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What to Expect from the Elvis Trade

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What are the reasonable expectations for the players the Rangers got in the Elvis Andrus trade?

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Hop in the time machine and head to July 31, 2007. The Texas Rangers had just acquired a 19 year-old shortstop, who was then Baseball America’s 65th overall prospect. Two World Series appearances, five playoff teams, four AL West division titles, and 30.5 bWAR later, one of the franchise’s cornerstones is gone. Elvis Andrus taught us how to love the game in new ways, breathing an invigorating flair into the Rangers’ greatest stretch of success.

For proof of Elvis’ contributions, we have to look no further than the gospel of our personal lord and savior, Adrián Beltré:

I like to have fun playing the game, but there were some times that I had a lot of stuff in my mind … ‘Why am I not doing what I’m supposed to do to help this ballclub?’ — and Elvis would do some stupid stuff, funny stuff, and kind of help me to forget a little bit. And that kind of helped me to just relax and just play the game because I can’t control everything.

With the trade of the once ever-present Andrus, the Rangers herald a new era of baseball in Arlington. What can we expect from the spoils of the latest of Chris Young and Jon Daniels’ collaborative efforts?

I’ll begin with the most familiar piece in the deal - Khris Davis. Rangers’ fans should be familiar with Davis as the guy who ended Shawn Tolleson’s career. While Jeff Banister undoubtedly had a huge influence on the trajectory of Tolleson’s days in MLB, no single event represents Tolleson’s rapid decline better than this one:

Khris Davis is your prototypical power over contact guy. From 2015-2018, Davis hit exactly .247 every year, averaging 40 home runs and a 129 OPS+ over that four season span. In 2019, Davis suffered an oblique and hip injury after running into a waist-high wall in Pittsburgh:

As we saw in the third piece of the David Dahl series, an injury in a hitter’s core area is a devastating event. In Davis’ case, his oblique injury prevented him from generating any power in his swing, effectively limiting his only double plus tool. In 2020, Davis was healthy, but struggled to the tune of a .632 OPS.

Given that Davis’ 2020 is a 99 plate appearance sample, we should be wary of taking any conclusive results from it. However, Davis has always featured a high K%, a slightly above-average BB%, and average contact skills.

Overall, Davis’ potential contribution to the 2021 Texas Rangers will entirely depend on his Spring Training performance. It’s as simple as Davis needing to hit to survive in MLB.

The second piece the Rangers received is certainly the most intriguing. Jonah Heim, who will turn 26 in June, appears to have, at a minimum, a career as a quality backup catcher. Heim slots comfortably into the 20 - 30 range in the Texas farm system, reinforcing its depth.

Baseball America’s Casey Tefertiller concurred with the A’s internal evaluation of Heim as a 60-grade defender. That outstanding defense raises Heim’s floor significantly. As Rangers fans have seen from catchers like Yorvit Torrealba, Matt Treanor, and Chris Gimenez, a defense-first catcher can stick in MLB for a decade. With pop times in the low 1.9 second range and an above-average arm, Heim comes with an impressive defensive skillset.

He’s a natural receiver, with excellent throwing form. In the middle of this clip, Heim, after receiving an in-the-dirt heater manages to throw out Gavin Lux (out recorded offscreen):

Heim’s well-travelled, after being traded from Baltimore to Tampa Bay for Steve Pearce, and from Tampa Bay to Oakland for Joey Wendle. Texas will be his fourth organization. For a look at both Heim’s defensive and offensive talent, here’s his MLB debut vs Kyle Gibson in 2020:

The defense is ready for the big leagues, but the offense has some holes. Since making his full-season minor league debut in 2014, Heim has put up a .706 OPS as a right-handed hitter, and a .747 OPS as a left-handed hitter.

His right-handed swing features a linear path to the ball, where he uses the force of bringing his hands forward as his primary source of making contact. Such action severely limits his offensive potential as a right-handed hitter and leaves him with little power from the right side. There’s not much balance to his right-handed swing, which gives him a poor base to generate any forceful contact from. I’m not all that confident in his right-handed approach ever being much to write home about.

As a left-handed hitter, Heim shows similar holes in his swing’s action. His elbow gets too far out from his body, again limiting his ability to harness any power he generates. Heim also does not forcefully transfer his weight forward. Most of the strength in his swing comes from his upper body. We want hitters to ideally generate their leverage from their core’s axis of rotation, and use that force to punish the baseball. Heim’s failure to do so has produced his below-average batted ball profile (28.6% Hard Hit % in 2020).

