Grading the Trades: How the Minnesota Twins Fared at the 2021 Trade Deadline
As we all know, deadlines spur action. That was true when the MLB Trade Deadline passed last Friday, as the Minnesota Twins dealt Nelson Cruz, Hansel Robles, J.A. Happ and Jose Berrios all in separate deals either on or before the July 30 deadline.
The writing had been on the wall for quite some time that this season wasn’t going to be a productive one, and when teams head down that path they usually pare off impending free agents, older players and whatever combination of both of those that they have.
But the Twins not only did that, but also went in another direction — so here we are to grade those trades, a bit late after a weekend trip to Mankato.
Let’s talk to it:
Out: DH Nelson Cruz and RHP Calvin Faucher
In: RHP Drew Strotman and RHP Joe Ryan
Breakdown: The Twins and Rays struck early, making a deal a little over a week before the deadline (July 22) to send the ageless Cruz and a lottery ticket in Faucher to Tampa Bay for a pair of Triple-A starters.
In reality, it’s about the best one could expect the Twins to get back for a 41-year-old who doesn’t play the field and will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Despite Cruz storming out of the gates with a pair of home runs for the Rays, the early returns have…not been all that promising. Through 33 plate appearances, Cruz is hitting .167/.242/.367. Of course, that’s the duality of the trade deadline. A couple of 3-for-5s turn that line around, or Cruz could simply have a tough few weeks and the trade could largely be deemed a bust.
Many times that rationale is used when a team doesn’t push its chips in to make meaningful moves at the deadline, but that’s not true of the Rays — who came within two games of winning the first World Series in franchise history.
Getting back two pitchers of this caliber for Cruz alone is a net win, before considering their proximity to the big leagues. Strotman has already made a start with Triple-A St. Paul — it didn’t go very well, alas — and is on the 40-man roster. Ryan will surface with the Saints in the near future, but for now he’s chasing a medal with Team USA over in Tokyo.
Strotman’s numbers are a little all over the map this season — 3.73 ERA, 9.0 K/9, 1.40 WHIP, 5.0 BB/9 — and that’s largely due to missing time separately due to Tommy John surgery and then the lack of a 2020 minor-league season.
Some adjustments are to be made for a player who missed a large chunk of their age-22 and -23 seasons. And in general, if Strotman is nothing more than an up-down guy, it was still a respectable gamble for the Twins.
Ryan’s prospect profile is a bit more accomplished.
While Strotman slots in at No. 15 on the Twins’ top-30 prospect list via MLB Pipeline, Ryan is No. 8 ahead of pitchers like Blayne Enlow, Josh Winder and Cole Sands.
Ryan doesn’t run the fastball up into the upper 90s, but he boasts a fastball that prospect evaluators say has “hop” and can get on hitters faster than they expect.
To me, Ryan has the feel of a future No. 3 starter from the mold of a Scott Baker/Jake Odorizzi type. He’ll most likely work up in the zone effectively as a fly ball pitcher, and his home-run rates will determine where he ultimately fits in.
Grade: B+. It’s not that the return is a B+, it’s that the Twins are in a position where they had to do something like that which results in such a grade.
Out: RHP Hansel Robles
In: RHP Alex Scherff
Breakdown: In this trade, the Twins swapped out a hard-throwing righty with erratic command for a 23-year-old relief prospect who was having a strong season between High-A Greenville and Double-A Portland: 2.45 ERA in 29.1 innings, 46-13 K/BB ratio and 1.19 WHIP.
Relief prospects, in general, can be largely thought of as a non-entity but Scherff ranked as high as No. 9 in Boston’s system in 2018 via Baseball America. They also had him as the No. 59 prospect in the 2017 draft, where the Red Sox nabbed him with pick 161 and signed him for $700,000.
Scherff has threatened triple digits in the past with his fastball, and has to be added to the 40-man roster after the season to be protected in the Rule 5 draft. He could move fairly quickly the rest of this season and maybe, just maybe, get a look late. More likely, he’ll be in the mix to help the Twins in the bullpen in 2022.
Grade: A. Getting much of anything for Robles, who had completely tanked — 9.64 ERA, .986 OPS against — in July has to be considered a win.
Out: LHP J.A. Happ and cash
In: RHP John Gant and LHP Evan Sisk
Breakdown: I’m really not sure how this deal came to fruition. In the process, the Twins dumped Happ — who had been miserable for them since early in the season — while picking up a live arm in Gant and a funky minor-league lefty in Sisk.
Again — I’m still not sure what happened here.
Happ woke up on May 12 for his start against the White Sox with a 1.91 ERA. Ten outs later, he had a 4.26 ERA and the boats were off to the races. Over his final 14 starts in a Twins uniform, Happ allowed 19 home runs and 68 earned runs in 70.0 innings. That’s an 8.74 ERA with an OPS allowed of 1.035.
Shohei Ohtani, who is probably going to win the AL MVP this season, has a season OPS of 1.039 for a little added context — but I digress.
Ideally, Gant can give the Twins’ bullpen a lift and convince the team to tender him a contract for 2022. He’s making $2.1 million this year, and is eligible for free agency after next season.
