Breaking Down the Guardians Trades: Quantrill & de los Santos Out; Barlow Coming to Town

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The Guardians made a pair of one-for-one player exchanges on Friday, starting with the trade of starting pitcher Cal Quantrill to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for minor league catcher Kody Huff and culminating with the trade of relief pitcher Enyel de los Santos to the San Diego Padres for fellow reliever Scott Barlow.

Quantrill had been designated for assignment earlier this week as the Guardians looked to create space on the 40-man roster for prospect pitchers Daniel Espino and Cade Smith, who otherwise would have become eligible for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. Quantrill was chosen over other potential candidates in part due to finances, with Team President Chris Antonetti referring to uncertainty in the Guardians’ 2024 broadcast model as part of the reason why they would not retain Quantrill and the $6.6 million he is projected to make via arbitration this coming season. It would later become clear that this would not be the only money-related reason for Quantrill’s departure (more on this later).

Quantrill had been acquired by the Guardians from San Diego in the Mike Clevinger trade in 2020 and posted a 3.58 ERA in about three and a half seasons with the ball club. Once considered a reliever, swing-man, or spot starter, Quantrill got off to a sparkling start in the bullpen in 2021 before performing so well that he was stretched out and placed in the rotation mid-season. He would go on to have his best season as a Guardian that year, making 22 starts in total and pitching to a 2.89 ERA and allowing a career-low 0.96 HR/9. Quantrill peaked as the Guardians’ defacto best starter at times during an injury-riddled 2023 season but was probably most suited as the team’s #3 behind Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie. He made two starts in the Guardians’ American League Division Series against the New York Yankees in 2022, including being the Game 1 starter.

In 2023, Quantrill suffered from shoulder problems which caused him to miss time and decline in performance. He threw 99 2/3 innings on the year and pitched to a 5.24 ERA, the worst of his career. He did perform much better upon his return from the Injured List in September with a 2.76 ERA in 32 2/3 innings though his strikeout-to-walk ratio remained below two, which would be a career low compared to other full seasons.

Considering the better outcomes he achieved at the end of 2023, Quantrill hopes to build momentum as he moves into his new home at Coors Field, arguably baseball’s toughest ballpark to pitch in. He added a split-finger to his pitch mix in 2023 and will perhaps lean more heavily on the pitch to induce ground balls in the thin air of Denver. Quantrill is often a pitcher who will pitch to contact, so it is yet to be seen how he will fare with one of the game’s most expansive outfields behind him and without one of the best fielding teams in the sport to back him up. He is likely to make the Rockies’ starting rotation, especially with both German Marquez and Antonio Senzatela slotted to miss time in 2024 due to Tommy John surgery.

With McKenzie being afforded a clean bill of health at the end of 2023 and a litany of young starting pitchers that not only debuted but were effective last season, the void created by sending away Quantrill could easily be filled with talent already on the Guardians roster. The only stipulation to this line of thinking is that the 2023 season was a case study of how important starting pitching depth can be for the Guardians. While teams employ five-man rotations throughout the course of a season, it is not unheard of for teams to want eight starting pitchers minimum that they feel comfortable resorting to within their organizations at all times. The trading of Quantrill is in conflict with this philosophy, especially when considering that what the Guardians received in return was a catcher playing at the Single-A level.

That catcher is Huff, who was a 7th-round pick of the Rockies in 2022 out of Stanford. He hit .262 with a strong .357 on base but a pretty weak .374 slugging percentage at Single-A Fresno in 2023. Huff played in 86 games, hit five home runs and was named the California League’s Defensive Catcher of the Year by Baseball America. He did not make Fangraphs’ top 39 prospects for the Rockies in 2023. Baseball America projects him as a possible future backup catcher in the big leagues. Even without a superb prospect pedigree, the Guardians were able to get some form of talent back for a player that they knew would not clear waivers after being DFA’d.

In the other trade they made on the day, the Guardians sent De Los Santos to San Diego for Barlow. Barlow spent the last three seasons as the Kansas City Royals’ closer before being traded to the Padres at the trade deadline last year where he pitched in a setup role to closer Josh Hader. Barlow had a rough time of it in KC in 2023, posting a 5.35 ERA but seemed to right the ship in San Diego, pitching to a much better 3.07 ERA and allowing only 1 home run in 29 1/3 innings.

Despite the rocky 2023, Barlow had saved 57 games for the Royals between 2021 and 2023 and put together excellent back-to-back campaigns in 2021 and 2022 with both years posting sub-2.5 ERAs. In both 2022 and 2023, he performed in the top four percent in MLB in terms of allowing hard-hit balls per Statcast. With a fastball that averages 93 mph, Barlow is not a fireballer, unlike most back-end bullpen arms in the current era. Even more interestingly, his two most commonly thrown pitches are his slider and curveball, both with great success. Hitters failed to hit .200 against either pitch in 2023. Barlow is likely to be a new weapon at the ready for new manager Stephen Vogt to be able to deploy in the late innings to go along with Sam Hentges, Trevor Stephan and Emmanuel Clase.

While TV money may have played a factor in Quantrill’s exit from the roster, it should also be noted that the funds freed up by his departure also approximately match the net increase to the Guardians’ payroll that will be caused by Barlow’s addition and De Los Santos’ removal. Barlow will be in his last year of arbitration this upcoming season and is projected to make $7.1 million.

On the flip side, the Padres have a stated goal of trying to get their payroll below $200 million this off-season and were able to get a step closer in the about $6 million they will save in this trade. For those keeping score at home, the Guardians are the team acquiring the more expensive player in what is effectively a salary dump trade.

Although, to call De Los Santos nothing but roster filler in a salary dump trade isn’t really fair to him in his own right. The Guardians brought him on before the 2022 season as a reclamation project with the potential to make their Major League bullpen. In three Major League seasons with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he had never posted an ERA at or better than the league average before coming to Cleveland. In two seasons with the Guards, he pitched to a 126 ERA+, becoming a stable and worthy contributor to their relief staff. In a tumultuous 2023, there were times when de los Santos was one of Terry Francona’s most trusted relievers, even if he was not one of the traditional go-to relievers during the late innings.

All told, the Guardians have taken what was a minor league signing before the 2022 season in de los Santos and flipped him in the 2023-2024 off-season for one of the better thought of late-inning relief pitchers in baseball. In part, they used their multitude of young, starting pitching depth to make Quantrill expendable, allowing them to get out of their commitment to Quantrill, which bankrolled their acquisition of Barlow.

With Friday being the day of baseball’s non-tender deadline, the Guardians also signed outfielder Ramon Laureano to a 1-year, $5.15 million deal to avoid arbitration.

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