Now that the draft is complete, MLB front offices have turned their attention to the trade deadline to look for ways to improve their big league rosters. The deadline is only six weeks away now, you know. There are going to be more buyers than sellers this summer — the Cardinals have the best record in MLB and the next 16 teams are all within six games of each other in the standings — which means the demand will be greater than the supply.
The Reds figure to sell before the trade deadline because they’re both bad (30-35) and stuck in an extremely competitive division. Having to catch St. Louis would be one thing, but they also have to compete with the red hot Pirates (20-5 in their last 25 games!) and upstart Cubs as well. Cincinnati doesn’t have a ton of pieces that would fit with the Yankees — the Yankees don’t need Jay Bruce or Joey Votto, and Todd Frazier is presumably off limits — but they do have a few. Let’s run ’em down.
LHP Aroldis Chapman
Brian Cashman says the Yankees are looking for a right-handed reliever but I’m sure they’d make an exception for Chapman, who is actually having his worse season since taking over as closer in terms of allowing base-runners. Still, the 27-year-old has an unreal strikeout rate and is generally awesome, and he’d make any bullpen better. Here are the numbers:
Squint your eyes and there are some red flags. His strikeout rate is down (but still great), his swing-and-miss rate is down (but still great), his ground ball rate is down (but he isn’t giving up homers), and his walk rate is up (got nothing there). Chapman is still throwing insanely hard and he’s healthy as far as we know. Give him enough innings and I’m sure that BABIP issue will correct itself. Otherwise everything looks pretty swell.
By elite closer standards, Chapman is a bargain at $8.05M this year with another year of arbitration left next year, when his salary figures to climb into the $12M range. He’ll be a free agent after the 2016 season. Cincinnati’s best chance to get maximum value is right now, when the acquiring team would be getting Chapman for two potential postseason runs, not one. They’d also limit their risk because relievers like to melt down without warning.
Not many relievers of Chapman’s caliber have been traded recently — Craig Kimbrel was under contract for three more years plus an option for a fourth at the time of his trade — so there aren’t any deals we can reference. Half a season of Andrew Miller was traded for a pretty good pitching prospect last year, and Chapman’s track record as an elite reliever is much longer than Miller’s. That’s about as close as it gets.
My guess — and I emphasize that this is a guess — is the Reds would want three players for their ace closer: a top prospect, an MLB ready piece, and a good but not great secondary prospect. That’s where I’d probably start if I was them. Give me someone I could put on my roster right now, a really good prospect, and then another guy too. Negotiate from there. Chapman’s awesome. Would creating the best three-headed bullpen monster in history be worth it at that price to the Yankees?
RHP Johnny Cueto
Cueto, 29, is going to be the top pitching prize at the trade deadline. Yeah, Cole Hamels is great too, but his contract takes some teams right out of the running. Cueto is a rent-an-ace owed about $6M the rest of the season. Every single team could find a way to make that work financially. Do all of them have the prospects to make a deal happen? That’s a different story. I think the Yankees would be able to get it done, for what it’s worth.
Anyway, unless the Reds unexpectedly sign Cueto to an extension — that’s probably not going to happen at this point, mostly because the team is already bumping up against their tight payroll limit — they’ll trade him before the deadline because they simply can’t settle for a draft pick after the season. That’s not enough. Cueto’s probably a goner either way, trade or free agency, and they need to get as much as possible for someone of his caliber. Here are his numbers:
A series of lat strains limited Cueto to those 60.2 innings two years ago but he was healthy before that and has been healthy since then. The decline in ground ball rate isn’t all that scary because grounders were never his thing anyway — Cueto’s a weak pop-up pitcher who consistently keeps hitters off balance and misses the sweet spot (third lowest hard contact rate since 2011). We’re going to need some visual aids here. To the action footage:
Cueto did miss two starts earlier this season with elbow inflammation and that’s a concern. He’s been fine since, but still, any time a pitcher feels a twinge in his elbow, it’s a red flag. The risk is somewhat mitigated by Cueto’s impending free agency — if you trade for him and his elbow gives out, you can walk away after the season and not have a long-term problem — but you’re still going to have to hold your breath and hope he holds up down the stretch. It’s only natural to feel that way once an elbow starts barking.
The Yankees scouted Cueto over the weekend and then again last night according to Jon Morosi, though I’m guessing that was due diligence more than anything at this point. Either way, Cueto is a capital-A Ace who would instantly improve any rotation. As I pointed out the other day, rental aces are rarely traded, mostly because those guys don’t get to free agency in their primes all that often. The 2012 Zack Greinke and 2008 CC Sabathia trades are the best reference points we have, and they indicate it will take 3-4 good prospects to get a deal done.
There are two ways to look at this. One, the Yankees should get Cueto right now to improve their postseason chances. The longer they wait, the fewer starts they get out of him. Two, the Yankees should wait, see where they are at the deadline, then decide whether to pull the trigger. This isn’t a Cliff Lee situation — the 2010 Yankees were a World Series caliber team looking to add a rental ace to push themselves over the top. The 2015 Yankees are just trying to scratch and claw their way into October. Is gutting the farm system for two or three months of Cueto worth it?
RHP Mike Leake
The 27-year-old Leake is the Reds other impending free agent hurler, though he’s no ace like Cueto. Leake is a perfectly fine mid-rotation starter who helps hold down the fort, not push you over the top. The Yankees were scouting him along with Cueto over the weekend, but again, due diligence, not necessarily serious interest. Let’s get the numbers out of the way:
Leake got off to a tremendous start this season then crashed back to Earth hard and fast. The home run issues probably won’t be as extreme all year (19.7 HR/FB% vs. career 14.1%) and his strikeout rate isn’t that far removed from his career norm (16.1%), so even though his ERA continues to trend in the wrong direction, the underlying performance isn’t all that different. Leake is still limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground. That’s what he does.
Believe it or not, Leake’s salary this season is almost exactly the same as Cueto’s ($10M vs. $9.775M), though it’ll obviously cost much less to acquire him. Lots of mid-rotation guys get traded prior to free agency — Brandon McCarthy, Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, Justin Masterson, and Ricky Nolasco were all dealt at the deadline of their walk year in the not too distant past. The return package was anything from one okay prospect to four good prospects. Let’s split the middle and say two prospects will get it done. Sound good?
Acquiring pitching depth is never a bad thing, but how exactly would Leake help the Yankees? As things stand right now, he barely moves the needle. I think the only way pursuing Leake makes sense for New York is if they lose a few starters to injury these next few weeks, which is always possible. Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) are perpetual injury risks and we still have no idea what Ivan Nova (elbow) will look like when he returns. Leake is available. At this point in time his usefulness to the Yankees is limited.
2B Brandon Phillips
I suppose it’s time for our annual “say no to Brandon Phillips” post. Phillips is actually having an okay year with the bat, hitting .295/.333/.364 (92 wRC+) overall, which makes it his best offensive season since 2012. But still, we’re talking about a player who a) turns 34 in less than two weeks, b) is owed roughly $35M through 2017, c) is slipping in the field according to every available metric, d) is battling more and more nagging injuries (groin and toe this year), and e) is losing power each year:
There’s a lot of value in batting average and putting the ball in play, two things Phillips is doing well this season, but he is clearly a player in decline. A player in decline who is owed a lot of money and tends to be a distraction when things aren’t going his way. The Reds offered Phillips for Brett Gardner straight up during the 2013-14 offseason and the Yankees wisely said no.
Yes, Stephen Drew is terrible and no, there is no reason to expect him to stop being terrible. Drew’s a problem and the Yankees need an upgrade. Locking themselves into two and a half years of the declining and overpriced Phillips should not be the solution, however, even if he comes in what amounts to a salary dump trade. Phillips has had a heck of a career and he was a very good player for many years, but he is no longer that player despite being paid to be that player. The Reds have been trying to move him for a while now, and, as bad as Drew is, the Yankees shouldn’t let Cincinnati off the hook. This is a contract they’ll have to live with.
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The Yankees and Reds might actually match up well for a trade. Cincinnati needs outfielders even with top prospect Jesse Winker on the way because Bruce is trade bait and Billy Hamilton simply can’t get on base, plus Marlon Byrd is hurt and an impending free agent. They’ve had Ivan DeJesus Jr., Brennan Boesch, Kris Negron, and Skip Schumaker start games in the outfield recently. Yikes. The Yankees have lots of upper level outfielders — Mason Williams, Ramon Flores, Tyler Austin, Ben Gamel — so Cincinnati can take their pick.
I am decidedly anti-Phillips and Leake doesn’t help much, but Chapman and Cueto are difference-makers the Yankees have to at least consider pursuing. Maybe there’s a Nathan Eovaldi plus Luis Severino plus Aaron Judge plus other stuff for Chapman and Cueto trade to be made. (My trade proposal sucks.) The Reds are going to be sellers at the trade deadline and both Chapman and Cueto are extremely desirable pieces who would help any team, including the Yankees.