When Gant is going well, he’ll sit in the mid 90s with his fastball and back it up with a slider, cutter, curve and change. How the Twins and Gant collaborate to tweak his pitch mix will be of note, as they’re known to fancy the slider, a pitch the 28-year-old has thrown but not necessarily featured.
“When Gant is going well” is doing some heavy lifting, by the way. He’s had a tough go of things this season in a way that his ERA (3.49) might not suggest (5.06 FIP). He’s striking out and walking more than six batters per nine, but it’s not impossible to suggest there might be something to work with here. Gant has induced grounders, picked up strikeouts and limited walks throughout fairly large portions of his career.
What he has not done, however, is limit walks.
Still, Gant was a valuable swingman-type for the Cardinals especially from 2018-19, when he was worth plus-2.0 fWAR in 170.1 innings. He’s auditioning with guys like Danny Coulombe for a middle relief role next season.
Sisk is a reliever-only prospect who has made 88 appearances in the minors with just one start — back in 2018 in Rookie ball. He’s big on strikeouts and walks from the left side, but he’s got just enough funk to make one think he could work in a big-league bullpen.
Sisk has the ability to be a groundball plus strikeout guy, but again it’s spotty command which could hold him back.
How he fares against righties — which is a problem for most left-handed relievers coming up — will be of note. This season, lefties have actually hit him to the tune of a .851 OPS while righties have been held down to a .675 mark.
In 2019, those roles were reversed with a .595 OPS against left-handed hitters but a .748 mark against righties.
Now maybe that suggests potential ability in the future to get MLB hitters out from both sides, but that’s a little ways off in the future. He’s only thrown 22 innings above High-A.
Grade: A. Getting something for Happ is even more impressive than getting something for Robles — and probably not by a little bit.
Out: RHP Jose Berrios
In: INF/OF Austin Martin and RHP Simeon Woods Richardson
Breakdown: Well, here’s the granddaddy of ‘em all. Maybe not just the showstopper of Twins trades in recent memory — but in the conversation for ever.
Berrios is the best young pitcher the Twins have brought along since Johan Santana — who didn’t develop entirely within the system, but did learn his vaunted changeup therein — and his tenure with the team ended in a similar fashion.
Now with that said, this trade was about quality more than quantity.
Carlos Gomez was a well-regarded prospect, Kevin Mulvey and Philip Humber both looked like future MLB starters and Deolis Guerra was a wild-card prospect who is still floating around in the baseball universe. In fact, he’s in the big leagues with the Oakland Athletics in his age-32 season, and acquitting himself fairly well (3.72 ERA in 38.2 innings).
And while Humber was a top-five draft pick like Martin in his respective draft year, there’s a very clear divide between trading for a top pitching prospect versus trading for a top hitting prospect. As also there’s a divide between going for a trade with two high-end prospects rather than spreading out the risk over four with varying levels of volatility.
Beyond getting Martin, the Twins also landed Woods Richardson, a 20-year-old righty with a live arm who has already reached Double-A. One or the other in a trade for Berrios would have been understandable; getting both is a home run.
Martin was in consideration to go 1-1 in the 2020 draft, and at age 22 was more than holding his own at Double-A New Hampshire: .281/.424/.383 in 250 plate appearances.
The lack of power might be troublesome in isolation, but Martin has dealt with hand issues this season which can notoriously sap a player’s power output until fully healed.
Martin immediately slots in at No. 2 in a Twins system somewhat depleted by graduations this season, according to MLB Pipeline, and could fit anywhere between short, center field or anywhere else in the infield based on how his offensive and defensive profiles develop.
Statistically, it would appear Woods Richardson has hit a snag at Double-A, but the reality is that he hasn’t pitched in minor-league games since his age-18 season at High-A Dunedin — he was part of the Marcus Stroman trade return from the Mets — and he’s been everything one could want from a pitching prospect outside of this season (strikeout per inning, sharp command, few home runs allowed).
Also, for what it’s worth, FIP (3.78) looks far more favorably upon Woods Richardson’s 2021 than ERA does (5.76).
With his age and pedigree, he could be the next one in line to be the team’s pillar in the starting rotation. Those are high expectations for Woods Richardson — they are similarly high, if not more so for Martin — but such is life when traded in a high-profile deal for an All-Star-caliber player.
The Twins will without a doubt miss Berrios immensely, not only on the field but in the clubhouse. His tenacious work ethic was second to none, and while it’s possible he is who he is at this point going forward — that’s a damn fine pitcher.
The Twins will be in a tough spot to find someone to fill the role Berrios held in the rotation — not just the rest of this season, but from 2022 onward.
The future starts now.
Grade: B+. The trade itself is fine. Maybe ideally the Twins would have gotten a third piece, and at the same time, some pitchers of Berrios’ caliber haven’t brought back this much firepower in a trade as well. But the B comes from, again, the Twins being in a position where they had to trade off a hometown favorite just to retain some value before he (likely) would have departed in free agency. That doesn’t sit well with fans.
Overall Deadline Grade: B+.
Final Analysis: The Twins did what they had to do — for the most part — but that’s not going to make fans feel better about where they are and how they got there.
The only way to improve upon this grade might have been to finesse a team for something in return for Andrelton Simmons or Alex Colome, or finding a taker for a decent prospect in a Michael Pineda trade, but all things considered it was a productive deadline.