As you may have heard, the Yankees made a trade on Monday, sending prospects Caleb Cotham, Rookie Davis, Eric Jagielo, and Tony Renda to the Reds in exchange for one year of Aroldis Chapman, who's projected by Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors to make about $13 million in arbitration this year. There's a lot to unpack about this trade, and a lot that prevents it from being easily categorized as a win for either side.
It's impossible to analyze this trade without discussing the ongoing investigation into allegations of domestic violence committed by Chapman. That investigation already appears to have prevented two trades, with the Red Sox and Dodgers, and beyond "just" the murky moral waters the Yankees have chosen to wade into, there are direct, baseball implications on Chapman's 2016 as well. I'll get to the direct impacts later; for now, it should be acknowledged that there are legitimate moral concerns to participating in a transaction involving a player involved in an ongoing domestic violence investigation, concerns that did not stop the Yankees from making this trade.
In the context of the 2015 offseason to date, this deal is an extension or an intensification of a nascent trend. Teams like the Red Sox and Astros have given up lots of value in return for elite relief pitchers, not as closers, but as excellent set-up men to pitch the 8th behind the excellent closers those teams already had. I first heard this mentioned by Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus, on the Effectively Wild podcast, and Russell Carleton took a dive into the numbers to find that set-up men indeed have the potential to be nearly as valuable as closers. The standard sabermetric wisdom is that pitching the ninth is basically the same as pitching the eighth, which implies that pitching the eighth is almost the same as pitching the ninth. A second elite reliever can therefore provide almost as much value as the first.
The Yankees, however, have taken this a step further in acquiring Chapman. Under basically any measure of pitcher performance, the Yankees already had two of the very, very best relievers in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. In 2015, by FanGraph's FIP-based WAR, they were the third- and sixth-best relievers; by Baseball Prospectus's DRA-based WAR, they the first- and eighth-best; by RA9-WAR, they were the first- and eleventh-best; by Win Probability Added, they were the second- and third-best. The Yankees already had a dominant bullpen! Then they added Chapman, who ranked second, tenth, fourth, and sixteenth in the above categories. The FanGraphs depth charts, without Chapman, put the Yankees bullpen at 4.1 WAR, already tied with the Red Sox for first. Adding Chapman catapults them ahead by a 60% margin over the Red Sox. If they meet that 6.5 WAR projection, the Yankees' bullpen 2016 season will have been the 24th-best bullpen season since 1980.
So we've established that Chapman is good, and the Yankees bullpen is set up to be dominant, but there are several caveats. The first is the extension of what Russell discussed in the above article, in that there are diminishing returns to bullpen upgrades. Per that article, the value of an elite closer over an average pitcher in the ninth was about 3.0 wins over the course of a season; in the eighth, it's 2.2 wins. A similar decline should probably be expected into the seventh inning. There are a limited number of high-leverage opportunities in a season, and now the Yankees have three pitchers to cover those opportunities, rather than two. It stands to reason that Chapman will be worth less to the Yankees than he would be worth to a team without a closer. Still worth a lot! The Yankees get to use Miller or Betances in the seventh instead of Chasen Shreve. But definitely worth less.
The second caveat ties into the domestic violence investigation. Chapman could be facing a hefty suspension, which may either work to the Yankees benefit or detriment. He's entering his sixth full year as a major leaguer, with 5 years and 34 days of service time. Chapman therefore needs to accrue 138 days this year to hit free agency in the 2016–17 offseason, which would normally be trivial. However, under MLB's new domestic violence policy, described here, "suspended players will not accrue Major League service." As a result, with 182 days in the Yankees schedule this year, a suspension of 45 games or more would prevent Chapman from reaching six years, and the Yankees will control him for the next two seasons rather than one. He won't be super cheap – he's due for about $13mm this year, and he'll get another trip through arbitration and corresponding raise next offseason should he miss the service time requirement for free agency – but he'll certainly cost less than he would on the open market.
On the other hand, he could get suspended for less than 45 days, in which case he'd miss some of the season with no benefit to the Yankees, or suspended for the majority of the season, in which case the Yankees traded for a player they won't be able to deploy until 2017. With no precedent under the domestic violence policy, it's hard to say what options are or aren't on the table. There's substantial uncertainty around what exactly the Yankees just got. And this is looking only at the actual baseball part of the discussion. There's a broader and more complicated uncertainty to consider as well. Having Chapman on the roster could alienate fans and send a negative message about the degree to which the club cares about domestic violence.
The final caveat is that if the Yankees aren't great, this acquisition looks a lot worse. Their pitching staff looks strong, with the aforementioned bullpen backing up a solid rotation featuring Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, CC Sabathia, and Ivan Nova, but their best projected batter is Brian McCann, at 3.1 WAR per FanGraph's depth charts, and he's the only player above 3.0. They should be fine – they trail only the Red Sox in the AL East in projected WAR – but should they falter, suddenly there are three elite relievers vying for a declining number of high-leverage opportunities in their bullpen. This 'super-bullpen' really needs to be backing up a competent team to be used to its fullest potential. To the Yankees, Chapman is a high-volatility investment in almost every sense of the word.
None of those considerations, alone or in combination, makes this a bad trade; they simply change the expected value Chapman provides to the Yankees and what they should have been willing to give up to get him. The Yankees acquired a risky asset for whom other teams chose not to trade, but in exchange they sent four prospects, none of whom stands out as a likely big contributor.
Caleb Cotham is a 28-year-old reliever who debuted last year, so while he's probably as Major League-ready as he'll ever be, he's also projected by Steamer for a 4.26 FIP, and there's nothing in his minor league history to contradict that. Tony Renda just finished his age-24 season at Double-A with an average wRC+ playing at a non-premium defensive position. Eric Jagielo has hit well in the minors, but it seems unlikely he'll stick at third base, and a spate of recent injuries combined with the emergence of Greg Bird made him even more disposable to the Yankees than a normal 23-year-old in Double-A.
Finally, Rookie Davis is the closest thing to a centerpiece of this package; he appeared frequently in Carson Cistulli's Fringe Five series, which aims to identify minor leaguers whose combination of youth, position, and ability make them promising despite not appearing on most prospect lists. Starting the year at High-A, Davis recorded both an excellent strikeout rate of 25.9 percent and an excellent walk rate of 4.4 percent, though those numbers declined sharply after his promotion to Double-A. Still, it seems that he's the player the Yankees are most likely to regret losing in this package.
The Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman – inherently risky, as a reliever; riskier than usual, because of their already-full bullpen; and of less use to them than a team without the aforementioned already-full bullpen – but gave up very little to do so. This trade features a huge quality/quantity mismatch – 24 years of service time for 1 or 2 – and it's impossible to know if the Reds could have done better. Should one of these four players develop into an average major leaguer, they'll be very happy with this return, but on the whole it seems unlikely.
It's difficult not to like this trade for the Yankees from a perspective focused solely on performance. They made their 2016 team substantially better, with only a minor impact on the teams of 2017 and beyond. We normally talk about the cost of deal in prospects, surplus value, and the time value of money. In this case, the cost is largely one of reputation. There are plenty of reasons to think the Yankees shouldn't have made this trade. They made it because of the tangible on-field benefits and despite the intangible moral considerations.
. . .
Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.