In the midst of Ronald Acuna Jr.’s first round fireworks at the 2019 Home Run Derby, he was visited by a few of his National League teammates during his timeout. The connection between these players was that each was from Venezuela. Among the entourage of players huddling with Acuna Jr. was Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez, who likely will be one of the most sought after and valuable targets for many teams at this year’s trade deadline.
Vazquez himself has been involved in a deadline deal before. The Washington Nationals traded Vazquez in a package for Mark Melancon at the 2016 trade deadline. While Vazquez was talented, the Nationals wanted an established closer for their postseason run. Melancon’s production certainly proved to be an astute addition, but this trade quickly was viewed as a win for Pittsburgh. The reason being has been Vazquez’s dominance since then.
Since 2017, Vazquez’s first full season in Pittsburgh, he has produced the highest WAR amount and lowest ERA of any relievers in the majors who have pitched more than 100 innings, with marks of 5.7 and 2.14, respectively. He has produced a 2.98 xFIP and 78 saves in 184.2 innings over this stretch. There is no doubt he has been amongst the best relievers in baseball.
As a result, it is clear any team would be lucky to add Vazquez to their bullpen. But do the Braves, with one of the best pens in baseball since May, really need to pay the price for Vazquez’s services?
Well, in a word, perhaps.
2019 Stats: 36 G, 39.1 IP, 20 Saves, 2.06 ERA, 2.17 FIP, 2.72 xFIP, 13.96 K/9, 2.52 BB/9, 1.7 WAR
Remaining Team Control: Vazquez signed a four-year extension with the Pirates in January of 2018. The deal goes through 2021, but also contains two club options for 2022 and 2023. The dollar details for the remainder of the deal is as follows: $4M in 2019, $5.25M in 2020, and $7.25M in 2021. Both club options are worth $10M each, with buyouts of $1M in 2022 and $500,000 in 2023.
Why He Will Be Traded: Vazquez’s status as one of the best relievers in the game is not the only source of his value. His contract arguably is the best contract in the majors for a relief arm. He has been mentioned in the honorable mention section of Fangraphs trade value series the past two years. His long-term cost control significantly adds to his overall value.
The fact that he is controlled through 2021 (and very likely 2023) means the Pirates should be in no rush to move him. However, the long-term control is also the exact same reason why they should at least market him. The Pirates currently have a 5.0% chance of making the playoffs in 2019 according to FanGraphs, and it seems it will be an uphill battle for them to return to the postseason in the next few years.
As a result, an elite closer has more value as a trade chip than a contributor to a rebuilding team (even if the rebuild is a short one.) If the Pirates can gain one or multiple top prospects for Vazquez, which history shows is very likely, the prospects would likely carry more value than Vazquez himself.
As a result, it makes more sense than not for the Pirates to gauge the market for Vazquez. Underlying numbers suggest Vazquez is having the best year of his career, and his contract will only lose value as time goes on. Also, while Vazquez is elite at his job, there is a lot of natural volatility with relievers over the long term. If the Pirates could get an elite hitting or starting prospect in return, the increase in positional value alone likely makes a deal worth doing. Vazquez is one of, if not the most, attractive trade chips on the market, and there is plenty of reasons for the Pirates to cash in.
Why the Braves Need Him: Atlanta has the best bullpen in ERA in the majors since May 1st. This has been a significant reason why they have the best record in the majors since May 9th. Furthermore, their starting staff is logically a bigger area of need to add too before the trade deadline.
So why would the team with the best record and best bullpen in the majors over the past two months pay the price for Velazquez?
October....for many years to come.
Every year, the one area where the clear playoff contenders seem to add depth is their bullpen. The Atlanta pen has been great, but it still has its flaws. Luke Jackson seems better equipped in a setup role than a closer role. No arm in Atlanta’s pen or in the high minors comes close to the potential of Vazquez. Utilizing Jackson to work out of trouble in 6th-8th innings and then unleashing Vazquez in the 9th would be a dream scenario.
This is the reason why Vazquez should be, in my opinion, a top target for Atlanta when it comes to a major addition. The Braves bullpen is 15th in xFIP since May 1, including 15th in ERA and 22nd in xFIP in the ninth inning. The teams that keep leads without a doubt in stretch runs and then advance in October are the ones that have clear confidence with their options to secure wins. Right now, it is hard to say the Braves have that confidence. To gain that peace of mind for many years to come with Vazquez would be a significant asset to add.
Why the Braves Aren’t Good Fit:
How high is #Pirates price on Felipe Vázquez? Sources say Pittsburgh likely would ask #Dodgers for *at least* two of the Keibert Ruiz/Gavin Lux/Dustin May/Will Smith group if talks ever advanced. (And one source said Pirates remain unsure if they sell at all.) @MLB @MLBNetwork— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) July 10, 2019
Here lies the obstacle to execute a move Vazquez. He is just as logical a fit for any team in baseball as he is the Braves. The Pirates know this, and are going to put a high premium on Vazquez. This is especially true with the Pirates likely wanting to repair at least some of the damage that came from the debacle at last year’s trade deadline, when they traded Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow for Chris Archer. The Pirates hold all the leverage, and are desperate to get as much of a return as possible. A seller in that position typically does not end in a good deal for a buyer.
On Atlanta’s end, there is little doubt they can get in a bidding war. They can offer a similar or better package than any team in baseball. The problem is the Braves are severely limited when it comes to avenues to replace those assets. The sanctions from the internationals signing scandal in 2017 has resulted in the Braves being very reluctant to part with their top prospects. If they have balked at moving them to get a controlled starter or controlled bat in the past, it seems very unlikely they will all of the sudden splurge for a reliever, no matter how good he is.
As a result, while Vazquez is an amazing fit on Atlanta’s roster for multiple reasons, the likely prospect cost it will take to get him makes a deal more unlikely than not. If the Braves are going to move an elite prospect, they probably want to do it for multiple pieces or a starter they can control. As good as Vazquez is, there is a good chance the prospects that are surrendered for him will have more future value than him long-term.
Likely Cost: At first glance, the above asking price for Vazquez to go to the Dodgers may seem absurd, but consider what similar relievers, both in terms of talent and control, have earned sellers in recent history:
- The Yankees received Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman.
- The Yankees received Clint Frazier for Andrew Miller.
- The Padres received Francisco Mejia for Brad Hand.
- The Athletics received Blake Treinen and Jesus Luzardo for Sean Doolittle.
In each case above, the relievers traded were either elite, cost-controlled, or both. In each case above, the team selling the reliever received a prospect that was either at the time or has since become a top 15 prospect. The Pirates are going to get a haul if they trade Vazquez. While some prospects may not pan out immediately, the team that acquires Vazquez will take a significant to their talent pipeline.
In the case of the Braves, the Pirates would likely target Drew Waters and either Joey Wentz or Kyle Muller. In my opinion, that is not a completely unreasonable ask, or is something that the Braves laugh at. However, it does seem to be a move that would be uncharacteristic of Alex Anthopoulos. That seems to be the start of a package that could get a significant starter, or a good starter and good reliever, all of which would still be cost controlled. As a result, no matter how good of a fit Felipe Vazquez would be on the Braves roster, his positional value, likely cost and the Braves cautious approach with their prospects make a move for him highly unlikely.