The Yankees and Twins Exchange Big Names, But to What End?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I like to think of myself as a pretty reasonable baseball thinker. When I see a trade, I can put myself in both teams’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from. I might not agree with their evaluation of each individual player; heck, I might not agree with the direction they’re going overall. Usually, though, I can trace back their steps until I find the key thing driving the trade on both sides. Usually isn’t always, though. Meet the strangest trade I’ve seen in recent memory:

This trade is a Rohrshach test, only more inscrutable. Sometimes I feel like the Yankees won. Sometimes I feel like the Yankees lost. Sometimes I feel like the Twins lost and the Yankees broke even. Sometimes I feel like they both lost, as strange as that may sound. Sometimes I feel like it was actually just Isiah Kiner-Falefa for cash. Sometimes I feel like Josh Donaldson will set the league on fire to get back at the Twins. Let’s look at this trade from as many angles as possible and see if we can figure out what’s going on.

Donaldson Is the Prize

This is the level-zero take on this trade. The best hitter on either side of the deal in 2022 will likely be Donaldson, an aging but still fearsome slugger. He had his worst season since 2018 (and second-worst since ’13) last year, but even so, he hit .247/.352/.475 with a 124 wRC+ and socked 26 bombs while walking 13.6% of the time.

Under the hood, things looked even better. He posted a gaudy 17.4% barrel rate; just under a fifth of the time he put a ball into play, he smoked it. There was no sneaky decline in plate discipline, either; Donaldson has always had a good concept of the zone and chased sparingly while attacking pitches he can drive, and that was true last year as well.

Defensively, Donaldson is more average than plus at this point in his career, but that’s not why the Yankees are signing him. As things stand, he’ll play a lot of third and only a little bit of DH, but if you think that Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, and Giancarlo Stanton are all going to be healthy all year, I’d like to sell you some beachside real estate in Kansas. There are going to be plenty of days where Donaldson can DH, and with DJ LeMahieu playing a floating super-utility role, the team will have a solid defensive rotation going on anyway.

Is he overpaid for that production? Not really. $25 million per year over two years is a market rate for his projected contributions, and given the shape of the rest of the trade, the Yankees likely added a win or two of talent at third while also picking up a shortstop. They did so without getting notably worse at catcher. If you think New York won the deal, Donaldson’s bat is the reason why.

The Twins Love Gio

Gio Urshela is a wonderfully well-rounded infielder. Since joining the Yankees, he’s performed at a borderline All Star level: .292/.335/.480 with plus defense at third base. His switch to shortstop was no one’s idea of a good time, but the fact that it was even an option speaks to his defensive versatility. Will he continue hitting that well? Likely not — his down 2021 and track record prior to playing in New York result in projections that put him right around average offensively — but he’s capable of playing at a high level.

Minnesota isn’t the kind of team that can afford an injury to one of its key players. If Donaldson missed a chunk of time or couldn’t play the field for a while, it would be an uphill battle to keep a solid offense on the field. Urshela is six years younger than Donaldson. Isn’t that an easy upgrade in availability before you get to the rest of the trade?

Eh, not really. Urshela managed 1,092 plate appearances for the Yankees over the past two years, 200 fewer than Donaldson. He might not be on the precipice of age-related injuries, but he’s hardly been an iron man. I’m skeptical that a burning desire for Urshela is what made this trade happen.

The Yankees Kept Picturing Kiner-Falefa Beardless

The most obvious positional need across all of baseball this offseason was shortstop for the Yankees. They have a star-studded outfield and multiple useful pieces in the infield, none of whom really made sense at shortstop. The marquee names — Corey Seager! Carlos Correa! Marcus Semien! Trevor Story! — were all rumored to be in play, and there were at least two stopgap options if those fell through.

It looks like those fell through. Kiner-Falefa won a Gold Glove at third base in 2020 and moved to shortstop full time last year. The early returns on his defense there are mixed — OAA had him as one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball, UZR thought he was average, and DRS thought he was elite — but the eye test and the way teams have valued him in trade tell you that he’s probably above average with the glove. If the Yankees weren’t going to grab one of the big-name free agents, their backup plan was always going to be someone with good defense to anchor a sketchy infield. When they couldn’t get that in free agency — thanks, Rockies and Cubs — they pivoted to the trade market and got it there instead.

