The Yankees Bolster Their Rotation with Frankie Montas

© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Frankie Montas needed to be set free. When the A’s began their selloff in earnest this offsesaon, he looked like a lock to end up elsewhere. Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt, fellow rotation stalwarts, were gone. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson were shipped out. Montas (along with Sean Murphy and Ramón Laureano) seemed likely to be next, but then the season started, and there he was, still atop the Oakland rotation.

He’s done everything Oakland could possibly ask of him this season, to the tune of a 3.18 ERA in 19 starts. Meanwhile, the A’s have the second-worst record in baseball, ahead of only the woeful Nationals. Montas will reach free agency after the 2023 season, another year in which the A’s will likely be far from the playoff conversation. He had a brief injury scare, missing two turns with shoulder inflammation, but he’s returned to the field and made two starts without incident. One way or another, the A’s were going to move him.

The Yankees, for their part, stormed to the best record in baseball but would still like starting pitching help. Gerrit Cole is great and Nestor Cortes has been a revelation this year, but the group of pitchers behind them has been uneven. Jordan Montgomery started strong, but he’s been homer-prone of late. Jameson Taillon is steady but a step below Montas results-wise, and will be a free agent after this year. Luis Severino just hit the 60-day IL, pushing a potential return even deeper into September. The aggregate results have been solid, but you can see why the team wants more certainty given the difficulty of cleanly upgrading their lineup.

The result of Oakland’s surplus and New York’s need is a logical trade: today, the A’s sent Montas and reliever Lou Trivino to the Yankees in exchange for a smorgasbord of prospects. Ken Waldichuk, Luis Medina, JP Sears, and Cooper Bowman comprise a deep and talented prospect return. Eric Longenhagen will have a separate piece that delves deeper into the specifics of each player, but I’ll lay them out at the end of this article for the sake of posterity.

First, let’s talk about Montas. He’s a great fit in front of a revitalized New York infield. The Yankees have one of the best defensive infields in the majors this year, thanks largely to the contributions of offseason acquisition Josh Donaldson. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, another offseason acquisition, has been roughly average overall but uneven at shortstop, though uneven is a vast improvement from last year’s tire fire. Donaldson’s acquisition also means that New York can run out an alignment with DJ LeMahieu at second base, which puts three defenders on the infield who range from solid to plus.

I wouldn’t describe Montas as a sinkerballer, but he certainly gets his fair share of grounders. He mixes a four-seamer and sinker in roughly equal measure, which keeps hitters off-balance, but that’s not a great plan unless your infielders can do something with the grounders. Now that they can, Montas makes a lot of sense to me in New York. More strikeouts than average, fewer walks than average, and the ability to turn into a groundball pitcher when appropriate: Montas is simply good across the board, and given that the Yankees will have perused his latest medical reports, they clearly think he’s a good bet to stay on the field.

Meanwhile, Trivino is more than just a throw-in. His horror-movie .451 BABIP is obscuring what would otherwise be another solid but unexciting season. He has a five-pitch arsenal that essentially boils down to fastball/cutter/slider and he consistently misses bats with that mix. Despite the grim results so far, he looks like a solid middle reliever. I don’t think batters will continue to hit line drives 40% of the time off of his fastball, which hasn’t changed in shape or velocity compared to his more effective years. A new sweeping slider (or “whirly,” if you’re really into New York names) will be right at home in the Yankees bullpen. If nothing else, he’s a good bet to deliver average performance in medium-leverage situations, which is a valuable skill against the stacked lineups the team will face in the playoffs. Despite recently turning 30, he’s also under team control for a while, with two more trips through arbitration remaining. He’s not a sure bet to produce, but if he’s the fifth-best reliever on your team, it means you have an excellent bullpen.

When you have the division locked up like New York does, your deadline trades should have an eye on the playoffs. If you’re trying to work out the ways the Yankees could fail in October, inconsistent pitching seems like the most likely scenario. There are enough question marks that you could imagine a few injuries, a few tired arms, and suddenly Aaron Boone trusts exactly one of his starters. One way you can fix that is by assembling a lockdown bullpen — today’s Scott Effross trade represents a step in that direction — but another way you can fix it is by getting more good starters. Montas was the best available option after the Luis Castillo trade; if I were running the Yankees, he would have been my number one target today. Throw in Trivino, and the Yankees are making good strides toward that lockdown bullpen as well.

