Finding a Match for Brad Brach: Houston's Teoscar Hernandez & Colorado's Raimel Tapia

I spend much of each off-season writing out lengthy and detailed plans for the Orioles. Some of the scenarios are pie-in-the-sky fantasies, others are low risk/minimal move scenarios, and most fall somewhere in between. In fact, the reason this blog exists is because sometime during the 2011 off-season Tim tired of receiving long emails from me multiple times a day outlining plan and after plan for the Orioles’ winter. I rarely post any because while they often are grounded in some sort of reality – I try to follow predicted salaries, stay within the presumed budget, and err on the conservative side when it comes to returns in trades – I am just guessing and my guess is no better than anyone else’s.

Nonetheless, these off-season plans are a favorite pastime of mine and I have written an embarrassingly large amount of them this winter already. For the most they are sitting on my computer, never to see the light of day (a few stray ones still find their way to clogging up Tim’s in-box). One of the side benefits is I learn a lot about every other team in the league – including their prospects – during these exercises. Inevitably each winter I land on a player or two that I become convinced is an ideal fit in Baltimore. I have been particularly obsessed with Derek Dietrich over the past couple of years as a semi-versatile (DH, 2B, 3B, OF in a pinch), high-OBP left handed hitter who lacks an everyday role on the Marlins. Dietrich’s 2016 season – in which he got regular at bats for the first time in his career in Dee Gordon’s absence and got on base at a .374 clip – was good for my ego (we will ignore all the misses I have silently suffered through over the years). Dietrich is still on my radar – the Marlins could use a closer after all – but I’ve also landed on a couple of prospects that I think would be interesting – if imperfect – fits for the team’s vacancy in right field.

The Orioles need an everyday right-fielder and if we are to believe what is being reported, are not planning on spending significant money anywhere this winter unless Mark Trumbo agrees to return. There is a lot of smoke around the idea that the Orioles would like to use Brad Brach to get that right fielder they are desperately seeking. We know the Braves turned down a proposed offer involving Mallex Smith and that there was at least some level of talk with the Mets about a Brach for Curtis Granderson and cash swap. In addition to that concrete evidence, Dan Duquette isn’t talking up Brach’s ability to close games on a team that already has the leagues’ best closer just for giggles. Brach is an attractive trade chip for Duquette because dealing a reliever would be dealing from a position of strength and as good as Brach is, his presence or absence from the 2017 Orioles is not going to make or break their season. In other words, he is relatively expendable but should have some semblance of value especially in a market where relievers are being so highly sought after.

  If the Orioles pull off a substantial trade this winter, Brad Brach is the most likely Oriole to go. (Credit: CBS Baltimore)

If the Orioles pull off a substantial trade this winter, Brad Brach is the most likely Oriole to go. (Credit: CBS Baltimore)

There are two names – who at least sort-of-kind-of fit the Mallex Smith mold – that I have become stuck on: Teoscar Hernandez of the Houston Astros and Raimel Tapia of the Colorado Rockies. I feel both players are realistic returns for Brach, could realistically be traded by their teams for a good reliever, and would give the Orioles a player who they could take a measured gamble on to man right field next season.

Teoscar Hernandez is a 24 year old outfielder out of the Dominican Republic and currently is the 8th best Astros prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Hernandez forced his way to AA by age 21 with a good season in A-ball as a 20 year old and an even better partial season in A+ next year before hitting a bit of a wall. He struggled in 2015 in AA, posting a lowly .637 OPS. He returned to AA in 2016 and the results were much improved as he slashed .305/.384/.437 in 322 plate appearances. That was enough to earn a promotion to the Pacific Coast League where he continued to hit before a late season promotion to Houston. Over 112 major league plate appearances, the athletic outfielder held his own with a .724 OPS and a very nice .190 ISO. It appears that Hernandez owes his turn around to a better and more selective plate approach. The speedy right fielder has the upside of a 20/20 player according to scouting reports if he can reach his full potential.

