At last year’s trade deadline, the Yankees reportedly intently pursued Blue Jays reliever Ken Giles. In fact, they nearly pulled off the trade, and three unnamed prospects came close to getting sent to Toronto in exchange for the hard-throwing reliever. Ultimately, Giles stayed put, with his elbow troubles possibly scaring off suitors.
The Yankees ended up making no significant moves at the deadline, of course. That they were so interested in further relief help, however, indicates that the team is simply never satisfied when it comes to their super bullpen. No matter how many relief aces are on hand, Brian Cashman always seems game to try to lock down one more.
Which brings us to this offseason. Giles seemed to remain a prime trade candidate this winter, entering his final year of arbitration with an also-ran Toronto team. MLB Trade Rumors recently ranked him as their number-two trade candidate in the league. So far, there’s been little buzz around Giles, but should the Yankee re-visit the player they almost reeled in just a few months ago?
If the Yankees want to make another upgrade this offseason, the bullpen is likely where it would have to be. Depth starting pitching options are all that appear on the free agent market. They could look at position players, but unless they suddenly splurge for Josh Donaldson or Marcell Ozuna, the team can only reel in a potential fifth outfielder or utility infielder. The best remaining way to improve the roster in January is to shift projected innings from Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, and Ben Heller to a more proven player.
Yet with Dellin Betances having skipped across town, and with the underrated Will Harris having just come off the board, the free agent relief market is bereft of impact players. The only way to the move the needle now is through trade.
Giles profiles as a strong target. He’s 29-years-old and coming off the finest season of his career, one in which he totaled 53 innings with a 208 ERA+, striking out more than 14 batters per nine and walking fewer than three. He ranked sixth among qualified relievers in adjusted ERA, better than any Yankee reliever, and ranked fifth in adjusted FIP.
His red flags pertain to injuries and consistency. Giles battled elbow inflammation at times in 2019, and while he pitched well down the stretch, there was enough concern about his elbow at the deadline to keep teams wary. Perhaps more importantly, Giles’ performance has vacillated wildly in recent years. Last season, along with 2015 and 2017, Giles was among the very best relievers in baseball. In 2016 and 2018, he posted below-average ERA figures and rated below replacement level by Baseball Reference.
While it is concerning to see Giles swing so violently from one extreme to another, it’s worth nothing that his underlying skills don’t seem to have changed all that much from year to year. During his disastrous 2018, Giles’ fastball velocity still ranked in the 97th percentile, and his spin rate in the 81st. He walked just 3.3 percent of the batters he faced and still generated a ton of whiffs. In his poor 2016, he struck out over 35 percent of hitters and maintained an average fastball velocity of 98 mph.
Moreover, Giles generated wOBA figures of .306 and .310 in 2016 and 2018, respectively, both below league average, suggesting he had some poor fortune in terms of sequencing and run prevention. On top of even that, his wOBA marks in those years are higher than his expected wOBA marks calculated by Statcast, meaning he may have been unlucky in terms of batted balls as well. This isn’t to say Giles was necessarily great in those years, but the evidence suggests that he was merely a little less good and a little unlucky during his down years, as opposed to the complete collapse his ERA numbers would indicate.
If we accept that Giles has been elite in his best years, and an erratic but still effective reliever in his down years, then we have on our hands one of the most attractive relief targets in the game. To wit, since 2015, Giles ranks sixth in fWAR, just behind Betances and ahead of the likes of Edwin Diaz, and Craig Kimbrel, despite having a fraction of the pedigree.
Giles will be a free agent after 2020 and projects to earn about $8 million next season. With the Blue Jays mired in the AL’s lower tiers, and with the way head executive Mark Shapiro appears to fetishize financial flexibility, it’s possible Toronto would be somewhat eager to unload Giles. Even at worst, given his proximity to free agency, it’s hard to imagine Giles fetching more than one good prospect, plus a lottery ticket or two.
The Yankees could easily stand pat from here, roll with their excellent 26-man roster, and accept that Luis Cessa, Jordan Montgomery, and Tarpely will have to eat plenty of innings. If they decide they want more, there are few better places to get it at this point than Giles. My guess is they hold the line through Opening Day, but the Yankees would do well to at least inquire on Giles.