ARLINGTON — Brad Hand struck out Indians catcher Yan Gomes in the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Washington. The left-handed reliever followed that by inducing a groundout off the bat of Cleveland’s Michael Brantley to end the eighth inning. Now, those three are teammates.
On Thursday, the Indians pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Padres to acquire Hand and right-hander Adam Cimber in exchange for highly touted catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Hand and Cimber immediately boost a bullpen that has been a trouble area for the Tribe this season, while San Diego nets Cleveland’s top prospect in return.
There are two main motivating factors behind the Tribe’s willingness to part with Mejia, who ranked No. 1among the Indians’ prospects and No. 15 overall, according to MLB Pipeline. First and foremost, Cleveland’s bullpen ranked 29th in the Majors in ERA (5.28) heading into the All-Star break as manager Terry Francona has cycled through 19 relief arms. Beyond that, the Indians might lose a wave of players in free agency this offseason.
The Hand deal could be just the first of many for the Padres. A source tells MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand that San Diego has drawn significant interest in right-hander Kirby Yates and, to a lesser degree, righty Tyson Ross.
Hand — one of the game’s elite back-end arms — is under contract for 2019 ($6.5 million) and ’20 ($7 million) with a club option worth $10 million (or $1 million buyout) for ’21. Cimber is a rookie this season, so he is under control through at least ’23. After this season, Indians relief ace Andrew Miller and closer Cody Allen are among the team’s impending free agents.
This season, the 28-year-old Hand has turned in a 3.05 ERA with 24 saves and 65 strikeouts against 15 walks in 41 outings (44 1/3 innings). His 35-percent strikeout rate ranks 11th overall among MLB relievers. Over the past three seasons for San Diego, which claimed the lefty off waivers from the Marlins in April 2016, Hand has posted a 2.66 ERA with 280 strikeouts vs. 71 walks in 213 innings.
Cimber, 27, has a 3.17 ERA with 51 strikeouts and 10 walks in 42 appearances (48 1/3 innings) this season for the Padres. A side-arming righty, he has limited right-handed hitters to a measly .482 OPS.
Francona uses Allen as his primary closer, but the manager is also flexible with how he utilizes his late-inning arms.
Hand is most likely headed for a setup role with Cleveland, but he could just as easily share save chances with Allen depending on matchups. Miller, who works as a high-leverage weapon for the Tribe, is still working his way back from the 10-day disabled list (right knee). The veteran lefty logged a rehab outing for Triple-A Columbus on Tuesday, striking out two in one clean inning.
The American League Central-leading Indians did not want to part with Mejia unless the incoming package came with multiple seasons of control. That goal was achieved by netting Cimber as the secondary piece to the trade, which greatly enhances the look of Cleveland’s bullpen with October in mind.
The acquisition is similar to when the Indians got Miller from the Yankees before the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline while he still had 2 1/2 years remaining on his contract. As with Hand, they traded outfielder Clint Frazier, then their No. 1 prospect, for an elite left-handed reliever in Miller with multiple years of team control.
Mejia, 22, was splitting his time between catching and the outfield this season due to him being blocked at the MLB level by Gomes (signed through 2019 with team options for ’20 and ’21) and Roberto Perez(signed through ’20 with team options for ’21 and ’22). Francona emphasized over the past few weeks that the switch-hitting prospect preferred to focus on catching.
The Padres plan to keep Mejia at catcher, as reported by The Athletic’s Dennis Lin, and that would presumably relegate Austin Hedges, an elite defender with a marginal bat, to a backup role
In 2016, Mejia put himself on the national radar with a 50-game hitting streak. He made the World roster in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in each of the past three seasons, and he’s hitting .279 with 30 extra-base hits and a .755 OPS through 79 games at Triple-A Columbus this year. Mejia, who had two brief stints with Cleveland this season, hit .455 with a 1.193 OPS in 24 games in June, ending that month with eight multi-hit games in a row.