The Pirates have traded outfielder Travis Snider to the Orioles for LHP Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later. On the surface it’s a weird trade, as Snider is a talented player who figured to serve a significant role off the bench for the 2015 Pirates. If you look a little closer, though, the deal makes a lot of sense.
I’m sure the Pirates didn’t want to trade Snider, and indeed Neal Huntington told the press just that after the trade went down. The Orioles have been interested in Snider since at least the Winter Meetings, when the teams were reportedly working on a deal that would have sent Snider out for reliever Brian Matusz. It appears the Orioles maintained their pursuit, and now that literally all the alternatives are off the board, they’ve finally made the Pirates an offer they can’t refuse.
What’s interesting is that the offer included Stephen Tarpley, an undersized minor-league lefty with good stuff. Tarpley is similar to former Pirate prospect Joely Rodriguez, who the Pirates shipped to Philadelphia during the Winter Meetings for Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo is a dominant lefty reliever, similar to Brian Matusz, so when you sort through all the moving parts it’s sort of like the Pirates traded Snider for Bastardo and a player to be named later. That’s not exactly what happened, of course, but it’s one way to look at the big picture, and when you see it that way it’s easier to understand. In that narrative, the Pirates needed a bullpen piece, so they traded from their outfield depth to get it.
And they do have plenty of outfield depth. Despite Snider’s 2014 “breakout,” he’s not meaningfully better than the player who will replace him: Andrew Lambo. Both are young lefty sluggers who have destroyed AAA. Both have plus power with some swing-and-miss to their game, and neither brings much to the table in terms of defense or baserunning. (Snider is a better defender in the outfield, but Lambo has the versatility to play 1b as well.) Lambo hasn’t had a chance in the big leagues yet, but superficially he’s basically the same player as Snider. He should slide into Snider’s role without much of a problem.
Furthermore, I’d argue that Lambo deserves a shot. Not that that should make a difference, but Lambo has wrecked AAA to the tune of a .400+ wOBA in over 500 PA over the last two years. He’s earned a chance in the big leagues, and clearing a spot for him on the bench makes some sense.
Behind Lambo, the Pirates have plenty of 1b/of depth in AAA, as well, where Stetson Allie, Tony Sanchez, Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker, Jose Tabata, and Mel Rojas, Jr. are all set to play. The team also has Willy Garcia and Gorkys Hernandez in the upper levels. Dealing Snider certainly weakens the depth, but the change is negligible. It was (and remains) a position of strength.
It’s also possible that Snider’s 2014 “breakout” was something of a mirage, and given the team’s depth it made sense to explore trading him now while his value is high. Snider is talented, for sure, so in some ways his 2014 was only confirmation of the potential that made him a first-round draft pick and perennial top prospect. Yet there are some reasons to believe the performance might not be entirely sustainable.
One such reason is that Snider’s performance was, in part, built on unsustainable production against LHP. For his career, Snider has had a 96 wRC+ against RHP and a 90 against lefties. In 2014, those figures jumped to 110 vs. RHP and 200(!) against LHP. Even if the former is sustainable, the latter certainly isn’t. Unless he continues to improve, his overall performance is going to regress as his performance against LHP normalizes.
Secondly, Snider no longer appears to be the high-BAbip hitter he once was. With Toronto, in the minors as well as the majors, Snider consistently posted high BAbip numbers, undoubtedly just because he hit the ball so hard. Over the last several years, though, he’s replaced line drives with ground balls in his batted ball profile at an alarming rate. That’s a bad trade to begin with, but for a lefty pull hitter in the age of shifts it’s near-disastrous. Snider’s BAbip in 2013 was only .282, and while his 2014 BAbip was .298, it should have been .285 according to Jeff Zimmerman’s xBAbip metric. If the BAbip normalizes, that’s another possible point of regression.
Thirdly, Snider’s average fly ball distance increased dramatically in 2014, one of the biggest such increases in MLB. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s also not a sure bet to continue. Research on fly ball distance has shown that hitters who drastically increase their fly ball distance from one year to the next tend to give back about half of those gains in the third season.
Snider did make legitimate gains last year in terms of contact ability and game power. His always-excellent approach finally manifested in strong BB:K numbers, and his plus raw power finally manifested in good HR/FB rates. He’s still only 27, and he’s still a very talented hitter. And now that he’ll be playing in the hitter-friendly Camden Yards, he’s got a chance to hit 20 homers if given the playing time. But there are a bunch of very good reasons to doubt that he can maintain the 121 wRC+ performance he posted in 2014. Steamer and ZiPS, for what it’s worth, agree. Steamer projects a 108 wRC+, while ZiPS is even less optimistic, projecting a 97 OPS+.
