Dallas Braden's unexpected path to fame

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braden throwing.jpgA Mark Mulder or Barry Zito he wasn’t.
Dallas Braden was drafted by the A’s out of Texas Tech in the 24th round in 2004. A polished left-hander with an underwhelming fastball but one very unusual weapon, he went 15-5 with a 3.52 ERA between Single-A Stockton and Double-A Midland in his first full pro season in 2005. That got him some notice, mostly because he was such an oddity.
The key to Braden’s success then was his exceptional screwball, a pitch that has largely disappeared from MLB through the years. At the time, noted screwballer John Franco was finishing up one of the greatest careers of any reliever in history. Still, the pitch had ruined too many arms and no one had been learning it as a result.
Braden was viewed as a one-trick pony. After his 15-win season, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 19 prospect in the game’s 26th best farm system, saying the screwball was “his only above-average pitch.” He was more a curiosity than a prospect. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t really either.
In Feb. 2006, the A’s announced that Braden underwent shoulder surgery. The screwball had apparently already taken a heavy toll. Braden returned in July, and while he dominated Rookie ball hitters in his rehab assignment, he gave up 15 runs in 16 1/3 innings at higher levels. Worse, the screwball was effectively gone from his arsenal. Baseball America didn’t view him as one of Oakland’s top 30 prospects going into 2007.
The A’s themselves, though, obviously saw something they liked. Braden was called up to make his major league debut that April 24. Filling in for Rich Harden, he beat the Orioles and lost to the Rays before being sent back down. He kept bouncing back and forth from there, finishing with a 2.84 ERA and an 87/21 K/BB ratio in 76 innings in the minors, but 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA in 14 starts and six relief appearances for Oakland.
Those struggles in the majors meant he wasn’t given much of a shot at making the team the following spring. Indeed, he spent last time in the majors in 2008 than he did as a rookie. However, he improved to a 4.14 ERA in 10 starts and nine relief appearances. Not only was he penciled onto to the 2009 staff as a result, but he was even named the Opening Day starter.
Since then, Braden has a 3.74 ERA in 29 starts. He missed the final two months of last year with a rash on his left foot that led to nerve damage, but he’s the Athletics’ most reliable starter, even though he rarely touches 90 mph on the gun.
With his screwball shelved, Braden improved his changeup and slider and picked up a cutter. His changeup now ranks as one of the best of the game, allowing him to keep right-handers off balance. It takes about a thousand soft-tossing lefties to come up with a Tom Glavine or a Jamie Moyer, but Braden clearly has some Moyer in him.
Aided considerably by McAfee Coliseum, Braden probably is pitching above his head right now. Since he generates a bunch of infield popups, he takes advantage of the ballpark’s huge amount of foul territory just like Zito used to. That’s no fluke, but it doesn’t entirely explain Braden’s .245 average against on balls in play. Given his modest strikeout rate, Braden should be giving up right around a hit an inning. Of course, he was as of Saturday. Now he’s allowed 37 in 46 innings.
Braden’s perfect game against a red-hot Rays team was an incredible feat. He can frustrate a lot of hitters with slow stuff when he’s on. He seems to have become a master of putting his changeup just out of reach of right-handed hitters. The 26-year-old hasn’t suddenly become an ace, but he’s likely to hang around a lot longer than 15 minutes.

Athletics trade Billy Burns to the Royals for Brett Eibner

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - MAY 13: Billy Burns #1 of the Oakland Athletics waits on deck to bat during the fourth inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on May 13, 2016 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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The Athletics and Royals swapped outfielders on Saturday. The Athletics sent Billy Burns to Kansas City and the Royals sent Brett Eibner to Oakland.

Burns, 26, doesn’t provide much in the way of offense, but he runs the bases well and plays solid defense. He was hitting .234/.270/.303 with 11 doubles, four triples, and 14 stolen bases in 274 plate appearances.

Eibner, 27, was batting .231/.286/.423 with three home runs and 10 RBI in 85 plate appearances. He has spent most of the season with Triple-A Omaha, where he’s put up a .902 OPS in 219 PA. Eibner played the outfield corners in the majors, but racked up a ton of time playing center in the minors, so his versatility will be valuable to the A’s.

Burns will become eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2017 season while Eibner has hardly accrued any service time, which might explain part of the motivation behind the trade for the small-market Athletics.

Nationals acquire closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates

PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 20:  Mark Melancon #35 of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitches during the ninth inning against the Colorado Rockies on May 20, 2016 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
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The Nationals announced on Saturday afternoon that the club acquired closer Mark Melancon from the Pirates in exchange for reliever Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn.

Melancon, 31, put together another solid season for the Pirates, leaving the club with 30 saves, a 1.51 ERA, and a 38/9 K/BB ratio in 41 2/3 innings. He led the majors last season with 51 saves and has a 1.80 ERA since joining the Pirates in 2013. Melancon is earning $9.65 million this season and can become eligible for free agency after the season.

With Melancon out of the picture, the Pirates intend to have Tony Watson take over the closer’s role.

Rivero, 25, has handled the seventh and eighth innings for the Nationals this season, compiling a 4.53 ERA and a 53/15 K/BB ratio in 49 2/3 innings. He’s just shy of one year of service time, so the Pirates will have control of him for a long time.

Hearn, 21, was rated the Nationals’ 27th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He was originally drafted by the Pirates in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft but he didn’t sign and ended up going back to college. The Nationals took him in the fifth round of last year’s draft. This season, between rookie ball and Single-A Hagerstown, Hearn put up a 2.79 ERA and a 39/13 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. He’s a long way away from the majors, so he’s essentially a lottery ticket for the Pirates.

The Nationals needed an upgrade at closer as Jonathan Papelbon has struggled this season. The right-hander has allowed runs in each of his last three appearances, ballooning his ERA up to 4.41 with a 30/13 K/BB ratio in 32 2/3 innings. It will be interesting to see how Papelbon, who has never made a habit of letting his feelings go unspoken, handles a demotion to the eighth inning.