Last night, the Yankees consummated a trade that had been rumored for awhile, sending Brian McCann to the Houston Astros. In return, the Yankees received a pair of minor league pitchers, Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman. New York will also send Houston $5.5 million each of the next two seasons to help offset McCann’s $17 million annual salary.
The logic behind this trade is clear for the Yankees: the emergence of Gary Sanchez left McCann with a diminished role. McCann was in line to earn fairly regular at-bats as a designated hitter and backup catcher, but McCann still wants to be a major league starter, something he can be in Houston.
In that sense, it was a very reasonable deal. McCann posted a .242/.335/.413 slash line and a 103 wRC+ in 2016, which is solid, but plays much better at catcher than DH. Given that he still profiles as a quality backstop (McCann ranked as 8.9 runs better than average behind the plate according to Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA), McCann has more use as a good-fielding catcher rather than a designated hitter with a relatively underwhelming bat.
Because of that, the acquisition of McCann looks very sensible for the Astros. With former backstop Jason Castro on the free agent market, Houston seemed unenthused with the prospect of Evan Gattis assuming full-time catching duties. Now, Gattis can move to DH and backup catcher, and also form a nice platoon with McCann. For his career, Gattis owns a 116 wRC+ versus left-handers, while McCann has posted a 117 wRC+ versus right-handers.
Now, did the Yankees get enough value for McCann? The Astros effectively are receiving two years of McCann for $23 million. If McCann profiles as an average catcher over the course of those two years, and given the going rate of about $8.5 million per WAR on the open market, then McCann’s projected production across 2017-2018 should total to around $35 million worth of value.
By that math, the Yankees are hoping that the prospects Abreu and Guzman produce more than the difference between that $35 million projected figure and McCann’s $23 million cost. Prior to the trade, MLB.com ranked Abreu as Houston’s #7 prospect, while Guzman didn’t rank among the Astros’ top 30. Currently, Abreu slots in as the Yankees’ #10 prospect.
Both are hard-throwing projects that aren’t expected to reach the majors for years to come. Just at a glance, such a return seems fair given McCann’s status as a useful but not overwhelming asset. Neither may stick as a starter given their reported command issues, but their pro careers are still in their nascent stages and they are welcome additions to an already excellent farm system.
Going back to the Yankees’ current roster, McCann’s departure does more than clear space for Sanchez to grow. The Yankees now have flexibility at DH. They could opt to use it as a rotating slot, attempting to keep their veterans fresh by giving players like Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley (assuming they’re on the team) ample “half” days off at DH. The Yankees could also give young hitters like Rob Refsnyder, Aaron Judge, and Tyler Austin at-bats at the DH spot.
However, it seems very possible that the Yankees will turn to a free agent market saturated with power bats to fill the hole. Higher priced sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mark Trumbo remain unlikely. Less expensive players like Matt Holliday, Steve Pearce, or even Carlos Beltran could give the Yankees a potent DH option at a low cost.
Overall, this trade just feels like a pretty smart move for all the parties involved. The Yankees had an asset that was less valuable to them than it was to others, and they received a pair of interesting arms in exchange. The Astros filled a need by acquiring a fine player at an affordable price. Both Sanchez and McCann will now have starting roles. It’s sad to see a good player leave, but given the circumstances, it shouldn’t be too difficult for either McCann or the Yankees to say goodbye.