The highly anticipated Trade Deadline has officially passed, as several teams with playoff aspirations shored up their few weaknesses, while others stockpiled prospects as they set their sights for the future.
All throughout the 2016-17 offseason, the buzzword to describe the Yankees’ upcoming season was a team “in transition”. The squad was expecting to at least be more exciting than year’s past, but to be no match for the supposed juggernaut in Boston.
One year ago today, the Yankees were correctly sellers, and got a king’s ransom from two playoff hopefuls in Cleveland and Chicago for two of the best relievers in baseball in Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees repleted their farm system to great success in a short amount of time. Fast forward to today, and the Yankees are atop their division by a half-game over Boston entering play tonight. The Yankees are most certainly in the playoff hunt, and once again were correct in their actions at the deadline, this time as buyers.
Michael Pineda’s elbow injury created a clear need for the Yankees’ starting rotation if they wanted to make any noise down the stretch and in the playoffs. They likely needed two starters to shore up Pineda’s spot and to likely reduce the number of innings for their bright young stars in Luis Severino and (more so) rookie Jordan Montgomery. In the span of 36 hours, the Yankees have made their upgrades, by bringing in a rental lefty in Jaime Garcia, and a controllable, higher ceiling righty in Sonny Gray.
The Yankees had been linked to Gray leading up to the trade deadline, and rightfully so. The Yankees had a clear need in the rotation not only for this year, but for 2018 and beyond; They only had the aforementioned Severino and Montgomery under contract, with Tanaka’s opt-out looming. “Controllable pitching” was the name of the game, and Brian Cashman finally got his guy after losing out on the Jose Quintana sweepstakes to the Chicago Cubs.
As always, it’s impossible to truly rate a trade immediately after it happens, but let’s look at what both teams got in the deal.
The Yankees acquired a 27-year-old 5’10” right-handed pitcher who remains arbitration-eligible through 2019, keeping him in the Bronx for the next 2.5 seasons. He is a five-pitch pitcher, primarily relying (about 2 out of 3 of his pitches) on a four-seam fastball and sinker combination, both in the low-to-mid 90s, to keep batters off-balance and generate an above-average number of groundballs. His off-speed offerings include a changeup in the high-80s, slider in the mid-80s, and a curveball in the low-80s.
A quick snapshot of his velocity trends since 2014:
Reasonably consistent from year-to-year, and encouraging to see him maintain his velocity after his injury woes (more on that in a bit). Of note, I removed his cutter to cut down on clutter, as he rarely throws it.
The question of the day: Did they get an ace or a middle-of-the-rotation-type of guy? Below are Gray’s ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- from 2014 (his first full season) through today:
Quick reminder that ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- are both adjusted for ballpark and league environment (as indicated by the “minus”). 100 is exactly league average, and each point below (or above) means the player was 1% better (or worse) than league average.
So, what do we see? Gray had an ace-like stretch in 2014-15, going over the arbitrary workhouse innings limit of 200 in each season. Among other qualified AL pitchers in the same time frame, he ranked sixth in ERA-, behind such name brands as Keuchel, Sale, King Felix, Kluber, and Price. As far as FIP- and xFIP-, Gray ranks 13th and 12th, respectively. This makes sense when considering the factors for said metrics: Gray has a slightly above average strikeout rate (7.42 K/9 in 2014-15), and a roughly league-average walk rate (2.80 BB/9). Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that Gray held the fifth-largest negative difference between his ERA and FIP at -0.55. In other words, Gray “outpitched his peripherals” and prevented more runs than one would expect based on the skills he can control (strikeouts, walks, HR), but even so, was an above-average AL starter for 2 seasons. Putting all of it together, it would not be a stretch to consider him a Top 10 pitcher in the American League during that time frame.
But then, 2016 happened. As noted by his reduced innings count, Gray went to the disabled list twice with two separate injuries, once in May with a right trapezius strain, and again in August with a right forearm strain. When he wasn’t on the DL, he threw some admittedly bad baseball by ERA- and FIP-. In fact, his ERA- ranked third-worst in the AL in 2016 among pitchers with at least 110 IP. Unlike 2014-15, Gray seemed to have the opposite fortune in 2016, with the second-highest positive difference between his ERA and FIP. Part of this could be explained by an uncharacteristically high BABIP (.319), which in turn could be explained by the Athletics’ awful defense last year. He also doubled his HR/FB rate from around league-average in 2014-15 (9%) to almost 18% (!) in 2016, while walking more (3.23 BB/9) and striking out a little less (7.23 K/9). Not ideal, but if you squinted, there were the makings of a bounceback season if he got healthy.
Unfortunately, it was more of the same to begin 2017. He opened the season on the disabled list for a third time in less than a year, this time with a right lat strain, delaying his season debut by a month. Since then, however, the bounceback was in full effect, as he seemed to return to his 2014-15 form, ranking sixth in xFIP- so far this year. He’s striking out more than ever (8.72 K/9), his walk and HR rate are more in line with 2014-15, and he has maintained his above-average groundball rate (56.7%). Furthermore, his ERA, FIP, and xFIP are all right around the same, reducing the likelihood of good or bad luck.
