Possible trade target: Toronto’s bullpen

We’re a little more than halfway through the season, and it’s now painfully obvious that the Yankees need some help at the back of the bullpen. The setup crew that helped the team to the World Championship last year has been largely inconsistent (or hurt) this year, and even the depth pieces in Triple-A have been unimpressive. Jon Albaladejo might be able to help, sure, but when three-sevenths of the big league bullpen is Chad Gaudin, Chan Ho Park, and Dustin Moseley, it’s going to take more than one move to right this ship.

The trade market for relievers is usually full of retreads or one year wonders, but there’s one team out there with three effective bullpen arms to market before the trade deadline. That team is the free falling Toronto Blue Jays, who have gone 11-20 over the last month or so.

Photo Credit: Mark Duncan, AP

Let’s start in the 9th inning and work our way back. The Jays have made closer Kevin Gregg available, re-routing a scout to Seattle to over the weekend, perhaps to check out the Yanks. I’m not sure who Toronto would want off the Yanks’ big league roster, or perhaps I’m better off saying I’m not sure who Toronto thinks they’ll be able to get off the Yanks’ big league roster, maybe Colin Curtis or Ramiro Pena. It won’t be anyone more than that, I think we can safely say.

The 32-year-old Gregg is a capital-C closer, meaning that he occupies the high profile role without the guarantee of being effective. He’s actually been better than ever this season, with a 3.67 FIP and 3.88 xFIP through 34.1 IP, better marks than what he posted during his best years with the Marlins. Gregg has always missed bats (8.91 K/9 since 2007) and his strikeout rate is a career high 9.70 K/9 this year, but his walk rate is far too high for an end-game reliever at 4.72 BB/9, a full walk over his career rate. We really don’t have any reason to expect Gregg to be any better than that going forward, and his skill set screams a more experienced version of David Robertson. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

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Setting up Gregg has been the lefty-righty tandem of Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, both of whom have served as Toronto’s closer at one time or another in the past few seasons. Downs is enjoying yet another fine season in a career full of them, locking things down to the tune of a 3.14 FIP and 3.58 xFIP. He’s not just a LOOGY either, and believe it or not he’s actually performed better against righties than lefties over the last season and a half. With a walk rate that has gotten progressively better over the last four seasons, Downs has limited the free passes to just 1.93 BB/9 this season, though it’s worth noting that his swinging strike rate is down to 6.7% (lg avg is 8.4%), a career low.

Frasor, on the other hand, is having the worst season of his career in terms of ERA, but we all know that’s no way to judge a reliever. His strikeout rate is at an all-time high (9.87 K/9), ditto his ground ball rate (50.5%), though the walks are abnormally high at 4.67 BB/9. The 32-year-old righty has run into some bad luck in terms of BABIP (.376) and  strand rate (65.8%), which explains the high ERA, but at the same time we have to acknowledge that as a reliever, he simply might not accrue enough innings to have those totals regress to the mean. He simply might be in the middle of one of those bad luck relief years. It happens.

Contractually, these guys are pretty much all in the same boat. All three can become free agents after the season, though Gregg’s contract has an option for 2011 and 2012. Downs is owed $1.8M the rest of the way and the only projected Type-A free agents of the bunch, while Frasor are Gregg are projected Type-B’s and owed $1.19M and $900,000 (with a $750,000 buyout of the option), respectively. Even if you’re assuming a half-a-win performance after the trade (pretty darn good for a reliever), you’re looking at about $3.5-4M worth of trade value according to Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator, which is worth slightly less than a Grade-B position player prospect according to Victor Wang’s research.

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The Yankees have plenty of depth behind the plate and in the middle infield, as we learned in the Cliff Lee non-trade, so they could surrender someone like David Adams or Corban Joseph or Reegie Corona without missing a beat. The last time the Yankees and Blue Jays made a trade was the George Steinbrenner mandated Raul Mondesi swap, but of course Brian Cashman is in charge now and Toronto is under a new regime. Whether or not Alex Anthopoulos would be open to trading one of his bullpen pieces within the division remains to be seen (he reportedly wanted more in return to deal Roy Halladay to an AL East team, but that’s an extreme circumstance), but frankly he’d be foolish not to. It’s just a reliever, and his priority should be getting the best return possible.

