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Trade Analysis: Milwaukee Brewers buy low on Jeremy Jeffress, again

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Slingin’ Stearns brings back a familiar face at the trade deadline.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

They say that home is where the heart is. For Jeremy Jeffress, who was born and raised in Virginia and has played for 4 different MLB organizations, “home” in his own words is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Brewers had a relatively quiet trade deadline day yesterday, but they did make a move to bring the familiar reliever back home in an attempt to shore up the depth in the big league bullpen.

Jeffress, who will turn 30 later this season, has pitched parts of 8 seasons in the MLB but has always had the most success in Milwaukee. The former 2006 1st-rounder debuted with the Brewers back in 2010 but was dealt to Kansas City shortly thereafter as a part of the Zack Greinke deal. He washed out with the Royals and subsequently the Blue Jays before winding up back with the Brewers on a minor league deal in 2014. He returned to the big leagues for Milwaukee that July, and from then through July of 2016 he pitched to a 2.36 ERA across 141.1 innings pitched, registering 27 saves and another 29 holds. A 127:40 K/BB ratio and 3.07 FIP paint his production as more “good” than “elite,” but there’s no denying that the hard throwing, groundball inducing right-hander was an effective member of Milwaukee’s bullpen.

On July 31st, 2016, the Brewers packaged Jeffress along with Jonathan Lucroy in a deal with the Texas Rangers that netted Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell in return. Jeffress pitched fine for the Rangers down the stretch, posting a 2.70 ERA/3.67 FIP in 12 appearances and allowing an unearned run in his lone playoff appearance. The Rangers wound up getting swept by the Blue Jays in the ALDS. But Jeffress had some personal issues off the field while in Arlington, though. He got arrested for driving under the influence in late August and missed a month’s worth of games while seeking treatment in rehab. He had previously served multiple suspensions for marijuana use while he was a prospect coming up through the Brewers’ organization.

Jeffress appears to have moved past the legal issues from last summer, but part of the reason the Rangers wound up as sellers this year was because of his failure to pitch effectively as a member of the ‘pen. Tasked with serving as a late-inning setup man, Jeremy could muster only a 5.31 ERA through his first 40.2 innings this season, covering 39 appearances. Both FIP (5.83) and DRA (5.99) feel he’s fortunate to have produced even that level of run prevention this season.

Though the movement on Jeffress’ pitches haven’t changed all that much from last year to this season, he has lost a notable amount of zip on his fastball. He still runs it up to the plate at an average of 95.0 MPH (according to Pitch Info data from Fangraphs), but that’s a far cry from the 96.7 MPH that he averaged in 2016. His swinging strike rate has remained mostly static, but Jeffress’ strikeout rate is at a career-low 15.9% and he is hitting with zone with far less frequency. His walk rate has jumped some 3% up to 10.4% this season and he’s throwing only 42.7% of his pitches in the strike zone, down 5% from 2016.

When he is in the strike zone, Jeremy has had difficulty staying away from the middle of the plate. As a result, hitters are making contact with 90% of his pitches in the zone, producing hard contact at a rate that’s 13% higher than last season, and are collectively batting .302 against him. Though his groundball rate remains strong at 55.7% this year, Jeffress has been plagued by the home run ball and has already coughed up 8 dingers. For reference, he had allowed only 10 long balls in 210 appearances prior to 2017.

Jeffress referred to some of his issues this season as “mental” ones and says that now that he has returned to Milwaukee, he is “in a good place.” Jeffress has already been added to the active roster and the Brewers will be hoping that he and pitching coach Derek Johnson can work together to find a fix for his command issues to get back on track for the remainder of the season. Jeremy is due the remainder of a modest $2.1 mil salary this year, and if he can iron things out and become a useful member of the relief corps once again, the Brewers have the ability to control his contract for another 2 seasons through arbitration.

Jeffress’ return to prominence is of course no sure thing, and that fact is reflected in the return that Milwaukee yielded for his services. Tayler Scott, 25, was a 5th-round pick of the Cubs back in 2011 but was released by the organization following the 2015 season. He began 2016 pitching with the Sioux City Explorers of the independent American Association before being plucked up on a minor league deal by the Brewers last July. The right-hander had been enjoying a nifty season out of the bullpen for AA Biloxi, authoring a 2.34 ERA through 61.2 innings with a 63 strikeouts. His 5.11 BB/9 leaves plenty to be desired, however, and neither FIP (3.46) nor especially DRA (4.81) feel as though he’s been as successful as his ERA this season suggests. Scouts aren’t exactly enamored with his potential, either:

Scott is eligible for minor league free agency following the conclusion of this season, so the Rangers would have to add him to their 40 man roster or risk losing him to the open market. Given the impending roster crunch that Milwaukee faces this coming winter, there likely wasn’t much chance of him sticking here anyway.

Essentially, this move amounts to the Brewers taking a flyer on an arm that they are both familiar and comfortable with. All the club bet on Jeffress’ potential return to form was a 25 year old non-prospect whose time with the org was likely drawing to a close anyway. If Jeremy can rediscover whatever it is that’s made him successful as a Brewer, then the team has a useful and relatively inexpensive bullpen arm who can be controlled for another couple of seasons. If not, he can simply be non-tendered this winter (and heck, even if that happens he might still come back on another MiLB deal). As far as trades go, this one is about as low-risk as they come.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus