On Wednesday, MLB Trade Rumors ran a poll asking which players the Yankees should protect in a hypothetical expansion draft. I won’t bore you with the details of expansion draft procedure, but what’s important to know is that existing teams may exempt fifteen players on their roster from selection in the first round. The last expansion draft took place on November 18th, 1997 with the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks entering the league.
Assuming that a November draft date remains constant, there is no incentive for the Yankees to protect free agents. Therefore, DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, and Brett Gardner will not make this list. And because players with no-trade clauses must be included barring the waiver of those rights, Giancarlo Stanton, Gerrit Cole, and Aroldis Chapman make up 20% of the list.
Additionally, the MLBTR staff agreed that Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Gio Urshela, Jordan Montgomery, and Chad Green merited automatic inclusion on the exempt list. For the sake of this article, I will make the rest of my picks operating under this assumption.
That means that of a list containing: Clint Frazier, Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, Mike King, Thairo Estrada, Tyler Wade, Jonathan Loaisiga, Mike Tauchman, Jonathan Holder, Kyle Higashioka, Mike Ford, Ben Heller, and Luis Cessa, only four players can be selected. A difficult task to be sure, but here are my picks:
It is hard not to include the starting centerfielder on a list of players to protect from the expansion draft. There may be questions about his durability and long-term health, but I will only be focusing on what he does bring when healthy. Let us not forget that only season before last, Hicks played in 137 games, put up 27 home runs, and amassed 5.0 fWAR.
Hicks has elite control of the zone, putting up a a 13.9% walk rate over the last three seasons, good for second place on the team. He is also a top-tier defensive centerfielder, a rare commodity when combined with his offensive production. I do not think I have to remind anybody about a certain catch he made in Minnesota.
All of this is without even mentioning what makes him most valuable to the team: the man is clutch. And by that I mean, the most clutch player in MLB in 2019 by FanGraphs’ clutch metric, which incorporates Win Probability Added and Leverage Index. Just ask Justin Verlander.
Another starter, and even more of a no-brainer, closes out the first half of my selections. Luke Voit was a revelation when he burst onto the Yankees scene in 2018. He put up Ruthian numbers with 14 homers and a 195 wRC+ in only 39 games. Voit carries the promise of an everyday first baseman with 30+ home run, 100+ RBI, and 100+ walk potential, something Yankees fans have been dying for since the last such hope flew out the window with Greg Bird.
He has also shown the ability to carry the team for extended stretches. Voit kept the team afloat offensively for much of the first three months when both Stanton and Judge were out. During that stretch, he hit .280/.393/.509 with 17 home runs and an OPS+ and wRC+ of 140. Only a core injury prevented him from maintaining this level of production and it is exciting to think what he can offer in a full healthy season.
Zack Britton had an outstanding 2019 campaign for the Yankees. And while it is difficult to choose only one out of the Britton, Kahnle, Ottavino relief trio, the clear choice to me is the lefty sinkerballer. Kahnle struggled with home runs at times while Britton just edges Ottavino when it comes to keeping men off base.
There is no doubting that Britton is still in the upper echelons of MLB relief pitchers. He led all qualified relievers in 2019 with his 77.2% ground ball rate, also tying for third-lowest home runs per nine. While his walk rate of 4.7 per nine was not ideal, Britton was able to limit the damage of these baserunners with his 12th highest strand rate of 86.8%.
One reason for Britton’s success last season was the increased usage of his slider. He threw over three times as many sliders in 2019 as in 2018, yet only gave up one hit against his slider all season. This uptick in usage boosted the effectiveness of his sinker, which still remains one of the best pitches in MLB. If he can continue to hone that pitch, he will further his case as arguably the best set-up man in baseball.
Rounding out my list is probably the most unexpected selection of the four. I wanted to have an even number of position players and pitchers, so that rules out Clint Frazier. The reason I selected Loaisiga over Ottavino and Kahnle is in large part due to his age, cost, and years of control. However, let’s not take anything away from the skillful pitcher he is becoming.
Of the many intriguing storylines of the shortened spring training, I was most impressed by Loaisiga. He was outright dominant in the majority of his performances, showing confidence in all three of his pitches. His fastball touched triple digits at times, his curve was downright filthy, and he was able to disrupt hitters’ timing with a competent changeup. He profiles as an anchor of the bullpen for years to come, which will become increasingly important with each year added to the current staff’s arms.