I’m a big Scott Downs fan, so I’d prefer him over either Gregg or Frasor, but I’m not sure if Joe Girardi would be open to using him as a normal reliever instead of just having him face lefties. Gregg is the better of the two righthanders, given his long track record of missing bats. I’m always skeptical of trading for relievers given their penchant for sucking at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason, but if the Yanks are going to make a move for bullpen help, these three probably represent the best available options.

Possible trade target: Adam Kennedy

The 2010 trade deadline is now just 24 days away, and we know GM Brian Cashman considers the bench to be the team’s biggest weakness right now. It’s safe to say that they’re going to bring someone in from outside the organization to shore things between now and then, it’s just a matter of who. We’ve already looked at Jeff Keppinger, Ty Wigginton, David DeJesus, and Octavio Dotel as trade possibilities, so let’s move on to another potential fit: Adam Kennedy.

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The Angels won a whole lotta games last decade with a middle infield of Kennedy and David Eckstein, which kinda blows my mind. You’ve got to be strong up the middle to win, yet Kennedy’s .349 wOBA in 2002 was the greatest offensive production the team got out of either player during their time in Anaheim. Both players have since moved on, shacking up in St. Louis for a few years before Eckstein landed in Toronto, Arizona, and San Diego while Kennedy headed to Durham (minor leagues), Oakland, and now Washington.

Strictly a utility player at this point, Kennedy can play everywhere but shortstop, so right off the bat the Yankees would have to carry an extra player to spell Derek Jeter on occasion. His defensive value at first (-2.3 UZR over the last three seasons), second (+0.7), and third (-5.3) are nothing special at all, but they aren’t horrific and Kennedy could also fake a corner outfield spot in an emergency. He’s not going to remind anyone of Ramiro Pena with the glove, but he’ll hold his own.

On the bases, I was actually surprised to see that Kennedy was so successful at swiping bases. He’s a perfect nine-for-nine in stolen base attempts this year, and 36-for-43 (83.7% success rate) over the last three seasons. In non-stolen base baserunning situations (like moving up on grounders, sac flies, taking the extra base, etc.), Baseball Prospectus says he’s added just about three runs to his team’s ledger, which is a solid total. Quite simply, the guy is a very sound baserunner, a not tremendously important skill but one that’s appreciated. No one likes baserunning gaffes.

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Bench players are almost never anything special with the stick; if they were, they’d be starters somewhere. Kennedy’s lone above average offensive season since 2005 came last year with the A’s (.337 wOBA), though there’s nothing in the peripherals to suggest a massive fluke except a somewhat inflated BABIP (.326). Perhaps it was just a dead cat bounce season for the 34-year-old, since he did revert to his sub-.310 wOBA form this year. The offensive skill set is a simple one: Kennedy makes a lot of contact (88.8%) and slaps the ball into the ground (46.3% grounders), so he doesn’t really drive the ball and hit for power (.107 ISO even with last year). He is a lefty batter, so he’s got that going for him.

Putting it all together, you’ve got a an average (at best) defensive player, a below average offensive player, and an above average baserunner, which for all intents and purposes equals a below average player. Kennedy has been replacement level all season (-0.1 WAR), so it would be foolish to expect him to be anything more than a half-a-win player in the second half, which is what the Yanks got out of Jerry Hairston Jr. last year. There’s about $600,000 left on Kennedy’s contract this year with a $500,000 buyout of his $2M option for next season, so the (monetary)cost isn’t prohibitive. Maybe Cashman could get the Nationals to kick in some money, like he did with the Pirates and Eric Hinske last year.

Kennedy’s trade value is so small that I’m not even going to bother to run him through Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator. We’re talking a Grade-C prospect at best, maybe a guy in Double-A if the Nats kick in a few hundred grand. Looking at the Yanks’ system, that means someone like Zoilo Almonte or Sean Black or Lance Pendleton. No one that will hurt. There hasn’t been any indication that Washington is actively shopping their utility infielder, but they’d be foolish not to listen.