Gary Had to Go

Gary Sánchez burst onto the scene in 2016 and continued his ascent the next year, but his star has faded in recent years. He’s been almost exactly average offensively over the last four years; he still hits for plenty of power, but a growing strikeout rate and gruesome .218 BABIP mean that power is almost all he’s adding. As a slow-footed fly-ball hitter who swings and misses fairly often, this feels like his long-term offensive destiny; he’ll spike some years where the power makes him shine, but on average, his shortcomings and skills will result in an average hitter at catcher.

That would be great — if Sánchez were a great defensive catcher. While this is hard to judge from the outside, it certainly doesn’t seem that way. He briefly lost his job to Kyle Higashioka last year, and defense was the reason why. Sánchez has always had an issue with passed balls. Switching catching stances in 2020 helped that, but that’s led to a new problem: he’s gone from a cannon-armed running game stop sign (33% caught-stealing rate and 60 CS) to just average there. Meanwhile, his receiving is consistently below average.

Tanner Swanson, the Yankees’ catching coordinator, was a much-ballyhooed hire when the Yankees brought him over from the Twins a few years ago. He knows Ben Rortvedt from his time there, and Rortvedt profiles as a solid receiver. If this trade was about making the Yankees better defensively at catcher, perhaps the rest was just window dressing.

Josh Donaldson’s Contract Had to Go

If the contracts on both sides of this trade were equal, the Yankees would inarguably have the better side of it. Urshela and Donaldson are both under contract (or team control in Urshela’s case) for two more years, and while the former is a solid third baseman, the odds of him out-producing the latter over the next two years are low. That’s no knock on Urshela; Donaldson can really hit, and Urshela looks like a league-average bat.

The contracts in this trade aren’t equal, though. Donaldson is owed $50 million over the next two years; it’s complicated, but he has two years left on his contract at $21 million each followed by a strange combination of roster bonus and mutual option with buyout that will pay him $8 million regardless of what each side chooses. Kiner-Falefa still has an arbitration hearing upcoming, but he’s projected to earn roughly $5 million. Rortvedt will make the league minimum. On the other side of the deal, Urshela will make $6.55 million this year, and Sánchez will likely make roughly $8 million in arbitration. That’s $15 million in savings for Minnesota this year, and a similar amount next year unless they make further roster moves.

What can saving $30 million do for you? It could, for example, cover Sonny Gray’s contract if you go out and trade for him. If that’s what this was, though, that’s a really bad sign for Minnesota. With all of these trades done, the team has an estimated 2022 payroll of $94 million. In 2019, it ran a payroll of $127 million and came into 2020 projected for a $133 million payroll before the shortened season. If ownership is unwilling to run a $110 million budget now, it’s a worrisome sign for the future.

There’s one way this would make sense: if the Twins are planning on signing a marquee shortstop, they’ve set their team up in a nice alignment to do that. Jorge Polanco could shift to second base, Luis Arraez could play utility infielder and man left field, and they would end up with their best bats in the lineup and a solid defensive infield. Correa and Story are still out there, and if this move was just about clearing up enough dollars in the vault to meet an ownership-imposed salary maximum while bringing in a great shortstop, I can understand the reasoning.

I just gave a ton of reasons why both sides might like this trade, but I still don’t quite understand it. For Minnesota, it feels like a sentence fragment; until the thought is completed, I’m baffled as to what this accomplishes. The Twins downgraded offensively at third, and when you add in the Mitch Garver trade that netted them Kiner-Falefa, they’re meaningfully less steady at catcher, particularly on the defensive side. All of that to save $15 million dollars this year? If that money isn’t doing anything other than enriching ownership, I don’t like this sequence of moves for them at all.

For the Yankees, it feels like a capitulation. Donaldson is great, and I was never as high on Urshela as the consensus, but this is the New York Yankees. They’re going to run a $230 million payroll and a catching platoon of two backups. Kiner-Falefa is a sign that they’re looking for a placeholder at shortstop until Anthony Volpe is ready, but I don’t think that’s how big-market teams should act. They’re not punting this year, exactly, but it does seem like they’re making trades to avoid making long-term financial commitments, when they should be using their competitive advantage as a club that makes a bazillion dollars in profit every year to get one of the great young free agents out there.

In other words, I hate it! I hate it for both sides. I like a lot of the individual players in it — Kiner-Falefa’s beard-shaving video alone would make me root for him — and I think that both teams are generally shrewd operators, but this just makes no sense to me. Both teams are trying to play five-dimensional chess with this one. I think that they probably should stick to two dimensions, though, unless they have a stunning follow-up move that changes the context of this deal.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

I don’t think either team is done making moves. It would be weird and bad if it was the end.