Pittsburgh Pirates: Joe Musgrove Trade Was Ben Cherington’s Best

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Joe Musgrove to the San Diego Padres for four prospects. Those players were Hudson Head, Omar Cruz, David Bednar and Drake Fellows. It soon came out that it was a three team trade.

While the Padres sent southpaw Joey Lucchesi to the New York Mets, the Mets would be sending catching prospect Endy Rodriguez to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since taking over as general manager of the Pirates, this is Ben Cherington’s best trade so far.

First, let’s go over what the Pittsburgh Pirates gave up in this deal.

Joe Musgrove was considered the ace of the Pirate staff. Last year he pitched to the tune of a 3.86 ERA, 3.42 FIP and 1.24 WHIP in 39.2 innings of work. The right-hander also saw his strikeout rate take a huge rise going from 21.3% between 2018-2019 to 33.1% in 2020. He was also in the top 80th percentile or better in exit velocity (93rd), xwOBA (81st), whiff rate (84th), xSLG (88th), xBA (86th) and xERA (81st).

His expected ERA, deserved run average and FIP have constantly been well ahead of his actual ERA as the Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the worst teams in baseball defensively since he arrived in Pittsburgh. Overall, he was worth about 3 fWAR/150 innings since joining the Bucs. Musgrove has two years of control left, including 2021.

Now the Pirates didn’t get back anything like a top 50 prospect as some were expecting, but what they got back was still very good. Many have said this reminds them of the Gerrit Cole trade, the same trade that brought Musgrove to the Bucs, going for quantity over quality. The big difference here is that the youngest player in the Cole trade was Jason Martin who was 23 at the time of the trade. The Pirates aimed lower for more MLB ready pieces like Colin Moran, Michael Feliz and Musgrove meaning the talent was much lower than what they could have actually got.

In this trade the Pittsbugrh Pirates got way more talent. First, there’s outfielder Hudson Head. Head was a third-round pick by the Padres in 2019, but it’s arguable he could have been a first-round selection. Head was a quarterback for Winston Churchill High School before being drafted, which limited his exposure to scouts, according to the San Diego Tribune. Notably, he was ranked as the Padres’ 7th best prospect at the end of 2020 by FanGraphs, but they were also ranked with the 2nd best farm system in all of baseball and had four top 50 prospects.

Head is seen as a player who could be a five-tool athlete. He’s got the hit tool down, slashing .283/.383/.417 in his first taste of professional action in 2019. He also has fantastic bat speed and MLB Pipeline identified it as one of the highest in the Padres’ system, even ahead of Luis Campusano, a consensus top 50 prospect, and C.J. Abrams, a consensus top 20 prospect. Head has some real power potential given his raw power output. The Tribune also stated that he could have 55-60 grade power by the time he reached the major leagues. He also runs well, has a strong arm and can play a good center field.

Next we have southpaw Omar Cruz. Cruz was signed out of Mexico by the Padres in 2017 and he’s been dominant so far in his professional career. Debuting in 2018, Cruz has pitched a total of 98.1 innings between Rookie-Ball, Low-A and High-A. All told, he has a 2.38 ERA, 2.13 FIP and 1.23 WHIP. His biggest strength so far has been preventing the long ball, giving up just a single home run in nearly 100 innings. However, a close second is his strikeout rate at 32.5%. He hasn’t been the best control pitcher allowing 41 walks for a 9.9% walk rate, but he did show major strides in control in 2019 at High-A having a 6.5% walk rate in 49 innings.

Cruz only works in the low-90s, but his fastball, curveball and change up are all seen as at least average by MLB Pipeline. The lefty is only entering his age-22 season and there’s room for improvement, but he’s consistently been able to put up extremely good bottom line numbers and he’s gotten better at every level he’s been at so far. Cruz was also identified by Baseball America as a potential breakout prospect for 2021.

The only major league ready prospect the Pirates got in this deal was right-handed relief prospect David Bednar. Bednar, a native of Pittsburgh, can reach upwards of 98 MPH with his four seam fastball. He also puts decent spin on the pitch averaging 2400 RPM in 2019. Overall, he’s put up decent numbers throughout the minors as a closing pitcher. Through 219.2 innings, Bednar has a 2.70 ERA, 2.14 FIP and 1.17 WHIP. Bednar has struck out 33% of all the batters he has faced while posting a solid walk rate of 7.7%. This also goes with a .4 HR/9. He throws two other pitches, that being his curveball and splitter.

The last piece that came from the Padres was right-hander Drake Fellows. Fellows was a 6th round pick by the Friars in 2019. The Vanderbilt product posted a solid 3.85 ERA, 3.51 FIP and 1.23 WHIP across 275.2 innings throughout college. Fellows put up an above average strikeout rate of 26.1% while having 0.8 HR/9 and 8.4% walk rate.

According to MLB Pipeline, who ranked the right-hander as the 152nd best prospect in the draft, Fellows uses three pitches: a sinker, slider and change up. His worst graded pitch was his change up at 50 and both his sinker and slider were considered 55s. While he hasn’t done anything to make him a standout prospect yet, he doesn’t really do anything wrong either.

Then there’s Endy Rodriguez, the prospect I am most excited about. The switch-hitting catching prospect is described as an “athletic and agile defender who moves well behind the plate,” by MLB Pipeline. Like Cruz, Rodriguez has also been identified as a potential breakout prospect by Baseball America.

He’s been great with the bat in the minors so far hitting .276/.389/.452 in 265 plate appearances while keeping down his strikeouts (16.6%) and walking a fair amount as well (13.2%). He’s a plus defender behind the dish with a 60-future fielding grade on FanGraphs that has an average arm, but brings defensive versatility as he can play both corner outfield spots and first base. While he hasn’t shown major power yet, many believe he can tap into his raw power he’s flashed as a left-handed hitter. Rodriguez has put up an average exit velocity of 90 MPH, which is above average.

The backstop will turn 21 in May and has yet to even play in Low-A ball, mainly because there was no minor league season in 2020. He likely would have seen playing time at Low-A along with High-A based on how he got much better in 2019 (.294/.411/.510) compared to 2018 (.261/.369/.400).

What makes this Cherington’s best trade so far as the Pirates’ general manager is the amount of sheer talent he got back. Head is an outfielder with five-tool potential. He’s probably one of the most underrated players in the Pirate farm system now and could easily develop into a top 50 prospect by the end of 2021. Rodriguez looks like he could be a plus defender behind the dish while also being able to contribute with the bat. Bednar could be a closer candidate if Richard Rodriguez is traded. Both Cruz and Fellows have the potential to be solid mid-rotation arms at the very least.

While Cherington got back good young talent in the Starling Marte and Josh Bell trades, he got back a wealth of talent here. This is the biggest step forward yet in the rebuild of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cherington took advantage of a seller’s market with Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Lance Lynn coming off the market earlier in the off season with teams still looking for starting pitching and brought in a five player haul for Musgrove.