In case there was any doubt, the Yankees have firmly established themselves as buyers this summer. The acquisition of Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle is a sign that management foresees a return to the postseason this fall. The deal essentially fills all of the club's glaring holes aside from starting pitcher, which could be the next move.
The influence of this trade should be felt immediately, though it does come at a fairly steep expense. First base and the bullpen have been two of the Yankees' biggest sore spots this season, with the latter being a significant reason why the club has been piling up losses in the last month or two.
An upgrade at first base:
Saying that the Yankees' first basemen have struggled is an understatement. With a 66 wRC+ and -1.2 WAR, the team has failed to garner any production from the position. Greg Bird and Tyler Austin are hurt, Chris Carter failed, and Ji-Man Choi and Garrett Cooper are replacement level at best. Now, with Frazier in tow, the Yankees have found a solution at the position for the rest of the season.
A longtime third baseman for the Reds and White Sox, Frazier does have experience at first base (740 career innings) so the transition with the Yankees should be seamless. The thing about Frazier, though, is that his name value greatly exceeds his on field value. Yes, he had a couple of big years in Cincinnatti in 2014 and 2015, but he's been pretty average since moving to the American League. He's projected to be pretty average the rest of the season as well, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Look at how his 2017 outlook compares to the incumbents according to ZiPS:
Frazier: .233/.316/.445 (101 wRC+), 13 HR in 272 PA
Cooper: .244/.292/.380 (78 wRC+), 3 HR in 131 PA
Choi: .243/.326/.407 (96 wRC+), 3 HR in 92 PA
Frazier's projection is more or less a continuation of what he's done to this point of the season. He joins the Yankees with a .207/.328/.432 (103 wRC+) line with 16 home runs in 335 PA. Kind of sounds like Chris Carter, eh? Minus the strikeouts, at least. Frazier's fanned just over 21% of the time this season, which is solid. Didn't mean to scare anyone. Ultimately, getting that caliber of production is a clear upgrade over the in-house options and what they've already received.
Financially, Frazier is a pure rental and is owed a little less than half of the $12M he signed for this season.
With Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances anchoring the late innings, the bullpen was supposed to be one of the team's strong suits. Unfortunately, things have not played out as expected, especially of late. During the Yankees rut over the last month or so, it seems like every relief appearance has turned into a high wire act. Betances has struggled to throw strikes, Chapman has been unable to miss bats, and the rest of the relievers haven't been able to help (sans Adam Warren and Chad Green, who have done well and are starting to get more opportunities). It hasn't helped that Joe Girardi has made some mistakes with his decision making (leaving in Caleb Smith in a 2-2 game in the 8th on Monday comes to mind). Then again, most of his options have been failing him anyway.
Just how bad has the bullpen been? It leads the league with 18 blown saves. Lately, it's been especially bad in high leverage situations. Since June 1, the 'pen owns a hideous 9.64 ERA across 23 innings in high leverage spots. Yuck.
David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle should get things back in order. D-Rob returns to the Yankees after spending nearly three years with the White Sox as their closer. Robertson hasn't changed much since his days in pinstripes: he still gets plenty of strikeouts (35.6% on the year) while keeping walks in check (8.3%). Kahnle, who the Yankees lost to the Rockies in 2013 in the Rule 5 draft, is in the midst of a breakout season. He has the third best strikeout rate in baseball (42.6%) and has been able to find the strike zone (5.0% BB rate vs. 12.3% career). Here's how ZiPS sees the both of them pitching the rest of the season:
Robertson: 26 IP, 3.36/3.14 ERA/FIP, 12.53 K/9, 3.40 BB/9
Kahnle: 26 IP, 3.34/3.48 ERA/FIP, 11.59 K/9, 4.45 BB/9
Those projections aren't as pretty as the results the two newcomers have posted thus far in 2017, but are still good and welcome additions to a depleted bullpen. In theory, assuming Betances and Chapman can straighten themselves out, games could be won by the fifth or sixth innings. Just take a look at how things shake out before and after the deal:
Pre-trade: Triple-A reliever, Shreve, Clippard, Green, Warren, Betances, Chapman
Post-trade: Shreve, Green, Warren, Kahnle, Robertson, Betances, Chapman
Aside from adding the ability of Kahnle and Robertson, the flexibility of the bullpen is vastly improved. One reliever being unavailable for any given game will be a lot easier to manage than before this trade. Further, it will be a lot harder for Girardi to make a mistake managing the 'pen because he has plenty of options to choose from.