A roughly average hitter who’s also roughly average on the bases with a roughly average glove in the outfield corners is a solid fourth outfielder. But it’s hardly irreplaceable. With a good in-house replacement waiting in the wings and Snider likely at the peak of his trade value, dealing him makes some sense.
Still, there’s a non-zero chance that Snider could be a legitimate first-division starter, so the Pirates weren’t going to let him go cheaply. And it seems the Orioles have finally met their price in the form of Tarpley-plus. The “plus” in this case is a player to be named later who Huntington claims is “similar” to Tarpley.
Let’s talk about Tarpley first. He was drafted in the third round in 2013, 98th overall. The Pirates selected JaCoby Jones in that round, eleven spots earlier. Tarpley was a raw 20-year-old out of JC at the time. He’s relatively small (6’1″) but very athletic, so while not classically projectable there was some hope that his athleticism would help him gain consistency with his stuff and command. According to Kiley McDaniel, who rated him the ninth-best prospect in the Orioles’ system, Tarpley sits 92-95 and holds his velocity well, while also flashing a plus curve and a solid-average change. If that sounds like an exciting profile, it is. The problem is that darned consistency. Despite turning 22 next month, Tarpley is still pretty raw, and he hasn’t even reached full-season ball yet. His command is only average at best, and McDaniel says that on bad days everything from Tarpley can be below-average.
But Tarpley is still a great athlete with potentially great stuff. Furthermore, there were some signs late last season that he might finally be figuring things out. He seems to have found mechanics that work for him, and McDaniel reports that he’s improving his makeup and mental conditioning. He should be ready to tackle full-season ball in 2015, and if the gains he made last year stick, he could rise quickly.
I mentioned earlier that Tarpley is similar to Joely Rodriguez, and not coincidentally I think I’d slot Tarpley into Rodriguez’s old slot on my prospect list. That would be #17 (18 now, with the addition of Jung-Ho Kang), behind Holdzkom but ahead of Dickson. He’s got a chance to be a #2 starter if he puts it all together, though a #4 is probably a more realistic vision of his upside.
Tarpley’s a good beginning to the deal, but the Pirates will get another player as well. The fact that it’s a player to be named later suggests it’s someone from the Orioles’ 2014 draft (players can’t be officially traded until a year after they’ve signed), and Huntington’s comment that it will be a “similar” prospect suggest it’s a similarly-rated pitcher. There are four guys who fit that profile: Brian Gonzalez, David Hess, Pat Connaughton, and Tanner Scott.
Connaughton is an interesting story, but not likely as the PTBNL. He’s a dual-sport guy who’s playing basketball for Notre Dame this winter. By the time the PTNBL is announced, he could be a full-time baseball player, and he’s got tremendous upside, but I doubt the Pirates are going to take a chance on a guy who’s not committed to baseball.
Scott is interesting as a sort-of poor man’s Stetson Allie from the left side. He’s 20 years old, already pretty well-filled-out, and can hit 100 mph (from the left side, no less) with an average curve, but he walked 18% of the batters he faced in rookie ball last season. In term’s of upside and left-handedness, he’s similar to Tarpley, but he’s not really in the same class as a prospect.
Gonzalez and Hess are the guys Pirate fans should be hoping for. Of the two, Gonzalez is the most similar to Tarpley. He’s a left-handed teenager taken in the third round last year. He’s short (6’1″, like Tarpley) with no real projection remaining, but he sits in the low 90s with two average-or-better secondaries. His makeup is supposedly great, and he had an excellent debut in rookie ball last year. He’s got the potential to be a back-end starter eventually.
Hess is a 21-year-old righty taken in the fifth-round last year. He had a solid debut in the NYPL and even got a few innings in the SAL at the end of the year. He’s got a plus fastball that sits 92-95 and a couple average secondaries in his curve and change. Like Gonzalez, he’s got back-of-the-rotation potential.
Neither Gonzalez or Hess are as exciting as Tarpley, but either one of them would give the Pirates two strong prospects in return for Snider. The equivalent in Pirate prospects would be something like Cody Dickson and Trey Supak. Assuming Snider doesn’t blossom into a star, that’s a very good return. Getting two legit prospects for your fourth outfielder is a win, and with Lambo replacing Snider the Pirates are able to do it without missing a beat in the short-term. If the second player is someone like Scott instead, it’s more of a fair deal than an awesome one.
We’ll have to wait for the PTBNL to be announced before making a final analysis, but given the information we have this looks like a good deal for Pittsburgh.