May 24, 2024

Lance Lynn trade grades: Dodgers add veteran starter, reliever Joe Kelly in swap with White Sox, per report

The Los Angeles Dodgers have acquired righties Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly from the Chicago White Sox as part of a five-player swap, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. In return, the White Sox will gain injured big-league outfielder Trayce Thompson and Double-A right-handers Nick Nastrini and Jordan Leasure.

Lynn, 36, owns a 6.28 ERA and leads baseball in earned runs (78) and home runs (28) allowed. Despite that, there are several reasons to believe he can be better down the stretch. Lynn recently brought back his curveball, leading to an increase in strikeouts, and the Dodgers are a far better defensive team than the ChiSox. Kelly, 35, will be joining the Dodgers for the second time. In 31 games this season he had compiled a 4.97 ERA (90 ERA+) and a 3.42 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It’s worth noting that Kelly’s strikeout-to-walk ratio would represent a new career-high.

For the White Sox, this is a continuation of what’s become a busy trade deadline. Earlier this week, they sent two other veteran right-handers, in Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López, packing to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for a pair of prospects.

We here at CBS Sports are nothing if not judgemental. Below we’ve provided a snapshot of our initial thoughts about this deal in the form of instant grades. There’s a fair chance these age poorly, but so it goes. Being wrong about a baseball trade doesn’t seem so bad when the temperature keeps rising. 

Here, again, is the full trade laid out:

  • Dodgers receive: RHP Lance Lynn and RHP Joe Kelly

  • White Sox receive: OF Trayce Thompson, RHP Nick Nastrini, and RHP Jordan Leasure

Now, onto the gasbaggery.

Dodgers grade: A

Lynn is in the midst of a career-worst season and his contributions in 2023 have dragged down his career Wins Above Replacement total by nearly a full win. His 68 ERA+ is the third-worst mark among pitchers with at least 75 innings thrown. That Lynn, like new Baltimore Orioles right-hander Shintaro Fujinami last week, was nonetheless deemed worth acquiring by one of the better teams in the majors shows just how far the game and evaluative processes have come.

The Dodgers were certain to pursue starting pitching help this deadline. They’re currently without Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, and Dustin May. They just dealt Noah Syndergaard, who had been of little help, to the Cleveland Guardians as part of the Amed Rosario trade. With Lynn and Kelly, they likely found the price point too irresistible to pass on. 

That’s because there’s a multilayered argument in favor of Lynn having a better finish than start to the season. It begins with a tweak to his pitch mix, extends to sustainability, and ends with aspects outside of his realm of control. 

Since the end of May, Lynn has greatly cut back on the usage of his four-seam fastball. He’s instead upped his breaking ball usage, including most recently reintroducing his curveball — a pitch that has since served as his best bat-missing weapon. Lynn’s fastball has been getting torched, with opponents slugging .520  against it. Lefties, in particular, have touched up Lynn’s heater, batting an impossible .388/.451/.875 against it over 400 pitches. 

Predictably, Lynn has been prone to the long ball. His home-run rate is one of the highest in league history, as our Mike Axisa recently chronicled. It used to be that pitchers were assumed to have little control over their home-run rates. That was the basis of the Fielding Independent Pitching concept. Ball-tracking technology has altered understanding of how pitching works, with respect to quality of contact skills and whatnot. Even so, you don’t have to be an xFIP believer to buy into the idea that Lynn will likely surrender fewer home runs the rest of the season. (And, hey, if you are still an xFIPhead in 2023, you have to be downright bullish on Lynn’s career-best strikeout rate.)

At minimum, one thing we can all agree that pitchers have no control over is who their teammates are behind them. In Lynn’s case, he’s upgrading in a major way. The White Sox have a well-below-average team defense, according to Statcast; the Dodgers, conversely, have a middle-of-the-pack unit.

Talent evaluation has always been speculative in nature. These days, it’s become more extreme. It’s no longer good enough to have a shiny ERA, and it’s no longer disqualifying to have a bloated one. It’s about understanding theory. It’s about knowing when and how to apply it. It’s about making educated guesses on whose arrow will be trending up or down in a year’s time — or, at the deadline, in a month’s time. It’s about getting lucky, too. 

Granted, it’s all a hypothesis until it becomes reality. But, once you start thinking about performance in those terms, you can begin to understand why the Dodgers found Lynn to be an attractive trade candidate.

As for Kelly, he’ll be doing his second tour with the Dodgers, having left at the end of the 2021 season. He’s sporting a career-best strikeout-to-walk ratio this season and has held opponents to a better-than-average exit velocity against. That should result in a better ERA than he’s had, but lately he’s made a habit out of underperforming his component measures. 

Take a look at some pertinent statistics from his past three years:

2023

4.97

32%

30.2%

86.1 mph

2022

6.08

31.2%

33.7%

85.9 mph

2021

2.86

27.5%

28.1%

85.5 mph

We’re not seeing any apparent reason why Kelly’s ERA should remain misaligned from his components. As such, we think that he’s going to be a quality addition to the Dodgers bullpen if he keeps doing what he did with the White Sox — even if his multi-year indicates otherwise.

Given that the Dodgers didn’t trade anyone away in this deal that they’ll miss — Thompson had struggled to build on last year even before suffering an injury — we think that these are a pair of smart gambles.

White Sox grade: B

We felt that Rick Hahn hit a home run earlier this week, when he acquired catching prospect Edgar Quero and lefty Ky Bush from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for right-handers Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López. This deal is a more modest return, due in part to those aforementioned ugly ERAs.

We’ll start with the big-league player and work our way down the list.

Thompson, 32, has been sidelined since early June with an oblique injury. He enjoyed what appeared to be a breakout campaign in 2022, posting a 148 OPS+ over 74 games with the Dodgers. He hadn’t found that same level of production prior to the injury, instead hitting for an 81 OPS+ over 36 contests and striking out in more than 42% of his plate appearances. Thompson does have several years of team control remaining, and could theoretically have value as a platoon outfielder. He possesses such a high-variance skill set that it seems unlikely in our estimation that he’s still on the White Sox roster in a year, let alone until he can qualify for free agency come winter 2025.

We’ll note this is Thompson’s third stint with the White Sox. He previously appeared in 44 games with the Pale Hose in 2015, and then another 48 in 2018. 

Nastrini, 23, is a former fourth-round pick by way of UCLA. He’s spent the season in Double-A, where he’s amassed a 4.03 ERA and a 2.30 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Nastrini has a physical frame and some loud stuff, including a fastball that has clocked into the upper-90s and a good breaking ball. He’s compiled impressive strikeout rates throughout his professional career, including 10.4 per nine this season, yet he’s been plagued with inconsistent command that has resulted in more than four walks per nine. 

Nastrini’s sloppy geography puts some wide error bars on his future role. He could wind up a mid-rotation starter if he saws off a touch from his walk rate. Otherwise, he may end up pitching in relief. Either way, he’s the key to this trade for the White Sox, so far as we’re concerned. They should be able to give him a more ample runway than the Dodgers could before making the call on his future role.

Leasure, 25 come Aug. 15, is a pure arm-strength reliever. He’s struck out nearly 40% of the batters he’s faced in Double-A this season. He’s also walked more than 11%. The White Sox can certainly afford to take a chance on the profile, even if he ends up topping out as an up-and-down type.

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