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Marcus Stroman could be a sneaky trade target for Dodgers

There’s a lot to like, even after a down season

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The hot stove is a bit cold for the Dodgers right now. Ken Rosenthal linked them to some of the available Cleveland players (Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco), and a report on Monday (and earlier in the offseason) linked them to former Rockies’ second baseman DJ LeMahieu. But one name that hasn’t been brought up just yet is Marcus Stroman.

Stroman, 27, has been the anchor of the Blue Jays’ pitching staff for two of the last three seasons. And while he might not be available at the moment, he should be a target for Andrew Friedman.

Let’s be real: Toronto’s contention window slammed shut last season. They couldn’t get over the hump and are staring at baseball’s toughest division — the 108-win and World Series champion Red Sox, the 100-win Yankees and the 90-win Rays. The Jays are firmly entrenched as the fourth-best team in that division and even Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., can’t make them true contenders. So, now might be the best time to consider moving Stroman, even coming off a bit of a rough season.

The argument could be made he could fetch almost as much at the trade deadline — and possibly more if he gets back to his normal ways — but that’s a risk the Blue Jays would have to assess and see if it makes sense. Getting a half-season’s worth of development in the organization of young players and/or prospects might outweigh the potential benefit of betting on Stroman to rebound.

Stroman is a free agent following the 2020 season, and moving starters with two years of team control remaining seems to be more of the norm. James Paxton was just traded to the Yankees last week. If given a strong offer, a team like the Jays should consider trading Stroman.

What makes him so attractive? He gets a lot of ground balls. Among all starters in 2018 with at least 100 innings pitched (he threw 102 1/3), he led MLB in ground ball rate at 62.1 percent — 5.3 percent higher than the next-best mark (Clayton Richard). Not sold on it because of the sample size? Since his debut in 2014, only old friend Brett Anderson has a better ground ball rate ... by a tenth of a percent (60.2 to 60.1).

What’s interesting is that Stroman is running a BABIP (.307) just slightly north of the MLB average in that time (.299). He’s also doing a solid job of limiting hard contact, as he owns an 89.1 MPH average exit velocity for his career.

The Dodgers put an emphasis on acquiring more ground ball-minded pitchers for the 2018 season. Scott Alexander, JT Chargois, Dylan Floro ... even John Axford all had ground ball rates above-average. Axford didn’t help the bottom line much, but they other three did. They, coupled with a full season of Walker Buehler, helped the Dodgers pitching staff produce its best ground ball rate in the last three seasons. Adding a guy like Stroman to the lot could only help keep the ball in park a little bit more.

Stroman is good at that, too. He has a 0.81 HR/9 in his career — 15th-best in the game since he debuted and the best since the 2015 season that saw him appear in just four games because of a torn ACL. The only thing missing are strikeouts.

He’ll miss bats at time, but not at a pace we’re used to seeing out of Dodger pitchers. He has a career 19.3 K%. Not bad, but not great, either. He posted the lowest K% of his career in 2018 (17.2 percent), but there is an explanation for it: His slider.

Stroman’s slider had been a positive pitch every season until 2018. According to FanGraphs’ pitch value statistic, it was +10.9 runs above average in 2017 and +4.9 the season before. In 2018, that number plummeted to -1.1. His curveball and cutter ticked up a bit, but his changeup also went the same direction as his slider. While his changeup is used sparingly, his slider was his second-most used pitch last season.

The whiff rate on the slider dipped from 20.95 percent in 2017 to 14.88 percent last season. The cutter and changeup whiff rates dipped roughly 4 points each, while his curveball ticked up almost 3 points. But let’s look at his slider a little more.

The horizontal movement on the pitch — key for a slider — wasn’t dissimilar to what it was in 2017, but the vertical release point is where the problem lies.

He’s releasing the slider at a higher point, which has contributed to his slider ending up in the strike zone more frequently.

Marcus Stroman Slider Heatmap 2018

Marcus Stroman Slider Heatmap 2017

That’ll account for the diminished effectiveness of the slider. As his primary offspeed pitch, he’ll have to get the vertical release point figured out. And as we’ve seen with pitchers coming into the organization in years past (Joe Blanton, Tony Cingrani, to name a couple), the Dodgers are pretty good at getting pitchers to make the necessary adjustments on their sliders.

Adding Stroman would also allow the Dodgers to more easily trade from their starting pitching depth to address other needs. Alex Wood is the most likely guy to be moved (even if they don’t add another starting pitcher). They could also sell relatively high on Ross Stripling, should a team be demanding him in a deal to improve elsewhere. Stroman’s upside, even without elite strikeout numbers, is higher than either of them and anyone on the starting staff not named Buehler, Clayton Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu (and Julio Urias, if he comes back healthy). With Rich Hill, Ryu and Wood slated to be free agents after the 2019 season and a lack of solid upper-level minor-league pitching, it might be a good time to acquire a starting pitcher with some controllable seasons remaining.

The acquisition cost shouldn’t be terribly high. I’m not saying the Blue Jays are just going to give him away after a bit of a down season, but you could expect an outfielder (Joc Pederson, DJ Peters, Andrew Toles, Alex Verdugo, et al), a young pitcher (Yadier Alvarez, Dustin May, Dennis Santana, Jordan Sheffield, Edwin Uceta, Mitchell White) and a lower-level prospect (Jacob Amaya, Ronny Brito, Robinson Ortiz, Carlos Rincon) could get some conversation going.

Stroman wouldn’t be the sexiest pitcher the Dodgers could acquire, but they could certainly do a lot worse, if they’re insistent on adding a starting pitcher.