Robertson is under contract through 2018 and the Yankees hold the rights to Kahnle through 2020.
Blake Rutherford, an outfielder, is the centerpiece of the prospects going to Chicago. Last year's first round pick has been just okay as a 20 year-old in Single-A Charleston this year (112 wRC+), but he's still a favorite among scouts. Baseball America ranked Rutherford 36th in its midseason top 100 prospects list, so he's undoubtedly a big chip on the move.
Ian Clarkin, a left-handed pitcher, has had a solid season in High-A Tampa (2.62 ERA/3.55 FIP). The Yankees selected Clarkin one pick after Aaron Judge in the 2013 draft, but it's been a long road for the southpaw as he's struggled to stay healthy. Clarkin, 22, is a good prospect but not a top 100 guy. It's not surprising to see Clarkin on the move, as he would have had to be added to an already crowded 40-man roster by the end of the season in order to avoid the Rule 5 draft.
Outfielder Tito Polo is the third prospect in the deal. The Yankees acquired him last summer as part of the Ivan Nova trade, and the outfielder has hit well in time split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton ever since. Though he's not a top prospect by any stretch of the imagination, he's also a Rule 5 candidate this offseason so it makes sense that the Yankees parted ways with him.
The other guy in the deal:
Tyler Clippard was included in the deal, presumably to offset some of the salaries the Yankees are taking on. Clippard was going to be one of the odd men out anyway given his poor performance this year.
From a win-now perspective, this trade makes plenty of sense. A bunch of needs were filled in exchange for prospects that won't be able to help the big club for another three years or so. By nature, that's the definition of the ideal move for a team that's looking to win this year.
Yet, I'm not a huge fan of this deal. I keep thinking about Travis Sawchik's Fangraphs post about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Essentially, Sawchik's post weighs instant vs. delayed gratification as it relates to the Yankees. The Yankees weren't expected to be serious contenders when this season began, but when Sawchik published this, they were 27-16 and apparently ahead of schedule. To Sawchik, that didn't necessarily mean that they should be buyers, though.
Last summer, for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I studied the 2012-15 deadline-trade markets. Of the 70 major-league players acquired, 45 produced negligible or negative value — below replacement level — through the remainder of the season. Another 20 recorded more than one win above replacement for the team adding them, and five created two or more wins above replacement.
It’s perhaps an argument for delayed gratification, in favor of keeping the club’s top young assets, and hoping for the best in 2017 and 2018 and planning to be the best in 2019 and beyond. Instead of gobbling up a few impact months and/or years in the short term, the Yankees can create a greater window of opportunity by standing pat, or largely standing pat.
Now, at 48-44, they're still in the thick of the hunt, but not in nearly as good shape as before. If anything, that makes Sawchik's argument for delayed gratification even stronger. That's precisely why I'm not enthralled about trading Blake Rutherford. The other prospects aren't big losses, but dealing Rutherford comes at a significant opportunity cost.
The timing of trading Rutherford is what concerns me. Could he have been put to better use as a trade chip in 2018 or 2019? It's very possible. Those could be the seasons in which the Yankees are one piece away, and assuming Rutherford maintains his prospect status as he ascends the ranks of the minors, his trade value would only increase. Those are significant assumptions, I know. Fortunately, the Yankees system is lush with talent so they still should have solid trade chips in the coming contention window, but not many as highly touted as Rutherford.