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Why the Yankees decided Adam Ottavino was expendable

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A better use of resources explains the Yankees’ thinking here.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Despite what had been a painfully slow offseason to this point, the Yankees have actually been quite busy recently. Re-signing DJ LeMahieu, adding Corey Kluber and trading for Jameson Taillon were necessary moves for the club, but they also used almost all of the Yankees’ supposed budget space. For the team to address its remaining holes in the bullpen and on the bench while remaining under their self-imposed limits, someone’s contract was going to have to be dumped.

Yesterday, that player was Adam Ottavino. Although the idea that Ottavino was on thin ice with the Yankees wasn’t completely out of left field, the fact that the Yankees chose the Boston Red Sox as their trading partner was a shock. Ottavino and a prospect, Frank German, were dealt to Boston in exchange for the Red Sox taking on all but a paltry $850,000 of Ottavino’s remaining salary. Although the move gives the Yankees nothing tangible in return, they freed up over $8 million that they can now use to bolster their roster without going over budget.

The move marked the first deal between the Yankees and Red Sox since the infamous Kelly Johnson-for-Stephen Drew swap of 2014. Ottavino now becomes one of Boston’s best relief options, and his penchant for being tough on righties with his wide array of breaking pitches could actually come back to bite the Yankees’ righty-heavy lineup. Still, the Red Sox are largely expected to be a non-factor in 2021, so adding Ottavino doesn’t really move the needle too much for them. If anything, it’s strange how an organization that wouldn’t pay Mookie Betts just one year ago was so willing to take on Ottavino’s $9 million AAV during a season that’s not expected to go anywhere.

German, the prospect sweetener who went to Boston in the deal, isn’t much more than a throw-in. He was a fourth-rounder in 2018, but hasn’t pitched above Single-A. Although he had good strikeout numbers and velocity, command issues have held him back (ironically, the same could be said for Ottavino). If German ever becomes a factor at the MLB level, it won’t be for a few years at least.

For the Yankees, this move proves that they’re committed to staying under the $210 million luxury tax threshold. Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees are now projected to have about $5-$10 million to spend before hitting the threshold, which will likely be spent in two ways. First, a reunion with Brett Gardner seems more likely than ever. Jack Curry has even reported that the sides have been talking recently, and for the likely $5 million or less it would take to re-sign him, it’s probably worth it.

The Yankees are also now even more shorthanded in their bullpen than they already expected to be. Although some of their prospects could feasibly fill relief roles (as we explored last week), they may want another MLB option to replace Ottavino and join the Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Chad Green circle of trust, ahead of the Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga and Michael King crowd. There are a number of cheap choices out there, such as Brandon Kintzler, Shane Greene, Andrew Chafin, Aaron Loup, or Yusmeiro Petit, who aren’t thrilling candidates but could provide value on an inexpensive deal.

The Yankees could also take Ottavino’s money and spend it on another starting pitcher (cough cough, Masahiro Tanaka), but doing so would probably still put the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold, which is something they are clearly not comfortable doing. If the Yankees are going to re-purpose Ottavino’s $9 million salary, splitting it among Gardner, a new relief pitcher and stashing the remainder for a mid-season trade or call-up seems like the most likely outcome. Given the team’s lack of trust in Ottavino in postseason situations, reallocating those funds isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

Now, the big point here is still that the Yankees shouldn’t really have to do this. With all the money they bring in, a luxury tax penalty of a few million dollars shouldn’t deter the Yankees from putting out the best team they possibly can in 2021. That “best team” probably still had Ottavino on it, as well as Tanaka and possibly Gardner. Instead, the Yankees are operating within their self-imposed limits. Having said that, they’ve done the best they possibly could under those strict limitations.

The 2021 Yankees will look different than the 2020 Yankees, but not necessarily worse, which was a possibility as of just a few weeks ago. How they spend this final $9 million will be crucial in determining how successful this trade was. The Yankees wouldn’t just let Ottavino go to a hated rival for no return just to sit on the cash savings, would they? There are definitely more moves coming for the Yankees, and although they probably won't break the bank, they could be crucial in filling out this season’s roster.