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Thoughts on the Nate Lowe trade

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AJM ruminates on today’s trade between the Rangers and the Rays

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The Texas Rangers have traded Heriberto Hernandez, Osleivis Basabe and Alexander Ovalles to the Tampa Bay Rays for Nate Lowe, Jake Guenther and a player to be named later. This is on the heels of the Rangers trading Lance Lynn to the Chicago White Sox for Dane Dunning and Avery Weems.

I have some random thoughts.

First of all, I think we all knew the Rangers weren’t likely going to go into full blown “burn it to the ground” mode. While they have acknowledged they are rebuilding, they weren’t approaching this as an exercise in stripping things down to the studs and losing 100-plus games for a couple of seasons.

These two deals seem to bear that out. The Rangers have acquired, in these two deals, a pair of players who will almost certainly be on the Opening Day roster — one of them as the likely starting first baseman, the other as a member of the rotation. The Rangers have gotten younger, and Dunning and Lowe each have six years of team control remaining (at least as of now — who knows what the new CBA after 2021 will provide), but this isn’t a situation where the Rangers went and got high ceiling guys who are years away in these deals. They got major league ready talent.

And there’s certainly an argument to be made that that was a mistake. There’s an argument to be made that the Rangers’ should be looking for upside and players who are a year or two or three away, rather than acquiring higher-floor, lower-ceiling types who are going to help you win more games now. And it may be that this is less a conscious strategy and more a matter of identifying where the value is in these particular deals. But this is consistent with a team looking to be good again in, at least, the medium-term.

Nate Lowe went from afterthought to top 100 prospect (#97) on the Baseball America list after a breakout 2018 campaign that saw him post a 1000+ OPS at both high-A and AA before putting up a 787 OPS in 28 games in AAA. Lowe mashed in AAA in 2019, slashing .289/.421/.508, although that was with the new AAA ball that made everyone skeptical of AAA numbers.

Lowe is a Three True Outcomes guy who is going to walk a lot, strike out a lot, and hit some home runs. He tightened up the length of his swing prior to his breakout, but there are still questions about his ability to turn on velocity, and he has weaknesses that can currently be exploited by major league pitchers. That being said, if there weren’t, he probably wouldn’t have been traded — certainly not for what the Rays got for him.

Looking at Statcast, what jumps out at me is how vulnerable he was, both in 2019 and 2020, at pitches up in the strike zone and to the outside part of the plate. Pitchers pitched him up in the zone in 2020 — he saw 20 pitches upper-middle in 2020, swung at 20 of them, and whiffed on 11. Up and away in the strike zone, Lowe swung at only 8 of 18 pitches, and made contact with only 4. He only put 2 balls in play, total, on pitches in the upper-third of the strike zone out of 44 pitches seen, and no balls in play on the 16 pitches he saw on the outer-middle part of the strike zone. It wasn’t so bad in 2019, but there were still significant issues with the upper part of the zone, as he put just 12 of 99 pitches in the upper third in play.

Lowe does hit the ball hard when he makes contact, and Eno Sarris noted (while trying to figure out why the Rays would part with Lowe) that he has “good max exit velo and barrel rate,” which is the type of thing that would generally be something that bodes well for the future. Sarris (saying he was “[l]ooking for a negative”) did note that Lowe’s has a relatively lack of “pulled barrels,” going the opposite way more, which isn’t as good.

Lowe projects to be around a 2 win player in 2021 — Steamer projects a .255/.342/454 slash line (using Tampa as his home park) with a 113 wRC+ — and he turns 26 in June, which means that there doesn’t figure to be a ton of growth potential left. That being said, there is the potential for more there if the Rangers can figure out how to address his problems with pitches up in the zone.

In Guenther, the Rangers got a lefthanded hitting first baseman who was a 7th round pick out of TCU in 2019, and who turns 24 in May. Guenther, interestingly, got the ninth highest bonus for any first baseman in the 2019 draft, at $197,600 (just under slot value of $200,100), which speaks volumes about how well regarded first basemen are in the draft.

Guenther draws walks, makes contact, and doesn’t appear to have much power, despite being listed at 6’4”, 230 lbs. He had success in the Big 12 and has good strike zone judgment, but the Rangers are going to have to find some power in there somewhere for him to end up as a legitimate prospect.

I have no idea who the player to be named later is, but I’m going to assume that it is not anyone who is going to significantly move the needle in terms of the evaluation of the trade. The last time I said “Well clearly there is someone really good who is the player to be named later and that will change my evaluation of the trade” the PTBNL was Alexander Ovalles, who got shipped out in this trade.

The three players the Rangers gave up all spent most of 2019 with the Rangers’ AZL championship team, and had negligible experience above complex league ball. Had the 2020 season not been wiped out by the pandemic, they likely would have spent the bulk of the year with Spokane, though Hickory (then low-A, going forward high-A) would have been a possibility, particularly later in the season.

One of the things you have heard is that the strength of the Rangers’ minor league system is in the players that are farther away, and I think that was a major factor in this deal — essentially re-arranging some of the prospect inventory to move from an area of (relative) excess to help address the lack of talent in the upper levels, particularly at first base.

And I do wonder to what extent the minor league contraction that is happening for 2021 factors into this move. Osleivis Basabe, for example, was a well-regarded infielder on the 2019 AZL Rangers...but the team also had Keyber Rodriguez, Keithron Moss, Derwin Barreto, and 2019 fourth rounder Cody Freeman in the infield, as well as Zion Bannister, who the Rangers signed out of the Bahamas that summer for an $835,000 signing bonus. Behind them are Luisangel Acuna, who impressed in the DSL in 2019, slashing .342/.438/.455 as a 17 year old shortstop, and Maximo Acosta, a shortstop from the 2019 J-2 signing period who many have as one of the top 10 prospects in the Rangers’ system right now.

That’s 7 infielders who would potentially be in the mix to start the season at low-A, even with Basabe gone. And if you want to push one or two of them up a level you’ve also got Jonathan Ornelas, who spent 2019 at low-A, and Chris Seise, who was at low-A in 2019 before a shoulder injury ended his season, and 2019 supplemental first rounder Davis Wendzel.

At a certain point, just given the practicalities regarding the number of roster spots and at bats available, it makes sense to move some of these players to fill other needs and reduce the logjam. Of course, the point is to trade the right guys — to give up Brian Bohanon instead of Wilson Alvarez, or Kevin Belcher instead of Sammy Sosa.

So the Rangers moved Basabe instead of one of their other myriad infielders, and Heriberto Hernandez instead of Jose Rodriguez (another former catcher who has a big bat and has moved out from behind the plate, though Rodriguez appears to be a first baseman, while Hernandez is a COF/DH at this point), and they included Alexander Ovalles, who doesn’t seem to make many folks’ pulses race, as part of the deal. And it hurts to see those guys go.

But it is ultimately a question of how you view these players in the context of the Rangers’ system as a whole. If you believe, like Fangraphs has in their most recent rankings, that Heriberto Hernandez is the third best prospect in the Rangers’ system — ahead of Josh Jung, ahead of Leody Taveras, ahead of Sam Huff — then this is an awful trade. If you agree with Eric Longenhagen today, when he says Hernandez is a top 100 prospect and that Lowe will be battling Sam Huff for 1B/DH at bats, then this is an awful trade. If you also see Osleivis Basabe as the #14 prospect in the Rangers’ system — which was where Baseball America had him ranked in the midseason update — then its even worse.

But if you see Hernandez and Basabe as guys in the 15-30 range in the system, not necessarily all that distinguishable from a number of players of a similar age and at a similar developmental level, then it does not seem like an unreasonable move.