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Evaluating the Luplow-Gonzalez trade

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Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One of the more enjoyable aspects of following baseball is trying to evaluate trades. Some prove to be so one-sided that it’s difficult to make a reasonable argument. Gerrit Cole, anyone? Old timers might recall a deal made in 1964 when the St. Louis Cardinals sent a 28-year-old left-handed pitcher of some repute named Ernie Broglio to the Chicago Cubs for a young outfielder whose numbers at the time did not scream future Hall of Famer. Broglio, who was in his sixth season at the time of the trade, had a solid career up to that point. He won 21 games and posted a 2.74 in his second season and three years later pocketed 18 wins to go with a 2.99 ERA. In return for giving up Broglio, the Cardinals received an outfielder who was in his third full season in the big leagues, and in his previous two seasons posted OPS figures of .731 and .682.

But it didn’t take long to realize that the Cubs had been fleeced. That young outfielder turned out to be one Lou Brock, who wound up hitting .348 with a .915 OPS and 33 steals in 103 games with the Cardinals that season, helping lead St. Louis to a National League pennant and a World Series title. Brock went on to have a splendid career, finishing with more than 3,000 hits, 938 stolen bases and a plaque in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Not all deals turn out to be so one-sided, though. And some take years to accurately evaluate. Which brings us to a seemingly innocuous deal that your Pittsburgh Pirates made during last offseason. The trade saw the Bucs ship two part-time performers – outfielder Jordan Luplow and utility man Max Moroff – to Cleveland for three players: infielder Erik Gonzalez and pitching prospects Dante Mendoza and Tahnaj Thomas.

The Pirates had high hopes for Gonzalez; at last year’s Pirates Fest, it was said that team scouts “pounded the table” insisting that the then 27-year-old shortstop be included in the Cleveland deal. Neil Huntington, the club’s GM at the time, likened him to Freddy Galvis. Manager Clint Hurdle told the Post-Gazette’s Bill Brink: “The narrative you get back, the kid can play. The kid hasn’t had a chance to play because of the people he’s played behind.”

We all know what happened to Gonzalez. After winning the starting shortstop job in spring training, he collided with center fielder Starling Marte in a game at PNC Park a little over two weeks into the season and fractured his left clavicle. He would not return until Aug. 4, and although he performed reasonably well in the final month, he finished with a .254 batting average, an OPS of .618 and a 0.2 WAR according to Baseball Reference. No one would confuse him with Lou Brock.

For Moroff, 2019 was sort of a lost season, as he battled a shoulder injury and appeared in only 20 games for the Indians, hitting just .176. Ultimately, he parted ways with Cleveland, and in December he signed a minor-league contract with the Mets.

Luplow, who turned 26 late in September, had an interesting year in Cleveland, finishing with 15 home runs, 38 RBIs and a .923 OPS in 225 at-bats over 85 games. From July 2 through the end of the season, Luplow batted .306 with a 1.051 OPS in 103 plate appearances. The Pirates’ third-round draft choice out of Fresno State in 2014, Luplow looks like a nice platoon piece.

So, how do you evaluate that trade? Well, before you jump to any conclusions, remember that Gonzalez wasn’t the only player the Pirates received in the deal; the Bucs did get those two pitching prospects as well. Mendoza’s first season with the organization looked to be less than stellar, at least based on the numbers: a 5.54 ERA in 23 games – 15 starts – at Bristol of the Appalachian League. In 79 2/3 innings the 20-year-old right-hander yielded 74 hits and compiled a 5.54 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP.

But Thomas could prove to be the best player in the deal. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander, who turned 20 in June, played shortstop growing up in the Bahamas and in fact was listed as a third baseman when the Indians assigned him to their Dominican Summer League team during the 2017 season. He pitched just 58 total innings between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, posting a 5.63 ERA and a 1.85 WHIP his first year and then reducing those numbers to 4.58 and 1.17 the next.

In his first year with Pittsburgh, he had some shoulder discomfort early, but after getting past that and making some adjustments in his delivery, he added velocity – hitting triple digits in one game – and maintained his control. He wound up with a 3.17 ERA in 48 innings over 12 starts for Bristol, giving up 40 hits and striking out 59 while walking 14, good for a 1.12 WHIP. In his last six starts, which covered 29 innings, Thomas gave up 21 hits in 29 innings, struck out 33 and walked eight for a 1.86 ERA.

It’s not yet certain where Thomas will spend the 2020 season, but low Class A Greensboro looks like a good bet. He’ll certainly be one to watch as the campaign unfolds.