With yet another false trade rumor purporting a finished Gerrit Cole deal, this time with the Houston Astros, it not only highlights the very, very slow offseason, but the pace at which the Cole market in particular has slowed. This is, of course, due to the stalling of the free agent market, which has seen the effects of a widening gap between the good and bad teams, and the “silent collusion” at work with the invisible salary cap.
The other important factor is that teams’ valuations of each other’s players are so similar, and the gap between one team’s data and another’s has slimmed to such a small margin that finding deals becomes more difficult. If everyone has a very similar understanding of value across the league, trades effectively become rarities; they can only exist at the crossroads of positional need and differing opinions of player value.
The Yankees’ pending deal with the Pirates was likely to include Clint Frazier and possibly Chance Adams or Justus Sheffield, and the Pirates balked, arguing the selling price is fairly Gleyber Torres. It makes sense. If you’re going to do a rebuild, the point is leveraging your good players to get the maximum value at the right time. This is how the Yankees acquired Torres in the first place.
The issue is that the consensus on Frazier, in fact, is quite mixed, which is the focus here. If the Yankees felt that Frazier was something like a ten-win player over his career, but lacked the positional need, the Pirates may see him as something like half that, and not worth it at ground zero of the rebuild. There are also some in the organization who think he’s a star, and some scouts think he’s a future super star.
What would hold up Frazier’s potential stardom, as we’ve seen, are contact issues. Frazier has shown improvement at the minor league level...
...but he still had a 30.3% strikeout rate in the big leagues last year, and just a .231 batting average.
Because of the combination of what is truly 80-grade bat speed, and what we could say is 45-grade contact skills, a projection system like KATOH (via that last FanGraphs article) gives a wide range of outcomes:
His comps could be as good as Jayson Werth, Shin-Soo Choo, or Trot Nixon, or as bad as Pat Lennon or Daryle Ward. It estimates an average of 6.9 WAR (about half way between my hypothetical Yankees and Pirates values), and there it’s about a coin flip as to whether he finishes with more or less than 10 WAR in his career.
Obviously, this is just statistical guessing. These are based on major league equivalencies of statistically significant minor league categories, and translatable skill sets can differ player to player. But, it gives you one idea. The other look into him is more subjective.
Just by scouting him, you can tell that there is obvious work to be done on his mechanics. Even take a look at his first major league game where he homered:
You can see that back foot bail out early in the swing, instead of remaining compact and balanced. When he finds a hanging slider, like here, he can whip the bat around to hit mistakes, but it also leaves him vulnerable to leaving a hole in his swing on those same breaking pitches; if he’s constantly leaning with his body to leverage his bat speed, instead of using a quieter approach where he lets his lower body give him support but instead lengthening the path of the bat through the zone, he can easily be caught off balance. And in 2017, that weakness was exploited, not only in terms of breaking ball whiff percentage...
...but also in the percentage of breaking pitches seen:
All of this is to say that Brian Cashman is taking a gamble here. As I have talked about, the rebuild part is easy. Amassing talent comes naturally for Cashman, and he has assembled a group of youngsters in the Bronx we haven’t seen in two decades. That also means there will be a few young players who simply don’t pan out, not because they weren’t talented, but because a facet of their game remained exposed to render their biggest strengths useless.
I’m not saying Frazier is that player. On the contrary, I think he’s one of the most talented hitters of the rebuild, period. He could have a 30-win career, or he could have a five-win career; it’s all a possibility. If the latter occurs fans will wonder why Cashman wasn’t more open to pushing him for short-term assets, and that’s the difficult tight rope to walk as a rebuild matures into contention. Frazier will likely get playing time at some point, and it will be a crucial year for him: we will get to see further whether that lightning bat speed can be harnessed into a super weapon, or if it’s just lightning in a bottle.