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4D chess move: Freezing the Trade Market by using Ohtani Rumors


Lucas Giolito
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the Angels made the most consequential decision they’ll make all year: they decided to pull Shohei Ohtani off the trade market and attempt to make the playoffs. They followed that decision up almost immediately with a complementary one, acquiring Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López from the White Sox in exchange for prospects Edgar Quero and Ky Bush, kicking the trade deadline off in earnest by landing one of the best starters on the market, plus an interesting relief flier.

If you came here for a tallying up of the relative merits of the four players involved in this deal, you’ll definitely get it, but I’ll be frank: I don’t think that’s the most interesting thing to discuss about this trade. If that’s what you’re after, search for the phrase “get down in the mud and count beans.” You can read the second half of this article and come back up here later. First, though, I want to talk about the bigger picture here for both the Angels and the Sox. For my purposes here, we’ll just ballpark it: Giolito is a solid third starter. López is a high-risk, high-reward setup man. Quero is a 50 FV catcher, a middle-of-the-top-100 prospect. Bush is a future back-of-rotation starter. There’ll be more than that later, but that’s a good starting place.

Deciding whether or not to trade Ohtani is a responsibility I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It goes beyond counting up value and cost, weighing playoff odds against organizational soundness. It’s not about wins and losses, even. Voluntarily sending the best player in baseball out of your city is a legacy question, a fan interest question, the kind of thing disgruntled fans might cite for why they fell out of love with the team. On the flip side, turning a rental into multiple top prospects might be the kind of move that builds a competitive core around the tail end of Mike Trout’s prime. This isn’t your average buy/sell decision; when they write Perry Minasian’s baseball biography, what he did with Ohtani will likely be in the first paragraph.

With the decision to keep Ohtani made, adding Giolito and López follows naturally. If you’re going to make one last playoff push before the band breaks up, you might as well get the right backup singers. The Angels pulled off quite the coup in their timing here. Shopping Ohtani put a freeze on the trade market. With the best player’s fate undecided, teams were hesitant to send out prospects for secondary targets. Trading for Giolito wouldn’t feel quite so good if the prospects you sent out might have enabled you to acquire Ohtani. That ceasefire was bound to end the moment the league learned that Ohtani was staying — but the Angels, naturally, knew that before everyone else.

In what Ken Rosenthal has termed the Age of Bloodless Arbitrage, a lot of teams wouldn’t send out prospects this good for what the Angels got back. Discount the future expected contributions of all the players involved back to the present, and Quero and Bush will almost certainly do more for their teams than three months of Giolito and López. Teams make deadline deals anyway because of playoff leverage: you trade some value from future years, where the value of a given win is unknown, for some extra talent right now when every victory could be the difference between spending October on the diamond or the golf course.

The Angels don’t have a ton of playoff leverage; they’re four games out of the final playoff spot, with two teams between them and the Blue Jays. We give them a 16.7% chance of making it, which is right on the fringe between unlikely and quixotic. For comparison’s sake, the Cubs and Mets are in roughly the same boat, and they’re both expected to sell. But for this team specifically, I think you can throw those calculations out the window. The math here makes sense for their present circumstances, even if it wouldn’t for just any team.

Think of it this way: the Angels probably won’t be as good as they are, right this minute, for a long while. They have the best player on the planet at the peak of his powers. They have the previous best player on the planet in his age-31 season, still great but headed inexorably down from his apex. They’ve already broken open the farm system piggy bank and taken whatever they can use; two players they drafted last year have already debuted in the majors, for example.

Want to talk about leverage? The last half of 2023 will likely matter more to Angels fans than the 2024 and ’25 seasons combined. The odds know how likely the team is to make the playoffs this year, but they don’t know that it’s not getting better in the immediate future. They don’t know that letting Ohtani’s tenure on the team run out without a playoff appearance will be all that people remember the team for down the road.

When some future group of analytical writers weighs the relative performance of this era’s GMs, this trade will likely count against Minasian’s record. Giolito and López likely won’t make the difference when it comes to making the playoffs. Ohtani will likely leave in the offseason. The cupboard will be more bare than it was a day ago. Who cares? From the position the Angels are in today, going for it in 2023 is the only reasonable aim.

