MLB trade grades – Padres pull off deadline shocker by adding closer Josh Hader

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The Trade: The San Diego Padres acquire LHP Josh Hader from the Milwaukee Brewers for LHP Taylor Rogers, RHP Dinelson Lamet, LHP Robert Gasser and IF/OF Esteury Ruiz.

Now this is a baseball trade! Two contenders, an established superstar closer for an established All-Star closer, a once-hyped pitcher who has lost his luster and a couple of notable prospects to boot.

The Padres and Brewers are a pair of clubs contending in this season’s National League race. Both appear to be a tier below the circuit’s big three of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. San Diego is pushing to land home advantage in a first-round playoff series, likely against the second-place team from the NL East. The Brewers are trying to stave off the Cardinals in the NL Central race.

How did the teams aid these quests with this trade? What does this move mean for the longer term? How do we even grade a deal like this, which comes at the deadline but feels more like a hot stove transaction?

Let’s try.

Hader has been the sport’s most dominant reliever since he entered the majors for Milwaukee in 2017. According to Baseball Reference, there have been 131 relievers who’ve recorded at least 10 saves since Hader’s debut campaign. He leads all those pitchers in WAR, wins probability added and strikeouts. He has struck out 15.4 batters per nine innings during that time — a rate 0.6 strikeouts higher than any of those 131 relievers.

While Hader’s ERA this season looks bloated (4.24), this has been a representative campaign for him. His 29 saves lead the NL, and he’s striking out 15.6 batters per nine innings. He hasn’t been as effective since the start of July, but the bulk of the damage came during a two-game span when he allowed more runs (nine) and homers (four) than he did all of last season.

Worth noting: The metrics on Hader’s two primary pitches (his sinker and whiff-tastic slider) are right in line with his career norms. He has had some rough outings, but there is little reason to think it’s anything more than a slump — and that’s notable only because Hader had been the rare reliever who appeared to be slump-proof.

Now, all of this perhaps should have been noted in the Padres portion of this analysis. But for me, the primary question I have about this trade is whether it enhances Milwaukee’s ability to win the World Series in 2022. I have a hard time believing it does. Keep that in mind when you read the grade that follows this section.

Hader will be a free agent after next season, when his arbitration salary is likely to push into the $14 million-to-$16 million range. (He’s at $11 million this season.) Because of this salary trajectory, he’s been a constant in the rumor mill for the last two or three years despite his dominance and despite the Brewers’ annual status as an NL Central contender.

This is how things are done in a market like Milwaukee, the thinking goes, and in the smart front office headed up by David Stearns. Always balance present needs with sustainability. Thus, Milwaukee has been a frequent playoff entrant during Stearns’ time despite a payroll that has yet to crack the upper half of MLB’s rankings.

To me, the Brewers could probably operate at a slightly higher payroll level than they have. That’s mainly because Wisconsin fans are rabid and Milwaukee has generally drawn attendance figures that average in the low- to mid-30,000s when the Brewers are making a push.

This move doesn’t signal “all in!” It signals “sustainability!” One of these signals is sexier than the other.

Taylor Rogers will be a free agent after this season and is indeed an All-Star level closer at his best. He hasn’t been at his best over the last month or so, though — he has blown four of 10 saves chances and put up an ERA of 8.74 over his last 11 outings. He has probably been more than a little unlucky. During those outings, Rogers has 14 strikeouts, two walks and hasn’t given up a homer, which adds up to a 1.97 FIP that makes that ERA seem more than a little misleading.

But that’s what you get when you look at the marginal difference between two good closers. Hader’s less susceptible to the vagaries of luck, BABIP or hard-hit-ball slumps because he simply strikes everyone out. Rogers isn’t that.

Still, a bullpen is like an amoeba. You pull something out and it re-forms — and that new thing might be better than what was there before. Milwaukee has had one of baseball’s premier setup relievers in place for a couple of years in Devin Williams, working in front of Hader. His role now is likely to expand.

We’ll see how manager Craig Counsell wants to play it, but Williams and Rogers could share the last two innings, with the order determined by matchups and leverage. Either way, this trade doesn’t destroy Milwaukee’s late-inning dynamic, it just introduces an extra layer of uncertainty.

The longer-term outlook on this deal isn’t likely to be determined by the short-term differences between Hader and Rogers, but by the other players in the deal. And here is where Lamet comes into the story.

