The trade deadline is less than a day and a half away, and the wheeling and dealing is intensifying. This is a fun trade, for reasons beyond the transaction itself, so let’s jump in.
- The Yankees acquire Jaime García, 31-year-old lefthanded starter, and the majority of the $4.5m remaining on his contract (which expires at the end of the season).
- The Twins acquire Zack Littell, a 21-year-old righthanded starter promoted to AA last month, and Dietrich Enns, a 26-year-old lefthanded starter at AAA.
The Yankees, like almost literally other team with designs on the playoffs, have plenty of use for a decent starter. Their fifth starter slot since the All-Star Break has been occupied by Caleb Smith and Luis Cessa, and in those three games they’ve combined for 10 2⁄3 innings, nine runs, eight walks, and eight strikeouts. García might not technically be the Yankees’ fifth starter, but those are the kind of players he’ll be taking innings away from, and he’ll be a substantial improvement.
The longtime Cardinals lefty is a very solid, if unexceptional, starter. García’s career year came in 2015, his sixth full season in the majors, when he held a 2.43 ERA, 3.00 FIP, and 3.05 DRA across 129 innings. Since then, he’s looked more good than great, with a 4.51 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 4.82 DRA, but that’s still a respectable pitcher who the Yankees will be glad to have. Going forward, he projection systems all peg García for an ERA somewhere between 4.00 and 4.50, and he’ll add a dose of consistency to the rotation in the Bronx.
And while it might feel strange to talk about the big-spending Yankees wanting to save money, it matters a lot that they were able to add a pitcher without taking on much of a financial commitment. The luxury tax is newly structured so that the penalties for overages are much, much harsher if the team in question has gone over for several consecutive years. Getting under the threshold for just a single year, and resetting the tax to its baseline level, can save a team huge amounts of money.
With an opening-day payroll of $212.9 million, the Yankees are over the standard luxury tax threshold, but there is also a surtax that is assessed whenever a team crosses $215 million, and that’s what New York is looking to stay below for 2017. By taking on García but leaving much of his salary in Minnesota, the Yankees managed to get better and stay on the right side of the surtax.
But money doesn’t come for free, and New York had to give up a bit more in prospects for García as a result of their penny-pinching. Indeed, we can pinpoint almost exactly how much more, since the Twins traded for García just a week ago, sending 19-year-old righty Huascar Ynoa to the Braves in exchange. (Backup catcher Anthony Recker went to the Twins in the deal as well.) But the Braves wouldn’t take on any of García’s salary commitments; by giving up that cash in this deal with the Yankees, Minnesota was essentially able to turn a 19-year-old live arm, with a long and winding path to the big leagues, into two high-minors prospects who could contribute as soon as 2018.
Littell was a Mariners draftee back in 2013 who has steadily progressed through the low minors. He had a 1.77 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 71 1⁄3 innings at high-A, primarily as a starter, before he was promoted to AA in June. He’s made seven starts at the new level, and run an excellent 2.05 ERA and 2.31 FIP. But his stat line might overstate his likely effectiveness in the big leagues; Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs described him as a “pitchability righty with fringey stuff” in his preseason Yankees prospect list, the kind of guy who can work his way around minor leaguers but gets eaten up in the bigs. But that’s also the profile of a pitcher who has sometimes been underestimated as a prospect, so it’s worth noting that KATOH, Chris Mitchell’s statistical prospect model, ranked Littell as the 99th-best prospect in the minors just a few days ago.
Enns is closer to the big leagues than Littell, but with substantially less upside. He’s in his second season at AAA, and in seven starts, is running a 2.29 ERA and 2.73 FIP. But Enns is getting to those numbers by suppressing home runs (0.23 HR/9), not by striking loads of batters out (23.6 percent strikeout rate) or with top-notch control (6.4 percent walk rate). As best I can tell, he hasn’t ever made a top-prospect list. He could certainly pitch in the big leagues sooner rather than later, but Enns is unlikely to be an impact player.
Still, that’s not a bad return for half a season of a decent-but-unexciting starting pitcher and a few million bucks. You might have whiplash from the Twins rapid switch from buyer to seller, but it’s hard to argue with their decision-making process, or the results.
When Minnesota traded for García last Tuesday, they had a 12.6 percent shot at the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. Acquiring García was a bit of a headscratcher at the time; it seemed to indicate a desire to compete that wasn’t backed up by their true-talent (FanGraphs projects them to have a .460 winning percentage the rest of the way) or their position in the standings. But for a team like Minnesota, whose fans have endured a ton of disappointment over recent years with very little success mixed in, even a slight shot at the playoffs is worth trying to capitalize on.
But since then, they’ve lost three of four, and rounded out a week which saw them go 1–5. For a team right on the bubble like the Twins, a string of losses can mean a lot, just as a string of wins can mean a lot. And this is where Minnesota’s front office starts to look very savvy. By acquiring García nearly a week before the deadline, they were able to hedge ever so slightly on their gamble. If the Twins had won three of four, they probably don’t trade him, and in that scenario, they still are much more likely than not to miss the playoffs and have sent away a prospect for not much in return. But in this scenario, where they fall even further out of the race between the acquisition of García and the actual deadline, they were able to put together another deal.
Nor did this deal simply undo the original bargain, and restore the Twins to their status from Tuesday morning. By acting almost as the third leg of a three-way trade, Minnesota was able to give up a low-minors prospect and cash (something it has in abundance, thanks to a payroll of just over $100 million) and get two high-minors prospects in return. Neither Enns nor Littell are high-profile, and Ynoa might be better than both of them one day, but at 19, he carries far, far more risk than either of them. The Twins have certainly upgraded their system through this series of moves.
Will anybody else switch from buyer to seller before the deadline officially passes tomorrow? Will the Twins switch back to buyers??? (No.) The only thing we can be certain of: it’ll be a fun...
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