That logic holds for next year, too. The Yankees figure to be fighting for the American League East crown again next season. Plugging in an excellent starter will make that fight easier, and as the mantra goes, there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract. As an added benefit, Montas represents one of the few obvious spots for a Yankees upgrade. I guess they could sign a marquee shortstop this offseason, and re-signing or replacing Aaron Judge is of utmost importance, but “just add a top-25 starter” is one of the surest ways to improve an already-deep team without making any of your existing players redundant (cough Joey Gallo cough).

The cost for that upgrade is substantial. Waldichuk is a fast riser who Eric likens to Reid Detmers, a four-pitch starter with enviable fastball shape. He peppers the top of the zone with it, making up for its middling velocity with remarkable ride and a deceptive delivery. If you’re trying to time that up, good luck adjusting to the wipeout slider and rapidly developing changeup. We have him 36th on our updated Top 100 prospects list as a 50 FV prospect, and we’re hardly alone in the scouting community: even without dominant velocity, he looks like a future major league difference maker. He slots in as Oakland’s new top prospect.

Medina is another 50 FV member of our Top 100, though Eric pegs him as a future multi-inning relief ace rather than a starter in the long run. He tops out above 100 mph with a vicious fastball (albeit with below-average movement), and complements it with a hammer curve and a rapidly-developing changeup. He uses those two secondaries with equal frequency, and both have looked sharp this year. That’s an enviable set of pitches, one that would look right at home at the top of any rotation in the majors today. There’s just one problem: his command could charitably be described as inconsistent. He’s walking 13% of the batters he faces (five per nine innings) in Double-A, right in line with his performance there last year. Loud stuff is all well and good, but without the ability to consistently spot his pitches for strikes, it’s hard to imagine him sticking in the majors as a starter. His raw talent is so overwhelming that he could likely hack it as a reliever right now, but Oakland will surely give him more time to figure out his command as a starter. The upside here is huge if Medina can start locating more consistently.

Sears (40 FV) is Medina in reverse. His fastball doesn’t overpower and he doesn’t have an obvious third pitch behind a solid slider. He’s posted impressive strikeout numbers in the minors over the past two years, but the pitch data merits skepticism; indeed, he’s been below-average in that respect in 22 innings of major league work this year, mostly as a reliever. That’s okay, though, because he has excellent command. His walk rates are consistently superlative, which gives him a high floor; he’s simply not going to walk himself out of many ballgames. I think that profile will play up in Oakland’s spacious foul territory, though it might not work well in the thin air of Las Vegas, for whatever that’s worth.

Bowman is the least-heralded of the prospects heading to Oakland. A fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, he looked solid in a brief cameo with the Tampa Tarpons. He’s treading water in High-A so far this year, but in an ugly way: he’s both walking and striking out quite frequently, but without a ton of power, which makes me think the walks aren’t sustainable. He was an honorable mention on our preseason Yankees prospects list. We think that he’ll stick at second base, and that his compact swing mechanics will make him a contact-driven, averageish hitter, though this year’s elevated strikeout numbers are certainly worrisome. File him under the “mystery box” category: we’ll just need to see more to know what he’ll become.

Even if Bowman is just window dressing, this is an enviable haul for Oakland. Three probable major league pitchers, all of whom are performing in the minors this year, will bring far more to the team over the next five years than Montas would have. Is that largely the fault of Oakland’s ownership, who mandated a sell-off? Indisputably. But considering the position they’re in, restocking their farm system with top-level pitching is an excellent decision in my eyes.

As for the Yankees, I would have preferred to bring Castillo in, but that horse has already left the barn. Waldichuks and Medinas don’t grow on trees, but the Yankees have proven adept at developing mid-level draft picks and international signees into impact pitching prospects and eventually impact major leaguers. Cashing in some of those prospects to improve the major league team right now makes a lot of sense. It’s reasonable to assume that development pipeline will continue to produce arms, and the Yankees are very good right this instant. Waldichuk, Medina, and Sears might make the 2023 team better, but their value largely comes from what they might produce further in the future. There are other ways to get that future value: the Yankees could sign impact major leaguers, or develop more prospects, or trade from their still-solid hoard of great young players. But there’s only one way to supplement the 2022 team: trading for someone like Montas.

For me, that makes this a layup. Would the Yankees have preferred to trade one fewer player in the deal? Obviously. Would they have preferred a better reliever to Trivino as the throw-in? Most certainly. But if it was this or nothing, I’d easily make this deal, and I might have even offered another prospect to close things if necessary. Flags fly forever, after all.

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

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1 year ago

I wonder how much his recent shoulder issues had been cleared by the Yankees.

1 year ago
Reply to  jradMIT

Well if he’s a particularly high injury risk they shouldn’t have touched him with a 10′ pole.