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Yankees potential trade target: Blake Snell

The Padres lefty is a pending free agent, and his resurgence in 2023 makes him one of the grand prizes of the deadline — even if San Diego is reluctant to trade him.

San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies - Game One Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The trade deadline is a week away and we’re still waiting for the first blockbuster swap of the summer. Starting pitcher figures to be the most in-demand position and with a limited pool of sure sellers, prices will be at a premium. Looking at the list of starters who could get dealt in the next week, there is perhaps no one who has pitched better in the lead-up to the deadline than former Yankees division rival Blake Snell.

2023 Stats: 20 GS, 108 IP, 2.67 ERA (153 ERA+), 3.65 FIP, 11.9 K/9, 4.9 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 1.278 WHIP, 2.2 fWAR

Contract Status: Earning $16.6 million in the final year of five-year, $50 million contract signed with the Rays prior to the 2019 season.

Snell’s overall numbers are dragged down by a sluggish start to the season that saw him pitch to a 5.40 ERA across his first nine starts. In his subsequent 11 starts, Snell has been the most valuable starting pitcher in baseball (2.4 fWAR), with a 0.71 ERA, 2.30 FIP and 37.8 percent strikeout rate in 63 innings while maintaining the lowest home-run rate (0.29 per nine) of any qualified starter. From June 11th to July 8th, Snell tallied double-digit strikeouts in five of six starts, finally looking like the pitcher who won the AL Cy Young with Tampa Bay in 2018 en route to picking up NL Pitcher of the Month for June.

His four-seamer is tied for the fifth-fastest average velocity (95.3 mph) among qualified left-handed starting pitchers. However, Snell has discovered that less is more when it comes to the fastball, gradually decreasing its usage month to month and seeing the xwOBA against the pitch tick down in kind.

Of course, you need to have effective secondaries if you reduce the number of fastballs you throw, and Snell has three plus pitches in that regard. His curveball is the second-best in baseball by Statcast’s Run Value metric (14 runs better than average) — even better than his Cy Young campaign of 2018. He rounds out his repertoire with a slider and changeup, both of which he throws 16 percent of the time and both of which induce whiffs on over 50 percent of swings — good for top-ten in baseball on each. Thus, he is able to create more uncertainty with a more balanced arsenal without sacrificing the quality of any of his pitches.

Crucially, Snell is doing a better job at commanding his two breaking balls (curveball and slider) to the edges or just out of the zone than at any point in his career. Obviously, avoiding the heart of the zone with slower pitches will reduce the slugging opportunities against those pitches, but the real gains have been in the soft contact and whiff departments returning to 2018 levels.

Curveball heatmap 2022 vs. 2023

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Slider heatmap 2022 vs. 2023

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

The one thing that has always held — and likely will always hold — Snell back from the S-tier of starting pitchers is the walks. He has never walked less than nine percent of opposing batters in a full season, and his current walk rate of 13 percent is the worst among qualified starting pitchers. That being said, the return of elite swing and miss to his game mitigates many of these issues.

The issue is whether the Padres would even entertain trading their best pitcher.

Reports suggest that San Diego intends to hold onto pending free agent pitchers Snell and Josh Hader at the deadline in a final push for a Wild Card berth, despite sitting five games below .500, 10 back of the first-place Dodgers and six games back of the final Wild Card spot. Of course, this is a franchise run by president of baseball operations A.J. Preller, so anything is on the table, including leaking the “non-availability” of certain players to artificially drive their costs up. If they feel the postseason is out of reach in a week’s time (consecutive losses to Detroit and Pittsburgh don’t help), Snell likely becomes the team’s second-most coveted trade chip after Juan Soto and it would be unwise to let him walk for nothing in the offseason considering the resources they could recoup in a trade.

There’s also the question of whether it would be prudent of the Yankees to dip into their limited resources of tradeworthy prospects to reinforce a position of lesser priority relative to other areas on the roster. They have a finite prospect pool to trade from and starting pitcher carries less urgency than positions like left field, third base, and the bullpen. Perhaps they may opt to wait until this winter for a pursuit of the southpaw, when a star-studded field of free agent starting pitchers could suppress the market for any one individual.

Should the Yankees buy at the deadline and should they strike out on their other targets, I would encourage them to pursue Snell. As a rental his trade value is capped, even with his dominant recent form and the demand for starters on the market. He would instantly bolster a rotation that has not quite lived up to preseason expectations, from Carlos Rodón working off the rust to Luis Severino’s inconsistent results to Nestor Cortes’ injury and uncertainty how he’ll perform when he returns. You can never have too much pitching, and given the offensive struggles, every run kept off the board gains added importance.