Between Kennedy, Wigginton, and Keppinger, the three guys I’ve previewed, I’d go with Kennedy. Wigginton is a newly minted All Star and has some name recognition that will boost his perceived value beyond his actual value (.198/.314/.260 in his last 156 plate appearances), and Keppinger was never anything special to start with. Like it or not, Kennedy’s playoff and World Series experience does give him a leg up over the other two guys, especially since all three are just as likely to suck.

Possible trade target: Octavio Dotel

The Yankees and Pirates have developed a bit of a big brother-little brother relationship over the last few seasons. Whenever little brother has something that big brother wants, big brother imposes his will on little brother and takes it away. In exchange, big brother will give whatever he doesn’t want to little brother. The Yanks poached Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady from Pittsburgh in 2008, then turned the same trick last year when they grabbed Eric Hinske (and money to pay half his salary!), and in the meantime they’ve been sending their scraps (Steven Jackson, Eric Hacker, Casey Erickson, etc.) to the Steel City.

With an obvious need for a late inning arm in the bullpen, the Yanks could again turn to their little brother in Western Pennsylvania, who have a productive closer and no real need for one. We’ve already looked at trade scenarios involving Jeff Keppinger, Ty Wigginton, and David DeJesus, but now let’s turn our attention to the mound and our old buddy Octavio Dotel.

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Obviously, the Yanks already have a history with Dotel. They signed him to one year deal worth $2M with a bunch of incentives prior to the 2006 season, when the former Met was working his way back from Tommy John surgery. He ultimately appeared in just 14 late seasons games for the Bombers, and predictably battled control issues (very common after elbow surgery) as he pitched to a 7.50 xFIP in ten measly innings. The two sides parted ways after the season, and Dotel has since pitched for Royals, Braves, White Sox, and now Pirates.

The now 36-year-old righty has changed a bit through the years, replacing the upper-90’s gas with a low-90’s heater while scaling back it’s usage a bit in favor of a curveball. He’s still got the wipeout slider and still racks up a ton of strikeouts, but the walks have increased and so have the fly balls. The elbow has yet to give Dotel any more trouble, but he has dealt with some oblique issues (including this spring) and had a shoulder strain back in 2007. Any pitcher can hurt his arm at any given moment, but it’s less of a concern when the guy is on a short contract.

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That short contract will pay Dotel about $1.9M the rest of the season, and there’s a $500,000 buyout for his $4.5M option for next season. He projects to be a Type-B free agent quite comfortably, so if whatever team holds his rights at the end of the season is feeling frisky, they could decline his option and offer him arbitration for a shot at a supplement first round draft pick. On the downside, he could accept and be looking at an arbitration award north of $4M (ooo saves, shiny).

While it’s clear that the Yankees could use another end game arm, I’m not 100% convinced that Dotel is the answer. His walk and homerun rates aren’t necessarily a deal breaker, but they’re not the kinds of characteristics you want to see in a high leverage reliever. Experience certainly counts for something (to his credit, Dotel’s been pitching in high leverage spots his entire career), but it won’t overcome 5.34 BB/9 and 54.2% fly balls in a park that’s inflated homerun totals by something like 32% since being opened (using ESPN’s park factors). The element of name recognition comes into play here, so Dotel’s trade value is going to be perceived to be higher than his actual value.

Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator pegs Dotel’s trade value at $5M in the best case scenario, which is equivalent to a Grade-B hitting prospect or two Grade-C pitching prospects under the age of 22 according to Victor Wang’s research. Think Corban Joseph or Jairo Heredia and Nik Turley, something along those lines. For a three or four month rental of an inherently volatile reliever? I think I’ll pass.

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Related Aside: Look at how many relievers have been traded on the deadline. Too many to count. How many went on to be productive for their new team? A whole lot less, that’s for sure. The position is just so unpredictable, it doesn’t matter how good a guy’s track record is when you acquire him. He might suck unexpectedly and for no reason whatsoever. That’s why I hate spending big money and giving multiple years to bullpeners.

Possible trade target: David DeJesus

The Yankees boast a .361 OBP and a .355 wOBA as a team, the best and second best marks in baseball, respectively, but they still seem to be one bat short. Part of the problem is the underperforming Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but Nick Johnson‘s absence (.388 OBP before getting hurt) hurts as well. There have been rumors that the Yanks will look to acquire another hitter before next month’s trade deadline, and that it could be a versatile outfielder. We’ve already looked at a pair of possible bench options in Jeff Keppinger and Ty Wigginton, and now it’s time to look at a potential every day player: David DeJesus.

