Tyler Clippard is a relief pitcher, and as such I figured he didn't have a huge amount of trade value. Big-name starters like Scott Kazmir and star hitters like Ben Zobrist often command impressive hauls, but relievers don't fetch as much because of their lesser roles. So, when I learned that the Oakland A's had netted an exciting starting pitching prospect in 20-year-old righty Casey Meisner, it made me wonder which was true: was I underrating relievers' values, or did the A's do really well in this trade? The answer is closer to the former than the latter, but it's a bit of both.
I went back to 2012 to look for trades that generally involved one prominent veteran reliever having a good season, who was either an impending free agent or had only an option year remaining, going to a contender in return for prospects. Preferably, I wanted the reliever to have similar value to Clippard (a good, proven setup man who can close in a pinch), but I went a bit above and below his level just to be thorough. Note that I am not a prospect guru by any means and am relying entirely on Baseball-Reference stats and Google searches for trade reactions from the days of the deals, so please feel free to disagree with any of my quick valuations. First, we'll sum up the Clippard deal for a point of reference:
- Tyler Clippard went from Oakland to the Mets in 2015, and the A's got back Casey Meisner, a 20-year-old high-ceiling starter finding early success High-A but with some development yet to do. He tore through Single-A before reaching High-A, and though he's struggled in some areas since the promotion he still has a sub-3.00 ERA at the higher level. It sounds like he projects as a starter in MLB a couple years down the road. Even without context, this feels like a strong return for two months of a good-but-not-elite reliever.
There were four pitchers who I think were significantly better than Clipp is now:
- Andrew Miller went from Boston to Baltimore in 2014, and the Red Sox got Eduardo Rodriguez. He was a 21-year-old starter in Double-A who began the year as a consensus top-100 prospect, so he was basically what we hope Meisner could be next year if all goes well. Plus, Rodriguez is a lefty. He's already holding his own in MLB at age 22.
- Joakim Soria went from Texas to Detroit in 2014, and the Rangers received a 20-year-old Double-A starter in the midst of pitching his way onto every top-100 list (Jake Thompson) and an MLB-ready 23-year-old reliever with a career rate of about 12 strikeouts per nine innings (Corey Knebel, currently pitching well for the Brewers).
- Huston Street went from San Diego to the Angels in 2014 (along with another reliever prospect), and the Padres picked up a Triple-A shortstop on the fringe of the top 100 (Taylor Lindsey), an MLB-ready reliever (R.J. Alvarez), and two minor league lotto tickets. The other Double-A reliever the Angels received was Trevor Gott, who is already in the bigs.
- Francisco Rodriguez went from Milwaukee to Baltimore in 2013, and the Brewers got Nick Delmonico, a 20-year-old third baseman who hit a bit in his first couple years but is now in the White Sox system.
These guys got better returns than I'd remembered, but they were all elite names as well. Miller was emerging as a dominant strikeout artist, and the other three were long-established closers -- Soria had 42 strikeouts to 4 walks, while Street and K-Rod both had 1.09 ERAs at the times of their trades. It's arguable that Clippard still fetched a better return than K-Rod did, though at that point Delmonico was about the same thing that Meisner is now as a young High-A player with strong praise but also flaws.
There were another four guys who I ranked below Clippard:
- Jason Frasor went from Texas to Kansas City in 2014, and the Rangers got Spencer Patton, an MLB-ready 26-year-old reliever who struck out around 12 per nine frames in his career in the minors. Patton debuted that September and dominated, but has struggled this year.
- Marc Rzepczynski went from St. Louis to Cleveland in 2013, and the Cardinals received a low-minors shortstop lotto ticket.
- Scott Downs went from the Angels to Atlanta in 2013, and the Angels picked up Cory Rasmus, a 25-year-old Triple-A reliever who played a big role in their MLB pen last year.
- Joe Thatcher went from Arizona to the Angels in 2014, and the D'Backs got a once-promising outfield prospect who was falling out of favor and a low-minors reliever with huge strikeout numbers. The Angels also got outfielder Tony Campana for some reason, so there was more than just Thatcher involved.
