A key debate is coming quickly for the Yankees this season, as underperformance and injury have punched a major gap in their once vaunted lineup. The Yankees have the lowest bWAR in the American League at both centerfield and left field after two months of play. All over the minors, the Yankees have seen the organization’s top prospects explode out of the gate with strong performances that have garnered strong reviews. The Yankees need to be bold, and not shy away from trading even their best prospects to fill their major league needs.
On June 4th 2016, the deal was finalized sending veteran pitcher James Shields to the Chicago White Sox for Triple-A pitcher Erik Johnson and a 17-year-old shortstop more famous at the time for sharing his father’s name in Fernando Tatis Jr.
Shields was terrible for the White Sox that season, and they finished below .500, well out of contention in the AL Central. The White Sox were a bad team before they traded for Shields as they were in the middle of a stretch where they finished below .500 for seven straight seasons. When given the chance they went for it, and it would not have changed their bottom over the next few years.
While Erik Johnson threw his last pitch in the minors during the 2018 season, the young shortstop has emerged as the most exciting player in the game. Since making his MLB debut in 2019, Tatis Jr. has been among the best and most exciting players on the field. It may go down as one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history by the time all is said and done, but both teams are currently in first place and coming off a season where they made the playoffs.
Both the Padres and the White Sox made the playoffs in 2020. The White Sox would love to have that trade back, but it did little to change where the team is right now, and they took their shot at winning back in 2016.
More often than not, the team trading prospects is going to win an in-season trade. In a 2019 review of all 428 prospects traded between 2003-2014, Baseball America determined that only 86 had played at least two seasons in the major leagues and produced a positive bWAR. The chances are that the best value for a team’s prospects comes via trading them for proven major league talent. This does not mean that you offer up Jasson Dominguez for a mediocre rental in the outfield, but if the chance is there for an impact player, then the team should not be afraid to deal a Luis Gil, Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe.
One way that the White Sox bounced back was by trading Adam Eaton for a package that included Lucas Giolito. In 2019, Giolito produced 5.8 bWAR for the White Sox, while Eaton produced his best season with the Nationals at just 2.2 bWAR. The Nationals still won the World Series that season, beating a Houston team that was stacked with a trio of potential aces, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Grienke who were all brought in on high profile trades. That trio in different combinations has helped keep the Astros one step ahead of the Yankees dating back to 2017.
The last time the Yankees offense performed as poorly as it has this season, the team decided to trade star reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland for four prospects. Headlined by Justus Sheffield and Clint Frazier, it was considered to be an amazing return for the Yankees that, along with other blockbuster trades, made the Yankees’ farm system one of the game’s best. Both Sheffield and Frazier routinely appeared in top-100 prospect rankings for several years but have yet to lock themselves in as quality players at the major league level. The trade helped Cleveland to the World Series in 2016 and they have made the playoffs in three of four seasons since.
Ironically, the player Cleveland ruled off-limits in trade talks that year has been far from an impact player for the franchise. Cleveland reportedly was unwilling to include centerfielder Bradley Zimmer in any deal with the Yankees, as he was a focal point of their future plans. In the time since, he has only played in 170 games and is slashing .226/.304/.348 for his career. The irony continues in that J.P. Feyereisen, considered by most at the time to be little more than a throw in on the deal, has recorded the highest career bWAR of any prospect received by the Yankees from Cleveland. After passing on numerous chances to promote Feyereisen the Yankees traded him to the Brewers in September 2019 for international bonus pool money and a 17-year-old middle infielder who will shortly be playing his first games for the Yankees organization.
It is no secret that there are gaps in the Yankees lineup these days. Under performance and injuries have punched holes in a lineup that has consistently been among the top of the league in runs scored since 2017. To put this team back in contention the Yankees need to aggressively market their prospects and not be afraid of the consequences. While no team tries to lose a trade, closing the deal on a big-time trade can be all the difference in October.
It’s easy to look at a trade like the Tatis Jr. for Shields swap and wince, and swear to never let go of one’s prospects. But that kind of trade is exception, not the rule, and even that disastrous transaction hasn’t left Chicago worse for wear. The Yankees must be aggressive with moving some of their prospects, if it means shoring up the current big league squad’s weaknesses.