According to George King, the Yankees are among the teams to check in with the Tigers about left-hander Justin Wilson. Detroit is kinda sorta trying to get younger and trim payroll — they salary dumped Cameron Maybin to clear a spot for JaCoby Jones earlier this offseason — and cashing in Wilson as a trade chip given the current bullpen market seems like a good idea.
The Tigers are looking for “controllable Major League arms” for Wilson, says King, and the Yankees passed because they found that too prohibitive. Funny how things have turned out, eh? The Tigers gave up two controllable arms (Luis Cessa and Chad Green) to get Wilson last winter, and now they’re looking to flip him for basically the same package. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this.
1. When did the Yankees ask about Wilson? Was it before or after agreeing to a deal with Aroldis Chapman? If it was before, the Yankees may have only been doing their due diligence and looking at backup plans in case Chapman went elsewhere. If it was after, then we know they’re still seriously looking to improve their middle relief. Earlier this winter Brian Cashman indicated he wants to improve his bullpen beyond adding a closer, so it’s entirely possible the Yankees are thinking Chapman and Wilson, not Chapman or Wilson.
2. If the Yankees still want a lefty, just sign a free agent. During the Winter Meetings last week we heard the Yankees want to add a lefty reliever this offseason to join (or replace?) Tommy Layne. Not just Chapman, but a middle innings guy for left-on-left matchup work. Wilson is certainly qualified to do that — he’s overqualified, actually, since he can get out righties as well — but why trade prospects for a lefty reliever when there are so many free agents available?
Those are 2015-16 numbers against left-handed batters. Four of those players are free agents. Why trade prospects for Wilson when someone like Blevins or Logan can do the job just as well, if not better? Perhaps the “gets righties out too” part is too great to ignore. The Yankees have a matchup left-on-left reliever in Layne. If they are planning to carry two middle southpaws, it would be nice if one could get righties out, and Wilson can do that. The other four guys in the table generally can not.
3. Wilson wasn’t as good in 2016 as he was in 2015. During his one season with the Yankees, Wilson was really awesome. He was a legitimate high-leverage reliever Joe Girardi shoehorned into the seventh inning role, but Wilson could have easily gotten outs in the eighth or even ninth inning. And sometimes he did. This past season though, Wilson’s performance took a step back.
Improved ground ball and walks rates coupled with a slight decline in strikeout rate is generally a good thing, I’d say. For Wilson this year, it wasn’t. He was more hittable overall — opponents hit .223/.293/.309 against Wilson in 2015 and .263/.316/.392 in 2016 — and it showed up in his ERA.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Wilson had some elbow problems this summer. He was shut down for a few days with soreness in June, then, in August, he needed a cortisone shot. Wilson was so inconsistent this past season that Bless You Boys took a deep dive. It’s entirely possible the Yankees traded Wilson at exactly the right time, before he started to break down.
4. The trade looks pretty good now, doesn’t it? Understandably, many folks didn’t like the Wilson deal when it went down. He was pretty great for the Yankees and they traded him for two unknowns. I myself had never heard of Green, and I’m as big a baseball nerd as you’ll find. Cessa’s name might have rung a bell only because he was the second piece in last year’s Yoenis Cespedes trade.
This past season, Cessa and Green showed bonafide Major League stuff during their relatively brief big league cameos. Maybe they’re only relievers long-term — I think Cessa has a much better chance to start than Green at this point in time — but they are big leaguers, not prospects, and that’s pretty great. Turning a reliever with three years of control into two pitchers with six years of control each was a nifty, albeit unpopular at the time, move by Cashman.