The Pirates Plunder Yankees Infield Depth in Clay Holmes Trade

Depending on how one frames Monday’s Yankees and Pirates swap of reliever Clay Holmes for upper-level minor leaguers Hoy Park and Diego Castillo, it can look pretty rough. Holmes, who is out of options, is walking over five per 9 IP and has an ERA just a shade under 5.00 in a middle relief role for one of the worst teams in baseball, while Park and Castillo are annihilating the upper levels of the minors and play valuable defensive positions. But even though my shoot-from-the-hip reaction to this deal was that the Yankees took a bit of a bath because I think Castillo has the most long-term upside of the players exchanged, there are indications that Holmes is better than his superficial stats and really special in a few ways. There are also minor league roster dynamics at play for New York that make parting with these two middle infielders more palatable.

But let’s start with Holmes since he’s the one most likely to play an immediate big league role in the Bronx pressure cooker. He owns the highest groundball rate in baseball at 72.8%. It’s well above Holmes’ career rates, but he’s also experienced a 3 mph uptick in velocity to his fastball, cutter and curveball. For a pitcher generating a league-leading rate of groundballs, his HR/FB rate, a whopping 18.8%, feels unusually high and seems likely to regress to his career mean or below, considering how sinkery his improved, harder fastball is playing. It’s part of why his FIP and xERA are at least a run below his ERA to this point.

Holmes has also had a shift in his pitch deployment, as his cutter/slider has taken precedent over his curve. The combination of repertoire alteration, newfound arm strength, and rust (Holmes barely threw in 2020 due to a foot fracture and a forearm strain) may be contributing to that poor control. Holmes’ walk rates (15% career, 13% this year) are troubling, though he’s slowly improved in that regard every season of his career. The Yankees are walking a tight rope here. Holmes is out of options and he had forearm trouble last year (he’s about a half decade removed from a 2014 Tommy John). He’s a little wild. He’s also superlative in a particular sense and joining a team that has been one of the best at developing pitchers in the last five years.

So why give up two middle infield prospects here? Remember that Park (age 25, slashing .327/.475/.567 at Triple-A Scranton) and Castillo (nearly 24, hitting .277/.345/.504 at Double-A Somerset) have each been Rule 5 eligible at least once and been passed over both times. They’d both need to be added to the 40-man this offseason or likely lost to the Rule 5 draft. While the club could use a middle infield upgrade, even situationally (Rougned Odor has posted sub-.300 OBPs more years than not, including this one, and Gleyber Torres isn’t a good defensive shortstop), that either Park or Castillo might be able to provide tomorrow, the team may end up with Trevor Story for the stretch run and a big free agent fish for the long haul. Plus, Oswald Peraza, in my opinion the team’s top prospect, is already on the 40-man and a superior long-term internal option to either Park or Castillo. So too are Alexander Vargas and Josh Smith, both of whom need to be added to the 40 next year (unless they’re dealt).

Yankees fans are used to losing a couple of arms in the Rule 5 draft every year because the team often has 40-man talent overflow. Like the Rays did with Nelson Cruz, the Yankees paid a premium in this situation because their prospect depth was leveraged against them, though the sting is dulled by their internal middle infield depth.

So what did the Pirates get in Castillo and Park? Park is an average shortstop defender with a plus hit tool and feel for the strike zone. Though he’s experiencing a huge uptick in power output this year, sources indicated to me that there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in his underlying exit velocities such that would suggest this is sustainable. The skills in place make Park a likely utility man, but I’m not taking his line at face value and suddenly projecting him as a regular. The lack of power is going to make it harder for his control of the zone to hold water in the big leagues as pitchers go right at him without worrying about Park hurting them.

Castillo, I think, is different. He got $750,000 as a “skills over tools” amateur prospect coming out of Venezuela. He hung around the honorable mention section of the Yankees prospect lists for about three years before falling off after three years of well below-average offensive output at the level he was assigned. During that time, though, he was making an awful lot of contact, typically running strikeout rates close to 10%. Despite that impressive stat and Castillo’s ability to (mostly) play a viable second base, he was passed over in the last two Rule 5 drafts. Then he had something of a 2021 breakout, hitting 11 homers (more than he had totaled in his entire career entering the season) in the 58 games before the trade.

I’ve had analytically-minded team personnel advocate for Castillo’s inclusion in my Top 100 because he has elite in-zone contact rates, hits the ball in the air a ton, plays the middle infield and is performing on paper in the upper levels. The visual evaluation is still that of a skills-over-tools guy without the kind of explosion and athleticism that actually merits that kind of FV, but there are statistical indications that Castillo is different than when teams were passing on him in the Rule 5. His Pull% is up and his groundball rate is down. He’s selling out for pull-side lift but has the hitting acumen to make that approach work. Anyone who makes this much contact and does so in the air as much as Castillo does is a threat to do damage even if they’re not crushing the ball, and Castillo has more traditional big league physicality than Park and some of these other light-hitting infielders (note he’s ranked ahead of Tucupita Marcano on the Pirates prospect list even though Marcano is younger and has played a level above Castillo for most of this year), though Castillo is a 40-grade athlete. While not likely to be a regular, he looks like a role-playing piece in the 1.5 WAR range.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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getwonkafied
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getwonkafied

Does something like the Pirates acquisition of Marcano ever cause you to re-evaluate your assessment of a player? Right or wrong, they clearly think there’s something there that many in the industry don’t seem to see.

Spiggy
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Spiggy

This is a great question and I’d be curious to know too. And to know, more generally, what sort of things might make you reconsider an assessment of a player.