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Padres Add Chicago Ace in Blockbuster

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Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

You truly cannot make this stuff up. Back in December, the Padres were involved in the biggest trade of the offseason, sending Juan Soto to the Yankees in return for a heaping helping of pitching prospects. It’s the kind of trade you make when you’ve missed out on your goal, a classic attempt to turn a bad situation into an OK one. When you trade one of the best handful of players in baseball for some dudes most people outside of New York have never heard of, it’s fairly easy to guess your team’s trajectory.

But, uh, don’t tell A.J. Preller that. On Wednesday, the Padres made their second blockbuster of the winter, this one headed in the opposite direction: They acquired Dylan Cease from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Drew Thorpe, Jairo Iriarte, Samuel Zavala, and Steven Wilson, as Mark Feinsand first reported.

This is wild stuff. It’s so hard to get a player like Soto on your team; if you have him, and you’re trying to make the playoffs, there’s almost never a good reason to move him. If you do move him, you’re probably rebuilding, though, not turning around and using one of those same prospects you got in the first deal to add a new star. The Padres, man.

Let’s give San Diego the benefit of the doubt on this one, though, and try to walk through what the team is thinking here. It’s no secret that its pitching staff is in tatters. Three of its top five starters from last season – the top three by WAR, in fact – left in free agency, leaving only Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove as holdovers. The Padres added Michael King, Randy Vásquez, Jhony Brito, and Thorpe in the Soto trade, and more or less planned on making them the back half of the rotation. Before the Cease trade, we were projecting that foursome to deliver 385 innings worth of starting pitching in addition to helping out the bullpen.

Astute baseball observers will note that most of those pitchers failed to make an impression on a Yankees team that barely broke .500. King looks like the real deal, but the rest of them might be more projects than quick fixes. That wasn’t exactly promising, considering San Diego went 82–80 last year and then got worse at the plate – no Soto – and on the mound.

Enter Cease, who brings significantly improves the rotation. Whether he’s an ace depends heavily on your definition of ace, but he’s inarguably a good starting pitcher. Over the past three years, he’s averaged 32 starts, 175 innings, and 4 WAR. That’s a top-10 pitching line, and his peripherals mostly match the headline numbers, so it’s not like he’s been doing it with smoke and mirrors.

That’s not to say that Cease always looks like an ace. He’s sort of a right-handed Blake Snell, all strikeouts and walks thanks to a killer slider and the deep counts that come with such a pitch. He complements that slider with a fast but not overpowering four-seamer; the pitch has played down throughout his career even as he’s done considerable work to change its shape, adding nearly three inches of vertical movement since his major league debut.

Every at-bat against Cease comes down to hitters trying their hardest to hit that fastball, because if they swing at his slider, they’ll likely go home unfulfilled. Barely half of the swings against his slider even make contact. Batters have had better luck against his curveball, which he simply can’t manipulate like the slider; it’s only there because he shouldn’t exactly throw only fastballs and sliders, and he rarely uses his changeup. The point is that Cease is good, and in a Snellian way, but not quite as good.

That’s not exactly faint praise. Snell just won the Cy Young, after all, and he’s been one of the best in the game for a while now, even if his games can be a chore to watch at times because of all the deep counts. By trading for Cease, the Padres have gotten their rotation back, roughly, to where it was last year, with a solid top five but not a ton of depth behind it.

One of the reasons there’s no depth is that they just sent a lot of it to the White Sox. Top-100 prospects Thorpe and Iriarte headline the return, and I’m going to borrow liberally from Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin’s recent Top 100 post in describing them. Thorpe has bounced around the league this offseason specifically because he’s so desirable. He made his pro debut in 2023 and flat out wrecked opposing lineups with an untouchable changeup. He’s a command over stuff guy, changeup notwithstanding, with excellent control of the zone and an extensive arsenal of decent-but-not-great pitches. Eric and Tess compared him to Jeremy Hellickson and Marco Estrada, two guys who were above average pitchers at their peak despite underwhelming velocity and breaking balls. He has a solid floor because of that one elite pitch and good command; hitting his ceiling will probably involve finding another out pitch at some point.

Iriarte is more of a modern pitching prospect. He touches 100 with his fastball and throws a big sweeping slider that complements the fastball nicely. He’s a tall drink of water, listed at 6’2” and 160 pounds, and he boasts premium arm speed in a delivery that made Eric and Tess describe him as “like watching Slender Man throw 97.” He’s almost a reverse Thorpe. It’s easy to imagine how this might not work out, because he doesn’t have enough command at the moment; we’re just projecting improvement there based on his clear physical talent. If he can harness his two devastating pitches, though, watch out. In a brief cameo at Double-A last year, he threw 29.1 innings and struck out 51 batters. His stuff is no joke.

Zavala is a lot further off than the other two prospects in this deal. He turned 19 last July, and spent most of the season in the Cal League before a brief, rough stretch with High-A Fort Wayne. His surface numbers are impressive and he gets on base a ton, but per Eric, his contact rate and swing are reasons to worry. His swing path makes him susceptible to high fastballs, and he had some pretty anemic contact data in the first half of the year, though he rebounded a bit there as the season went on. Eric considers him a high-risk prospect, with plenty of talent but also plenty of questions yet to be answered about his swing.

(All three prospects will soon be added to the White Sox prospect report.)

