By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Getty Images and Anthony Doster, AP Photo
Wow, so a lot has changed since the last time we sat down for the typical 10:00 slot on Friday. There were questions for today’s mailbag, but I think it’s more important and interesting to dive into the Yankees’ maneuverings leading up to this afternoon’s trade deadline. For that reason, I’m going to shelve the SSTN Mailbag for this week, but keep the great questions coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, as the SSTN Mailbag will return next week.
The moves Brian Cashman executed this week have far reaching implications for both this season and beyond. I don’t think he’s done yet, but I think a very clear picture is emerging. I’m still working through some of my reactions, so rather than lay out my thoughts in a more formal fashion, I’m going to give you bullet points below:
My brain started churning on Tuesday night with the trade of Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson to the Reds for what will certainly amount to a bag of baseballs. I had noted weeks ago that the Yankees would likely find a way to dump Justin Wilson prior to the trade deadline in order to gain some breathing room against the first Luxury Tax threshold, and they did exactly that. The Yankees got the Reds to take on Justin Wilson’s contract by attaching Luis Cessa to the deal. While the deal made the Yankees a worse baseball team in the short-term, it was clear that at least one more move was coming on Wednesday. When I saw this deal, I was pretty confident that Gallo was going to become a Yankee.
On a possibly more pertinent note, the Cessa/Wilson deal angered me greatly. As far as I’m concerned, the trade confirmed everything I’ve written and thought regarding the interplay between the front office and ownership over the last few years. Frankly, much of the criticism of Brian Cashman and his associates by writers and fans have fallen flat to me. Don’t get me wrong, Cashman deserves some of the blame for the way this team has performed this year; I have a hunch that Cashman himself would be the first to say that some of his assumptions and estimations missed the mark this year. More importantly, I strongly believe that Cashman’s hands have been tied in all kinds of awkward ways over the last 3-4 years in a fashion that resembles a slinky. One minute, the Steinbrenners are willing to relax the purse strings to sign one or two guys to tip-toe past the Luxury Tax threshold, while they close the purse strings absolutely following a single signing. Imagine trying to build a team under those conditions. Cashman advocates (correctly, I might add) for a big Free Agent, gets his man, and then is told he has to play thrift store shopper for everything else. We can debate this idea in greater detail in the offseason (and I’m sure we will), but I don’t think there’s any question but that ownership’s shifting budget from year-to-year has tied Cashman’s hands in numerous ways. I was hoping for some evidence that Hal Steinbrenner’s comments regarding his willingness to exceed the first Luxury Tax threshold was more than lip service. The Cessa/Wilson trade was clear evidence that the budgetary whims of ownership are sadly status quo. There is little question but that the Yankee bullpen is better off with Luis Cessa than they are without him. A salary dump was how I expected the trade deadline to start for the Yankees, but it doesn’t mean I was happy about it.
On to the fun stuff: Joey Gallo is a Yankee! I said last week that Gallo was my top trade target for the Yankees, so needless to say, I’m pretty thrilled. Objectively, whatever you think of Gallo’s flaws, he is a stunningly good baseball player. In fact, he immediately becomes the 1B to Judge’s 1A in value. Gallo bats left-handed, has raw power that is rivaled only by Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez in all of baseball, and is slowly minimizing his offensive holes. Most importantly, he is defensively versatile, capable of manning all three outfield positions, first base, and he could likely still fake it at 3B in an absolute emergency. Of particular interest is his plus-plus defensive metrics in both RF and LF, and he’s generally considered average or better in CF due to his elite jump and average sprint speed. In short, Gallo is the complete package, and the Yankees were right to pounce once the Rangers were ready to deal him. Best of all, he’s not a pure rental, as Gallo is under team control for 2022 as well. To add food for thought, here’s Gallo’s batting line since June 1st: .231/.394/.612/1.006, 16 HR (!), 3 SB, 30.6% K%, 20.6% BB%, .227 BABIP. In short, Gallo has been among the 3 or 4 best hitters in the sport since June 1st, is striking out less than he typically does, walking more, hitting for absurd power, adding some value on the bases, and he’s likely gotten a bit unlucky according to BABIP. Yeah, I think Gallo is going to fit in just fine. Get your popcorn ready: the Bronx Bombers are back.
