With just hours to go until Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Twins shored up their bullpen, acquiring All-Star closer Jorge López from the Twins for four pitching prospects. López, a 2020 waiver claim who was once a big part of a Mike Moustakas trade, has blossomed in 2022 upon being converted to a full-time reliever, saving 19 games for the O’s and putting up a 1.68 ERA and 2.99 FIP. Heading to Baltimore are Cade Povich, Yennier Cano, Juan Nunez, and Juan Rojas.
Not to be outdone, the Brewers made a relief addition of their own, picking up Matt Bush for pitcher Antoine Kelly and second baseman/third baseman Mark Mathias. Finally back after the second Tommy John surgery of his career, Bush has been sterling in his return, striking out 11 batters per game with his fastball returning to the upper 90s.
We’ll start with López and his now-former team. By trading first baseman Trey Mancini to Houston on Monday, the Orioles signaled that they were fine with giving up a small, short-term benefit for the chance of larger ones down the road. This trade isn’t identical — López does not hit free agency in a few months like Mancini does — but this movement is at least written in the same key.
Baltimore’s farm system got off to a slow start during this rebuild, but the team has made an impressive surge since the beginning of 2021 and established itself as our top farm system for the last year. In the ZiPS projections, which don’t factor into our farm system rankings, almost every one of our preseason top 15 O’s prospects has a better long-term projection than they did at the start of the season, with the only big exception being Kyle Bradish. The problem is, these breakouts have generally been one-sided in favor of hitters.
Thanks to the development of offensive talent, you can see the outlines of Baltimore’s future lineup. The rotation, on the other hand, remains kind of foggy. Grayson Rodriguez has been waylaid by a nasty abdominal strain, and DL Hall still has command issues to sort out. Before the Mancini trade, these were the only two prospects in the top 15 of our up-to-date Orioles list who weren’t hitters. If these two trades are any indication, the organization is now prioritizing adding pitching depth throughout.
You can see the Houston roots in the front office, both from the departure and the arrival of López. The late 2010s Astros had an occasional high-priced reliever or two, but their bullpens were largely built on a constant churning of interesting, live arms who survived the minor league gauntlet or were major league reclamation projects. As with Mancini, seeing a player who can contribute now heading out of town can be a tough pill to swallow when a team still has a plausible path to the playoffs. But, as with any strategy, you have to take the bad parts along with the good parts; if the Orioles valued current relievers more than relievers with upside play, would López or Félix Bautista even get to be in the bullpen in the first place?
Cano, a hard-throwing sinker pitcher who struggled in his debut with the Twins this year, will likely be in the Orioles’ bullpen soon. Povich, a control pitcher with good breaking stuff, is unlikely to hang onto his lofty strikeout totals from the low minors, but he could reach Baltimore fairly quickly at the back of the rotation, something that the team actually needs. Nunez and Rojas are more live-arm lottery tickets at this point, both with very good results in limited play but far off from the majors.
Baltimore’s loss is Minnesota’s gain, and adding a reliever was a major priority for the Twins at this deadline. Whether you go by our depth chart projections or ZiPS only, Minnesota was pegged to have the worst relief corps among contending teams over the rest of the season, with little late-season oomph other than Jhoan Duran and Jovani Moran. With Daniel Bard off the table and nobody quite realizing until it was too late that Josh Hader was on the table, López became one of the most interesting relievers out there. Being cost-controlled for a few years is something a team like the Twins especially appreciates, and he fills the hole that the Taylor Rogers/Chris Paddack trade left behind.
López has a better ZiPS projection than you see on the site right now, as he’s an unusually good example of a pitcher with very different full-version and in-season ZiPS projections. For most players, these are fairly close, but his Statcast-type data has improved immensely on his role change, and full-fat ZiPS is no longer saddling him with his indifferent performances as a fringe swingman.
ZiPS Projection – Jorge López
As for the Brewers, a reliever in hand is worth two for Matt Bush. (Sorry.) If López’s breakout is surprising, then Bush healthy and pitching well in 2022 would be absolutely mindblowing for a time traveler from a decade ago. In his professional career, he has survived a complete change in position from shortstop to pitcher, two Tommy John surgeries, an AC joint issue, and a broken ankle. As daunting as those obstacles are, none were steeper than the ones that he erected himself. Just a few weeks after he was drafted as the No. 1 pick, he was arrested for brawling with bouncers, and he spent his first decade in professional baseball getting busted for nearly every flavor of assault and DUI. His substance abuse problems led the Padres, Blue Jays, and Rays all to give up on him, and the last of his DUIs, which resulted in severe injury to a motorcyclist, led to Bush serving 39 months in prison.
After getting out of prison, Bush only got another chance at returning to baseball by throwing fastballs in a Golden Corral parking lot while still wearing an ankle monitor. Bush’s father, Danny, came to live with him, and Texas’ gamble has paid off, in that the team got three solid years of a pretty good reliever. Bush’s story has always spoken loudly to me; my dad came back from Vietnam a shattered man, and he spent 25 years slowly killing himself with alcohol. Bush committed some pretty reprehensible acts, but he’d have absolutely no chance to do good if his story had ended like my dad’s did.
For the Brewers, adding Bush clarifies a bullpen outlook that was clouded considerably as a result of the surprising Hader trade. The aforementioned Rogers found his way to Milwaukee on Monday as part of that deal, but he’s a free agent at the end of the season, leaving a relief corps that’s not as deep as in the past short another top member. If healthy, Bush provides a refund of at least some of Milwaukee’s lost Hader contributions in coming years, as he does not hit free agency until after the 2024 season.
ZiPS Projection – Matt Bush
Naturally, the Rangers aren’t sending Bush to Milwaukee out of the goodness of their hearts. Kelly is a 2019 second-rounder, getting his first extended taste of pro ball after coming back from serious shoulder problems. He’s stayed healthy this year and still throws hard, victories significant enough that you can overlook his control issues. While he’s still being (very carefully) used as a starter, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him to play a similar role to Bush in Texas’ pen in a couple of years. And since there’s something automatically cool about sidearmers, aka the Steve McQueens of pitchers, my colleague Eric Longenhagen has some video of his mechanics to share:
Mathias isn’t really a prospect at this point, but there’s a good chance he becomes a useful Joey Wendle-type of role player in the majors, something that winning teams can utilize. Milwaukee already has one of those in Mike Brosseau, and the Rangers don’t really have a player of that type since they no longer seem willing to use Nick Solak in the infield.
ZiPS Projection – Mark Mathias