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Over the last two seasons, perhaps no player has been linked to the Yankees in speculative rumors more than DeJesus, and I’ve never quite figured out why. He was born in Brooklyn but raised in New Jersey, and I remember him having a pretty big series in the Bronx a few seasons back, but that’s pretty much the only connection I can find. Then again, the Yankees were in need of a young and productive outfielder for quite a few years there, so he made sense.

The 30-year-old DeJesus is enjoying the finest season of his career this year, already racking up 2.3 WAR in the team’s first 73 games (five win pace). His .325/.394/.482 batting line (.383 wOBA) represents career highs across the board and not not by small margins either, though a BABIP 41 points over his established career baseline is certainly helping things out. DeJesus has shown a pretty significant platoon split in his career (.319 wOBA vs. LHP, .358 vs. RHP), though it’s not as pronounced as say, Curtis Granderson‘s. For what it’s worth, ZiPS rest of the projection calls for a .297/.369/.451 batting line (.360 wOBA) the rest of the way, which represents a career year.

Defensively, DeJesus can play all three outfield spots, though he’s at his best in left (+18.9 UZR/150 career) and is basically average in center (-1.2) and right (+0.1). This year is the first time he’s played right on basically an every day basis, though he doesn’t really have the arm strength typically associated with the position. Regardless, he’s no worst than a league average defensive outfielder on a full-time basis.

Baserunning is a different matter, because DeJesus is a shockingly bad basestealer. He’s not Robbie Cano bad, but bad enough. He’s just 18-for-38 in stolen base attempts over the last three years, which is an unacceptable 47.4% success rate. I know some people don’t like the word unacceptable, but I think it absolutely applies in this situation. If you aren’t a good basestealer, you simply stop trying to steal bases. Easy fix, end of story. The good news is that DeJesus is a very good baserunner in all other baserunning situations (moving up on grounders, going first-to-third, etc.), having been worth 8.34 runs above average in those spots since 2008.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga, AP

As for the cash money, DeJesus is owed about $2.6M the rest of this season, and there’s a $6M option for his services in 2011 with a $500,000 buyout. He’s currently projected to be a Type-B free agent, but he’s very close to Type-A status (exactly one point away) and could conceivably play his way there in the second half. Remember that every dollar the Yankees spend is actually $1.40 because of the luxury tax, so the $3.1M he’s guaranteed becomes a $4.34M expense for the Yanks. If they pick up the option, it becomes more than a $12M expense. Hal Steinbrenner put his foot down with the budget last year, refusing to approve a trade for Mike Cameron because it would have added $5M to the payroll, and so far there hasn’t been any indication that he will budge this year.

The problem with DeJesus isn’t production, far from it. The money is an issue that the brain trust will have to consider, but there’s also the question of where exactly does he fit with the team? The Yankees already boast a tremendously productive starting outfield in Brett Gardner (2.0 WAR), Nick Swisher (2.3), and Granderson (1.4), so it’s not like DeJesus is going to come in and take one of those guys’ job. The designated hitter’s spot is, for all intents and purposes, open for the rest of the year because you can’t count on Johnson a) returning anytime soon, and b) staying healthy when he does return. I suppose a five headed outfield/designated hitter platoon monster of Gardner, Granderson, Swisher, DeJesus, and Marcus Thames could be employed, but when is the last time a team tried something crazy like that and it actually worked?

We still don’t know what the Royals will ask for in exchange their best outfielder, but they’re not going to just give him away given his age, production, and salary. Assuming the option is picked up, Sky Kalkman’s trade value calculator pegs DeJesus’ trade value at $26.5M, which Victor Wang’s research says is basically equivalent to a top hitting prospect, or a top pitching prospect and a lesser prospect. If you want to start piecing together Grade-B and C prospects, you’re talking three players minimum. If Kansas City were to kick in any money in the deal, that’s just more you’d have to surrender in terms of young players.

