The Yankees were off on Monday, but that didn’t stop them from dipping their toes in the trade market to give their ailing bullpen a spare arm. The team announced on its Twitter that it had acquired righty reliever Clay Holmes from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for infielders Hoy Park and Diego Castillo. In a move that essentially locks in backup catcher Kyle Higashioka’s return from the COVID IL, the Yankees also returned third-stringer Rob Brantly to Triple-A Scranton.
On the surface, the deal for Holmes is a little odd, and Occam’s razor suggests that it might remain exactly that. The 28-year-old has pitched in the Pirates bullpen for four seasons without much success. The 2021 campaign represents his best foot forward, and the hard numbers still aren’t great: in 44 games, he has a 4.93 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and 1.429 WHIP across 42 innings of work. He’s fanned 44 batters, which is good for a 9.4 K/9 but has also walked 25, a 5.4 BB/9.
So why did the Yankees roll the dice on Holmes? He’s been doing a lot better work this year at inducing soft contact. Baseball Savant has him in the 86th percentile in terms of average exit velocity and the 74th percentile in hard-hit percentage. Holmes also throws hard with a lot of movement on his sinker, which he throws the most often and has averaged 95.7 mph, which is a harder sinker than even Zack Britton uses these days. Sure enough, his groundball rate has skyrocketed in 2021 to 72.8 percent. So if the Yankees can get Holmes’ walks under control, then they could have quite the find here.
The Yankees just acquired Clay Holmes from the Pittsburgh Pirates. He pitches to contact, hence his MLB-leading 72.8% GB% (min. 40 IP).— Joe LoGrippo (@Joe_LoGrippo) July 26, 2021
He mainly throws a sinker, but also has a slider and curveball in his arsenal. Here are those three pitches in action. pic.twitter.com/eQCgbnbWwn
The cost of acquiring Holmes is a couple minor league infielders. Park was one of the better stories of the farm system this year, breaking out from years of relative mediocrity to hit .327/.475/.567 with 10 homers and a 177 wRC+ in 48 games as a 25-year-old at Triple-A Scranton (mostly at shortstop and second base). The Yankees signed Park as part of the much-ballyhooed 2014 international free agent signing period, which is the same one that netted them the infielder Castillo. Like Park, Castillo had underwhelmed for a few years before finding success in 2021, for him at Double-A Somerset. The soon-to-be 24-year-old hit .277/.345/.504 with 11 homers and a 127 wRC+ in 58 games all around the infield before the trade.
It’s grown more clear for awhile though that the Yankees didn’t envision Park or Castillo as part of their future. Despite Park’s numbers, he remained at Triple-A until the Yankees’ COVID breakout, and he only had one at-bat with no starts at the MLB level before being demoted. Likewise, Castillo has remained at Triple-A despite not particularly glowing options ahead of him in Scranton. The Yankees also would’ve had to make 40-man roster decisions on Park and Castillo at the end of the season, so this already answers those questions.
If Brian Cashman had indeed already made his judgments about those two infielders, then it’s not the worst idea to unload them at their highest value. Holmes is undoubtedly a project, but remember that Park and Castillo would not have been considered elite prospects in any trade. The Yankees need middle-relief help anyway, and its evident that some homegrown guys like Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske are not part of the solution.
For the Pirates, it’s absolutely a fine idea to give them a shot to prove their worth as starters at some point during their rebuild. They weren’t going to get that chance in New York with more notable names ahead of them (on both the current team and prospect lists), and considering their otherwise-middling pasts, the Yankees may be proven right for it. But that’s the name of the trade game. There’s always risk, even if it’s low.