When it comes to making trades in baseball, there’s no such thing as a truly ‘untouchable’ player. A team may have nearly zero incentive to trade a player, but they’ll still listen in on offers and there’s always a chance of a deal being made. There’s a reason why the baseball world erupts into Mike Trout trade proposals every couple of months—no matter how valuable and irreplaceable a player might be, there’s always the possibility of a general manager overpaying just enough to make the trade happen, against all odds.
So, when scanning the Yankees roster for possible trade chips, one can’t simply deem a certain piece untradeable. Sure, there’s a minuscule chance of Gary Sanchez being traded, but he was in the middle of Chris Sale trade talks just a few months ago. There’s a chance every player on the Yankees could be moved, from the likely—Brett Gardner and Brian McCann—to the highly improbable—Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances. And, interestingly, dealing one of those ‘untouchables,’ Betances, is more conceivable than most would guess.
The case not to trade Betances has been made in the past three seasons and 2016’s trade deadline, but the case to, in fact, trade him has also been made in that time period. Betances, without a doubt, has been an incredibly productive relief arm for the Yankees, with his fWAR from 2014-2016 being higher than any other reliever in baseball by half a win. He has thrown 247 innings since his first full season in 2014 (also best in baseball among relievers) without hitting the disabled list, and his K/9, ERA, and FIP are all top-5 in baseball.
Further strengthening the ‘don’t you dare trade him’ case is last year’s trade deadline, which saw the Yankees deal Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, effectively emptying their bullpen save for Betances. Best said by manager Joe Girardi himself, the only locks for next year’s bullpen are Betances and veteran reliever Tyler Clippard. If Betances was dealt, the bullpen would be absolutely barren. While the Yankees’ relief corps was strong in the second half of last season, sans Miller and Chapman, the bullpen was held together by Girardi’s magic duct tape and some luck, and there would be little chance of it being even average next season without an elite closer shutting down the late innings.
But if you’re thinking about clicking out of this surely pointless article, I beg you to wait just a bit longer. Because, as strong as Betances has been since his rookie season, there are plenty of red flags to go around. The biggest of which is, unfortunately, his health. Betances has the look of a durable pitcher, leading the league in relief innings for the past three years, but his 6’8” frame has endured its fair share of injuries throughout Betances’ professional career. The main reason he was even converted to the bullpen was due to an inability to stay on the field, as his minor league days are peppered with trips to the disabled list: 75 days in 2007 (right elbow inflammation), 38 days in 2008 (right shoulder inflammation), 172 days in 2009 and 2010 (right UCL reinforcement surgery), 18 days in 2011 (undisclosed), and 20 days in 2012 (right shoulder inflammation).
Although Betances’ conversion to reliever has warded off injuries thus far, he’s shown moments of weakness at the end of 2015 and 2016, where his velocity has fallen and control evaporated. These issues have been attributed to fatigue rather than injury, but it’s not crazy to look at the large-framed flamethrower as a bit of a ticking time bomb when it comes to potential injuries.
Then there’s the trade deadline, which just about emptied the Yankees’ bullpen last season (presumably discouraging them from dealing their last elite reliever), but also provides incentive to trade Betances. The Cubs traded a consensus top-25 prospect (and more) for 40 innings of Aroldis Chapman, and the Indians also dealt a top-25 prospect and an additional top-100 prospect for Andrew Miller. Just thinking about what Betances, a 28-year-old under team control until 2020, could fetch should make any Yankees fan giddy.
Filling the void left by Betances wouldn’t be nearly as hard as one would expect, either. Kenley Jansen and Chapman are both free agents this offseason, and are equals to Betances in terms of the value they can provide out of the bullpen. The Yankees have the money to sign one (or both, though this is extremely unlikely), and neither is more than a year older than Betances. Although they’re much more expensive than Betances will be, money has never been an obstacle for New York and the two free agents could replace Betances without a downtick in performance.
There are plenty of good reasons not to trade Dellin Betances, but from an unbiased point of view, the team could deal him and recoup the loss of an elite reliever through the free agent market, essentially gaining a few top prospects for about $13M a year (assuming Jansen or Chapman are as productive as Betances). It’s worth mentioning that this probably won’t happen, and if it did, it would be more likely to occur at next year’s trade deadline than this offseason, but it’s much more plausible than one would expect. Don’t be surprised if Betances is in the thick of trade rumors over the next year or so, especially if the Yankees land one of Jansen/Chapman this winter.