Digging a little deeper, he is allowing hard-hit balls at a lower rate closer to 2014-15 than to 2016, as well. Additionally, he has a career-high swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) so far this year (12.1%), ranking comfortably above-average and likely contributing to his spike in strikeouts.
His pitch usage appears to be roughly the same as year’s past:
He does appear to be using his sinker more than ever, but he is throwing his other pitches about as often as before. The difference here might be in vertical movement: He is throwing his fastballs lower in the zone compared to last year. Likely as a result, he has generated an above-average outside-the-zone swing and contact rate this year.
All of that being said: Did the Yankees get an ace? Maybe! It really depends on how one defines an “ace”. What they did get was an established MLB pitcher who appears to be healthy again, and when healthy, is probably one of the ten best pitchers in the American League. A pitcher like that can help every team, and that includes the Yankees, who had an obvious hole in their rotation both this year and beyond. Consequently, they always felt like an obvious fit for Gray if they could agree on which prospects to send to Oakland.
And it appears that Oakland received a solid haul for their former staff anchor. The Athletics receive three Top 100 prospects from the Yankees in SS/CF Jorge Mateo, CF Dustin Fowler, and RHP James Kaprielian, of which the latter two are currently injured.
Jorge Mateo, still just 22, feels like he has been in the Yankees system forever. He signed in 2012 as a teenager out of the DR, and quickly made a name for himself with his legs, as he possesses true 80-grade speed. He was able to get by in the lower levels with his speed, but began to struggle in 2016. It wasn’t until a promotion to AA earlier this year that Mateo has found his groove with the bat. Scouts said he has made a mechanical change at the plate, which might lend further credence to his offense output. He was drafted as a shortstop, but has been playing center field (and second base) lately, so regardless, he projects as a speedy up-the-middle player who may just be discovering his swing.
The left-handed Dustin Fowler, also just 22, was crushing AAA to start 2017 before earning a call-up to the big leagues at the end of June. In one of the more somber and gruesome events of the year, his season ended abruptly after one inning of play, as he tore his patellar tendon on his first play in the outfield, and will remain out for the season. However, Fowler undoubtedly has great tools and upside, including plus speed, defense, and hit tool. He projects as a speed/power threat at an up-the-middle position, and, assuming he comes back healthy, he has the potential to be a productive everyday center fielder for the Athletics. To wit: FanGraph’s KATOH+ prospect projection system thinks quite highly on Fowler, projecting him for ~8 WAR in his first six seasons, falling just short of the Top 25.
Finally, RHP James Kaprielian, 6’4″ and 23, is a former first-round draft pick in 2015 out of UCLA. He was a true four-pitch pitcher with good command that many projected as a top-of-the-rotation arm. For one reason or another, he began throwing much harder after being drafted, and maybe as a consequence, began to be derailed by injuries. He missed the end of 2016 with a flexor tendon strain, but returned to dominate in the Arizona Fall League. Unfortunately, he torn his UCL after one spring training start in 2017, and is currently rehabilitating after Tommy John surgery.
After hearing that Oakland initially wanted Yankees’ top prospects Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier, this package might seem light in comparison. However, Billy Beane got three very good prospects with considerable upside who could all go on to have successful major league careers.
Previously discussed at length on FunCast Vol. 2, the Yankees also obtained LHP Jaime Garcia from Minnesota for two lower-level prospects in RHP Zack Littell and LHP Dietrich Enns. In Garcia, 31, the Yankees get a rental lefty groundball-predominant guy, which is always welcomed at Yankee Stadium. He has been roughly league-average (99 ERA-/96 FIP-) this year and will be an instant upgrade over the Yankees’ previous fifth-starter endeavors after Pineda’s injury, like Caleb Smith. The Twins got RHP Zack Littell, 21, who was ranked in the 20s in the Yankees farm system, and has seen his stock rise since arriving from Seattle for James Pazos, as he is striking out more than ever. He is not overpowering, but could have the stuff and “pitchability” to succeed as a back-of-the-rotation guy. LHP Dietrich Enns, 26, has never had much “projectability”, and is also not overpowering, but also strikes out guys, and could conceivably provide some depth in the bullpen. Both guys would have been Rule 5 eligible in the offseason, and may have been lost for nothing if not protected, so the Yankees continue to prioritize and trade from a position of surplus and depth.
Bottom line: The Yankees, despite being in a self-proclaimed “transition year”, saw an opportunity for the postseason in a surprisingly wide-open division, and appropriately bought at the deadline. They obtained a legitimate No. 2 guy with recent health concerns in Gray, who not only plugs into the rotation for 2017, but helps complete their rotation on the cheap for 2018-19. They also got a more-than-serviceable No. 4/5 guy in Garcia for an expendable pair of arms that may have been lost in the Rule 5 Draft in the offseason anyway. The overall cost for Gray ended up being three of their Top 10 prospects in Mateo, Fowler, and Kaprielian, who, in a best-case scenario, could all be productive, dynamic players in the Majors. However, considering the asking price for Quintana and the initial ask for Gray (a similar, but slightly less valuable trade piece given career, injuries, and contract), the Yankees have to be thrilled to get a controllable guy like Gray without losing their tippy-top prospects.