Trade season has come early as the Yankees have addressed two needs with one aggressive move by exchanging minor leaguers Blake Rutherford, Ian Clarkin, and Tito Polo, along with Tyler Clippard, for David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, and Todd Frazier. The big trade immediately addresses short term needs in the bullpen and at first base, but what does it mean for the franchise as a whole going forward?
As with any trade, the quality of the players involved is obviously important, but the contract situation each player is perhaps equally significant. The shortest of the deals acquired by the Yankees belongs to Frazier, a primary third baseman who is slated to fill the gaping hole at first base for the Yankees. The Yankees will pay Frazier, a native of Toms River, New Jersey, a prorated portion of his $12 million salary before he hits free agency this winter.
The expiring nature of Frazier’s deal makes him a pure rental who will likely leave in the offseason. Chase Headley remains on the books for 2018 season and will probably at least begin the season as the team’s starting third baseman. The acquisition of only a rental at first base also signifies that despite recent comments, the organization still hopes the ailing Greg Bird will eventually take over as the full-time starter at the position.
One familiar face in the deal is reliever David Robertson who returns to the Bronx nine years after debuting for the Yankees in 2008. Robertson was a 17th round pick for the Yankees in 2006 who rose through the system quickly. He soon earned the nickname “K-Rob” for his high strikeout rate serving as an excellent setup man and eventual successor to closer Mariano Rivera. From 2011-2014 Robertson compiled a 2.20 ERA with a 2.40 FIP over 258 innings for the Yankees. Nevertheless, he was allowed to leave for the White Sox on a four-year, $46 million deal as the Yankees instead opted to sign Andrew Miller.
Over the 2015 and 2016 seasons Robertson was a solid but unspectacular closer for Chicago converting 71 of 85 save opportunities with a 3.44 ERA. This season Robertson has experienced a resurgence converting 13 of 14 opportunities with a 2.70 ERA and a once again elite 35.6% strikeout rate. Robertson is owed a portion of his $12 million salary for this year along with $13 million for next year. He looks set to once again serve as a setup man in New York, but could reclaim the closer role if Aroldis Chapman continues to struggle.
The unheralded name in this trade is right-handed reliever Tommy Kahnle. Although he does not carry a big name, make no mistake Kahnle is the real jewel of this trade. Kahnle was actually drafted by the Yankees in the 5th round of the 2010 draft before becoming a Rule 5 pick of the Rockies in 2013. From there Kahnle was DFA’d by the Rockies before catching on withe White Sox where he contributed down the stretch last season before emerging as a dominant relief weapon this season.
Kahnle has been so good that his 2.50 ERA actually greatly undersells what he’s done this season. He sports a ridiculous 42.6% strikeout rate with just a 5% walk rate giving him a 37.6% K-BB, a 1.47 FIP, and a 1.63 xFIP each of which rank in the top 5 of the entire league.
Not only is Kahnle good, but he comes cheap. Kahnle will earn just the league minimum this year before undergoing three years of arbitration salaries, keeping him under team control through the 2020 season. As we’ve seen with Dellin Betances, even the best non-closing relievers do not earn large salaries through arbitration.
Speaking of Betances, the acquisition of Kahnle makes it more likely that Betances is eventually let go by the team. Betances is set to hit free agency following the 2019 season and given his already strained relationship with the front office, it’s not hard to imagine the team trading him or letting him walk in free agency at that point.
The difficult part of this deal is that the Yankees will be saying goodbye to two former first round picks. The key piece heading to Chicago is 20-year-old outfielder Blake Rutherford, the Yankees’ 2016 first round pick. While Rutherford was selected 18th overall, he was widely thought of as one of the draft’s top 10 talents and slid amidst signability concerns.
Rutherford projects to hit for both average and power and has impressed scouts early in his professional career, recently being ranked the #36 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Yet while Rutherford remains immensely promising, there did not appear to be a place for him in the Bronx in the near future with an impending outfield glut.
The Yankees already have established big leaguers Aaron Judge, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks along with Clint Frazier who has impressed so far. That’s not to mention Dustin Fowler who will be on the doorstep of the MLB after returning from his injury, or the hugely talented but raw Estevan Florial who has outshone Rutherford this year.
Ian Clarkin, a left-handed starter, was drafted 33rd in the 2013 draft, one pick after some guy named Aaron Judge. Clarkin impressed in 2014 as he earned a promotion to High-A Tampa, but his career stalled there as he missed the entire 2015 season due to elbow inflammation. Clarkin returned to the mound in 2016 but reports on his stuff were mixed. He remains in Tampa this year where he has pitched well so far.
Tito Polo was a part of the deal that sent Ivan Nova to the Pirates last summer. As an infamous player to be named later, Polo, a 22-year-old outfielder, has not received much prospect hype, but he has quietly put up strong numbers especially this year.
While it will be tough to let go of Rutherford and the other prospects, saying goodbye to Tyler Clippard will not be so difficult. The bespectacled veteran has been frankly awful after a strong start compiling an embarrassing 10.05 ERA since the start of June while blowing numerous games along the way. Sending out the remaining portion of his $6 million salary will help offset the cost of the new Yankee players.