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In Trading for Brad Hand, Cleveland May Have Patched Its Biggest Flaw

The Indians’ bullpen is now serviceable, and the team is gearing up for a playoff run

89th MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last month, my Ringer colleague Zach Kram wrote a piece titled “Cleveland Revolutionized the Bullpen—Now It Needs a New One.” Well, the Indians got a new bullpen Thursday after trading top prospect Francisco Mejía to the San Diego Padres for All-Star left-hander Brad Hand and rookie right-hander Adam Cimber.

Cleveland last traded for an elite bullpen lefty two years ago, when it sent four prospects, including former first-rounder Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, to New York for Andrew Miller, who went on to have one of the most impactful postseasons ever by a middle reliever. With elite closer Cody Allen also in the fold, the Indians used their bullpen not just as a damage-limitation tool but as a means of attack, effectively shortening the game for the opposing offense.

In 2018, that once-vaunted bullpen has collapsed. Two weeks ago, manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Carl Willis had a mix-up over which reliever to get warmed up, leading to a snafu that ultimately cost Cleveland a game. It’s a wonderful microcosm for a season in which literally almost every Indians reliever has been either hurt, bad, or both. The only exception is the innervating veteran left-hander Oliver Perez, who has a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings over 21 appearances. As a whole, Cleveland’s bullpen is tied for 28th in ERA- and 23rd in win probability added.

Hand, like Miller, is a former high draft pick who failed as a starter but improved both his stuff and command after switching to the bullpen. Like Miller, he’s a lefty who can hold his own against right-handed batters and pitch for more than one inning at a time. Since joining the Padres in 2016, Hand has a 154 ERA+ and two All-Star appearances, and nobody in baseball has pitched more innings out of the bullpen than he has. Cimber, who turns 28 next month, is a sinker-slider-type pitcher who pitches from a submarine delivery. He’s been effective, with a 9.5 K/9 ratio and a 52.3 percent ground ball rate, and his unusual delivery gives Francona another look to throw at batters late in games. The Indians have, in Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, probably two of the five best position players in the league this year, plus a playoff rotation of Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger that stacks up against any in the league. This trade doesn’t fix all the ills of the bullpen, but on paper, adding Hand and Cimber makes the team quite a scary group.

Now, we usually see multiple prospects traded for one established big leaguer, not the other way around, but this is a special case. Cimber, a rookie, is under team control through 2023, while Hand, who signed a contract extension this past offseason, is signed through 2020, with a team option for 2021, and that control led San Diego to ask for a massive return in trade talks—it’s why a last-place team held on to a sought-after relief pitcher in the first place.

That return is Mejía, a 22-year-old catcher who’s gotten cups of coffee with the Indians each of the past two seasons but found his path to the big leagues blocked by All-Star Yan Gomes. In 2016, Mejía ripped off a 50-game hitting streak in the minor leagues, making him one of the most sought-after prospects in baseball—Cleveland wouldn’t move him for Miller at the deadline in 2016. But while an ice-cold start to this season caused Mejía’s stock to crash, he’s hitting .374/.421/.568 since May 26, mostly at Triple-A but including one game in the big leagues. Mejía is the no. 8 global prospect in the Baseball Prospectus midseason top 50, no. 5 on Keith Law’s list at ESPN, and no. 19 on FanGraphs, which published its midseason update a month ago and therefore didn’t get to factor in as much of Mejía’s June/July resurgence.

Mejía joins a San Diego farm system that’s already beyond loaded: All three publications have infielder Fernando Tatis Jr. in their top three (Law has him at no. 1), with pitcher MacKenzie Gore in the top 20 and either three or four others in the top 40 to 60 prospects overall. It’s the kind of wealth of minor league talent the Cubs and Astros produced in the run-up to their respective World Series titles.

This is an exciting trade with highly valued players moving in both directions. The Padres are rewarded for their patience in dealing Hand, while Cleveland shores up its sole deficiency and gears up for an AL playoff run in which any weakness could be fatal.