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Milwaukee Brewers trade target: Jose Leclerc

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Dominant in 2018, looks like he is returning to form in 2019

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers have multiple holes to fill, especially in the starting rotation with 2019 ace Brandon Woodruff and 2018 ace Jhoulys Chacin going down to injury. With confidence building in Freddy Peralta and Adrian Houser to take on late-inning, high-leverage situations along with Josh Hader, the bullpen might be shaping up well. So it makes sense to get a starter or even two, right? There is an argument to be made to enhance the back end of the bullpen even more with another dominant reliever, and continue the philosophy of shortening the game. While there are relievers on the market, what team might have a dominant or potentially dominant relief arm that could be had at a relatively reasonable price?

Texas might just be open to trading Jose Leclerc. Leclerc was absolutely dominant closing games for the Rangers in 2018. In his breakout season, Leclerc posted a 1.56 ERA, 1.90 FIP, and 0.85 WHIP. He gave up just one home run in 2018, and he his strikeouts per 9 was 13.27. The Texas reliever finished the season #4 in fWAR behind only Blake Treinen, Edwin Diaz, and Josh Hader. He was really, really good.

Leclerc’s 2019 has not gone as well. By the end of April, he owned an ERA close to 7.00. Fortunately that month was an aberration. Since that time, he has lowered his ERA to 4.11, and gotten his FIP a respectable 3.35. Remember he gave up just one homer in 2018. He has given up five already in 2019. As a result of his troubles this season, Leclerc lost his closing job. All of this has helped to reduce his value on the trade market.

Sometimes timing is everything though. While Leclerc has regressed in 2019, he is showing signs of not just improving from his problematic April, but returning to dominant form. For example he has not given up a home run in over a month. In his last seven games, he owns a 1.29 ERA and a 0.71 WHIP.

Leclerc is your classic reliever in that he relies primarily on his four seam fastball and an effective slider (whiff% of 39.8%). He does use a changeup for more than just a “show me” pitch. He uses it about 11% of the time, and he will thrown in a sinker 6.5% of the time.

Leclerc pitching arsenal
Leclerc pitch tracking for 2019

Something else to realize is that his stuff is elite. He is in the 94th percentile in fastball velocity, 96th percentile in K%, 99th percentile in fastball spin, 86th percentile in hard hit%, 95th percentile in xwOBA, 99th percentile in xBA, and 99th percentile in xSLG. He is even sitting one mph faster on his fastball than last season: 96.7 mph on average with nice vertical movement. The slider is being thrown at 96.1 mph on average with good horizontal movement. With his whiff percentage on the slider and his high octane fastball, he is a formidable pitcher to face. The peripherals are lights-out still.

Horizontal and vertical movement by pitch Leclerc

Leclerc signed a 4-year, $14.75M contract with club options in 2023 and 2024. He is 25 years old. He is cheap. He is controllable. Right now, if he can be had, he might cost less in trade than he might at any other time because of the tough beginning to his season and being taken out of the closing role. The thing to remember is that everything is pointing up on this young reliever. To have acquired him at the beginning of 2019, Keston Hiura would have been the player going back. A significant, but lesser package could get him now.

As Peralta and Houser emerge, and Hader continues his domination, Leclerc could be the type of addition that brings Milwaukee’s bullpen prowess back to 2018 levels. If he is back, Leclerc makes the Brewers’ bullpen as good as any in baseball. Shortening the game to six innings becomes a viable option again.

There is a huge sticking point. Even though the Rangers are steadily headed towards the seller category, they have considerations in take into account going into next season. Texas has a new, state-of-the-art baseball stadium ready to open for the 2020 baseball season. They likely will want to field a competitive, if not a playoff-contending, team for the initial season in that ballpark. As a result, trading controllable talent that might help you win now and for the foreseeable future seems counterintuitive. That said, the Texas front office might see an opportunity to flip a valuable trade chip that plays the most volatile position on the field for a very nice trade package. Can Milwaukee be the team to put that kind of package together?

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Reference