Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made it clear that he hoped to add two top-of-the-rotation arms to the team’s staff this winter. He’s halfway to his goal, having brought left-hander James Paxton into the fold via trade with Seattle.
Cashman had been targeting Patrick Corbin to be the Yankees’ second acquisition, even going so far as to take the New York native and his wife out to dinner when he visited the team last week as part of his search for a new place to hang his hat. That quest ended when Corbin signed with Washington, and with Nathan Eovaldi re-signing with Boston a couple of days later, the free agent starting pitching ranks are dwindling.
The Yankees GM could turn back to the trade market to find that elusive second arm. The Indians let it be known that they are willing to trade at least one of their top three starting pitchers in an effort to trim salary. Cleveland has reportedly engaged with a number of teams to that end, although no deal has been struck as of yet.
Yesterday, I took a detailed look at Cleveland’s two big trade chips, and concluded that the Yankees should target Corey Kluber over Trevor Bauer. The big question is: Can the Yankees put an attractive package together to close the deal — without diminishing their major-league roster?
The reflexive answer is, no. The Yankees traded their top prospect, Justus Sheffield, in order to land Paxton. He was ranked 31st on MLB Pipeline’s top prospect list, and it’s presumed that the Indians could have gotten Sheffield for Kluber — if they wanted him. But here’s the thing: The Indians don’t need starting pitching. It’s their greatest strength. So let’s take a look at what Cleveland does need, and whether the Yankees match up.
Cleveland needs outfield help
The Indians desperately need an outfielder. They lost Michael Brantley, Melky Cabrera, and Lonnie Chisenhall to free agency, and have no help on the horizon from the farm. Their top outfield prospect in the upper minors is Oscar Mercado, who is the organization’s 15th-ranked prospect. The Yankees can offer immediate help in this area of need. Clint Frazier already made an impact at the major-league level, while Estevan Florial is knocking on the door.
Frazier suffered a concussion in spring training, and subsequently struggled to get healthy this season. He currently ranks sixth on the Yankees’ outfield depth chart behind Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury. There’s no way the club is going to carry six outfielders on the active roster, and in this era of the three-man bench, they may not even go with five.
Frazier is an obvious trade candidate. The Indians know him better than anyone, since he is a product of their own farm system. Remember, Frazier headlined the Andrew Miller deal back in 2016.
The left-handed hitting Florial is now the Yankees’ top prospect, and is ranked number 45 overall by MLB Pipeline. The 21-year-old slashed .283/.377/.422 in High-A this season, has a high ceiling, and is advancing through the minors.
The Indians bullpen is a horror show
Cleveland’s bullpen finished near the bottom of the league in ERA, FIP, and fWAR in 2018. The porous vessel was even further diminished this winter with the free agency of top contributors Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Oliver Perez. Of the relievers slated to return, only Brad Hand pitched to an ERA under 4.00 this year.
The Yankees have been quite adept at developing top bullpen arms in recent years, both from their own farm and with raw talent acquired from other systems. New York really has a lot to offer Cleveland in terms of bullpen help, and also possesses the resources to keep its own relief corps dominant via the free agent market, if necessary.
New York can offer a variety of power arms, among them Stephen Tarpley, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Domingo German. All three experienced some level of success in the majors this season, and appear poised to move up the bullpen chain in 2019. If the Bombers need to part with more proven arms like Chad Green or Jonathan Holder, they can do it knowing they have the money and free agent talent available. Miller, David Robertson, Zach Britton, and Adam Ottavino are among the top bullpen arms who are each expected to garner three-year contracts worth around $30 million this winter, easily within the Yankees’ financial range.
Cleveland wants to slash payroll
Trading Kluber will only decrease Cleveland’s payroll burden for next season by $17 million. The contracts the Indians really hope to move belong to Edwin Encarnacion and Jason Kipnis. Encarnacion is set to earn $21.7 million in 2019, while Kipnis is slated to receive $14.7 million. The Bombers are in a position to take on one or both contracts, if that’s what it takes to get a deal done. Interestingly, both players could help the Yankees with their immediate needs.
Kipnis is a two-time All-Star second baseman who has declined a bit in recent seasons. The 31-year-old slashed .230/.315/.389 with 18 homers and 75 RBI in 2018. Acquiring Kipnis would allow the Yankees to shift Gleyber Torres to his natural position of shortstop while Didi Gregorius recovers. Should Gregorius’ return go smoothly, Kipnis could slide comfortably into a utility role, as he has experience on both the infield dirt and outfield grass.
Encarnacion is a three-time All-Star who received MVP votes in five of the last seven years. Although the 35-year-old has fallen off from his peak, Encarnacion was still productive for Cleveland this season, slashing .246/.336/.474 with 32 home runs and 107 RBI.
Acquiring Encarnacion would give the Yankees more certainty at first base, while allowing them to flip either Greg Bird or Luke Voit. Both are cost-controlled, and Cleveland could be interested in one of them coming back the other way in a swap.
How do the Yankees and Indians ultimately match up?
Sending Kluber, Kipnis, and Encarnacion to New York would save the Indians around $53 million in 2019, depending on who they receive in the deal. The Yankees, meanwhile, can absolutely afford to take on those salaries. They currently sit at around $25 million under the $206 million luxury tax threshold. They would pay a one-time 20-percent penalty on the overage, plus a 12-percent surcharge for exceeding the luxury tax line by more than $20 million. This would still leave the Yankees with enough room to sign a top bullpen arm without facing the most onerous financial penalties for 2019.
This is precisely the type of short-term solution that Cashman seems to prefer. He’s only signed three starting pitchers to contracts of six or more years, ever. Kluber is under contract for one year, and carries team options for 2020 and 2021. Encarnacion and Kipnis are signed for two years, but each has a buy-out provision for 2020 — Encarnacion’s is $5 million and Kipnis’ is $2.5 million. So acquiring these three players puts the Yankees in luxury tax territory for only a single year, a fact likely to please their bean counters.
Another way to look at a potential blockbuster where the Yankees acquire Kluber, Encarnacion, and Kipnis: The total cost for all three players over the length of their contracts is $96.3 million. If Kluber were a free agent right now, would you sign him to a three-year pact at $32 million per year? You bet! Plus, the Yankees stand to receive needed contributions from both Encarnacion and Kipnis, which makes it well worth the cost of the talent going back the other way.
Taking all these factors into consideration, it certainly appears that the Yankees and Indians are compatible trade partners. Whether they can actually get a deal done really comes down to two factors: what value the Indians place on New York’s chips, and how the Yankees’ offering measures up against those of other potential partners.
Both teams have the opportunity to satisfy a huge chunk of their remaining offseason needs with one deal. The Indians made it clear that they wish to shed salary, while remaining atop the AL Central. The Yankees could move some major-league depth — without really diminishing their roster — and add a two-time Cy Young Award winner to the top of their rotation. That would be quite a coup for the Ninja. Get it done, Cash.