Bullpen-starved contenders can target Chapman, Papelbon, Clippard, K-Rod in deadline deals

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Now that the All-Star game is over the next big date to circle on the baseball calendar is the July 31 trade deadline.

Starting pitching tends to generate the juiciest rumors and multiple aces could be available this year–Hamels! Cueto! Price!–but contending teams in search of a shutdown closer or reliable setup men also have some big names to choose from.

Here’s my view of prominent relievers likely to generate considerable trade interest between now and July 31 …

LHP Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

Everyone seems to assume that the rebuilding Reds will trade impending free agent ace Johnny Cueto, but their plans for All-Star closer Aroldis Chapman aren’t as clear. Chapman is only 27 years old and under team control for next season, so the Reds aren’t in as much of a rush to trade him. However, his 2016 salary will likely be more than $10 million via arbitration and if they’re eventually going to shop Chapman around why wait 12 months and risk an injury in the meantime?

Performance-wise Chapman is dominating as much as ever with a 1.69 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 37 innings while holding opponents to a .178 batting average. His triple-digit fastball and wipeout slider have the ability to transform a contending team’s bullpen and because any team acquiring him would be getting 1.5 seasons of excellence it’s possible the Reds can get more in return for Chapman than for Cueto. The big question is whether they want to part ways right now.

RHP Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon has made it abundantly clear that he wants out of Philadelphia, providing strongly worded quotes to anyone who asks him about the rebuilding Phillies. Of course, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. presumably would have gladly traded him by now if there was a deal to be made that actually brought a decent prospect back to Philadelphia.

In the past Papelbon’s big contract scared teams off, but this is his final guaranteed season and even next year’s $13 million vesting option is around the going rate for top-level closers. And don’t let his personality or the Phillies’ lack of save situations mask the fact that he remains a top-level closer with a 1.60 ERA and 35/7 K/BB ratio in 34 innings this season. Papelbon has a 2.33 ERA and 89 percent save rate for the Phillies. He had a 2.33 ERA and 89 percent save rate for the Red Sox. He can still make a huge impact.

RHP Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee Brewers

After saving 44 games for the Brewers last season Francisco Rodriguez returned to Milwaukee in the middle of spring training by signing a two-year, $13 million deal. He made the All-Star team for a sixth time by saving 19 games with a 1.41 ERA and 37/9 K/BB ratio in the first half, but the last-place Brewers seemingly don’t have a ton of use for a 33-year-old closer. Rodriguez hasn’t always generated the most trade or free agent interest in recent years, so it’s possible his being under contract for $5.5 million next season may scare some teams off even though it’s a reasonable salary.

RHP Tyler Clippard, Oakland A’s

Oakland got Tyler Clippard from Washington this offseason to take over as the primary setup man, but he shifted to the closer role with Sean Doolittle hurt and has done a fine job with 17 saves and a 2.43 ERA in 37 innings. Clippard hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was for the Nationals and has struggled at times with his control, but opponents are batting below .200 off him for the third straight year. Oakland is 41-50 and he’s an impending free agent.

RHP Joaquin Benoit, San Diego Padres

Joaquin Benoit has been a consistently outstanding reliever since coming back from a bunch of injuries in 2010, posting a 2.36 ERA in 351 total innings during that time while serving as a setup man and closer. Even at age 37 he’s logged 38 innings with a 2.39 ERA this season, although his 33/15 K/BB ratio is underwhelming. San Diego is 41-49 and he’s an impending free agent.

RHP Steve Cishek, Miami Marlins

Steve Cishek saved 88 games in two-and-a-half seasons as Miami’s closer despite few people viewing the side-arming right-hander as ninth-inning material before it happened and then the Marlins demoted him to Double-A on June 1 following 19 rough innings. He returned two weeks later and has allowed just one run in 8.2 innings since, potentially re-emerging as a lower-wattage trade target for a team in need of seventh- or eighth-inning help.

MLB’s juiced baseball is juicing Triple-A home run totals too

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There has been considerable evidence amassed over the past year or two that the baseball used by Major League Baseball has a lower aerodynamic profile, leading to less drag, which leads directly to more home runs. If you doubted that at all, get a load of what is happening in Triple-A right now.

The minors have always had different balls than the majors. The MLB ball is made in Costa Rica at a Rawlings facility. The minor league balls are made in China. They use slightly different materials and, by all accounts, the minor league balls do not have the same sort of action and do not travel as far as the big league balls. Before the season, as Baseball America reported, Major League Baseball requested that Triple-A baseball switch to using MLB balls. The reason: uniformity and, one presumes, more accurate analysis of performance at the top level of the minor leagues.

The result, as Baseball America reports today, is a massive uptick in homers in the early going to the Triple-A season:

Last April, Triple-A hitters homered once every 47 plate appearances. As the weather warmed up, so did the home run rate. Over the course of the entire 2018 season, Triple-A hitters homered every 43 plate appearances. So far this year, they are homering every 32 plate appearances. Triple-A hitters are hitting home runs at a rate of 135 percent of last year’s rate.

Again, that’s in the coldest, least-homer friendly month of the season. It’s gonna just get worse. Or better, I guess, if you’re all about the long ball.

Which you had better be, because if they did something to deaden the balls and reduce homers, we’d have the same historically-high strikeout and walk rates but with no homers to provide offense to compensate. At least unless or until hitters changed their approach to become slap hitters or something, but that could take a good while. And may still not be effective given the advances in defense since the last time slap hitting was an important part of the game.

In the meantime, enjoy the dingers, Triple-A fans.