This post isn’t intended to say whether or not the Yankees should look to go out and acquire DeJesus, I’m just presenting the information and explaining what the situation is. There’s no denying that he’s an above average every day player, but there are very real cost issues – in terms of both money and players – that need to be addressed, plus the entire playing time situation.

Possible trade target: Ty Wigginton

As we move closer to the trade deadline (barely more than five weeks away now), we’re going to take a look at a few players that may or may not make sense for the Yankees given their needs. It seems foolish to waste time writing about players that don’t make sense for the Yanks, but most of the time their names will be linked to the team just because, so we might as well give our two cents. We’ve already looked at one bench option in Jeff Keppinger, and now it’s time to look at another: Ty Wigginton.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

I’m not sure why, but Wigginton seems to have a lot of Mark DeRosa in him, in that lots of fans think he’d be the perfect utility player for the Yankees. He’s kind of a big name and has had some big seasons in the past, so it’s a match made in baseball rumor heaven.

Wiggy certainly had himself a huge start the season, hitting .300/.361/.613 with 13 homers in his first 167 plate appearances, which I’m sure the Orioles loved because it boosted his trade value. Since then though, the former Met is hitting a whopping .225/.349/.270 in 109 plate appearances, bringing his overall season line to .272/.356/.485. That’s still very good obviously, and it’s not completely out of whack because he’s produced like that over full seasons before. For what it’s worth, ZiPS rest of the season projection calls for .280/.343/.464 with 11 more homers the rest of the way, but that assumes he’ll be playing on an every day basis, which he most certainly would not being doing on the Yankees.

Photo Credit: Rob Carr, AP

Defensively, Wigginton does offer extreme versatility, having spent considerable time at every infield spot but shortstop, plus the corner outfield positions. He’s not very good at any of those spots though, with negative UZR‘s across the board over the last few seasons (some in the double digits) and there’s no reason to expect him to improve at age-32. Not that he would be asked to steal or anything, but Wigginton is 5-for-14 in stolen base attempts over the last three years, and has cost his team about three runs on the bases in non-stolen base situations during that time. For all intents and purposes, he’s a righthanded bat off the bench that can fake it at several spots defensively.

As for contract status, Wigginton is owed just a touch under $2M for the remainder of the season, and he’ll become a free agent this winter. He isn’t projected to be any kind of compensation free agent either, and isn’t even close enough to the Type-B threshold to make it interesting (more than 14 points away). Because he’s spend so much time at first base over the last two seasons, he’s lumped in with 1B/OF group, which is based on a different set of stats and knocks his performance down a peg.

The Orioles are reportedly seeking a young shortstop in return for Wigginton, which is perfectly fine as long as they don’t think they’re getting a franchise cornerstone. The Yankees have a few players that fit that bill, namely Ramiro Pena, Reegie Corona, and Eduardo Nunez, all of whom have their strengths, but generally aren’t considered future every day players. I can’t imagine that Baltimore will get a better return than those three, especially if they don’t want to eat any of the money left on his deal.

Yankee bench players have been a largely underperforming group this season, and the problem has been somewhat exacerbated by nagging injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. Wigginton certainly makes sense on the surface, but the cost is rather steep (basically five to six years of one of those prospects for four months of Wiggy plus his salary). The Yankees showed last season that you can find valuable reserves on the trade mark for a pittance. Just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it should.

Possible trade target: Jeff Keppinger

It still feels like the season just started, but the trade deadline is already less than six weeks away. The Yankees got an early start on things last year, acquiring Eric Hinske from the Pirates on June 30th. We have a pretty good idea of where the team needs some help now that 42.6% of the season is complete, so over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at some (reasonable) players the Yanks could target in a midsummer trade to reinforce their squad.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson, AP

After doing such a fine job last year, Ramiro Pena has basically gone on to perform as his minor league track record suggested he should this year. He’s hitting a weak .190/.235/.206 (.213 wOBA) in 70 plate appearances, putting him on pace for 164 trips to the plate, or 43 more than last season. The reason he’s played so much more in 2010 is quite simply health. Alex Rodriguez has been battling a nagging hip/groin issue for the last month or so, and Derek Jeter has already missed time with minor illness, hamstring, and heel problems. Even Kevin Russo, who quickly became a fan favorite because of big hits against the Mets and Twins, has a .231 wOBA in a sneaky high total of 51 plate appearances.

