Law: Rays’ trade with Guardians for Aaron Civale is the most interesting deal of deadline

It may not be the most consequential trade of this year’s deadline, but the Rays’ acquisition of right-hander Aaron Civale for first base prospect Kyle Manzardo is the most interesting, as it includes a pitcher with several years of control remaining, a preseason top 100 prospect, and the “challenge trade” aspect of a one-for-one deal.

Aaron Civale would be leading the majors in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify, remarkable for a guy who looked like a probable fifth starter back when the Guardians took him in the third round in 2016. Since Cleveland took him, he’s added a cutter, shortened his arm action and turned into a credible mid-rotation guy by limiting hard contact. He’s had some good fortune this year, as every other measure of his performance, such as FIP and xERA, paint a somewhat worse picture, although he’s clearly been above-average this year, and it’s because that cutter is so hard for hitters to square up.

He’s in the top 15 percent of all MLB pitchers for Barrel rate, in the top 30 percent for hard-hit rate, and in the top 30 percent for expected slugging percentage, all of which point to how hitters haven’t made much hard contact off him this year. He’s also throwing a little harder this year, which might explain why he’s had much more success in keeping hitters from hitting him hard, and perhaps why the shapes of some of his pitches have changed slightly. Always a strike-thrower, he’s even ramped that up, with a first-strike percentage of 69.3 percent that would rank fifth in baseball if he qualified, and a strike percentage in all two-strike counts of 62 percent. I don’t think he’s a 2.34 ERA guy going forward, probably not even a sub-3 ERA guy, but I think he could be a 3-3.50 ERA guy in front of Tampa’s defense and absolutely helps a Rays team that has had two starters who’ve been healthy and effective all season.

Kyle Manzardo (Reinhold Matay / USA Today)

I can sort of imagine the Guardians seething with jealousy as they watched Manzardo the last year and a half in the minors, as they adore players who make a ton of contact, although in his case there’s at least the chance for some power here as well. The 80th-best prospect in baseball coming into the 2023 season, Manzardo was the Rays’ second-round pick in 2021 and mashed at two levels last year, finishing with a .323/.402/.576 line in a month in Double A. He went right to Triple-A Durham to start this year and he’s scuffled, especially against lefties, with a .148/.262/.273 line against southpaws this year and 27 percent strikeout rate. He had a sizable platoon split last year, but hit well enough against lefties (while destroying right-handers) that it didn’t seem like an issue. It could just be a matter of a small sample size, although he’s had enough trouble with breaking stuff from lefties that I think the platoon split itself is real.

He makes very hard contact with a swing that seems more likely to produce line drives rather than over-the-fence power, and he could end up a 40-doubles guy rather than someone who gets to 25-30 homers, although I speculated this past winter that someone might try to alter his swing to put more balls in the seats. He’s at least a solid-average defender at first as well. His floor is the strong side of a first-base platoon, while he still has the ceiling of a borderline star with those big doubles totals and OBPs in the .375+ range. He’s currently on the injured list for Durham with a sore left shoulder. The Guardians have gotten a breakout year from Josh Naylor at first base, with Josh Bell a disappointment as the primary DH; Manzardo should certainly be able to take over one of the spots by the middle of next year, sending Bell, who has a player option he’s certainly going to exercise, to the bench.

Civale is the first starter to change teams at this deadline with two years of control remaining, which makes it a little surprising that he netted just one prospect in return, someone I ranked lower coming into the season than both Edgar Quero (traded to the White Sox in the Lucas Giolito/Reynaldo Lopez deal, with both pitchers impending free agents) and Luisangel Acuña (traded to the Mets for Max Scherzer, who now won’t be a free agent until after 2024). I would have guessed that Civale would have netted more than just one very good prospect, but perhaps the Guardians do indeed value Manzardo’s high-contact approach the way I speculated they would, and decided he alone was enough.

Pittsburgh right-hander Mitch Keller also has two full years left before he hits free agency, and he hasn’t been as effective as Civale this year; given where Pittsburgh is in its cycle, with so many of their top prospects reaching the majors in 2023, if all Keller would return is a prospect toward the back of my top 100, I’d be way more inclined to keep him and hope to contend next year with him atop my rotation.

(Top photo of Aaron Civale: Ken Blaze / USA Today)

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