All of you know that my proclivity is to be a bit of a prospect hugger. I’m aware of my inherent bias, and I tilt my evaluations accordingly to account for it. I don’t even need to do that when evaluating the haul the Yankees gave up for Gallo. I think the Rangers got some good prospects to fill out their system, but given their relative development/impact timelines and likely performance in the near-term, I think the Yankees should be thrilled with this deal, even if there are one or two guys that I think they’ll miss. I will pat my own back here: I was very early to the Ezequiel Duran party, and included him in my personal Yankees’ Top-10 prospect ranking when we evaluated the Top-15 Yankee Prospects here at SSTN (we’ll be renewing that feature shortly as soon as the dust settles on the trade deadline). Most mid-season prospect updates are not yet available at the most reliable publicly available scouting services, but Duran certainly would have been inside of the Top-8 Yankee prospects on most lists, and I strongly believe that he’ll be in the conversation for Top-100 lists when they are revised. Duran will stick at 2B defensively, and the only reason he can’t start at SS is a fringy arm and merely average athleticism and agility. Duran has above-average (or better) raw power, with an average hit tool, though he swings so hard that the strikeout numbers could climb and limit his natural feel to hit as he reaches the upper minors. Duran is the centerpiece of the deal, but he’s likely 1.5+ years away from consistent MLB action, and really didn’t fit into the Yankees’ current timeline. Glenn Otto is a low ceiling, high floor pitcher who lives in the low-90s as a starter. I’ve written a lot about him as an interesting fringe prospect in the Yankee system, though his new slider has taken his performance to new heights in 2021 in the high minors. Otto will make the Majors first (possibly in the next few days), and he is likely a back-end starter or a good reliever capable of throwing multiple innings. Josh Smith is a popular prospect after a prominent career at LSU with gaudy numbers this year at low-A and high-A. He is a good defensive SS with decent speed and great feel for contact. Smith has also been lauded for his work ethic and attitude, which helps him maximize his tools. However, he is playing at least one level too low given his level of competition in college, so I don’t put a lot of stock in his numbers this year. Smith may be a good utility infielder or a 2nd division regular at SS someday, but he was a ways down the middle infield pecking order for the Yankees. Trevor Hauver has good feel to hit, and no position to play. He played outfield in college and was converted to 2B by the Yankees to try to help his bat play somewhere (this should remind everyone of Rob Refsnyder…how did that work, again?), and he’s old for a prospect in low-A. It’s a decent prospect haul, but the Yankees got one of the most valuable players in the sport for a collection of good prospects that didn’t fit the Yankees’ timeline. Oh, and they got the Rangers to pick up the tab on Gallo’s contract this year. Any way you slice it, Cashman won this trade by a large margin. Any suggestion otherwise is anti-Cashman bias.
Now we get to my take on the next deal, which I’m sure is going to rile some people up: I really don’t like the Anthony Rizzo deal. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the prospects the Yankees gave up: Alcantara and Vizcaino are expendable. Alcantara is a lottery ticket prospect, with a ton of talent in CF, but a long path to the Majors – there’s no reason to keep him with Dominguez around. Vizcaino is a very talented pitcher, but who has struggled with injuries throughout his professional career with structural issues in his arm – those issues won’t go away, so trading him while he still has value is perfectly logical. No, I just don’t think acquiring Rizzo makes good baseball sense. I wrote extensively about this exact topic extensively in November 2020, and I highly recommend reading it because I go into much greater detail about extracting value at 1B both now and in the future than I ever could in a post like this. However, I will reiterate the blind case study I offered in that article below (all stats are from 2018-2020 seasons):
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Player B is the best on a rate basis offensively, while Player C does some of everything. Player A is good, but likely the worst of the group on a rate basis. Player A is Anthony Rizzo. Player B is Luke Voit. Player C is DJ LeMahieu, and his lead in WAR is due to the positional adjustment (boost) he gets from logging so much time at 2B. Now, 2021 has been an…interesting year for all 3 players. DJ LeMahieu has declined offensively to an alarming degree, to the point that he would likely be replacement level day-to-day at 1B due to the positional adjustment hit he’d take defensively, and Luke Voit has battled one injury after another. However, during Voit’s healthiest stretch of the season (5/25 – 7/7) , he still hit .295/.328/.475/.804, better than anything DJLM or Rizzo are capable of producing. Anthony Rizzo is merely OK offensively, producing a 115 OPS+ this season, and it represents a continuation of the decline Rizzo has experienced over the last couple of years. Rumor is that the Yankees will look to deal Voit today. If we are essentially trading multiple years of Voit for a half year of Rizzo, this is not a good deal, even if Rizzo bats left-handed and plays good defense at 1B. If this is what happens, I’m not a fan of the Rizzo deal.