One of the neat things about a trade market is that prices are set by the second-highest bidder. Let’s take a quick non-baseball example: if I’m willing to pay $750 for a piece of art, but the next-highest interested party is only willing to pay $400, I’ll probably be able to get it for $401. That’s a stylized description of how the trade market works, because teams don’t get to see each other’s offers, but it tracks in the general sense. With Ohtani staying put, no team in baseball is more motivated to add wins this year. If I were the Angels, I would have given up more than they did to add pitching, but they didn’t have to; they just had to beat the other offers, a job made easier by the fact that their shopping of Ohtani made those offers less plentiful.

Another neat thing about trade markets: both sides can win. The Angels correctly weighed the importance of the present by making this deal. The White Sox, on the other hand, are down and out, 21 games below .500. GM Rick Hahn has one key job at the deadline: get the most out of players who won’t be on the team next year. He correctly identified that the Angels were motivated buyers and got a solid prospect out of the deal. He’s playing for the future because the present is nonexistent, an easy and optimal decision.

That’s the big picture. With that out of the way, let’s get down in the mud and count beans, starting with the two major leaguers in the deal. Giolito is one of the best handful of pitchers available if you make a few assumptions around Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Ohtani. He isn’t showing the same form that he did at his best; he was the seventh-best pitcher by fWAR from 2019 to ‘2021 but has a 110 ERA- and 100 FIP- over the past two years. That’s a good shorthand for who he is at the moment: a league-average arm, one a playoff contender wouldn’t mind in the middle of the rotation. There’s surely some upside in there; again, he was one of the best in the game not so long ago. But you don’t have to count on him regaining his old form to see how he can help out.

López is more of a cipher to me. He was excellent in 2022, his first year working out of the bullpen full-time. After a long flirtation with starting, relief work looked like a great fit: his fastball and slider are clearly his best two pitches, and the extra velocity that comes with relieving serves him well. This year, though, he’s struggled to locate his slider, which leads to a grisly 12.4% walk rate. He’s striking out a ton of batters, but the math still works out to a 4.29 ERA and 4.55 FIP. There’s premium relief performance in there somewhere, but not much time to figure it out before the end of the season. He slots into the middle of the bullpen for the Angels not because he’s unhittable but because their squad is extremely hittable; we have their relief corps as a bottom-five unit, and they can use all the help they can get.

On the prospect side, Quero is the clear headliner, as Eric Longenhagen detailed on the Angels list last month. He’s an offensively-minded catcher keeping his head above water with an aggressive assignment as a 20-year-old in Double-A. It’s all the more difficult because he’s a switch-hitter, which generally means a slower developmental timeline. His performance is no mirage: he hits the ball hard and has excellent plate discipline. He’s fringe average defensively, and his power took a big step back this year, but he still projects as a future starter, or perhaps the big half of a timeshare behind the plate, thanks to his offensive game.

Bush is probably the best of the 20 pitchers the Angels drafted in 2021, which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of that draft. He’s a big lefty, but not a fireballing one; he sits in the low 90’s with a hittable fastball. He missed a chunk of this season with oblique and groin injuries, and he’s been hit hard since returning, but the scouting outlook looks the same as last year: minus fastball, plus secondaries, and an uncertain future role. Sometimes low-velo lefties figure it out and get by in the majors on guile and arm angle, but not always. He’s likely to end up as an up-and-down depth starter, or perhaps a reliever who emphasizes secondaries and rarely throws a fastball.

On The Board, we slotted Quero in as Chicago’s third-best prospect and Bush as the 12th-best. That’s a solid haul, meaningfully more than the White Sox would have gotten if they’d given Giolito a qualifying offer after the year. I don’t know whether he was interested in a reunion, but quite frankly, mid-rotation pitching wasn’t going to fix what ails them. I like their decision here, even though I know Giolito meant a lot to the franchise in some tough times. It’s also fitting that Giolito and López left in the same trade; they joined the White Sox organization in the same Adam Eaton trade seven years ago.

What more is there to say? The Angels have only one direction left to go: forward toward the playoffs, whatever the cost. The White Sox are operating under more traditional baseball logic: push value to the future when you’re bad in the hopes that you can be good later on. At the end of the day, this four-player trade is about a fifth player: Shohei Ohtani. He’s staying for now, and he’ll need all the help he can get.

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