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Brewers, Pirates reportedly discussed Jeremy Jeffress for Keone Kela swap at trade deadline

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The potential deal to trade two embattled hurlers never happened.

Minnesota Twins v. Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Stacy Revere/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It was only just yesterday that the Milwaukee Brewers designated Jeremy Jeffress for assignment, effectively ending his tenure with the organization — at least for the time being. But the move to cut ties with Jeffress wasn’t some snap decision made by David Stearns and company; apparently the front office explored moving on from on the right-hander back as far back as July before the trade deadline, according to a recent report from Robert Murray of The Athletic:

According to sources, the Brewers discussed a trade at the deadline that would have sent Jeffress to the Pirates for reliever Keone Kela. Talks never gained traction, but it indicated the franchise has been looking to move on from Jeffress, with Stearns confirming they had no intention of picking up his $4.3 million club option for next season.

The Brewers were linked to Keone Kela of the Pirates in the days leading up to the trade deadline but he wound up staying put in Pittsburgh, while Slingin’ Stearns made a deal for another Pittsburgh arm, Jordan Lyles. One later reported indicated that there may have been some discussions about a package deal involving Lyles and Kela, which obviously never materialized. The idea of a Kela/Jeffress apparently never got far but would have nonetheless also been intriguing, as both pitchers have been followed by off-field problems while also dealing with inconsistency at times on the mound.

Kela, 26, would seem to be the player on the more upward trajectory among the two. He struggled early on in the season but his ERA is now down to 2.66 in 23.2 innings, with 28 strikeouts versus eight walks. He’s making $3.175 mil this year and has a year of arbitration control left in 2020. But he has also dealt with injuries throughout his career and has a poor reputation in the clubhouse; the Rangers were willing to let him go via trade last summer, and earlier this year the Pirates suspended Kela for two games after he got into an altercations with a club staffer. He was also suspended for 10 games in August after throwing at Derek Dietrich of the Reds and starting a benches clearing brawl.

Jeffress’ off-field struggles have been well documented — multiple suspensions in the minor leagues for drugs of abuse as he attempted to self-medicate for seizures, and a drunk driving arrest while with the Rangers after getting traded away from Milwaukee in 2016. But Jeremy turned in one of the finest relief seasons the history of the Menomonee Valley Nine in 2018, finishing with a 1.29 ERA across 73 appearances and 76.2 innings pitched. But he was derailed in 2019 by a shoulder issue that popped up in Spring Training, causing him to miss the first month of the season as he tried to build up strength and velocity. The fastball eventually came back around, but Jeffress believes the injuries and wear-and-tear of aging contributed to altered mechanics and inconsistent command. He worked to an ugly 5.02 ERA in 52.0 innings, showing a diminished ability to miss bats while averaging nearly two miles-per-hour slower on his fastball and failing to effectively use his splitter. Some metrics, though, suggest that Jeffress can attribute at least a portion of his failure to prevent runs to rotten luck; he’s sliced three points off his rate of hard contact allowed, yet his BABIP has risen more than 70 points since last season and is 14 points higher than his career average. ERA estimators like FIP- (88) and DRA- (92) thought Jeffress pitched much better than his 112 ERA- would suggest; even if he wasn’t the dominant performer that he was last season, there was still reason to believe he was an above-average arm.

But Jeffress’ struggles over recent weeks pushed him down the depth chart until a hip injury forced him to the IL; he wouldn’t have been a prominent piece even when he did return, and Stearns isn’t generally in the business of paying $4.3 mil (Jeffress’ 2020 team option price tag) for relievers with below-average results and only decent advanced metrics:

“I think his arsenal changed this year. That’s something that’s been well documented, not only with the fastball velocity but with the loss of a pitch (splitter) that had become extremely important in his repertoire. When you lose a pitch, you have to become a different pitcher and it’s certainly possible that Jeremy can become a different pitcher and be effective. We just didn’t see it consistently enough to count on him at any point this year.”

If this is truly the end for Jeffress in Milwaukee, then he will leave the franchise as one of the best relievers to ever don the Brewer colors. A first-round pick by the Brewers in 2006 at #16 overall, he has appeared in 301 games and accumulated 304.2 innings across parts of seven seasons and three stints with the team. He finishes with a 2.66 ERA — second all-time among qualified Milwaukee pitchers — along with 292 strikeouts against 105 walks. He earned 43 saves. When looking back over a player’s career, I tend to prefer a metric like RA9-WAR — that is, wins above replacement based on actual runs allowed, rather than FIP or DRA based WAR metrics. In that case, Jeffress ends with 7.7 RA9-WAR during his time with Milwaukee, ranking him as the 24th-most valuable pitcher in franchise history. He’s eligible for the Wall of Honor by virtue of appearing in 250+ games, and he ought to be a surefire inductee as soon as he’s eligible.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference