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Why Andrew McCutchen is a Yankee

The Yankees just couldn’t wait for Aaron Judge any longer.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It’s funny how the simplest things can ruin even the most well-crafted plans. Thousands of human hours spent by baseball’s sharpest minds in the Yankees front office meticulously researched the best way to build the roster, not just for 2018 but in the years leading up to this as well. Scouts spent even more hours scouring the country searching for the best draft prospects in the nation, settling on Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge in 2013. Coaches throughout the organization spent countless hours and days developing him into an elite baseball-destroying machine. All of this planning—millions of dollars of investment—was undone by a single pitch.

On July 26th, Judge took a Jakob Junis fastball off the wrist causing a hairline fracture. His original disabled list prognosis was three weeks, but he only just resumed light baseball activities recently. In his place, here’s who the Yankees started in right field (or DH when Giancarlo Stanton played the field):

  • Neil Walker 16 times- he’s batting .186/.314/.326 while playing right field and DH in place of Judge.
  • Shane Robinson 11 times- hitting .143/.208/.224 through 54 plate appearances this season, nearly all of which have come in Judge’s spot.
  • Greg Bird/Luke Voit four times- The Yankees occasionally use both of their first basemen, with one as the DH and Stanton in right field. Voit has been pretty awesome this year, but Bird has struggled mightily.
  • Two interleague games with Stanton in the outfield and no DH.

All of this has replaced a 156 wRC+ juggernaut who’s also outstanding defensively. Judge has an 8.1 ultimate zone rating (UZR) in right field this year, which prorates to 16.0 UZR/150 games. Walker, a career infielder, has seen the most playing time in since the injury, and his defense is almost as big a dropoff as his offense (-22.5 UZR/150).

This is a long way of saying how desperately the Yankees need Andrew McCutchen.

The 2013 NL MVP isn’t an elite player anymore, but he’s still an above average hitter and competent fielder. Frankly, that’s a lot more than could be said of Neil Walker and Shane Robinson. With the Giants this season, he’s slashing .255/.357/.415 in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, giving him a respectable 115 wRC+. His -0.7 UZR in right field means he’s been roughly an average defender. Moving to a much smaller, less defensively complex outfield home can only help.

Even after Judge returns, McCutchen could still provide value. Left fielder Brett Gardner hasn’t been himself all season. His 92 wRC+ is his worst output since 2009—his rookie year. He’s still elite defensively, but he’s become a liability in a lineup decimated by injuries. Making matters worse, August has been his worst month (.198/.276/.315). At the very least, McCutchen is a superior option against left-handed pitchers, sporting a 124 wRC+ compared to Gardner’s 85. Expect McCutchen to see plenty of action at Gardner's expense.

If McCutchen so obviously fills a need, why didn’t the Yankees and Giants pull the trigger sooner? General Manager Brian Cashman believes other teams were holding him over a barrel, charging a high price for an outfielder because of their desperate need. Another reason might have more to do with existing payroll. The Yankees made no secret this offseason about their desire to stay under the $197M luxury tax. Before the McCutchen trade, they were on the hook for about $178M in salaries, plus roughly $15M in benefits (which are also part of the luxury tax limit). That puts them dangerously close to the cap.

McCutchen is owed about $3M dollars for the rest of this season (his total yearly salary is 14.75M, 2.5M of which is paid by the Pirates). After that, he’ll become a free agent, so there’s no long term commitment. As of yet, there’s no report of the Giants sending any money in the deal, but surely the Yankees are just scraping under the luxury tax limbo bar.

In addition to a modest cost savings, the Giants receive prospect Abiatal Avelino, an infielder in triple-A. MLB Pipeline ranks him the #23 propsect in the Yankees deep system. He mostly played shortstop in the minors, but also has lots of experience at second base and third base. Speed is a big part of his game (170 steals in seven minor league seasons), but this year he’s added a power component. He belted 15 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018 after hitting just 16 combined in all his prior seasons. He doesn’t walk much and his bat has never been consistent, but at 23-years-old he’s an interesting addition to the San Francisco organization. Perhaps he could even debut this September.

The Yankees are pretty well cemented into a Wild Card spot. They’re eight and a half games behind the Red Sox in the AL East and nine games in front of the Mariners for the Wild Card. Most likely, adding McCutchen won’t change their fate. Still, you never know if the Red Sox could suddenly freeze or the Mariners become red hot. Even more distressing would be another setback from Judge. In a one game playoff, the Yankees need the peace of mind to know they won’t have to start Shane Robinson.

UPDATE: As per MLB Trade Rumors, low-A right-hander Juan De Paula is also going to the Gaints in the deal. He has a sensational 2.09 RA9 in the short season New York Penn League this year, but his 3.44 FIP suggests he got a little lucky. The Giants will also cover some portion of McCutchen’s remaining salary.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983