That leaves Wilson, definitely the odd man out in the deal. The other three are guys the White Sox can hope will be part of their next contending team. Wilson has spent two straight years as a middle reliever in San Diego, which makes him rather less interesting. But I can see what the White Sox are doing here in getting Wilson as a throw-in. He has two very good pitches, a slider and a mid-90s fastball with a ton of riding action. He worked multiple innings at many of his relief stops in the minors, but the combination of starting late, missing reps due to the pandemic-canceled minor league season, and an IL stint in 2021 meant he never progressed past stretching out into starting.

If I were the Sox, I’d try to correct that right away, whether in the minors or the big leagues. It might not work out, but he really does have solid stuff; it’s just a matter of whether it will still play as a starter. Sure, fine, it’s also a matter of whether he has the stamina to handle starter workloads and whether he can develop a third pitch. And also, yes, he wasn’t even that great as a reliever, but we’re wish casting here, which is an appropriate thing to do for a team bottoming out as hard as Chicago seems to be.

So, did anyone “win” this trade? Did both teams? Did neither? I’m really struggling to wrap my head around the Padres side of things. They essentially swapped a year of Soto and two of Trent Grisham for two years each with King and Cease; the rest of the players that changed hands mostly offset, though Iriarte is the best of the bunch, so you can think of it as a tiebreaker in that direction. Maybe backup catcher Kyle Higashioka is the counterpoint to that tiebreaker, but in any case, the key parts moving are the major leaguers.

From a projection standpoint, those two sides stack up roughly equally, depending on what playing time you want to allocate to Grisham. I think it works out better than that for the Padres, because they badly needed starting pitching, but not that much better. Their outfield situation is truly dire; Jurickson Profar looked cooked last year en route to a -2 WAR season, and he’s their starting left fielder. Their starting center fielder is shortstop prospect Jackson Merrill, who first played the outfield in late 2023 and has 211 plate appearances above A-ball. José Azocar is prominently involved in the outfield plan. It’s ugly out there, is my point; San Diego has a ton of redundant depth in the infield, and yet it traded outfielders away.

Some of that is undoubtedly because the Padres are reducing salary, and Soto by far has the highest salary of any of the players involved in this web of trades. This trade also sets them up for a slightly longer window of contention; instead of a huge decline in team quality after 2024 when Soto would have become a free agent, along with shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, they have two seasons before they lose their two new pitchers.

I think this move makes the Padres better than they were at the beginning of the week, because I don’t think it made sense for them to pull off a soft rebuild when so many of their core players are in their prime and signed to expensive contracts, but they look like a worse team now than they were last season. Their roster doesn’t scream wait ‘til next year, but the Padres ended up treading water on the trade front, and they lost a ton of good players in free agency.

Maybe that’s just what they had to do to make payroll. We have them comfortably under the first CBT threshold with a projected $223 million luxury tax payroll this year, down from $280 million. After exceeding the tax threshold by a minuscule amount in 2022 and then blowing past it last year, they were due for some pretty steep penalties if they didn’t find some way to reduce their salary outlay. Perhaps some of this maneuvering is paying for Preller’s past misdeeds – that 2022 overage meant dollars over the threshold this year would’ve been taxed at a whopping 50%, as opposed to 30% if the team had come in under it that year — but that’s par for the course with him. He did a good job making the most of a sticky situation, but the Padres still probably won’t make the playoffs, considering they play in a tough division and our projections see them as a bottom-10 offense.

Again, though, that’s not this deal’s fault. If the Padres really couldn’t add salary, then Cease was the best option available to them, and they got him for a bunch of players who weren’t integral to their plans. I’m a big Thorpe fan in the limited video I’ve seen of him, and Iriarte and Zavala are both certainly interesting, but they’re risky profiles, and they certainly felt out of place on a team still trying to maximize its current window of contention, before Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts lose steam. From that standpoint, trading the prospects makes sense.

The White Sox spent all winter loudly proclaiming that they’d only trade Cease for a haul, and in the end they accomplished that goal without really changing the trajectory of their franchise. The Reds shot down the biggest rumored offer for Cease, which would have included Rhett Lowder, Edwin Arroyo, and Connor Phillips, and this package from the Padres feels similar to me, perhaps even a bit better because the White Sox are getting two 50 FV guys in Iriarte and Thorpe instead of just one, Lowder. Eric and Tess are down on Zavala, but he’s certainly an interesting piece. And Wilson? He’s just a nice little add-on.

The thing is, just because this return is comparable to that one doesn’t mean it’s good. Every trade of a marquee player this year has made one thing clear: The return on stars just isn’t that high. Soto, Cease, and Corbin Burnes all got traded for prospect packages that were good but not great. No generational future talents changed hands in exchange for these All-Stars.

It’s possible that none of the guys the White Sox acquired will ever become average regulars for them. If it weren’t for Thorpe’s high floor, I’d call it quite likely, in fact. That isn’t where you want to be when trading someone this good. Cease himself came over to the White Sox, along with Eloy Jiménez, from the Cubs for Jose Quintana, who admittedly had 3 1/2 years of team control remaining instead of two. But trades like that don’t really happen anymore; teams don’t trade top-five prospects like Jiménez, period.

None of this means that the White Sox should have kept Cease. They’re going to be putrid this year, and they still would have been putrid even if they didn’t deal him. Building for the future is their best move at this point, and there probably wasn’t a bigger return coming down the pipeline. This is what they have. It’s just a bummer for White Sox fans that all they’re getting back for a great pitcher in his prime are some decent prospects and the ongoing discussion of whether the team will leave Chicago for a new stadium. It’s going to be a rough year on the South Side.

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