Under the Radar Relief Trade Targets

Interesting but unheralded relievers for teams looking for an upgrade

It’s true enough that every team needs pitching down the stretch. Much like good girls and boys on Christmas Eve, we all go to sleep around the trade deadline dreaming of that pitching acquisition that we just know will put our team over the hump! It could be anyone!

It rarely happens, though.

With more teams making the playoffs (and therefore in the playoff hunt), the fungible nature of relievers, and the Brewers not having Josh Hader to disastrously trade away this year, it’s just not as likely to acquire a difference-making playoff reliever as it used to be.

What teams can do though, is sniff out upgrades around the margins. Who are some of those pitchers teams should kick the tires on?

There are a few parameters to put on our search for truly “under the radar” trade targets. First, they should be fairly easily acquired. It’s unlikely any of these pitchers will command multiple top-100 prospects in return. Alexis Díaz and Jordan Romano would be high-impact additions, but with their teams in the thick of contention, they’re unlikely to be moved for anything less than a mind-blowing offer.

Similarly, every team would love to have a Yennier Canó, but with team control through 2029, it seems unlikely the Orioles would part with him regardless of where they end up in the standings. Most young, team-friendly contracted talent would also be difficult to acquire and so do not fit our list.

With that out of the way, here are three pitchers I would be thrilled with for a smart, contending team to consider acquiring at the deadline.


Drew VerHagen, Cardinals

Through 34 innings this season, VerHagen has pitched to a 4.46 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. The Cardinals wouldn’t laugh a team off the phone for calling about him in a trade even if they’re contending. So why might VerHagen be worth a look?

For starters, PLV loves him.

That cutter is the second-best in baseball by PLV, just edging out Emmanuel Clase’s. VerHagen seems to agree, as he’s ditched his sinker (.604 xSLG against in 2022) in favor of throwing the cutter more. The problem though, is that his cutter has been absolutely crushed this season, to the tune of a .722 SLG!

That seems both less than ideal, and also due for some positive regression for VerHagen. Despite a 38% CSW against the pitch, it has also somehow generated a .400 BABIP and 33% HR/FB.

There’s obviously no guarantee VerHagen turns it around, and the results have been pretty bad, but the underlying pitch data suggests the cutter should be better, and he’s trimmed the walks that plagued him in 2022. It’s led to a career-low 2.99 xERA, and with the Cardinals sinking at the moment and VerHagen’s impending free agency in 2024 he might be worth a shot.


Pierce Johnson, Rockies

The last time I checked on Pierce Johnson, I anointed him baseball’s Curveball King. So, I was surprised when the Rockies signed him, given the infamous high-altitude effects on breaking balls in Denver. But like many of the Rockies’ moves, I shrugged and moved on with my day.

Fast forward to June, and you might assume Pierce Johnson’s bread-and-butter curve has been smoked in the altitude of Coors, given his total 7.07 ERA and 0 WAR thus far.

You’d be right, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The curve is getting almost exactly the same movement as in the past two seasons in San Diego. He’s also getting more whiffs on it than at any other point in his career, other than the shortened 2020 season.

The problem is, the pitch is getting manhandled with hitters do make contact.

The BABIP on the pitch is .368, and unbelievably, it has a 31.3% HR/FB rate. Hitters are actually making less contact on it than at any time since 2020, it’s just they’re making the most of that contact when they do hit it.

Someone please please rescue Pierce Johnson from Colorado.

The Rockies are not contenders, and Johnson is a free agent after this season. Let’s see if he can reclaim his curveball crown in a more neutral (or any other!) environment.


Kenyan Middleton, White Sox

Middleton signed a one-year deal with the White Sox and has made the most of it, to a career-best 1.80 ERA covering 25 innings while striking out nearly a third of the batters he’s faced.

Middleton has basically checked the first boxes you’d look at to determine a breakout. His strikeout (32%) and groundball (55%) rates have skyrocketed while getting his walks under control below 10%.

It’s what you want to see.

On the other hand, Middleton has stranded 90% of the baserunners he’s seen so far, so maybe there’s some regression to be had with his ERA.

Even so, the strikeout and groundball rate improvements seem interesting enough to be legit. Middleton has inverted his changeup and four-seamer, throwing the change 41% of the time after just 17% in 2022. The changeup itself isn’t a ton better by movement or anything, but it has seemed to keep hitters more off of his fastball, as it’s gone from one of the worst in MLB in 2022 to above average in 2023.


None of these pitchers alone would take a team from out of the playoffs to a World Series contender — no single player would. But as teams make a push for the postseason, upgrades on the margins might be the difference in a close series, and teams don’t have to spend all of their prospect capital to do so.



Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram)


Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a baseball columnist for Pitcher List. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league. @seanroberts.bsky.social

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