Yankees Build a Super Bullpen and Find a Real First Baseman

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman needed time and salesmanship to sell ownership on a dismantling at last year’s deadline, as he explained to FanGraphs earlier this spring.

It perhaps took less time to convince ownership to return to status as buyers, to build a potentially dominant bullpen, and to prevent — if only momentarily — the division-rival Red Sox from addressing one of their most glaring weaknesses.

Two weeks away from the trade deadline, trailing the Red Sox by 3.5 games in the standings and holding a half-game lead for the second Wild Card, the Yankees made a pretty major trade Tuesday night, acquiring third baseman Todd Frazier and right-handed relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox for a package headlined by 2016 first-round pick Blake Rutherford. Rutherford ranks as the Yankees’ No. 2 prospect — behind Gleyber Torres — and No. 36 in the game, according to Baseball America’s midseason top-100 prospects update.

Rick Hahn continues to accumulate impact prospects in Chicago in an inspired rebuild that began over the winter and has resulted in a farm system that is now in the conversation for the game’s best. The nice thing about a stars-and-scrubs roster is that, if it fails, you have some nice things to trade, and Hahn has turned his nice things into many more potential nice things.

But the focus in this post is on the shorter-term impact the Yankees just added, and what it might mean come later this summer and fall.

One of the intriguing question leading into this summer’s deadline was how much the Yankees might be willing to invest in today and trade from tomorrow. The Yankees, after all, have arrived ahead of schedule. After dismantling last summer, how much of a much-improved system — one that included seven top-100 prospects in the Baseball America midseason update — would they be willing to part in order to improve a team with a modest 47-44 overall record, but one also with the game’s fourth-best run differential (+98) as of Tuesday night?

The Yankees entered the day with a 49.6% chance of reaching the postseason according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, the look of a team on the fence. The Yankees were willing to make a splash and bet on a run differential that suggests they’re one of the best teams in the AL — and they did so without depleting their system.

While the club gave up a significant asset in Rutherford, they’re not just adding rentals, but rather impact relievers with control beyond this season to pair with Aroldis Chapman and company. Cashman appears to have deftly maneuvered at each of the last two deadlines.

Kahnle has become one of the best relievers in the game, is owner of an absurd 37.6-point strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%), and isn’t arbitration eligible until next season. I wrote about Kahnle’s breakout earlier this season, and Jeff covered him extensively just yesterday. Robertson is having another excellent season (61 ERA-) and is under contract for $13 million next season.

If the game is increasingly about bullpens, particularly in the postseason, the Yankees now rival the Astros, Dodgers, and Indians in bullpen talent. Those teams rank 1-2-3 in baseball in relief strikeout percentage, ERA, and xFIP. The Yankees ranked fourth in bullpen strikeout percentage and now have five relievers that are striking out better than 32% of batters in Robertson, Kahnle, Chapman Chad Green and Dellin Betances

Despite a shaky past 30 days, during which the Yankees’ bullpen has blown six saves — the second-highest mark in the sport — and owns a 4.50 ERA and 4.16 xFIP, the Yankees entered Tuesday ranked second in baseball in bullpen WAR. They dramatically improved that group Tuesday.

In adding another Frazier to the team, the Yankees address another area of weakness. They rank 29th in first-base WAR (-1.1) this season, according to our leaderboards and 17th in third-base production (1.2 WAR). While Frazier has a modest 103 wRC+ on the season, he has an elite walk rate (14%) and is still leaving the ballpark regularly (16 homers).

In a game exhibiting greater extremes of power and relief dominance, the Yankees added more of both on Tuesday.

The Yankees still have needs. They will miss Michael Pineda, who underwent Tommy John surgery this week. They were reportedly in on Jose Quintana. But the Yankees entered the day with roughly a coin flip’s chance of making the postseason, and now they’re a better team than they were before.

Making it harder for the Red Sox to upgrade their most glaring hole probably didn’t hurt. Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski said earlier in the day that third base was the club’s greatest weakness. Frazier was reportedly a target. Instead, he’s going to help the team try to chase down Dombrowski’s Red Sox in the standings.

The Yankees bet on themselves on Tuesday night and you can’t blame them. The Yankees got better, they prevented the Red Sox from getting better, and the events could set up a hotly contended division chase moving forward.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Yankees want all the Fraziers.

5 years ago
Reply to  JS7

You’re not getting Adam, you jerk.

5 years ago
Reply to  JS7

If I had the knowhow and the willpower I’d create a Photoshopped version of the title card of the popular television series ‘Frasier’, renamed ‘Frazier’ and put Manhattan in background. Alas, I have neither of those qualities. Also, the joke’s pretty silly when you think about it. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Yikes.

5 years ago
Reply to  JTnC

“Those tossed shutouts and scrambled plays” makes no sense either, but it’s what your comment made me think. Brains are funny things.

5 years ago
Reply to  JS7

All your Fraziers are belonging to us.