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The Yankees Just Solved All of Their Biggest Problems With One Trade

Adding Todd Frazier, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle secures the present without compromising the future

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last July, Brian Cashman achieved a first in his two-decade tenure as the Yankees’ general manager: He sold at the trade deadline. With New York saddled with an aging roster and a near-.500 record, Cashman traded ace relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman to the eventual pennant winners and Carlos Beltrán to the Rangers, in the process returning three top-100 prospects to the Yankees’ burgeoning farm system.

Twelve months later, he’s back in more familiar territory: trading away his own prospects to add to the major league club in the Bronx. On Tuesday night, the Yankees acquired infielder Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox in exchange for reliever Tyler Clippard and prospects Blake Rutherford, Ian Clarkin, and Tito Polo. The move addresses all of New York’s greatest needs in one tidy transaction, while bolstering Chicago’s ongoing rebuild with another potential star. Let’s break down the win-win deal.

The Yankees Patched Their Weaknesses

It’s almost a surprise that the Yankees are again buyers. From June 12 through Monday night, they had posted the worst record in the majors, at 9–21, and dropped from four games up in the AL East to 3.5 back. Had they lost to the Twins on Tuesday, they would have fallen out of playoff position entirely. But by more substantive statistical measures, the Yankees profile as an elite team, and with the AL wild-card race a muddle of mediocrity, any boost could propel them to their first divisional-series appearance since 2012.

Frazier provides the first part of that boost. Despite playing mostly third base in his career, he is an experienced first baseman as well and likely will spend most of his time in the Bronx at first (or he’ll stick at third, freeing Chase Headley to move across the diamond). Modern-day Frazier is far from the top-tier slugger he portrayed in Cincinnati circa 2014: He has been about a league-average hitter since joining the White Sox in December 2015, and in a season in which seemingly every MLB hitter has experienced a power surge, his home run numbers have tumbled from 40 last year to 16 thus far in 2017.

Still, league average represents a vast improvement over the Yankees’ other first-base options, which earlier in the year included Chris Carter (designated for assignment twice in a two-week span) and Greg Bird (six hits in 60 at-bats, now out for at least six weeks following ankle surgery) and now feature the Quad-A bats of Garrett Cooper and Ji-Man Choi.

Here’s one stat that illustrates New York’s first-base futility: Eleven different Yankees have manned first base this year; no other team has used more than eight players at the position, and the average team not counting the Yankees has used only four. Here’s another: Leaguewide, first basemen this year have combined for a 119 wRC+, meaning they have hit 19 percent better than the average hitter, yet Yankees’ first basemen have just a 82 wRC+, meaning they have hit 18 percent worse than average, or the same as Philadelphia shortstop Freddy Galvis.

Frazier by himself wouldn’t have moved many teams’ playoff needles all that much, but the Yankees are an exception, as a positional improvement from abysmal to decent is just as valuable as one from decent to great. Moreover, he’s a free agent after this season, leaving Bird’s path back to the majors clear if he can stay healthy.

Frazier also isn’t coming to the Bronx by himself. Right-handed relievers Robertson, who pitched for New York from 2008 through 2014, and Kahnle, who was drafted by the Yankees in 2010 but never pitched for them, will strengthen a bullpen in urgent need of reinforcements. The departing Clippard has been a late-inning disaster, leading the AL in meltdowns, and the typically reliable Dellin Betances and Chapman have been overworked and have struggled with aberrant wildness and hittability, respectively. No team has blown more saves than the Yankees’ 18, and only Philadelphia and Texas have a worse record in one-run games than the Yankees’ 9–18.

After uncharacteristic struggles last season, Robertson has experienced a resurgent 2017, posting a 27.3 percent strikeout-minus-walk rate that ranks 14th among 170 qualified relievers. His 15.6 percent swinging-strike rate is the highest of his career, his cutter has ranked among the most valuable in the game, and with a contract that expires after next season, he represents a present-day addition without limiting the Yankees’ options with the star-studded free-agent class of 2018. For the last few years, New York has structured its signings so as to have as clean a slate as possible for that offseason, and Robertson’s addition follows that mold.

The final piece is Kahnle, who has pitched even better than Robertson. On that 170-man reliever leaderboard, Kahnle’s K-BB% is third, placing him behind Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen and one spot ahead of Miller. Those other three relievers might be the best in the majors, and Kahnle’s numbers reflect his standing among that elite group. Just Tuesday afternoon, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan highlighted the remarkable similarities between Kahnle and Miller this year, and we all know what Miller did in last year’s playoffs. Kahnle is a greater risk than Robertson, given that his dominance has been limited to just 36 MLB innings, but he also promises a greater potential reward and can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.

