Yankees Conclude Quiet Deadline With Upside Play

Spencer Howard
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

With their team in last place in the AL East at 55–51 and 3.5 games back of the Blue Jays for the third Wild Card, the Yankees’ front office teetered back and forth between “buyer” and “seller” in advance of the trade deadline. The truth is, the Bombers’ playoff odds had been in a tailspin since the beginning of July; it would have been unthinkable for them to sell on July 4, when they reached their monthly high of 75%, but at 23.1% at the end of the month, their decision should have been just as clear.

Instead, the Yankees did little of anything. Apparently, they were looking to be “bowled over” for their rentals, per The Athletic’s Marc Carig, and they never were, so they largely stood pat. The last team to enter the deadline foray, their “headliner” acquisition was Keynan Middleton; as detailed in our reliever roundup, he cost them 21-year-old lottery ticket Juan Carela. While New York’s bullpen scuffled to the tune of a 4.01 ERA and 4.82 FIP in July, the unit has pitched to solid 3.10/3.93 marks on the season, good for first and tied for sixth, respectively, in the majors. Acquiring a reliever was unlikely to move the needle for a fringe contender in the first place, but it also represented only a marginal improvement compared to the Yankees’ in-house options, especially with Jonathan Loáisiga’s return on the horizon.

That said, even though their acquisition of Spencer Howard from the Rangers for cash can be thought of as a “buy” in the literal sense and another addition of a reliever at that, it’s a different beast than adding Middleton. For starters, all it cost the Yankees was money, which they have oodles of. Howard is also under team control for another four years. The hurler is optionable and poised to begin his tenure in pinstripes at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but it’s easy to see him getting some play toward the end of the season either in the wake of injuries or if the Yankees fall further in the standings.

If the Yankees find themselves out of contention sooner rather than later, Howard represents an interesting reclamation project of sorts. He graduated prospectdom with four plus pitches but dropped to 56th overall in our rankings heading into 2021 due to recurrent shoulder issues. Mechanical changes and physical therapy that offseason helped keep his shoulder healthy in ’21, but he instead battled blisters, COVID-19, and ineffectiveness at the major league level with both the Phillies and Rangers. Toward the end of 2022, the shoulder issues returned and carried into this season, as he missed two months with a lat strain.

Yet through it all, Howard has continued to showcase tantalizing strikeout potential in Triple-A, with a 31.7% K rate against a palatable 9.7% walk rate in 101 innings at that level. In 18.1 innings this season, he’s set down 40% of the batters he’s faced on strikes. While he hasn’t gone more than three innings in any of his Triple-A appearances this year, perhaps what Howard needs is a longer look as a full-time reliever. After all, one of his biggest issues has been maintaining velocity deep into games, rendering the impact of his starter’s repertoire moot. While his array of pitches is enticing, the stamina might just not be there; it might be time to see if all of his offerings could turn him into a relief ace instead.

With the additions of Max Scherzer, Jordan Montgomery, and Aroldis Chapman, Howard had fallen far on the Rangers’ pitching depth chart. The former second-rounder’s volatility was working against him; given their win-now status, they’d probably rather turn to a more stable presence in the event of further injuries. But if the Yankees fall far enough in the standings, they might as well give Howard an extended look. A small concession for Yankees fans, yes, but largely sitting out the trade deadline may have enabled them to pick up a potential relief gem that fell prey to a roster crunch.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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9 months ago

I have tracked his progress over his minor league career. So much potential. I hope I am wrong – but I don’t believe I am: Spencer Howard is washed up.