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Trade Analysis: Brewers pay reasonable price for Joakim Soria

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Soria has been a really good reliever for a very long time.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The first notable transaction for the Milwaukee Brewers of the 2018 summer trading season was completed on Thursday. David Stearns and company brokered a deal with the Chicago White Sox that brought former All-Star closer Joakim Soria to the Cream City to help bolster the bullpen. Milwaukee’s relief corps has been arguably the team’s greatest strength this season, although the group has dealt with some injuries and has looked a bit more human as of late.

Soria turned 34 earlier this year and is in the 11th season of what’s been a largely successful MLB career. He made his debut way back in 2007 as a Rule 5 Draft pick by the Royals and quickly seized the closer’s role as a rookie, posting a 2.48 ERA and 17 saves in 69.0 innings en route to a seventh place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He was an All-Star twice in his first five seasons with Kansas City and posted a 2.40 ERA and 2.90 FIP across 298 appearances covering 315.1 innings. Soria recorded 9.7 K/9 against just 2.5 BB/9 during that time and was credited with 160 saves. But Joakim injured his elbow during the spring of 2012 and was forced to undergo his second Tommy John surgery (he also went under the knife in 2003). He missed that entire season and became a free agent.

Soria has bounced around quite a bit since the start of 2013 - a year and a half with the Rangers being dealt to the Tigers in July of 2014, then another year in Detroit before getting sent to Pittsburgh the following July in 2015. He re-signed in Kansas City on a three-year deal prior to the 2016 season, and spent 2016-17 in a Royals’ uniform before finding his way to Chicago as a part of a three-team trade that included the White Sox and Dodgers. Soria donned his sixth different uniform on Friday when he made his Brewers’ debut, throwing a scoreless inning against the Giants while recording a hold.

Soria’s results haven’t been quite as dominant in the six years since his most recent UCL procedure, but solid success has continued to follow the right-hander during his journey around the league. He’s split time between closing and setting up, recording 60 saves and 143 games finished in 316 appearances since the beginning of the 2013 campaign. He owns a 3.29 ERA and 3.14 across his last 298.0 innings, and his 9.7 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 largely match up with his numbers pre-surgery. Soria began the 2018 season as the White Sox closer and performed admirably in that role, registering 16 saves while recording a 2.56 ERA and even more dominant marks of a 51 FIP- and 46 DRA- in 41 games and 39.2 innings.

Soria’s fastball found a different gear beginning in 2015, and he’s averaged greater than 92 MPH in each of the last four seasons since. That includes a 92.3 MPH average this season. Unlike most relievers that typically rely on two main offerings, Soria has four different offerings that he mixes in with regularity; he relies primarily on his four-seamer (62.3%) while also working in a changeup (17.7%), slider (9.8%), and curveball (9.4%).

For his career, Soria has induced ground balls at a 44.3% rate and that number was up over 50% in each of his last two years with Kansas City. In 2018, however, Soria’s grounder rate has dropped to a low 33.7%. The high fastball has become en vogue around the league in recent years, and Soria is among the pitchers who have grown to rely on elevated heat. With good reason, too - Soria’s weighed fastball runs above average of +11.2 so far this year is his best total since 2008, his 11.1 K/9 rate is his highest since 2009, and his 14.4% swinging strike rate would be a new career-best.

Soria thrives not only on missing bats, but also by limiting free passes and hard contact. Joakim has walked only 6.6% of the batters that he’s faced this season, right on par with his career mark of 7.3%. Batters have also recorded hard contact in merely 24.5% of the time against Soria in 2018, the 12th-lowest total among the 159 qualified MLB relief pitchers. Soria has never allowed hard contact at a rate greater than 30% in any individual season, and across his 11 MLB seasons he’s limited opponents to a 25.8% hard contact rate.

Craig Counsell has expressed a willingness to go away from using a strict closer as a result of Corey Knebel’s struggles (3.91 ERA), and there’s little doubt that Joakim Soria will factor into the high-leverage mix as a member of Milwaukee’s bullpen. He’s the most “Proven Closer” in the bullpen and he should help form quite a formidable trio alongside All-Stars Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader. The Brewers already have the fifth-best bullpen in baseball by ERA (3.30) entering the day, but guys like Dan Jennings (3.24 ERA), Matt Albers (3.45 ERA), and Taylor Williams (3.51 ERA) have been a bit more hittable of late after getting hot starts to the year. Soria’s presence, perhaps along with the emergence of Corbin Burnes, means that those guys won’t have to be relied upon in pressure-packed situations.