  Teoscar Hernandez - Houston's 8th best prospect according to MLB.com - has the tools to be a 20-20 player. (Credit: MLB.com)

Teoscar Hernandez - Houston's 8th best prospect according to MLB.com - has the tools to be a 20-20 player. (Credit: MLB.com)

The Astros were aggressive earlier this winter in signing free agents Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran. Reddick is ticketed for right field in Houston while the Astros would probably prefer to have the aging Beltran serve as their designated hitter. The “problem” (a good one to have if you are the Astros) is that newly acquired Brian McCann will likely be their starting catcher and they’d like to find at bats for part-time catcher Evan Gattis, with DH being the most obvious spot for Gattis. That might force Beltran into the outfield on a more regular basis. George Springer is a definite in center for Houston while Nori Aoki, Jake Marisnick, and Preston Tucker are also major league players on the club’s 40-man roster. Hernandez – who plays centerfield according to reports might be better suited for right-field given his strong arm but questionable range – is almost certain to start in AAA unless the Astros clear some room for him.

Houston had a good bullpen in 2016 thanks to good contributions from Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Chris Devenski. However, Ken Giles – acquired from the Phillies to be their closer – was a disappointment as was lefty Tony Sipp. Giles might have been unlucky if you subscribe to FIP being an indicator of luck, but Sipp was just downright bad. With Giles’ struggles, Harris and Gregerson split closing duties for much of the season. Houston does not need a pitcher like Brach, but without a clear closer and at least a couple of spots open in the pen they could potentially use him. Houston’s aggressive offseason so far is a clear indication they plan on going for it. They would reportedly like to add a starter but if they are unable to add an impact starter (or even if they do) using a spare outfielder to improve an already good bullpen might make sense.

One could argue that a proven major league player like Brach for an unknown commodity with a good-not-great ceiling and one season with positive results from an adjusted approach might not be enticing enough for the O’s to pull the trigger. I could certainly see that and wouldn’t argue against it. Maybe another player – a thrown-in type or a tad more – would have to be added to facilitate a deal from Baltimore’s end. In fact, I would expect that as “all-star reliever for 8th best organization prospect” is a hard sell. I do think there is enough there to work with – assuming Oriole scouts are sold on Hernandez – to entertain a deal. Hernandez would not provide certainty in right-field but it might be gamble worth taking. If he doesn’t stick, the O’s have a couple of backup options in Joey Rickard and Christian Walker, not to mention whoever they sign to be a fourth outfielder/platoon partner for Hyun Soo Kim. If Hernandez does become a passable major right fielder immediately – or doesn’t but grows into the role with experience – the price to obtain him (Brach) would likely be worth it.

As a potential trade match for Brad Brach, Raimel Tapia of the Colorado Rockies is in some ways a better fit than Tesocar Hernandez and in other ways presents a far more complicated potential match.

Prior to the 2016 season, the 22-year old Tapia received little love from the major prospect evaluators with the exception of the good folks at Baseball Prospectus, who considered Tapia to be one of the best one hundred prospects in baseball every year since 2014. Tapia appears to be a classic case of scouting versus results. The scouting reports on Tapia have kept him off of most prospect lists (before now that is). The word on Tapia is that his unorthodox crouch (which becomes more pronounced in a two strike count), aggressiveness at the plate, and a swing that lacks power make it unlikely that he will be able to hit successfully at baseball’s highest level. However, the results show no signs of any of those factors being an issue. Tapia does nothing but hit. His only sub-.300 batting average season was his rookie year in pro ball when he was a 17-year old in the Dominican Summer League. The scouts are leery of Tapia’s approach but that approach has produced a remarkable ability to barrel up the baseball. By all accounts, Tapia is not a slap hitter or a hitter that uses above average speed to leg out infield hits, but rather a line drive hitter with an uncanny ability to make solid contact on pitches all around the strike zone.