It’s entirely possible that A-Rod and Jeter shake off the nagging injury bug the rest of the way and turn into the workhorse players they’ve been for the last decade and a half, but the Yanks would be wise to have a more viable backup infield option handy. I like Pena and Russo as much as the next guy, but they’re simply not producing enough, even by bench player standards.

Jerry Hairston Jr. might be the ideal target because of familiarity more than anything, but he’s not hitting either (.271 wOBA) and the Padres are surprise contenders that might not be willing to sell off a useful part. One team that isn’t anywhere near contending and has a versatile infielder to spare is Houston, who has been trotting Jeff Keppinger out as their starting second baseman basically all season.

The former Met and Red gained a little notoriety by hitting .332/.400/.477 (.385 wOBA) in 276 plate appearances for Cincinnati in 2007, though he’s basically established himself as a .267/.318/.365 hitter in 1,110 plate appearances since. He’s enjoying his best season since 2007 this year, with a .284/.330/.374 (.312 wOBA) batting line in 264 plate appearances for the Astros. The one thing he really excels at is getting the bat on the ball; his contact rate on pitches in the zone (97.7%) and on all pitches (93.1%) are among the four highest percentages in the game this year, ditto his absurdly low 2.2% swing-and-miss rate. His contact rates are almost identical to Brett Gardner‘s, for comparison.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberson, AP

Because he hits for so little power (.091 ISO in 2010, .107 career), Keppinger basically provides an empty batting average, which is fine for a bench guy. You’re not asking him to be an offensive force off the bench, you just want more than an automatic out. Both his AVG and OBP are slightly above the league average (by 25 points and one point, respectively), and the Yankees really couldn’t ask for much more. Perhaps Kevin Long will be able to add a little loft to his swing like he did with Hairston (he went from 42.0 FB% with the Reds to 46.4% with the Yanks, boosting his offensive performance appropriately), adding a little more pop to his game.

Keppinger has played second base almost exclusively this year, though he has plenty of experience at both third and short as well (more than 760 defensive innings at both spots). He’s even logged time at first base and in both corner outfield spots in the past. Going around the horn, his career UZR/150’s at the three non-first base infield spots are -4.2, -12.3, and -1.4, which is quite simply awful. Keppinger’s throwing arm and ability to actually catch the ball is fine, he’s just got zero range. He’s not an asset on the bases either, with just four steals in eight attempts over the last three years, and his non-stolen base baserunning has cost his team 1.77 runs since 2008. Basically he’s a guy that gets the bat on the ball and can fake a bunch of different positions.

On the contractual side of things, Keppinger is still owed approximately $653,000 of his $1.15M salary this season, and he actual has two more years of team control ahead of him. Granted, he’ll be arbitration eligible during both those years, likely pushing his salary north of $2M and then $3M, but the Yanks would always have the option of non-tendering him. Who knows what the Astros would want in return, but I can’t imagine it’s much more than what the Yanks gave up for Hairston, grade-C and low level prospect Chase Weems (.231/.250/.282 as a backup in High-A ball this year). Moreover, owner Drayton McLane first needs to sign off on a rebuilding effort before GM Ed Wade can shop his players around.

It’s worth mentioning that Hairston’s production improved after he joined the Yanks last year (.308 wOBA with the Reds, .325 with the Yanks), but who knows why that happened. Maybe it’s just a small sample size fluke, maybe he was rejuvenated by joining a contender, maybe K-Long fixed him, who knows. Whatever it was, the Yanks can’t count on it happening again. By no means is Keppinger lighting the world on fire, but it’s a clear upgrade over Pena and Russo.

Remember, bench players are bench players for a reason: because they aren’t good enough to start. The only reason Keppinger is getting regular at-bats in Houston is because the Astros are terrible and don’t have a better option. His name is sure to pop up because he fits a need, but I’m not necessarily suggesting the Yankees should acquire him. I’m just laying out the facts for discussion purposes. Keppinger is a moderately productive player with a favorable contract on a team that shouldn’t consider him a long-term building block, ergo a decent trade target.