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Yankees Transaction Trees: Justin Wilson (and Chad Green)

The Yankees were party to three separate trades involving the lefty specialist Wilson, but the most meaningful one included the recently-departed Green.

Wild Card Game - Houston Astros v New York Yankees
Justin Wilson pitches in relief for the Yankees during the sixth inning of the AL Wild Card Game in 2015. The lefty would be dealt during the ensuing offseason.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

When Chad Green officially departed from the Bronx two weeks ago, signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent, it marked the conclusion of a commendable six-year run at the back end of the Yankees’ bullpen. But this wasn’t the only chapter closed upon his exit — it also meant that the ripple effects from the 2015 Yankees-Tigers trade centered around Justin Wilson would finally cease.

Originally acquired from the Pirates in exchange for catcher Francisco Cervelli prior to the 2015 season, Wilson pitched well during his first year in the Bronx. Across 61 innings out of the ‘pen, the second-highest single-season total in his career, the left-hander yielded just a 3.10 ERA, good for 1.5 WAR. His career-best year by the latter measure also tied him for 15th-best among relievers that season. Additionally, he posted the best FIP of his career at 2.69 and his second-best K-BB rate at 18.9 percent.

But in 2015, Cervelli put up an excellent 5.9 WAR himself on the heels of a .370 on-base percentage and excellent defense. Specifically, the backstop saved an estimated 21.3 runs via framing, tied for the 20th-best single-season total since 2003, the year that the stat dates back to on FanGraphs. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ primary catcher that season was Brian McCann, who uncharacteristically cost the club 1.3 runs with his framing (or lack thereof). Cervelli even bested McCann’s wRC+ that year by 11 points, 117 to 106.

However, Cervelli put up just 5.7 WAR over the rest of his career in Pittsburgh, which lasted until late 2019. Meanwhile, the Yankees unloaded Wilson to the Tigers in December 2015 in exchange for Green and fellow right-hander Luis Cessa. This move would prove decisive for the trajectory of the initial Wilson deal.

American League Championship Series Game Four: Houston Astros v. New York Yankees

After initially appearing in most of his big league games as a starter in 2016, Green was moved to the ‘pen full-time and rattled off five straight good-to-great years for the Yankees. From 2017-21, the righty tossed 323 innings of 2.95 ERA ball, amassing 7.4 WAR. Some of these appearances came as an opener, but even putting those aside, he still managed over 300 innings and 7 WAR during that time, only one of six relievers to do so. There were 80 relievers who tossed at least 200 innings during that stretch, and even among that group, Green’s K-BB rate ranked fifth, his WAR tied for fifth, his FIP ranked eighth, and his ERA tied for 10th. All told, Green hurled 383.2 innings of 3.17 ERA, 7.8 WAR ball for the Yanks.

Cessa, for his part, was no slouch either. He threw 292 innings in a long relief or swingman role, pitching to a 4.19 ERA. He put up merely 1 WAR, but as I’ve stated previously, WAR tends to undervalue relievers. This fact also puts Green’s feats in an even better light.

Amusingly, the Yankees’ story with Wilson wasn’t over yet either. They re-signed Wilson prior to the 2021 season, and after an ineffective and injured first half, they dealt him and Cessa to the Reds that summer (in exchange for minor leaguer Jason Parker, who doesn’t appear likely to contribute in the majors). Leading up to that move, Wilson lasted just a year and a half on the Tigers, turning in 99 innings of 2 WAR, 3.55 ERA ball with a 3.20 FIP and 21.3 percent K-BB rate. He played out the rest of that contract with the Cubs, where he regressed to a 3.86 ERA, 3.66 FIP, and 12.8 percent K-BB rate in 72.1 innings. Overall, the Yankees gave up three years of 3.68 ERA relief and 2.8 WAR in 171.1 Wilson innings. This, in addition to the 8.6 WAR’s worth of Cervelli (on his original contract) that the Yanks parted with in exchange for Wilson, puts their total loss in these deals at 11.4 WAR compared to the 10.3 they received from Green, Cessa, and one season of Wilson.

Of course, though it does provide a good starting point, WAR doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, it undervalues the contributions of relievers Green, Cessa, and Wilson, perhaps overvaluing Cervelli’s production. But also, it ignores the intricacies of roster construction. Specifically, after the Yankees had committed a good deal of money to McCann; they likely saw Cervelli as an expendable backup with just two years left before free agency (having Gary Sánchez in the system likely didn’t hurt, either). Whether they should have signed McCann in the first place, blocking any chance Cervelli had of starting in New York, is another story, and one beyond the scope of this trade analysis. But given the situation, it certainly made sense to deal Cervelli.

And whether it was because they could foresee their impending non-competitiveness or because they liked the Tigers’ offer, dealing Wilson to Detroit was an excellent decision and one that paid dividends almost immediately. Just over a year after the deal, Green put up one of the better rookie relief seasons in recent memory, tossing 69 innings of 1.83 ERA ball. The 2.3 WAR he was worth out of the ‘pen that year tied him for the fourth-best total among rookie relievers over the past 15 seasons and nearly equaled Wilson’s contributions over the remaining three years of his contract.

Although the trades more or less evened out, one thing’s for sure: they wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t for Chad Green. The righty will be missed in the Bronx; it will be tough without him holding down the late innings for the Yanks. His presence, almost taken for granted at times, could be counted on day in and day out for the past six years. But I’ll be rooting for him in his recovery from Tommy John, especially if he promises to take it easy on us whenever he returns to the Bronx.