  On the left, Tapia goes into his "normal" pre-swing couch. On the right, the Colorado prospect crouches down even lower as is his tendency when faced with a 2-strike count. (Credit: BSN Denver & MLB.com)

On the left, Tapia goes into his "normal" pre-swing couch. On the right, the Colorado prospect crouches down even lower as is his tendency when faced with a 2-strike count. (Credit: BSN Denver & MLB.com)

The prospect evaluators have begun to acknowledge that Tapia’s impressive results in the minors might trump his questionable technique. The skinny outfielder landed at #79 on Baseball America’s 2016 mid-season update and similarly, MLB Pipeline currently ranks Tapia as the 71st best prospect in baseball as well as the 4th best prospect in the Rockies organization. In addition to his hit tool, Tapia is a good defender who has the arm to play right field and flashes above average speed. Just don’t expect him to become an efficient base stealer – Tapia owns an unsightly 62% minor league stolen base success rate.

Like his peer in Houston, Tapia received his first taste of the big leagues late last season and performed reasonably well. Tapia collected 10 hits in his first (and only) 38 major league at-bats. It’s a small sample of course, but at least suggests that Tapia’s approach might translate.

Despite making it to the highest level of the Rockies’ organization in 2016, it is unlikely that Tapia finds a starting role in Colorado barring unforeseen trades and injuries. Carlos Gonzalez – who the Rockies indicated they would rather extend then trade – is a lock in right field barring an unexpected trade. Charlie Blackmon is coming off an excellent season and will be in centerfield (again, barring a trade). Former Oriole Gerardo Parra had a terrible first season in the Mile High State but his contract makes it unlikely he will be traded, released or even fully benched. Former top prospect David Dahl made an excellent first impression in Colorado last season and is certainly ahead of Tapia on the depth chart. At best, Tapia is 5th on the Rockies’ outfield depth chart at the moment. He’ll fall even further down the list if the Rockies sign Mark Trumbo or another first base-type as has been discussed, as that would move the newly signed Ian Desmond to the outfield.

Of course, the Rockies do not need to move Tapia by any stretch. He’ll be 23- years old next season which is still rather young and Colorado would likely be happy to have a major league ready outfielder in AAA as depth. It stands to reason that Colorado will need incentive beyond not having room for him on the 25-man roster in order to move a consensus top 100 prospect. The question then becomes, is acquiring a quality reliever like Brad Brach enough to get Colorado to pull the trigger?

While the Rockies have the makings of a solid young rotation, their bullpen picture is rather ugly at the moment. Colorado’s relievers had the worst team bullpen era in 2016 (5.13) and there is not a lot of reason to belief that group will perform significantly better next season. There are rumors that the Rockies were looking to sign Trumbo so they could use an outfielder to acquire pitching. That could mean starting pitching but the bigger need appears to be the bullpen. I think it is reasonable to assume that the Rockies would be willing to trade for a reliever who they believe can bolster the league’s worst pen.

As a relevant aside, just today the Rockies agreed to a 3 year/$19m with Mike Dunn, a very average-ish left-handed relief pitcher. Dunn has been worth a total of 0.7 rWAR over the past three season (0.3, -0.2, and 0.6) compared to 5.1 (0.4, 2.0, 2.6) for Brach over the same period of time. The fact that Dunn throws with his left hand no doubt inflated his worth to the Rockies who were without a lefty specialist with Boone Logan being a free agent. At the same time, that’s a steep price to pay for an okay 32-year old pitcher. Brach will make about $3m next year and assuming he doesn’t have a fantastic season as a closer in 2017 won’t likely make much more than $5m in his final spin through arbitration.

For a trade to work with Colorado for Tapia, the Orioles would have to feel confident that he could be their everyday right fielder in 2017. If not, I would imagine that Duquette would view Brach (a proven major league reliever coming off of a great season) as being too big of a price to pay for a prospect, even a top 100 one. I do think a Tapia for Brach straight up swap is more realistic than Hernandez for Brach straight up is, but if I had to guess I would think the Orioles would still want something else back to hedge their bets a little bit. If I were in charge, I’d swap Brach for Tapia and pray that Tapia’s minor league results are not deceiving but I can understand why the Orioles might be hesitate.

Neither Teoscar Hernandez or Raimel Tapia are the ideal solutions for a contending team looking to fill a relatively important position simply because they are still prospects and both come with significant question marks. Realistically if the Orioles are not going to trade their top tier players and view Brach as their best trade chip, than a major league ready, imperfect prospect is probably a realistic return. To that end, Tapia and Hernandez are the best options I have come across this winter.