience. As baseball insider Ken Rosenthal mused today, teams could be pausing on paying Preller’s price when Hand has yet to pitch in either a playoff race or a postseason game. The same cannot be said for some of the other relievers known to be available on the market, including Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Justin Wilson.

As a result, the market continues to move as Preller bides his time waiting for a team to meet his demands. The Nationals swung a deal for Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle over the weekend. Last night, the Yankees matched them, adding David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to their ‘pen. A week ago, those two organizations were listed among the teams most interested in dealing for bullpen help. Several more teams remain – the Mariners, the Cubs, the Rays, the Dodgers, and especially the Rangers.

However, there also remains plenty of options available for these teams to pursue. There’s Baltimore’s Zach Britton, Brad Brach, and Darren O’Day. There’s Detroit’s Justin Wilson. There’s the Mets’ Addison Reed, and the Marlins’ A.J. Ramos and David Phelps. Heck, after last night, the Yankees even suddenly have a bullpen piece or two to work with if they see an opportunity (Dellin Betances, anyone?). The result is a market that is already shrinking for the Friars and will continue to do so in the days to come. By maintaining such a high asking price on his prized pitcher, A.J. Preller could inadvertently be sealing Hand into another season in San Diego.

Do I think that happens? No. Sometime in the next two weeks, somebody will need a talented bullpen arm badly enough to give the Padres a good return on their sole All-Star representative (my money’s on Texas). But at some point, A.J. Preller is going to have to lower his asking price for that to happen.

Starting high is fine. In fact, it’s one of the most tried-and-true tactics in any negotiation. But staying high when the market is proving otherwise? Any interested parties are more likely to scoff and look elsewhere than to continue trying to wheel-and-deal with you.

It’s a dangerous game to play, especially with a species as volatile as the Major League reliever has proven to be. Can it still pay off? Yes, and potentially handsomely.

But that doesn’t mean it also can’t blow up in your face.

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Noah Hilton

I am a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego and lifelong San Diegan. A Business Economics major and scouting director for the nationally ranked Torero baseball team, I look forward to being the GM that finally leads the Padres to a World Series title – if Preller doesn’t beat me to it. You can follow me on Twitter @thebackseatlamp


This article has 11 Comments

  1. Really thoughtful writing on this site.

    Obviously, Hand is going to get swapped. The return for all of the trades so far has been super underwhelming – Eloy the only top ten guy (and in my opinion a very iffy prospect as he might not project to play anywhere in the field). I think it is only going to get worse as time ticks down.

    Ask yourself who really NEEDS Hand? Red Sox no, Yankees now no, Dodgers no, Astros no, Nationals now no, Cubs yes, Brewers yes. Everyone would love Hand, but few contenders are frothing at the mouth this year. And if Britton is healthy (big if) kills Hand market. He’s going to go, but for a package similar to the JD Martinez one to Detroit.

    BTW, differing opinion but everyone in the David Phelps trade (including Phelps) is awful. Hardly raising the bar. In fact it lowers it as another buyer is out.

  2. Kirby Yates could predictably bring back more than Phelps. Yates has been far superior and is making the league minimum

    1. Yates is 30 years old with 30.1 innings of good baseball to his name (a name unknown to most before this year). Phelps the same age with a year and a half of quality baseball over the last year and a half (and some starter potential). I get that Yates has looked good this year, but let’s not get carried away.

      1. True, Yates doesn’t have the extra one year of history, but he is outperforming Phelps in every way this season.

      2. And add the fact that Yates is making the league minimum (about $4million less) and has 2 more years of control than Phelps

  3. The David Phelps trade just raised the bar for Brad Hand. Marlins got 4 prospects, including Brayan Hernandez, for 1 1/2 years of a right handed, 30 yr old reliever with numbers not as good as Hand’s

  4. As noted, there’s plenty of time until the deadline. Let’s see what happens before declaring Preller an idiot.

    1. I will always stand by the established opinion that Preller is better at running the front office of a Major League Baseball team than anyone sitting on the outside looking in might be. There’s a reason that he’s where he is and that we’re all where we are. Consider this merely a musing on his method for one particular player. He is still about as far from being an idiot as the Padres are from first place.

  5. There’s 11 days until the deadline. Why not ask for their best players? You can always negotiate and get something a bit less. But the thing is, he has 2 1/2 years of control. Sure, his value is at its peak, but who knows what the other teams are offering? Our system is stacked with mid-tier players. At this point, we need to be thinking of better players. When you have 2 AZL teams, it shows that you have a ton of players. I’d hang onto him in order to get something of value. Don’t undersell yourself. Chisox just did. If a team wants Hand, they should pay for him, otherwise hold onto him. Perhaps get a decent haul in the winter? Who knows, but all this talk of ‘overplaying’ is ridiculous

    1. Rich, I completely agree. While I understand the need to capitalize on Brad’s worth when it might be at it’t highest, if we are not getting an impact player then why trade away someone that is a key member of the team. Everyone knows that we are building for the future but at the same time considering the price we are paying to go to a game now, it is nice when a win is in sight that we nail that down. I am against tanking for the purpose of tanking. It is important in the minors to develop a winning attitude and that goes for the majors as well. otherwise the young talent we are bringing up now just get used to losing day after day.

      1. I would only say that Hand’s contract will be up after the 2019 season, at which point we will likely still be rebuilding (at least by then we should be firmly on the upswing). He will get traded at some point – his value to other teams is higher than his value to us. And with a guy claimed off waivers as recently as last year to even be generating debate as to whether he’s worth an elite prospect means his value is likely already at or near its ceiling. Something to keep in mind as the rumor mill swirls…

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