The Yankees’ approach for the 2020 trade deadline is not much different from their approach to past deadlines: they need pitching, but aren’t willing to pay dearly for it. Brian Cashman loves to make a deal, but he rarely gets wooed by the big name and overpays at the trade deadline. His discipline is one of his best traits as an executive.
This often leads to the Yankees taking flyers on smaller names than the Zack Greinkes, Mike Clevingers, and Trevor Bauers of the world. Enter Trevor Williams of the Pittsburgh Pirates. A former second round pick who is enjoying a bounce-back season on the otherwise pitiful Pirates, Williams could be an interesting option for the Yankees, who might just have the pieces to swing a deal with the Pirates.
The Pirates are 7-17 this year – that’s a league-worst .292 winning percentage. You’d have to think that everyone is on the block in Pittsburgh. A Pirates team in desperate need of energy, could turn Williams, a pitcher controllable for two more years, into two or three players. The Toronto Blue Jays are already in on the bidding, according to Jon Paul Morosi.
Why should the Yankees be interested? Quietly, Williams has been a consistent National League starter for the last four seasons. He’s pitched to a 4.11 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 102 ERA+ over that span, which looks about average, but he’s is hitting his peak at the right time. Williams had a hard time down the stretch last season – he had a 6.17 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in the second half of 2019, and gave up 18 home runs (compared to just nine in the first half). Indeed, it was an issue with hard contact for Williams last year. His hard-hit rate, barrel percentage, exit velocity and sweet spot rates all ballooned to career-worsts last summer, which stunted his value.
However, Williams has bounced back in a big way, cashing in on that second-round promise. His greatest shortcoming last year is now his greatest strength – few pitchers are generating more soft contact than Trevor Williams this year. On 72 batted balls, just one has been “barreled up.” His hard-hit rate has improved 10 percent from last year, and his exit velocity against is a paltry 85 mph, which is in the top 10% of all 2020 pitchers. While he’s never been a big strikeout pitcher, his strikeout and whiff rates have never been higher than they are this year (although they are still barely league average).
Sometimes, pitch-to-contact guys aren’t great fits at Yankee Stadium because of their penchant to give up home runs, but Williams (aside from that abysmal second half in 2019) has always been stingy with the home-run ball, never averaging more than 1.1 HR/9 in any other full season of his. He wouldn’t be an ace, but he could fit the bill as a third or fourth starter for the Bombers, and possibly a J.A. Happ replacement.
The cost to acquire Williams is unknown, but the Yankees and Pirates have some recent history negotiating over a pitcher. Remember when the Yankees were talking with the Pirates about Gerrit Cole? The Yankees were OK with including Clint Frazier in the deal, but balked at giving up Miguel Andújar. Both players would help the Pirates immediately in 2020, and their past interest in the two hitters could bode well for the Yankees. Frazier has more value right now than Andújar, but neither has a clear future in New York. The Yankees could also potentially offer a young, exciting arm like Albert Abreu, who is out of options after 2020 but not ready to contribute in the bright lights of New York.
By offering two of these three players, I’d think the Yankees could swing a deal for Williams. No one knows what the future of minor league baseball is in the wake of COVID-19. Thus, the Pirates would likely be more interested in major-league players and Triple-A prospects ready to contribute, rather than Single-A kids with a higher upside, but who are years away. Luckily, the Yankees have a few of the former. These teams match up well in a potential deal.
The question for the Yankees is simple – does adding Williams move the needle in the Yankees’ rotation? Given the uncertainty around James Paxton’s health and still missing Luis Severino, I’d say the Yankees should get as much controllable pitching depth as they can. Williams isn’t a game-changer, but he could be an interesting piece for the right price.