With the trade deadline a little more than six days away, Scott Downs is currently the most sought-after reliever on the market. Downs is a 34 year-old lefty who was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 12th round of the 1994 draft, but opted to go to the University of Kentucky. After his junior year, the Cubs drafted him in the 3rd round of the 1997 draft, and for eight years after that he bounced around the minor leagues, pitching as a starter. He debuted for the Cubs in 2000, but was dealt at the trade deadline to the Montreal Expos for Rondell White. He was a mediocre major league starter, and was eventually released by the Expos after the 2004 season. He signed with the Blue Jays, where he relieved and made spot starts.
As with most pitchers, Downs made a better reliever than a starter. Over the course of his career as a reliever, he has posted a 2.56 ERA over 302 innings with a strikeout rate of 7.6 per 9 and a K/BB ratio of 2.40. His FIP has been somewhat worse than his ERA for most of the 5 years, but a mid-3 FIP reliever is still above average. In 2009 he had his best year yet, as he struck out 8.29 batters per nine while walking only 2.51 per nine, on his way to a 3.09 ERA and 3.33 FIP. In 2010, he’s seen a slight dip in his strikeout rate (6.92), but he’s really only on pace for a few strikeouts less than last year. It’s hardly worrisome.
At the end of this year, Scott Downs will be a Type A free agent. This alters the market for him significantly. This afternoon, Buster Olney has reported that the Blue Jays have asked for high-end talent in exchange for Downs, given that the acquiring team would stand to pick up two high draft picks when Downs leaves. Downs profiles a lot like Billy Wagner last year – a lefty reliever whose value is inflated by the bizarre free agent compensation system.
The Yankees and the Red Sox are two teams known to be interested in Downs. As with anything, this comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. The Yankees bullpen has clearly been subpar this year. Whether it be because of bad luck or bad stuff, Joba Chamberlain has disappointed and the bridge to Mariano has been a bit shaky. There’s no doubt that Downs would help in the eighth. At the same time, there is reason for optimism going forward. David Robertson is showing signs of improvement and has struck out 11 batters over his last 7.2 innings without allowing a run. Additionally, the Yankees have Jonathan Albaladejo and his 11.76 K/9 wasting away in Scranton with another interesting reliever starting to put it together as well. Further, the acquisition of Dan Haren would likely mean that Phil Hughes would move to the bullpen for September and October. Given that, the relative paucity of quality relievers on the trade market this summer and the number of teams looking for relief help, I wouldn’t recommend that the Yankees surrender much for Downs. Relievers are fungible, there is bigger game to hunt right now.