As always, solid bullpen pitchers are at a premium come the July 31 trade deadline. Most of the top teams right now have an above-average bullpen, which makes the contenders with a struggling bullpen feel the need to patch that up so they can feel secure for a long playoff run.
Right now, there are six teams within three games of the division lead, or leading the division, that sport a bullpen with an above-3.90 ERA: the Orioles, Rockies, Brewers, Tigers, Nationals, and Twins. Though not all have uncertainties at the closing spot, all could use a bullpen arm like David Robertson.
In fact, any team could use a bullpen arm like David Robertson, considering his track record and the fact that no team possesses a perfect pen. The White Sox have little use for him, considering their stockpile of prospect arms like Zack Burdi who are poised to compete for bullpen spots. Under such circumstances, a trade seems inevitable, but how much can Rick Hahn fetch for Robertson?
In my opinion, the White Sox should receive a prospect ranking in the bottom half of the top-100 list. Robertson is by no means a lights out closer, but his 3.38 ERA and 9/10 save conversions are decent marks, and other stats show he’s been even better than a 3.38 ERA usually dictates.
First, let’s take a look at one of the long-standing metrics for pitchers. Right now, Roberson has posted a 0.891 WHIP over his 21.1 innings pitched this year. Of all MLB relievers with 20+ innings pitched, that’s good for 20th in the league. Now, looking at his career numbers, that is likely to regress, but even if it falls to, say, 0.94, it’s still a top-30 mark.
Noting the players that surround Robertson in the WHIP category is another indication that he’s been better than a 3.38 ERA suggests. Of all the top-30 relievers for WHIP (with 20 innings pitched minimum), not a single one other than Robertson has an ERA over 3.12.
What’s the reason for his outlying stats? Let’s take a look at Roberson’s outings thus far. In 20 appearances, he’s only allowed runs in four of them. One of those was just an awful day, when he allowed five baserunners to the Angels in May, accounting for two runs. Two of them were your typical bad outing. However, the last and most recent run-allowing outing, against Detroit, is the real culprit.
Throwing a poor curveball that day, he hung one to Justin Upton and got punished in the form of a three-run home run. If say, Upton hit a run-scoring double instead, the damage would be only one earned run, and Robertson’s ERA would be 2.56 right now. Thus it would be fair to say that Robertson can blame his ERA on a bad day and a bad pitch.
Additionally, his strikeout and walk numbers are impressive. Robertson’s strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) is at 12.2, and his walks per nine is just 3.0. Both are slightly but not unsustainably better than his career averages.
So, I’ve established David Robertson is a highly-sought commodity with impressive numbers that diminish the weight of his 3.38 ERA. But does he really deserve a top-100 prospect? The answer is a resounding yes.
Last year, the Boston Red Sox went after San Diego Padres’ relief pitcher Drew Pomeranz at the deadline. Pomeranz sported a 2.47 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP and a 10.1 K/9 mark with the Padres prior to the deadline. The deal went down, and in return, the Padres received Boston’s highly-coveted pitching prospect, Anderson Espinoza. Now, Espinoza is the number 19 prospect in all of baseball.
Pomeranz ended up as a disappointment with Boston, as he declined into a 4.59 ERA during his 2017 stretch with the Red Sox. His career ERA is 3.82, so that outcome isn’t a huge surprise.
Imagine what David Robertson deserves if Pomeranz got a top-20 prospect. For all intents and purposes, Robertson is more valuable right now. His WHIP and K/9 are better than Pomeranz’s 2016 marks, and he also owns better career numbers. Let’s say Boston overpaid by a lot, which they probably did, and instead should have only given up a prospect in the bottom half of the top-100 list. Considering Robertson’s superiority, there’s no reason to believe he would get anything worse than that (a 50-100 ranked prospect).
Of course, as in most prospect-based deals, Hahn should expect one or two minor prospects attached with the big name guy. To visualize a deal, let’s say Robertson goes to the bullpen-lacking Washington Nationals. Billed as a perfect fit over the offseason, this trade seems too perfect for both teams. Dusty Baker gets to replace his 4.34-ERA closer, Koda Glover, with Robertson, and the south siders add a decent prospect to their already-scary mix.
What prospects would those be? First, Hahn should ask for Erick Fedde, the #51 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Fedde is an above-average right-handed pitcher having a decent year in Double-A Harrisburg who would fit in nicely with the White Sox rebuild. Now, if Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo refuses, Hahn could still ask for their number three prospect, Juan Soto. Ranked number #95 on the MLB top prospects list, Hahn could couple the powerful outfielder Soto with the Nationals fifth or sixth best prospect to make up for Fedde not being in the deal.
In my opinion, the Nationals are by far the best fit. They meet all the criteria: A contending team with bullpen woes, and two different prospects who could headline a deal with the White Sox. However, there’s always those other teams looking for a guy like Robertson, and like the Pomeranz situation last year, one might be desperate enough to overpay for Robertson. Whatever the case, White Sox fans everywhere should rejoice in Robertson’s success, and what it means for the rebuild: Yet another good prospect ready to join the competing south siders in 2018 or 2019.