There is another option, though. I wonder if Stanton is finally capable of playing the outfield even 3 or 4 days per week. If that’s the case, then the Yanks can fit the whole crew, with Gallo sliding over to CF, with Stanton in LF, Rizzo at 1B, and Voit at DH. Stanton and Voit could each get 1-2 days off per week rotating through the DH slot. I’m not confident at all this will happen, but I will amend my opinion of the Rizzo trade if Voit sticks around. Getting more good baseball players is always a good thing, so a Voit/Rizzo combination at 1B is something with which I’m on board.
I don’t think the Yankees are done yet. The Yankees have targeted bullpen arms this week. Clay Homes and Joelys Rodriguez have a few things in common: they throw hard, they haven’t performed up to their peripherals this year, they plant sinkers low in the strike zone, and they induce gobs of groundballs. This represents a shift in the Yankees’ acquisition strategy with pitchers. Groundball pitchers at Yankee Stadium makes sense, and with the recent push to improve team defense with Gallo and Rizzo, a plan is taking shape. Spin rates have fallen across baseball with the mandates on foreign substances (low fastball spin rates are good for sinkers), so I wonder if the Yankees are moving to capitalize on a new market inefficiency. I like the plan, and expect one more pitcher to join the fold today.
I think Brian Cashman did a great job given the restrictions ownership has given him. I realize I’m in the minority on the Rizzo move, so I’ll reserve my judgment until I see the team play. He made major upgrades for the team both for this season and next season without raiding the top of the farm system. In fact, I could argue that the Top-5 prospects in the Yankee system remain even after Cashman’s wheeling and dealing. That’s an impressive feat considering the fact that he asked other teams to eat cash while acquiring talent. Cashman may have mis-estimated coming into the season, but he proved that he can react when things don’t go according to plan. A leader that is capable of admitting it when their wrong, and making steps to rectify those problems is a leader you want in your corner. Cashman is that kind of leader.
I also want to specifically attack the notion that the Yankees are too reliant on analytics. To those of you who feel that way (and I say this without animosity, so please don’t take it as such): have you looked around the league? The best teams in baseball right now are the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox, and the Houston Astros. All of those teams utilize analytics at the expense of traditional scouting, with both the Dodgers and Astros making waves in recent years for firing large percentages of their scouting staffs. To the contrary, the Yankees have not done that. Yes, the Yankees have a large analytics department that Cashman helped build beginning in the early 2000s, but more than most, the Yankees combine those studies with a significant pro and amateur scouting staff. In fact, the Yankees blend analytics and scouting more than almost any other team when it comes to player development. Ever wonder why every young Yankee prospect starts throwing harder when they enter the Yankee program? Ever wonder why prospects with fringe tools start making louder contact in the Yankee system with better walk rates? It takes analytics to quantify trends, scouting to identify how to influence those trends, and coaching and training to implement those modifications. We can be upset that the Yankees haven’t gotten over the finish line in recent seasons (although I blame the cheaters in Houston at least for 2017 and likely for 2019 as well), but the truth is that there have been too many player development successes in the last 5+ years to ignore: Gio Urshela (a non-prospect prior to coming to the Yankees), Aaron Judge (a volatile prospect the Yankees guided to the Majors despite major holes in his swing), Luke Voit (a first baseman with power, but who looked like a quad-A type), Luis Severino (who the Yanks guided to the Majors), Jordan Montgomery (who wasn’t a prospect without the Yankee development staff), and a host of others who are currently in the Yankee farm system and are primed to help the big league club soon. The results have lagged, but analytics is not the culprit. Sometimes, even the best laid plans go to waste. Baseball works in mysterious ways, and statistics only identify probabilities. That doesn’t mean that sometimes, the results go against those probabilities. The 2021 season has seen that exact scenario play out, and to his credit, Brian Cashman reacted in ways that both correct deficiencies and remedy faults that all baseball fans have noted.
Last gripe: the last day and a half proved one thing: Cashman knew this team was too right-handed. If given truth serum even last year, I think Cashman would have said that he wanted more left-handed hitting. However, he acquired the talent he could at the best price, regardless of handedness. That was probably the right call at the time. Many of us stumped pretty hard for difference-making left-handed hitting (see: Harper, Bryce), but I think Cashman recognized the budget constraints within which he was working. He likely knew he had a choice: Harper after 2018, or Gerrit Cole after 2019. Given the same choice, I would have waited for Gerrit Cole also. We can be angry that Cashman had to choose, but it’s not fair to blame him for trying to make the best of a tough situation.
I still don’t think the Yankees are done. It’s going to be an interesting Friday. Until then, go Yankees, and let’s enjoy. I remain of the belief that this is a playoff team.