Considering that Frasor was a middle reliever and the other three were mostly LOOGYs (Downs was somewhere between those two labels), these weren't terrible returns. However, it seems like the best chance at getting an MLB contributor out of such a deal is to get back a younger reliever, rather than a potential starter like Meisner. It's safe to say that Clippard got back a more valuable prospect than any of these guys did, as he should have.
Finally, there are six guys who I think were in Clipp's ballpark. Four of them were closing during the years of their deals but were better cast as 8th-inning setup men, one was a former closer, and the other wound up making the All-Star team as a closer the next year but then losing his job that same summer:
- Steve Cishek went from Miami to St. Louis in 2015, and the Marlins got St. Mary's (Moraga) alum Kyle Barraclough, a Double-A reliever with lots of strikeouts and lots of walks. Meisner automatically beats Barraclough on merit of being a starter (and significantly younger).
- Jose Veras went from Houston to Detroit in 2013, and the Astros received two 19-year-old lotto tickets. One of them, David Paulino, is finding success in Single-A this year as a starter. Danry Vasquez, now 21, has already made Double-A. Meisner is a better get than either one of these guys alone, but the duo looks good now that they're starting to pan out.
- Brett Myers went from Houston to the White Sox in 2012, and the Astros got three low-minors pitchers, none of whom have gone anywhere. I think Meisner is more valuable than any of them were, and in a trade like this I'd rather gamble on one excellent low-minors prospect than unspectacular quantity.
- Brandon League went from Seattle to the Dodgers in 2012, and the Mariners got back a High-A outfielder and a Double-A reliever, neither of whom were serious prospects. Both are in Triple-A now but are in their mid-20s and not making enough noise. Meisner is definitely a better return, but Clippard is also better than League was.
- Jonathan Broxton went from Kansas City to Cincinnati in 2012, and the Royals picked up a Triple-A reliever and a Double-A starter, both sleeper-types with reasons for hope but also big question marks. This might have been a better return than Meisner depending on your opinions of Donnie Joseph and J.C. Sulbaran at the time of the deal.
- Edward Mujica went from Miami to St. Louis in 2012, and the Marlins received third baseman Zack Cox, a one-time top-100 prospect who had fallen out of favor. It was sort of a change-of-scenery opportunity for Cox, but it's probably better to get a guy like Meisner who hasn't yet failed than a guy like Cox who is further up the ladder but has already struggled. (Mujica went on to save 37 games the next year, then fell on hard times and of course is now on the A's.)
When compared with this group, Clippard's trade fits in well. He's probably the best pitcher on this list, but not by much, and I'd say he got a better return than Cishek, Myers, League, and Mujica. I can't decide if Broxton's and Veras' returns are better or worse, which probably means they're roughly even.
The first conclusion here is that relievers fetch better returns than I realized at the deadline, as teams are more likely to be scrambling for relief help during the heat of a July pennant race than during the winter when everyone is still healthy and roster space is more limited. Even better if you have a big-name closer to trade, as they can return legit prospects with chances to contribute soon. Even a sharp middleman or LOOGY can get you a young replacement reliever. And a guy like Clippard, walking the line between setup and closing, can either get you one really quality prospect or a couple of promising low-level lotto tickets.
The next conclusion is that the A's did pretty well with Clippard. Not stop-the-presses amazing, but a reasonable best-case scenario given recent precedent. The big-name closers got better returns, but Clippard beat out most of the other setup men and I think he brought back the single best prospect out of everyone on his peer list. Casey Meisner has a long way to go to make the big leagues, but there is a lot to like about him and the A's did well to cash in their unnecessary reliever for a good starting pitching prospect. I'm especially glad that they got a high-ceiling guy rather than a couple of lesser players.
Now just make sure to turn off the rest of the 2015 A's games one inning earlier than whenever you were normally doing already.