In 2018, Cleveland faced a baseball dilemma.
Despite being two years removed from a World Series run and one year from being the best regular-season team in baseball with one of the league’s strongest pitching staffs, they had a lot of holes.
Most notably their bullpen — which was the best in baseball in 2017 — sunk to the worst with Andrew Miller succumbing to injuries and Cody Allen flopping in his final year in a Cleveland uniform. It was so bad that some people who cover the team just couldn’t stand to watch the bullpen blow games anymore.
And like most teams in the Terry Francona era, the offense could have used some help.
Ranked fifth in the American League from Opening Day through July 1, Cleveland was just barely an above-average offense with a collective 103 wRC+. Most of the heavy lifting at that point was done by José Ramírez (164 wRC+) and Francisco Lindor (148 wRC+), but a healthy Michael Brantley (127 wRC+) was pulling his weight as well, and catcher Yan Gomes sat an even 100 wRC+. It was a steep drop-off from there, and the team’s only solution to that point was to sign 34-year-old Melky Cabrera.
Internal help for the offense was seemingly on the horizon with Francisco Mejía, though. The then 23-year-old catching prospect made a name for himself — and rocketed up prospect lists — with a 50-game hitting streak as a 21-year-old in 2016. He continued to hit well and impress scouts all the way up through Triple-A.
Mejía first got a brief look at major league pitching in 2017 as a September call-up but he started the following year in the minors, where he slashed .279/.328/.426 against International League pitching after a slow start.
Yet even as the Super 2 deadline passed and the offense continued to be average, Cleveland only gave him four at-bats in 2018.
In early July, Terry Francona made some comments that suggested the team was not as enamored with his bat as everyone else was. I wrote at the time how weird the situation was — if Mejía was as good as he looked, why wouldn’t you do whatever you could to use him to boost your offense?
Mejía’s struggles on defense were never a secret — he just wasn’t good behind the dish and Cleveland places a tremendous amount of value on catchers handling a pitching staff. There was talk about moving him to the outfield, which is where he spent a considerable amount of time in Columbus in the weeks leading up to the trade.
But at the same time, he didn’t seem to want to move positions. Around the same time, Tito made more comments to the media that seemed to be about as stern as you can get without publicly calling out a young catcher for not being a team-player.
He really wants to be a catcher. I don’t disagree with that. But, I think we’ve had moments where his heart isn’t in it as maybe [it could be]. He still views himself as a catcher. And we’re trying to explain to him that, ‘Man, you may be a catcher next year, but you could be a starting right fielder.’ So, we’re just not there, yet. I mean, I understand. It’s just, I don’t think it’s kind of come as maybe as fast we’d hope.
A little over a week later, with Mejía still stubbornly advocating to be a catcher, it was announced that he would be dealt to the Padres for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber.
Hand, of course, was the centerpiece of the deal for Cleveland. He was an All-Star reliever fresh off of back-to-back seasons of being a sub-3.00 ERA reliever for the Padres and was their closer for the majority of it. Cimber was more of a fun curiosity as a submariner who would cost next to nothing for several seasons.
It’s not often we can evaluate trades as a win or loss after just two and a half seasons, but with Mejía being traded to the Rays as a small piece in the Blake Snell deal last night, every player involved in this deal has moved onto other teams.
With that in mind, it’s pretty clear Cleveland won this one. Both in terms of the players they got back for Mejía, and the fact that they were willing to boldly trade their top prospect, who many thought was on the cusp of being a star, for a package that looked light at the time.
Hand would go on to be an All-Star in 2018 and 2019, with a career-high strikeout rate in his full year as Cleveland’s closer. Despite a worrying dip in velocity towards the end of 2019 that carried over into 2020, he had one of his best years yet in the shortened season with just five earned runs (zero home runs) in 22.0 innings of work.
Despite his results being nothing short of amazing, Hand’s underlying peripherals were enough to prevent Cleveland — and, as of this writing, anyone else — from picking him up for 2021. His velocity was in the 29th percentile last season, down from 45th in 2019, which was down from 64th in 2018. That’s not a great pattern for a pitcher entering his thirties.
Still, even with Hand’s time in Cleveland being relatively short and Adam Cimber proving to be a bust and a half, it’s better than what the Padres got out of Mejía.
Despite hitting two home runs in his debut for San Diego, Mejía’s bat never translated to the majors. In 362 major-league appearances, he has slashed .225/.282/.386 for a wRC+ of 75. He has struck out in almost a quarter of his plate appearances, has a 5.5% walk rate, and his defense behind the plate was just at Cleveland thought it was: not great.
The upside, of course, is that he is only 25. There is still plenty of time for him to turn around, but it won’t be for the Padres. He now finds himself with the Rays, who are among the best at “fixing” players they identify as fixable. If any team can unlock the bat that helped Mejía hit safely in 50 straight games — a feat at any level — it’s them.