Most fans don’t get too excited when their favorite teams picks up a player who’d been recently designated for assignment by another organization. There’s the occasional C.J. Cron-style exception, where a player is designated in what amounts to a salary dump, but more often than not, a player is designated for assignment after failing to take advantage of opportunities or failing to force his way up to the majors. Trades of such players rarely offer much in the way of return value, but the minimal cost of acquisition makes it all the sweeter when those speculative additions actually pan out.
It’s still relatively early in the season, but it’s not early in the season. Roughly 20 percent of the year’s games are in the books at this point, and a look around the league reveals a handful of recently designated players who were traded to another club for a negligible return, only to thrive — initially, at least — in their new surroundings. It’s probably safe to say that the original organization in each of these swaps would take a mulligan on the decision, if possible:
Dwight Smith Jr., OF, Orioles (acquired from Blue Jays): The Orioles acquired Smith Jr. from the division-rival Blue Jays in Spring Training, sending international bonus space to Toronto in return. The O’s were widely panned for years due to owner Peter Angelos’s refusal to spend on the international market, which often prompted former baseball ops leader Dan Duquette and his staff to trade away international funds for what proved to be minimal prospect returns (or as a means of dumping salary). This trade of international dollars, however, at least gave the O’s an MLB-ready player to plug into a questionable outfield mix, and Smith has made the team look outstanding. He’s hitting .292/.347/.496 with five homers, eight doubles and three steals through 124 plate appearances. He’s fanned at only a 16.9 percent clip thus far, and while his success in limited at-bats against lefties may be BABIP-driven, his overall .318 average on balls in play doesn’t look especially fluky. The Orioles have also done well on waiver claims for Pedro Severino and Hanser Alberto, but Smith looks to be their best DFA pickup since GM Mike Elias took over he club.
Nick Wittgren, RHP, Indians (acquired from Marlins): The sample size with relievers, this early in the season, is always going to be dubious, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Wittgren’s 14-to-1 K/BB ratio and one run allowed in 10 1/3 innings of bullpen work. The 27-year-old is relying more heavily on his four-seamer and curveball so far, and his opponents’ expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) of .224, as measured by Statcast, ranks in the 96th percentile of MLB pitchers. A few shaky outings can obviously torpedo any reliever’s numbers, but Wittgren was a surprise DFA at the time, and it looks all the more puzzling that the Marlins opted to boot him from the 40-man roster. Right-hander Jordan Milbrath, whom the Marlins acquired in return, has thrown well in 12 1/3 minor league innings this season, but he’s only two months younger than Wittgren and is pitching in Double-A.
Trevor Gott, RHP, Giants (acquired from Nationals): San Francisco picked up Gott in a trade that sent nothing more than cash to the Nationals, and he’s rewarded them with 16 innings of 1.69 ERA ball and a 17-to-3 K/BB ratio. Gott’s 95 mph heater is every bit as fast as it was with the Nats, but he’s significantly cut back on the usage of his sinker in favor of a true four-seamer. His ground-ball rate is down, as one would expect, but the overall results are nothing short of excellent. His success in San Francisco stings that much more for the Nationals given their second straight season of early bullpen implosions.
Connor Sadzeck, RHP, Mariners (acquired from Rangers): Sadzeck chucked fire with the Rangers just as he’s doing with his new club, but the Texas organization couldn’t find a way to keep the 6’7″, 240-pounder in the strike zone. Whether the Mariners will be able to do so for the long haul remains to be seen, but Sadzeck has just four walks against 13 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings with the Mariners, and his 96.8 mph average heater is right in line with last year’s overall 97 mph average. Sadzeck’s first-pitch strike rate is up eight percent from last season, and the rate at which hitters make contact on his out-of-zone pitches has plummeted from 66.7 percent to 43.5 percent. Sadzeck threw only 9 1/3 innings in the Majors last year, so all of this is reading a lot into tiny samples of data, but so far, the Sadzeck swap looks great for the Mariners. Texas picked up righty Grant Anderson, the Mariners’ 21st-round pick last year, in return. He’s pitched 13 solid innings in Class-A ball but isn’t facing advanced competition relative to his age.
Tom Murphy, C, Mariners (acquired from Giants): The Giants only had Murphy briefly, as they claimed him off waivers from the Rockies and then promptly traded him to Seattle for 20-year-old righty Jesus Ozoria. Murphy has hit well in the nine games he’s logged with the Mariners, but if there’s anyone on this list whose success is especially worth taking with a grain of salt, it’s his. He’s punched out 13 times in 33 PAs, and we have a few years worth of data at the big league level to suggest that Murphy struggles against big league pitching. Still, he’s a former Top 100 prospect who has a productive history in Triple-A, and Seattle acquired him at minimal cost. It’s at least worth keeping an eye on him over the course of the season to see how things go; the Giants have been cycling through veteran catchers left and right, while the Rockies haven’t received any offense from behind the plate in several years.
As emphasized throughout, there’s plenty of time for any of these swaps to turn into afterthoughts, but the early success of each player in question makes him more intriguing to follow than most players involved in relatively minor DFA trades. Any organization needs to have success in the draft, in free agency (both domestic and international) and in larger-scale trades in order to put together a winning roster, but a diamond in the rough or two along the way can certainly help to expedite the process.