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Yankees potential trade target: Scott Barlow

The Royals righty’s mediocre ERA belies a perfect fit for Matt Blake’s staff.

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a tale old as old as time: despite high hopes entering the season, however misplaced, it’s the trade deadline, and the Kansas City Royals are in last place. Their roster might not be built for success, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty on it for the rest of the league to pick away at, as the Rangers already got a jump on when they dealt for Aroldis Chapman last month.

The Royals haven’t needed a closer very much in recent years, but when they have, it’s been Barlow picking up the majority of the opportunities, converting 51 of them since the start of the 2021 season. Deservedly so, too — he’s put up a 2.61 ERA in that span, with an accompanying 3.15 FIP and 10.4 strikeouts per nine that don’t lie. His results this year have been a little rougher — a 3.97 ERA with an 11 percent walk rate that’s his worst since 2019 — but peripheral stats (3.25 FIP, 2.54 xERA, 3.39 SIERA) still see a capable back-end reliever.

More importantly, he’s exactly the flavor of back-end reliever that the Yankees go Guy Fieri for, making his hay with two breaking balls, spamming a slider nearly 50 percent of the time with a sweeperish curveball and a very bad four-seamer that he still throws nearly a quarter of the time and is just begging, begging to be ditched for a sinker. The curveball is quite a bendy offering, checking in with nearly 16 inches of horizontal movement alongside more than 50 inches of drop from hand to glove.

The slider clocks in at about 6-8 mph faster, also with solid two-plane movement that verges just a little more on the up-down than the side-to-side.

All told, those two pitches have comprised 70.1 percent of his total offerings since the start of last year, 25.7 percent for the former and 44.6 percent for the latter. The slider has held hitters to a .234 wOBA in that time as his primary pitch, while the curveball has been even better, at .217. As is the case with his overall results over the past few years, the underlying numbers back it up: The slider’s expected wOBA is .240, and the curveball is .213, right in line with their actual performance.

The only issue is that four-seamer, which has gotten lit up for a .449 wOBA and .440 xwOBA since 2022, with absolutely unplayable .570/.534 splits this year. It’s not a good pitch; Barlow never threw super-duper hard to begin with, and now his velocity is at just 92.7 mph, lowest since his rookie year, when he averaged just 90.6 mph and still didn’t get rocked that badly.

There’s not any evidence to speak of that his sinker is any better, because he’s thrown one fewer than 150 times in his career, and under 40 since 2019, but it’s hard to be much worse than what his four-seamer has been this year. I’m always wary of making arbitrary suggestions like “just stop throwing the four-seamer” because it’s often not quite that simple, and sometimes there’s a reason that the obvious solution hasn’t been tried yet, especially when it comes to pitch arsenals. That being said, Eno Sarris wrote a whole feature article in The Athletic last year about how the Royals have absolutely no idea what they’re doing in terms of getting their pitchers to use their fastballs effectively, so maybe it’s not the worst idea, in this case.

Barlow’s prospect cost likely wouldn’t be terribly steep, but given that he’s still got another year to play before reaching free agency, it won’t be nothing, either. There are lots of pitchers with prettier ERA and strikeout/walk numbers who might be available, but the past two years of results and the fact that the adjustment is so obvious — just find a way to make a sinker work, or something that isn’t a four-seamer! — makes me think the Royals will be charging a little more than you’d typically see for a non-All-Star with a four ERA.

That’s if the Royals are inclined to deal him at all — given that his true talent is still likely below how he’s performed, even with diminished fastball velocity, there’s always the chance they could wait until the offseason to deal him, or simply wash, rinse, and repeat next summer. There are a lot of organizations whose trade logic can be predicted with relative reliability, and the Royals are not one of them, even with Dayton Moore no longer at the helm. He’s not the most obvious target, but he might be a uniquely good fit for the Yankees, so we’ll just have to wait and see.