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Mariners outright Justus Sheffield, centerpiece of two Yankees’ blockbusters

Despite appearing just three times for the Yankees’ major league squad, Sheffield helped the club maximize their return for relief ace Andrew Miller.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox
Justus Sheffield fires a pitch against the Red Sox on September 30, 2018. It would be his third and final appearance in pinstripes.
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Mariners announced that Justus Sheffield, whom they had designated for assignment last week, cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A. This was a stunning development for the former first-rounder, still just 26 years old, who had been a staple of late 2010s top-100 prospect lists. Yet no team wanted to claim him, preferring to keep their 40-man roster spots over Sheffield’s upside. At the same time, it wasn’t too long ago that the young left-hander was the centerpiece of two Yankees’ trades.

Though the Bombers have not always capitalized on their prospect depth, Sheffield represents an instance in which they not only acquired a farmhand for a fair price but also sold high on him in exchange for a solid return. The Yankees received the southpaw, along with fellow top-100 staple Jackson Frazier and relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller, in exchange for relief ace Andrew Miller at the 2016 trade deadline. They turned Sheffield, along with outfield prospect Dom Thompson-Williams and righty Erik Swanson, into James Paxton just over two years later.

Let’s start by going over the Miller deal. When the Yankees dealt the back-of-the-bullpen stalwart to Cleveland, he was in the second season of a four-year, $36 million contract, a season in which he had already pitched to a 1.39 ERA in 45.1 innings in the Bronx. Cleveland was happy with their end of the deal, as Miller hurled 29 innings of 1.55 ERA ball for them the rest of the regular season and 19.1 innings of 1.40 ERA ball in the postseason. Traversing two teams and helping Cleveland to their first pennant in nearly 20 years, Miller struck out a whopping 44.7 percent of batters he faced while walking a mere 3.3 percent. The 41.4 percent differential between those two marks is the fourth-best among 7,576 50-plus inning relief seasons since the live-ball era began in 1920.

However, none of the players the Yankees received had much success for them despite their prospect status. Frazier showed glimpses of his potential, putting up a 150 wRC+ in 160 plate appearances during the shortened 2020 season, but has since been dogged by concussions and is no longer with the organization. Heller too suffered ill health, ultimately managing just 31.1 major league innings for the Yankees across four seasons. Feyereisen was sharp for the Brewers and Rays the past two seasons, most notably hurling 24.1 innings without surrendering a run in 2022, but he never pitched for the Yankees in the majors.

Why do I like this trade? Well, the Yankees were sellers at the deadline in 2016 because they weren’t on track to make the playoffs. Though they missed Miller during their playoff run the next year, as he pitched to a 1.44 ERA in the regular season, they actually bounced Miller’s Cleveland squad from the postseason in the 2017 ALDS. Plus, despite the low ERA, Miller wasn’t nearly as dominant that year: his 41.4 percent K-BB rate dropped to 30.3 percent, which was still sharp but certainly not unbeatable. This decline may have been a harbinger of what was to come, as Miller pitched to a middling 4.24 ERA in the last year of his contract.

While Feyereisen didn’t appear for the Yanks’ major league squad, the Bombers received a promising young middle infielder when they dealt the reliever to the Brewers. Brenny Escanio, still just 20 years old, has shown excellent plate discipline in rookie ball over the past two seasons, notching walk rates north of 17 percent each year. In addition to Escanio, the Yankees also received international bonus money, which helped them sign prospects like Fidel Montero and Daury Arias despite having a smaller pool to work with after penalties for signing Gerrit Cole the previous offseason.

The contributions from Heller and Frazier shouldn’t be discounted. Heller only tossed 31.1 innings, yes, but he pitched to a 2.59 ERA. While Frazier typically struggled with the glove, his 105 wRC+ across 807 plate appearances with New York provided meaningful fourth-outfielder production. Not to mention, the return for Feyereisen might still yield a quality major leaguer. But the real value the Yankees got from the Miller deal was by turning Sheffield into Paxton.

In 2019, Paxton tossed 150.2 innings for the Yanks, surrendering a 3.82 ERA and netting 3.5 WAR. Though he struggled in 2020, Paxton accrued 0.3 more wins, bringing his total regular season WAR tally to 3.8 for the Yankees. Despite Miller’s dominance, the limited airtime that relievers see meant he put up 3.8 WAR himself across his two-and-a-half years in Cleveland. In other words, if we take both of the Sheffield swaps to essentially boil down to Miller for Paxton, the deals are a wash.

The inclusion of Swanson — whose 1.74 ERA and 1.84 FIP in relief placed ninth- and second-lowest among 144 relievers with at least 50 innings last year — in the Paxton deal hasn’t been a great development for the Yankees. But given that the ultimate value of the Feyereisen return remains unresolved, I’d still consider the Sheffield deals to equate to a wash. And the reason that’s the case is that the Yankees had the foresight to sell high on the young left-hander. When they dealt him, he was their No. 1 prospect and the 54th-ranked youngster (per FanGraphs) overall. But in his Seattle tenure, he’s limped to a 5.40 ERA across 183.1 major league innings.

This goes to show that the ultimate value of a prospect in a trade shouldn’t be based on how he pans out, but on how the acquiring team chooses to use him. At the deadline last year, the Yankees sent three of their top prospects to Oakland for Frankie Montas; even if none of those prospects end up being major contributors in the Bay Area, the biggest takeaway shouldn’t be that the deal was balanced. Rather, it should be that the Yankees would have been better off spending their prospect value in another way. At least in the case of Sheffield, the Yankees parted with a prospect for a meaningful return — the southpaw was valuable to the Yankees (as was Thompson-Williams, who never appeared in the majors) because he helped them net Paxton.