There Is One Major Lesson To Be Learned From the Mahle Trade

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Mahle admitted to being anxious when he got off the plane at MSP on August 2, 2022. The Cincinnati Reds had traded him to the Minnesota Twins, who were 54-49 and leading the AL Central. Cincinnati is all Mahle had known. The Reds took him in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, and he pitched there for six years. Suddenly, he was in a playoff race, hoping to establish himself in a new home.

“I was kind of nervous. As soon as I landed, I kind of felt like this was where I needed to be,” Mahle said. “I texted my wife, ‘I think you’re going to like it here.’ We’re excited.”

“He’s a guy that we know has the stuff and ability to pitch toward the top of the rotation,” Derek Falvey said at the time. “And hopefully, he’s doing that amongst a whole group of peers over the next couple of seasons for us.”

Minnesota gave up three prospects to acquire Mahle: Infielder Spencer Steer, third baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand, and left-handed pitcher Steve Hajjar. Steer was the top prospect, a good hitter who probably will move to second base. Encarnacion-Strand has power potential but likely will end up at first. Hajjar was a pitcher at High-A (who has since been traded to Cleveland).

ESPN’s David Schoenfield liked the trade at the time, giving the Twins an A- and Cincinnati a C.

[Mahle] goes to a much better pitching environment in Minnesota than he had in the bandbox in Cincinnati — with Byron Buxton in center field to run down those fly balls. Don’t be shocked if Mahle matches [Luis] Castillo‘s performance down the stretch — and the Twins got him for a much lower price than the Mariners paid for Castillo.

In hindsight, the trade didn’t work out for Minnesota. Mahle battled shoulder soreness last season and will undergo Tommy John surgery this year, ending his season. He only made four starts last year, pitched 16.1 innings, and had a 4.41 ERA (90 ERA+). Mahle pitched well when healthy this season. He made five starts, pitched 25.2 innings, and had a 3.16 ERA (138 ERA+). But the Twins traded three prospects for a player with a year-and-a-half left on his contract, and they only got nine starts from him.

The Twins traded for Chris Paddack last year and gave him a three-year, $12.53 million extension even though he’s only made five starts. But Mahle may have pitched his final game in Minnesota. “We’ll see,” Mahle said when a reporter asked if he’d return. “I’m not focused on that right now.”

Falvey also was non-committal.

We’re not really thinking about that right now. We love the kid. He’s worked really hard. He’s been great since he’s been here. He’s a great teammate. I think he cares about everyone in that room. So never rule that out. Might be a different conversation at a different stage of career, things like that.

The Twins have had mixed luck trading for pitching, especially regarding the player’s health. They traded for Sam Dyson to bolster their bullpen at the 2019 deadline, and it was a complete disaster. Dyson pitched 11.1 innings and had a 7.15 ERA before getting injured. His girlfriend later accused him of battery and emotional distress in a civil suit. They traded for Paddack 24 hours before Opening Day last year, and he’s only made five starts. Mahle made nine.

Falvey says he understands the risk of trading for veteran pitchers and that they’re constantly adapting their process.

We have to assess the process and the information that we have at the time of each of those decisions. I look at each of those very differently. … In Paddack’s case, I think we felt like he was tracking — we knew there were some risks associated with this. Guys go through this and have some potential risk going forward, and we knew that and ultimately accepted that.

In this particular case, our view of Tyler was that there was some shoulder strain and things going on there that we evaluated, saw, and ultimately took on that risk as well. My view of this is that when you’re trading for anybody, particularly pitching at the big-league level, there’s risk associated with that.

Falvey’s last sentence is the most important one. There is an inherent risk in trading for pitchers. Every team can access the medical information of the player they are trading for. However, the team they are trading with may not have treated the player effectively, and many pitching injuries develop over time. Mahle said he didn’t injure himself on any particular pitch. His UCL never tore; it just got loose, which puts more stress on other muscles and ligaments. Mahle also said he felt minimal pain and was surprised that the injury ended his season.

The solution for the Twins is to develop a homegrown pitching staff. It’s something Falvey did well in Cleveland, and it’s how the St. Louis Cardinals have become perennial contenders. Fortunately, Minnesota has started to create a pitching pipeline. Bailey Ober (12th round) and Louie Varland (15th) are late picks who have reached the majors. Simeon Woods Richardson, a young prospect they traded for, is next in line, and Jordan Balazovic is coming along after an off-season injury. The Twins will have to trade for veteran pitching; every contending team does. But they can mitigate the risk by making most of their staff homegrown. Until then, a good trade can go sour because of the inevitable injury risk.

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