Soria’s contract does have a $10 mil mutual option (with a $1 mil buyout) for his age-35 season in 2019, but from an outsider’s perspective it doesn’t seem all that likely that he returns to Milwaukee at that price. The White Sox also included a little over $1 mil in cash in the transaction, which just so happens to be enough to cover the cost of the buyout. Last winter, Stearns let Anthony Swarzak walk over the difference of a couple million, and he non-tendered Jared Hughes rather than pay an estimated ~$2.2 mil or so in arbitration. Soria, like Swarzak last season, seems destined to be another high-leverage relief rental brought up from the south side of Chicago to help Milwaukee chase a pennant.

Now that we’ve established Soria’s skill and contract situation, the price that was required for his services seems like a fair one. In exchange for their closer, the White Sox received left-handed hurler Kodi Medeiros from Milwaukee’s AA squad and righty Wilber Perez from the Dominican Summer League.

Perez, 20, began his professional career by making nine appearances in the DSL in 2017. He’s posted some impressive statistics at the lowest rung of the minor league ladder this season, including a 2.01 ERA and 47:13 K/BB ratio, but most of the hitters that he’s been facing are between 16-18 years old. According to Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, Perez posseses a fastball that sits in the upper-80s and sometimes touches 90. Longenhagen adds that Perez can “spin a soft breaking ball” and has “significant spin rate separation” between his fastball and breaker. But he calls Perez a “fringe prospect in need of more velocity” and the right-hander’s age and level are seemingly working against him. He is essentially a flyer.

Medeiros is the more notable name of the two pitchers that went to Chicago. Now 22, Medeiros was Milwaukee’s pick at #12 overall back in the 2014 draft. The Hawaiian hurler has had an up-and-down developmental path and has battled control issues throughout his time as a professional. In his first go-round at Class-A Advanced in 2016, Medeiros issued nearly as many free passes (63) as he recorded strikeouts (64) en route to a 5.93 ERA in 85.0 innings. He’s bounced back statistically since then, though, and he was putting together an impressive season for AA Biloxi before the trade. Still too many walks (3.9 BB/9), but he was missing plenty of bats (9.3 K/9) and keeping the ball on the ground (48.7% GB rate) like he typically does. It all adds up to a 3.14 ERA, though a FIP of 4.16 doesn’t exactly agree with those stellar results.

Kodi’s strong statistical performance in AA wasn’t enough to win scouts over in a major way, however. He failed to garner a mention in Baseball America’s midseason top prospect list for the Brewers and slotted in only at #13 overall in MLB Pipeline’s most recent post-draft update. In Chicago’s much-stronger farm system, Kodi’s ranked at #19 (for reference, Ryan Cordell slotted in at #16 in Chicago’s system after the Swarzak deal last summer). The left-hander can no longer run his fastball up in the mid-90s consistently like he did as a prep draftee and these days he sits more often in the 88-92 MPH range. He still features a plus slider that gives left-handed hitters fits, but his low arm-slot and lack of a legitimate third pitch lend to platoon issues.

Brewers’ brass said that they still believe that Medeiros can make it as a starter as he was on his way out of the organization, but the general consensus among scouts is that he’s best suited for a relief role in the big leagues. He has yet to be deployed in such a manner in the minor leagues, and it stands to reason that his fastball velocity could play up a little and that his two-pitch arsenal would in shorter stints. It’s easy to dream of Kodi turning into a fireman, Josh Hader-style reliever once he’s fully developed, but that’s more like a 99th percentile outcome. It’s much more likely that Medeiros turns into something like an effective LOOGY in a major league bullpen.

While there’s value in a prospect like that and perhaps some untapped upside left in Medeiros’ left arm, it was going to be a toss-up whether or not Medeiros earned a 40 man roster spot this fall or be left unprotected during his first winter of Rule 5 Draft eligibility. Now it’ll be Chicago’s responsibility to add him to their roster, finish his development, and potentially give him his first exposure to the big leagues. The Brewers, meanwhile, turn that future potential into present production for their pennant race in the form of Joakim Soria.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus