It’s the second time in three years that the Astros are swinging a deadline trade to bring Graveman to Houston. The ’Stros acquired Graveman and Rafael Montero from the Mariners prior to the 2021 deadline, sending Abraham Toro and Joe Smith to Seattle in that swap. Graveman shined down the stretch with Houston and parlayed his career-best season in ’21 into a three-year, $24MM deal with the White Sox. He’s currently in the second season of that contract, which pays him $8MM annually. He’s still owed about $2.84MM of that sum through season’s end, plus next year’s $8MM.
Graveman, now 32, is in the midst of a solid second campaign in Chicago. He’s sitting on a 3.48 ERA through 44 innings with eight saves and eight holds, regularly having worked in high-leverage spots for the South Siders. His 22.6% strikeout is down from his 27% peak in 2021 but is roughly in line with last year’s 23.2% mark and only a bit shy of the 23.7% league average for relievers.
That said, there are at least some red flags of note. Graveman has seen his typically excellent ground-ball rate wilt to 39.4%, and his walk rate has spiked in 2023, sitting at a career-worst 10.8%. He’s also plunked five batters — already exceeding last year’s total of three (in 65 innings).
Even if his command hasn’t been as sharp as in the past, Graveman has been generally effective against both right-handed and left-handed opponents. Lefties have mustered only a .182/.338/.291 output against him, and righties haven’t been much better at .221/.293/.404.
Graveman will add another experienced arm to an Astros setup corps featuring Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton and Ryne Stanek. He and Neris both have closing experience, which gives Dusty Baker some options on days closer Ryan Pressly isn’t available. That Graveman is signed through 2024 surely appealed to Houston as well, given the fact that Stanek and Maton are both free agents at the end of the current season. Neris, meanwhile, has an $8.5MM player option (contingent on an end-of-season physical) for the 2024 season. He could very well turn it down, given his current 1.44 ERA and hearty 28.6% strikeout rate.
The addition of Graveman and his remaining salary takes the Astros’ payroll north of $195MM, per Roster Resource. In terms of luxury-tax calculations they’re now over $220MM, which still leaves them with plenty of breathing room underneath the $233MM first tier threshold. Houston now has $149MM in guarantees on next year’s payroll, before considering that option on Neris or what figures to be an expensive slate of arbitration-eligible players. Cy Young candidate Framber Valdez and star outfielder Kyle Tucker headline an arb class that also includes Jose Urquidy, Blake Taylor, Mauricio Dubon, Chas McCormick, Luis Garcia and the aforementioned Abreu. Valdez will be due a raise on this year’s $6.8MM salary. Tucker will get a bump from this season’s $5MM figure.
In exchange for a season-plus of Graveman, the Astros will part with the 25-year-old Lee, whom they selected with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2019 draft. The 23-year-old Lee made his MLB debut last year but appeared in just 12 games and logged only 26 plate appearances. He went 4-for-25 with a pair of doubles, a walk and nine punchouts during that time, though there’s little to be gleaned from such a small sample of work in his debut campaign.
Lee has power but plenty of swing-and-miss in his game, both of which were on display in 2022 when he swatted 25 dingers but fanned in 28.5% of his plate appearances. He hasn’t hit for as much power in Triple-A this season (just five homers) but has lopped nearly four percentage points off that strikeout rate and is currently batting .283/.328/.406. In parts of three Triple-A seasons, he’s a .255/.313/.446 hitter.
Defensively, Lee draws praise for elite arm strength that’s helped him nab 32% of would-be base thieves to this point in his professional career. Baseball America’s latest scouting report, which pegged him seventh in Houston’s system, credits him with an 80-grade arm, average framing ability and above-average blocking skills. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen currently ranks Lee as the game’s No. 75 prospect, putting a 70 grade on his arm strength and likening him to Austin Hedges earlier in his career (circa 2017-18) — an elite defender with enough power to offset a well below-average hit tool.
The White Sox have been relying on Yasmani Grandal as their primary catcher for the past four seasons, but he’s set to become a free agent at season’s end. Backup Seby Zavala posted a superficially strong .270/.347/.382 slash in 205 plate appearances last year, but that was buoyed by a .404 average on balls in play and accompanied by an alarming 31% strikeout rate. Predictably, that wasn’t a recipe for sustainable success; he’s regressed significantly in 2023, batting just .158/.202/.296 in 165 plate appearances. The system’s next most-advanced catcher, Carlos Perez, is having a down year in Triple-A (.248/.305/.429 — 77 wRC+).
Catching looked to be a clear area of need for the White Sox, but in a matter of 72 hours they’ve added an immediate big league option, Lee, and one of the game’s most highly regarded catching prospects in Edgar Quero, who came over from the Halos in the Lucas Giolito/Reynaldo Lopez deal. Lee and Quero will both get opportunities in the Majors in the near future, though Lee is the more immediate option of the two. He should get a look down the stretch, and a strong showing could put him in the mix to be the White Sox’s primary catcher as soon as next year.