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.
Also in notes column: Padres see Chapman-like return for Brad Hand, Marlins RP options and Dodgers' AAA surprise. https://t.co/pWnyrx8Dkk
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 28, 2017
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.
Other teams say that for now, the Padres are looking for a return on lefty Brad Hand similar to what the Phillies got for Ken Giles.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 15, 2017
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.
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.