During the truncated 2020 season, Lamet looked like a star for the Padres, going 3-1 with a 2.09 ERA and 12 1/3 strikeouts per nine innings. He finished fourth in that odd season’s NL Cy Young voting and was oft-mentioned in preview materials as a contender for the award in 2021.

Everything went south for Lamet after that because of persistent elbow trouble and underachievement. Those two things may be directly related. San Diego moved him to the bullpen last season, and he has spent the entire 2022 campaign as a reliever. He was excellent in that role in the minors, but he’s been lit up to the tune of a 9.49 ERA and issued 6.6 walks per nine innings for the Padres.

When I saw Lamet’s name in this deal the first name that came to mind was Eric Lauer. Lauer is another hurler who came up through the Padres’ system. He didn’t sparkle with Lamet’s upside but looked like a promising mid- to back-of-the-rotation option. He was sent to Milwaukee along with Luis Urias, now the Brewers’ starting third baseman, for veteran starter Zach Davies and outfielder Trent Grisham in 2019. After a lost 2020 season, Lauer has a 120 ERA+ over 43 outings over the last two years for the Brewers, capably filling the back end of an outstanding rotation.

Milwaukee has done great work with veteran pitchers who have fallen out of favor with other teams, in addition to developing their own staff options. Lamet has floundered with consistency and command, and the metrics on his arsenal aren’t as sharp as they were during that 2020 breakout. But it would be less than surprising if the Brewers were able to figure him out — eventually.

As for the prospects, Gasser was ranked as the Padres’ 10th-best prospect by Kylie McDaniel before the season. He has mildly struggled in High-A this season, where he’s around the average age for the level, going 4-9 with a 4.18 ERA over 18 starts. McDaniel writes, “He has a whiff-friendly fastball shape on his low-90s heater that can hit 95 mph, and his plus slider is the carrying trait.”

Ruiz, 23, is an exciting prospect who has marched steadily and slowly through the San Diego system before breaking out in the minors this season (a gaudy .333/.467/.560 slash line) and reaching the majors. He’s 6-for-27 to begin his big league career, but speed is his standout skill. Ruiz stole 60 bases in 77 games in the minors before being promoted this season. If he qualified, Ruiz’s sprint speed, according to Statcast, would rank in the 99th percentile of the majors. His ceiling will be determined by how frequently he does or doesn’t get the bat on the ball.

Overall, there is an excellent chance that the Brewers will win this trade from an aggregate value standpoint, and they might be able to add in other areas this winter without Hader’s 2023 salary to consider.

However, I come back to my main question: Does this trade make it more likely that the Brewers — a team that hasn’t won the World Series since the dawn of time — win this year’s Fall Classic?

Hader was the highest-impact player on the Brewers’ roster, both in a postseason setting and in enhancing their ability to hang onto a narrow division lead. The return in this trade doesn’t address Milwaukee’s short-term need for more offense, though perhaps that comes in a later move. It doesn’t enhance their short-term outlook at all.

A smart move for the Brewers? Probably. Eventually. They always make smart moves. The right move for right here, right now? I’m not sold.

Grade: C+

I’ve already barreled through the merits of Hader and Rogers, so no need to do that again. The bottom line is that Rogers is a good reliever, but Hader is a great one — and the Padres have him in hand at least through next season.

If the Padres end up getting fleeced on this trade from an aggregate value standpoint, that will say less about the present valuations on this trade and more about the Brewers’ processes as compared to those in San Diego. It remains to be seen if that will happen. Maybe the Padres have already gotten the best of Lamet. And we’ll see what happens with the prospects in the deal.

Still, as an all-in move for the rest of this season, I love this for the Padres, who now have their best closer in place since Kirby Yates was injured a few years ago. San Diego needs more in the bullpen, and they could definitely stand to upgrade their position group (Juan Soto?). But GM A.J. Preller is off and running and clearly ready to make moves — minutes after this trade came down, it was announced that San Diego had reached an agreement on a five-year extension with starter Joe Musgrove.

The bottom line is that the Padres took a major step on Monday toward closing the gap between themselves and the Dodgers, Braves and Mets with this trade. More importantly, they made themselves more dangerous in a playoff setting. Like the Brewers, the Padres are a franchise still seeking their first-ever World Series win. They are closer to that goal today than they were yesterday.

Grade: A

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