Kahnle also projects as New York’s sixth-inning arm for now, which is a rather absurd prospect for opposing teams. This setup also diminishes the Yankees’ rotation problems, with Michael Pineda undergoing Tommy John surgery and Masahiro Tanaka offering erratic, homer-stricken performances, because at this rate, their starters needn’t go past the fifth inning. It’s the Royals’ 2014 model taken to the extreme: What’s better than a dominant bullpen trio? A shutdown quartet.

The White Sox’s Rebuild Keeps Getting Better

After trading José Quintana to the Cubs last week, the South Side Chicago team cashed in its final attractive trade pieces in Tuesday’s deal with the Yankees. In exchange for Quintana, the White Sox added über-outfield-prospect Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease to their farm system, and that’s after adding Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, and Reynaldo Lopez via trades in the offseason. With Rutherford in the mix, Chicago now boasts eight of Baseball America’s midseason top-100 prospects — seven of whom came over in trades in the last nine months. By not starting to sell at last year’s trade deadline, by which time his team’s stars-and-scrubs construction had proved itself ineffectual, GM Rick Hahn seemed to wait too long to initiate his tear-down process, but he certainly didn’t suffer from lost player value once he jumped into the rebuilding deep end.

A universal top-50 prospect before the season, Rutherford has slumped a bit in 2017, mainly by struggling to generate power with his swing (only two homers). He ranked 36th on BA’s midseason prospects list but didn’t appear on either Baseball Prospectus’s or ESPN’s top-50 midseason reports. Still, as a 2016 high school draftee already playing in Single-A ball, he possesses tremendous potential and only strengthens the White Sox’s system further. Now that Chicago has traded its remaining high-demand major leaguers, Rutherford likely is the last top prospect they’ll add in the sale phase; next comes the rebuild in earnest, with the promotion of Moncada, MLB’s top overall prospect, to the majors after the deal signifying that point.

Clarkin is more of a long shot to help Chicago’s big league club. He was a first-round pick in 2013 and flashes MLB-starter-level talent, but he’s suffered from a string of injuries in his minor league career — elbow inflammation that prevented him from throwing at all in the 2015 regular season and a torn meniscus last summer — that have kept him from advancing above the high-A level. He’s not at Kopech’s or Giolito’s diminished level, but a team can never have too many pitching prospects. Polo, meanwhile, is a Double-A outfielder who came to New York in last summer’s Iván Nova trade and played for Team Colombia in March’s World Baseball Classic. He’s clobbered the ball all season but wasn’t listed among FanGraphs’s top 33 Yankee prospects before the year, so he’s a lottery ticket at best.

New York Won the Arms Race With Boston and Didn’t Lose Much

An added bonus for the Yankees is that Boston, which leads New York in the AL East standings, just lost the most viable option to fill its biggest hole. The Red Sox’s third-base situation is as dismal as the Yankees’ first-base mess, and the two Sox teams had been rumored to be discussing a Frazier deal as late as Tuesday afternoon. Such a trade would have made sense for both sides, and with Boston also searching for bullpen help, the same Frazier-Robertson-Kahnle trio theoretically could have met all of the Red Sox’s needs.

The Yankees won that arms race, and they did so without surrendering any of their most essential prospects. Rutherford could become an above-average player by 2020, but New York has a crowd of position-player prospects, and it could afford to trade a future outfielder for a present-day upgrade. Aaron Judge has established himself in the majors, prospect Clint Frazier (no. 49 on BA’s midseason list) is on his way to doing so, and odds are someone in 2018’s free-agent class — maybe Bryce Harper, maybe a lower-tier star who won’t command a $500 million contract — will join them. That kind of projecting relies on plenty of assumptions, but at the very least, Rutherford was more expendable than, say, infielder extraordinaire Gleyber Torres or Triple-A pitcher Chance Adams.

The Yankees bought, but they weren’t desperate, and they simultaneously improved their 2017 positioning without sacrificing future flexibility, either by surrendering an abundance of young talent or by taking on excessive long-term expenses. New York beat Minnesota 6–3 Tuesday night as the trade details crystallized, moving 1.5 games up in the wild-card race and 3.5 back of Boston in the division. With Frazier, Robertson, and Kahnle on the roster, that upward movement is a better bet to become a pattern over the next two months and into October.