Not flashy, but much needed depth for the pitching staff
This is not a drill. The Oakland A’s acquired another MLB player.
The A’s added left-handed pitcher Cole Irvin in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies, reports insider Jon Heyman on Saturday. The Phillies will receive cash considerations from Oakland, per Heyman. (Update: The A’s have since confirmed the deal.)
The southpaw spent parts of the last two seasons in the majors for Philadelphia, though with subpar results. He tossed a few dozen innings in 2019 and got knocked around (5.83 ERA, 5.06 FIP), and then was torched even harder this past summer in three outings. Statcast agreed that it was as bad as it looked.
Irvin, 2019-20 MLB: 6.75 ERA, 45⅓ ip, 35 Ks, 14 BB, 8 HR, 5.09 FIP, .377 wxOBA
However, Irvin is still in the early stages of his pro career, as he turns age 27 on Sunday. It took him less than three years to reach the majors for Philadelphia, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2016 and riding the fast track up the minors. He hit Double-A in ‘17 and then spent all of ‘18 in Triple-A as a successful starter (2.57 ERA, 3.30 FIP), and in ‘19 he bounced back and forth between the majors while adding nearly 100 more innings to his encouraging Triple-A track record.
Irvin, 2018-19 AAA: 3.07 ERA, 255 ip, 196 Ks, 49 BB, 24 HR, 3.76 FIP
His first three appearances in the bigs were starts (in May 2019), including quality efforts against the Royals and Rockies. From then on he worked exclusively out of the bullpen whenever he got the call to Philadelphia. His best MLB stretch came in Sept. 2019, when he allowed just one run in 12⅓ innings over his final eight games of the season, with solid peripherals to back it up.
In terms of stuff, Irvin boasts a wide arsenal of pitches. His four-seam fastball operates in the low-90s as a starter, but in shorter relief stints in the majors he’s cranked it up as high as 95 mph. He throws his heater about half the time, and last year Statcast identified some of the fastballs as sinkers. The rest of his offerings are split between a plus changeup, a slider, and occasionally a curve.
Here’s more from MLB Pipeline, from their pre-2019 scouting report, including 55-grades for his changeup and his control:
Irvin’s success comes from his ability to use his four-pitch mix well to keep hitters guessing and off-balance, though his stuff largely grades out as Major League average. His fastball velocity did regress a bit in 2018, down to staying in the 90-91 mph range, showing the ability to throw his two-seamer down in the zone with sink to get ground-ball outs. His changeup, his best pitch, has improved, though, giving him one above-average offering. He mixes in two distinct breaking balls effectively.
Irvin throws all of his pitches for strikes, as evidenced by his career 2.0 BB/9 rate. His ceiling might be limited as a back-end starter, and there’s not much margin for error given the nature of his stuff, but he’s ready to show what he can do in the big leagues.
The Orange County native and Oregon Ducks alum had Tommy John surgery in 2014 while still in college, but has since proven durable in his pro career. Melissa Lockard of The Athletic, who refers to Irvin as a “pitchability guy rather than a stuff guy,” makes the following observation:
“In a season where pitchers may be working with innings limits, having durable options to plug in will be important. Could free them to deal from SP depth too.”
With two days left until February, this is only the second major league move the A’s have made this winter, after previously acquiring lefty reliever Nik Turley from the Pirates. They also nabbed a pair of Rule 5 draft picks (see here and here), and picked up a few minor league free agents you may have heard of.
Not a big move, but a good one. Once you get past the reality that the A’s aren’t going to make a big splashy addition this winter, this is a shrewd pickup of viable rotation depth for free.
If Irvin had been drafted by the A’s, and spent his career (as is) in Oakland’s system, we’d be decently excited about him. Maybe in the tier of Parker Dunshee and Brian Howard, low-ceiling results-over-stuff sleepers with back-end starter potential who fast-tracked up the minors. Not a can’t-miss, but worth a try when building a pitching staff on the cheap.
On top of that, he’s a lefty, which Oakland desperately lacks in its pitching ranks. And unlike Dunshee and Howard, he’s already spent some time in the majors.
Irvin’s early MLB struggles are a bummer but not a problem for me, especially since they mostly came as a reliever — he had no prior experience in that role, and I’ll bet the A’s want him as a starter anyway so the data loses some relevance. All of his pro success has come as a starter, and he even had a couple good starts in the majors, with only one bad one. Maybe his particular skill set just doesn’t play up in shorter stints, or maybe he wasn’t yet accustomed to coming out of the pen, especially since he did get better at relief work later in 2019.
Oakland’s under-the-radar pitching flyers usually fit into one of two categories. There are those with some piece of significant upside in their profiles waiting to be untapped, and those who don’t jump off the page but could quietly eat bunches of league-average innings. Nik Turley is the former, with interesting spin rates for the A’s to play around with and monster strikeout rates in the upper minors.
Irvin is the latter. Don’t expect some kind of breakout beyond what he already is, but rather hope that his smoke and mirrors will begin to work against MLB competition, as they consistently have in Triple-A. As a piece of extra optimism, for whatever it’s worth, remember the A’s seem to find a lot of success with pitchers who throw good changeups.
Oakland has four starters locked up between Luzardo, Bassitt, Manaea, and Montas, so all they’re looking for is a fifth man plus depth to get them through a long season. There are already four top pitching prospects on the 40-man roster (Puk, Jefferies, Kaprielian, Holmes), plus Paul Blackburn is still around, so Irvin adds another name to the spring competition (and/or the Las Vegas rotation) in the form of one more worthwhile lotto ticket.
If he flops, then it was a free spin that cost nothing. If he earns a spot, then the A’s adequately fill their fifth starter role at the minimum salary and with no acquisition cost, with the latest in a long string of hidden gems plucked from the scrap-heap.
Here is the updated 40-man roster, which currently has 39 members and one open spot. Players in italics haven’t yet debuted in MLB, and those with asterisks** are Rule 5 draft picks who can’t be sent down to the minors.
Chris Bassitt (R)
Jake Diekman (L)
Sean Murphy (R)
Matt Chapman (R)
Mark Canha (R)