Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic recently reported that the Tigers will be likely suppliers to teams searching for impact bullpen arms. The team has a solid stock of relievers and looks at least a year away from contention, so this winter could be the perfect window to cash in on an area of surplus. He named three relievers in particular, the first of whom — Joe Jiménez — I covered on Thursday, so today we’ll move on to his teammate Gregory Soto.
2022 Stats: 64 games, 60.1 IP, 3.28 ERA (116 ERA+), 3.59 FIP, 22.8% K%, 12.9% BB%, 0.6 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Projected to earn $3.1 million in first of three years of arbitration-eligibility. Free agent after 2025 season.
The Tigers’ closer has been one of the league’s most intriguing relief pitchers since breaking into the league in 2019. Among all lefty relievers, only Aroldis Chapman and José Alvarado throw harder. Now sitting over 98 mph, Soto has added velocity to his fastball in each season, and given the success of the Yankees’ Gas Station he seems like the perfect candidate for the Yankees pitching development team.
The reason I say intriguing and not effective or dominant is because the 27 year old southpaw comes with his fair share of warts. He struggles mightily with the free pass, owning the ninth-highest walk rate (13.5 percent) since 2019 with that number never falling below 12 percent in any single season. He finished in the first percentile in average exit velocity and in the bottom 20 percent in hard hit rate and chase rate.
There’s also evidence to suggest that Soto’s career performance in 2022 was aided by some good luck. He’s never been particularly plagued by the long ball, but a 3.4 percent home run per fly ball rate that’s almost ten points lower than his career average is almost certain to regress in an unfavorable direction and explains why his xFIP was a full run higher than his FIP. The fact that this occurred in a season when he saw his strikeout rate plummet six points from the previous two seasons bodes poorly — pitchers generally do not want to exchange strikeouts for flyouts.
All this being said, Soto fits the Yankees’ high leverage reliever mold of a high-velocity sinker with heavy horizontal movement. Comparing his sinker to those thrown by Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Michael King, the similarities immediately emerge — all throw sinkers over 95 MPH with at least 16 inches of horizontal break including Soto. Those three relievers all took their games to another level by improving the command with the sinker and honing a whirly slider — something that could work wonders for Soto given his slider languished in the 24th percentile in terms of horizontal movement vs. average. Throwing the sinker in the zone more and adding a greater horizontal component to his slider can ameliorate walk issues and may generate an uptick in chase rate.
With a higher ceiling and two extra years of team control, Soto likely will cost more to acquire than his teammate Jiménez. Relievers are never going to cost the farm and rarely require even a top organizational prospect. Darragh McDonald of MLB Trade Rumors cited last deadline’s trade of Jorge López from the Orioles to the Twins as a comp for the type of prospect cost one could expect. López headed to Minnesota in exchange for four pitching prospects, none of whom were among the Twins’ top-15 prospects. The comparison isn’t perfect — López had two-and-a-half years of control remaining and was a failed starter for multiple seasons before transforming into one of the league’s best closers last year — but there are enough similarities to use his trade as a rough framework for a potential Soto exchange.
Since Matt Blake and Sam Briend joined the organization, the Yankees have shown a repeated ability to elevate the performance of relievers picked up via trade. Gregory Soto already has better tools than a lot of the guys New York transformed, so it’s exciting to imagine the possibilities should they acquire him. At his best, he could even be the next Aroldis Chapman.