His lack of power potential is shown by his career .372 slugging percentage in the minors. I would not expect him to ever put up more than ten to fourteen home runs in a single season. Heim’s average hit tool leaves him with a projection as a .240 - .260 hitter. Fortunately, that is perfectly serviceable for a catcher.

Heim’s approach is the standout tool in his offensive game. While he has only walked 8.3% of the time in his MiLB career, he’s also managed to keep his strikeouts down to a relatively solid 16%. While Heim looked overmatched in his first exposure to MLB pitching, he did manage an xwOBA (Expected Weighted On-Base Average) of .280. Had he reached a qualifying number of plate appearances, that mark would have carried Heim to the 16th best xwOBA among all catchers.

I’d comfortably say Heim posts an OPS in the .650 - .685 range over his MLB career. I would expect something close to a 60:40 split in playing time, regardless of who wins the battle, but Heim’s and Jose Trevino’s spring performances will determine who starts in 2021.

Heim’s most likely outcome is akin to his fellow former Oakland A Josh Phegley. There is definitely a chance he could be better, with a 75th percentile outcome as a Martín Maldonado prototype. There’s an opportunity to upgrade him to a Yan Gomes profile if he manages some light tweaks to his swing and takes a step forward offensively.

Fangraphs’ Eric Longehagen had high praise for Heim, noting in his article on the Rangers’ and A’s trade:

Heim’s lack of impact power puts him in the 45 FV bucket for me rather than on the top 100 list, but I think he could be the Rangers’ starting catcher for the bulk of the next several years.

Heim, like Ronald Guzmán, had an excellent winter in the Dominican League, showing some improvements in his bat-to-ball skills. He finished his 20-game stint with a .301 / .386 / .411 triple slash (.AVG / .OBP / .SLG), good for a .797 OPS.

Heim could have, based on those winter results, already made the tweaks necessary to increase his offensive potential. The trade with Oakland could represent a major coup if those improvements show up when the Rangers begin playing Spring Training games next week.

Finally, we come to the only pitcher in the new Texas law firm of Acker, Davis, and Heim. After impressing scouts with a 9-inning no hitter against LSU, Dane Acker, Oklahoma’s #3 starter, became Oakland’s 4th round selection in the 2020 amateur draft. In the following video, you’ll see Acker’s no-hit performance:

I am not nearly as comfortable evaluating pitchers as I am hitters, so I will heavily rely on Baseball America’s pre-draft evaluation of Acker:

Acker isn’t flashy, but the sum of the parts makes everything work very well. He’s durable, he has above-average command and he carries his stuff deep into games. His average fastball can touch 94 mph, but he generally pitches more at 91-92, showing plenty of sink (he can elevate a four-seamer as well). His 78-81 mph average curveball is a big breaker while his fringe-average slider is cutterish, with modest break aiming to avoid the sweet spot of the bat. He also has shown both feel and confidence in his average changeup that has some late fade. There are plenty of college pitchers with more upside than Acker, but he will outlast plenty of them in pro ball because he has a clean delivery, is durable and is a better pitcher than most.

With an average three-pitch mix and a developing slider, Acker has plenty of potential. His delivery’s mechanics, as you can see in his start against LSU, are easily repeatable. Acker lets his whole body throw the ball, utilizing his legs to avoid placing too much stress on his shoulder and arm. He remains balanced throughout his delivery, and does not appear to have any mechanical red flags.

He also has that rare “pitchability” attribute that scouts love to salivate over. This pitchability factor means that Acker sets up hitters well, exploiting their weaknesses while emphasizing his strengths during an at-bat.

Acker turns 22 on April 1st, but at 6’ 2” and 189 pounds, has plenty of physical projection left in his body. It’s a big if, but if he develops physically, the velocity could take a step forward, vaulting him into the Rangers’ Top 30 prospects. Acker’s certainly an interesting project, and a worthwhile throw-in on the backend of the Andrus trade.

Acker looks to be a stalwart of the Low-A Down East Wood Ducks rotation in 2021. Kinston should feature a sneakily good rotation with guys like Teodoro Ortega, Cody Bradford, Mason Englert, Owen White, and Dane Acker all starting for the Wood Ducks.

By exchanging cash and their longest-tenured player for two prospects and a one-year obligation to Khris Davis, the Texas front office has clearly shown their commitment to a new future. As with much of the organization, this trade leaves us primarily with hope. We can hope that Elvis gets a ring in the twilight of his career. We can hope that Dane Acker takes a leap, or Jonah Heim continues to progress from what he showed in the Dominican Winter League. But most importantly, we should hope this trio of players manages to bring us as much collective joy as Elvis did over the past twelve years.