Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely heard the news that Brian Cashman flipped Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for third baseman Josh Donaldson, likely shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and catcher Ben Rortvedt. It was a shocking move that no one expected the Yankees to make, but it did address some of the team’s needs while creating some question marks in the process.
To help make sense of the trade, let’s see what the Yankees are getting.
We’ve talked a lot about Josh Donaldson. After the trade went down, Josh posted an instant reaction about the benefits of adding Josh Donaldson to this roster, and the day after, Dan dove into his stats a little bit more, so I’m going to leave him out of this for the most part.
But, as a Canadian who was able to watch Josh Donaldson’s Blue Jay tenure firsthand, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that he’s the type of guy you can’t help but root for when he’s on your team. At risk of drawing the ire of the more staunchly analytics-focused folks here, he brings a certain swagger that this team has been missing for quite some time.
To summarize: A lot of fans are going to end up liking Josh Donaldson.
At the beginning of the offseason, I wrote a trade target post about Isiah Kiner-Falefa and how he shouldn’t be seen as a viable starting shortstop for this team. While I do still believe that, it’s clear that the organization has chosen to value defense over offense from the shortstop position. With that being the case, then Kiner-Falefa is definitely the guy for the job.
Kiner-Falefa’s offensive stats are going to cause some division amongst fans. In traditional terms, he slashed .271/.312/.357 with eight home runs, 53 RBI, and 20 stolen bases last year. He also struck out just 13.3 percent of the time, though he walked just 4.1 percent of the time. His batting average certainly isn’t bad and it’s nice that he can swipe some bags and not strike out, but his OBP and slugging are abysmal. As I said, though, if you’re prioritizing defense up the middle, I suppose you can live with a guy who makes a ton of soft contact and has the speed to turn some of it into hits.
Speaking of defense, Kiner-Falefa posted 10 DRS for the Rangers last season. He’s a range-y guy who can get to most balls hit to his side of the infield and has enough arm strength to make most plays. OAA didn’t love him last season (-7), but the -14 he posted on plays where he had to move in on the ball seems like an outlier rather than a trend. When moving side-to-side, he’s above average. For the traditionalists, he did commit 19 errors last season—that was fourth amongst all shortstops—but Javier Báez, one of the best defenders in the game, committed 20, so don’t read too much into that. After having to watch Gleyber Torres play shortstop last season, I’ll take it.
To summarize: Don’t expect much from his bat, but the dude can play the field.
Ben Rortvedt, a young left-handed hitting catcher with ties to Yankees catching coach Tanner Swanson, is where this trade gets interesting. There is honestly very little raw data on Rortvedt out there — he’s appeared in just 39 major league games — but the numbers he posted in the minor leagues are fairly encouraging, at least as far as catcher offense is concerned.
Where Rortvedt excels, however, is defense. He is an above average framer who posted 2 DRS and threw out 7 of 16 batters (43.8 percent) in 256 innings at catcher last season. While that is a small sample size, word is he was the highest-rated defensive catcher in the Twins system.
To match the hype with reality, Andrew helped me find some footage of his framing at work, and is it ever pretty. Here are four examples of him stealing strikes for his pitchers from all quadrants of the strike zone:
As seen in the videos above, Rortvedt is set up to receive the ball beautifully behind the plate. Each pitch is clearly off the plate, but his lightning quick hands are able to present it on a platter to the umpire. Additionally, in each instance, there is absolutely no wasted movement from him. His upper body remains still while he lets his glove hand do the work. Contrary to what was done with Sánchez, particularly on low strikes, Rortvedt still presents his pitcher with a target, but his ability to limit extraneous movement allows him to get called strikes, even when the pitcher misses his target.
But what happens when the pitcher misses their spot badly? Well...
...it’s more of the same: lightning quick hands and very little extra movement from his upper body, with the added bonus of extremely quick feet. If you want a further glimpse at his quick feet, check out this strike-‘em-out, throw-‘em-out to get Niko Goodrum, one of the fastest players in the league:
Despite the pitch being well off the plate and moving at the time of receiving, Rortvedt’s hands and lack of wasted movement steals another strike for his pitcher while he’s in the process of throwing a runner out. I can’t be certain, but I imagine Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Gerrit Cole, amongst others, are going to love pitching to this guy.
Beyond just his play on the field, though, the dude’s biceps might give Giancarlo Stanton’s a run for his money:
Happy debut day to the weight room’s best friend, @rortvedt22. https://t.co/nmUP9xNbz8 pic.twitter.com/5S0UdRqoDp— Brace Hemmelgarn (@bracehemmelgarn) April 30, 2021
This is more than just a fun talking point, though. According to MLB’s Matt Monagan, some scouts believe Rortvedt could eventually develop 20+ home run power, potential that was on full display in his first career home run:
Lefty power always plays well in the Bronx, so hopefully the team is able to help him tap into his potential. For the time being, though, it appears as though he will form one half of a catcher platoon with incumbent Kyle Higashioka.
To summarize: The at-bats out of the 9-hole may be a little ugly this season, but at least the defense should finally be watchable.
I’d be lying if I told you that this trade made total sense to me right away. As the PSA team reacted to the news last night, though, Josh’s point about rebuilding the left side of the infield without moving any prospects helped contextualize things for me a little more. Donaldson is another excellent hitter to slot into the middle of the lineup, and both Kiner-Falefa and Rortvedt are both clear defensive upgrades over the players who held their position last year. I hope that another move is coming because I don’t think that this trade alone is enough to push them over the edge, but it’s a start.