Phillies Willing to Trade Ken Giles

Yesterday, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that the Phillies have made closer Ken Giles available in a trade. GM Matt Klentak confirmed Heyman’s report, per Ryan Lawrence of the Philadelphia Daily News.

Giles is 25 years old, under team control through 2020, and has put up back-to-back stellar seasons. That teams might be interested, and that the Phillies would make him available, should come as no surprise. As Heyman points out, the free agent market for relievers is notoriously weak, which has prompted the trade market to perk up. The Reds are expected to make Aroldis Chapman available, as are the Padres with Craig Kimbrel, the Nationals with Jonathan Papelbon, and others.

Relievers who can throw 100 MPH, strike out close to 100 batters in a full season, and post sub-2.00 ERA’s don’t come around often. Giles does all of the above. Why would the Phillies want to trade him?

A Google search suggests I’ve used the word “volatile” to refer to bullpens in general or specific relievers no fewer than 10 times. There’s a reason for that. Most relievers are tough to predict on a year-to-year basis. Only a handful of relievers — Papelbon and Kimbrel among them — have a track record of uninterrupted greatness. (Well, if you ignore Papelbon’s 2010.) The average closer will toss between 60 and 75 innings in a full season, which is the equivalent of roughly two months for a starting pitcher.

Even if we extend the threshold to the first half, there are a lot of names on the ERA leaders list for this past season who wound up finishing the season with a much higher ERA. That’s mostly due to simple statistical variation. For starters, maybe those pitchers faced a friendly slate of opponents, pitched in colder weather (which suppresses offense), and/or were simply lucky. Relievers’ fortunes are even more volatile since most samples are one-inning performances in which the reliever faces between three and five batters. Multi-inning performances allow for in-game mean-regression, though that effect is comparatively small in scale to that of a seasonal performance.

That being said, one would still be making a smart bet expecting Giles to perform at an elite level in 2016. Unfortunately for the Phillies, his 2016 performance won’t matter all that much since they’re still very likely going to be a sub-.500 team. The decision to keep Giles hinges on projecting him to be an elite reliever at least two years from now and beyond. If we have difficulty accurately predicting relievers from one season to the next, imagine how difficult it is to project two, three, or four years from now.

Keeping Giles is a gamble, not just in terms of performance, but in terms of health. Pitchers have a much higher susceptibility to injuries compared to their position player counterparts because throwing a baseball requires such a naturally unhealthy contortion of the body. Even if one projects Giles to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA in each of the next four seasons, one must also feel fairly confident he’ll stay off of the disabled list.

Giles’ value is at its highest now and will slowly degrade for a multitude of reasons. He’ll become eligible for arbitration for the first time after the 2017 season. If he puts up two more terrific seasons, he will become exponentially more expensive. This could hamper the Phillies’ future payroll flexibility and it would also serve as a deterrent, eschewing out some teams from the trade market. Additionally, Giles will be getting older and will have depleted another 2,000 of a not-unlimited total of pitches from his arm. His injury risk will have increased by a non-zero amount. Teams won’t have him under control for as long as they would now. Giles’ value could also bottom out if he suffers a catastrophic injury or just falls apart.

Furthermore, despite the Royals’ winning the World Series in no small part due to their elite bullpen (closer Wade Davis in particular), it’s tough for a reliever to accrue more value than a position player or a starting pitcher. According to Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement (which uses real results rather than the expected — FIP-based — results of FanGraphs), Giles compiled 1.9 WAR. That tied him with Aaron Nola, who made 13 starts, and ranked behind Cole Hamels‘ 2.7 in 20 starts prior to the trade with the Rangers. Ben Revere racked up 2.0 WAR before the Phillies shipped him to the Blue Jays, and Rule-5 rookie Odubel Herrera led the team at 3.8 WAR.

Finding another Giles will be difficult, but replacing his production won’t. If the Phillies can find the right deal and turn Giles into an everyday outfielder, a mid-rotation starter, or even a utility player, they will have made an upgrade.

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