Yankees trade for McCarthy, designate Soriano for assignment
It's not a blockbuster, but the Yankees have made two small and necessary moves to bring in one veteran and get rid of another. On Sunday morning, the team announced it had acquired starter Brandon McCarthy from the Arizona Diamondbacks for Vidal Nuno, and had designated outfielder Alfonso Soriano for assignment. In the case of McCarthy, it's an overdue attempt to stabilize the back-end of one of the league's weaker rotations. In the case of Soriano, it's a stab at improvement by subtracting a player who simply wasn't helping.
McCarthy, who will make his Yankees debut on Wednesday, will be asked to pick up the slack for a group that, Masahiro Tanaka aside, has given New York very little so far this season. David Phelps and Hiroki Kuroda have been roughly league average, with ERA+ marks of 100 and 98, respectively, while the pair of Nuno and Chase Whitley has struggled mightily. Whitley's ERA is up to 5.14 after giving up 17 earned runs in his last 10 1/3 innings, and he's failed to get past the fifth inning in all but two of his 10 starts. Nuno, meanwhile, has a ghastly 5.42 ERA thanks in large part to a home run-per-nine rate of 1.7 and has also been unable to provide much in the way of innings, averaging just over five a start in his 14 turns.CC Sabathia may be done for the season due to continued problems with his knee. The other Yankees starter on the disabled list, Michael Pineda, is also not close to game action. All of that forced general manager Brian Cashman's hand in looking for an upgrade, and though the team reportedly checked in on the recently traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, it ultimately chose the cheaper upgrade in going from Nuno to McCarthy.
On the surface, 2014 hasn't been a good year for McCarthy, as the 30-year-old has posted a career-worst 5.01 ERA in 109 2/3 innings and 18 starts, good for an ERA+ of 75. But with a strikeout rate of 7.6 per nine and a walk rate of 1.6, McCarthy's peripherals suggest better results than he's gotten. It also hasn't helped that McCarthy, a groundball-heavy pitcher (55 percent of balls put in play off him this year have been groundballs) has had to contend with Arizona's rotten defense. By defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs, the Diamondbacks rank third-worst in baseball at .669. That's a big reason why McCarthy has a .345 batting average on balls in play, some 50 points above his career average.
There is one peripheral that will be worrisome for McCarthy in Yankee Stadium: home run rate. The right-hander's 1.2 homers allowed per nine this season is his highest ratio since 2009, and doesn't bode well for homer-happy Yankee Stadium. In particular, McCarthy will probably learn to hate the short right field porch given his platoon splits this season: .762 OPS vs. righties, .834 vs. lefties. On top of that, for as bad as Arizona's defense is, the Yankees haven't been much better, posting a defensive efficiency rating of .682, the fifth-lowest mark in the American League. The combination of McCarthy's groundball tendencies and the poor play of the Yankees' infield may lead to a lot of seeing-eye hits and balls just out of the reach of certain retiring captains.
Then there's the matter of McCarthy's health. Not once in McCarthy's career has he broken the 200-inning mark; his career-high is 170 2/3, set in 2011. Since debuting in 2005, McCarthy has been beset by arm troubles, including elbow pain and shoulder surgery. Last season for Arizona, McCarthy was limited to 135 innings and 22 starts due to a shoulder injury that cost him all of June and July. McCarthy also had to miss time after suffering a seizure related to being struck in the head with a line drive in 2012. Though he hasn't had any issues with either his arm or head so far in 2014, with McCarthy, the concern is always that he's one pitch away from a month-long DL stint.
Nonetheless, if McCarthy stays healthy and plays to his peripherals, he should be a notable upgrade on Nuno, who allowed too many homers and didn't boast acceptable walk or strikeout rates. That the Diamondbacks settled on a one-for-one swap of McCarthy for Nuno suggests either that they see something in the 26-year-old former Independent League pitcher that no one else has, or that the only motivation in moving McCarthy was to get rid of his salary. As such, Arizona will now save roughly $2 million on what remained of McCarthy's 2014 salary, with the Yankees picking up the remaining $2M; McCarthy will be a free agent this offseason. McCarthy won't be an ace, but at the price the Yankees paid for him, they don't need him to be.
As for Soriano, the veteran outfielder gets the axe after posting a terrible .221/.244/.367 line in 238 plate appearances for an OPS+ of 68. Soriano had gone deep just six times all season and hadn't homered since May 17 against the Pirates. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is an incredible 71-to-6, and the former speedster had swiped only one bag on the year after picking up 18 steals for Chicago and New York last season. Worst of all, he couldn't touch right-handers, with a .204/.228/.336 line against them this year.
All of those brutal numbers cost Soriano his starting role at designated hitter, with manager Joe Girardi announcing in early June that Soriano would be platooned with Ichiro Suzuki in right field. That arrangement was made necessary by Carlos Beltran's elbow injury, which has forced him into a DH-only role for the time being. But it did nothing to wake up Soriano, who has appeared in just 13 games since June 7 and posted a useless .162/.162/.189 line in 37 plate appearances over that span. On top of that, Soriano's defense, never a strong suit , has declined to an unplayable level; he was charting a -7 in defensive runs saved over 264 innings in the outfield this season. All of that added up to a bWAR of -1.5, a figure that no team, especially one ostensibly in contention, could afford to carry.
The Yankees will have 10 days to find a new home for Soriano, but given his salary for this season ($18 million, of which the Cubs are paying $13 million), it's unlikely any team will bite on a trade proposal. Instead, look for Soriano to be released in a week's time. There's a chance he could latch on with an AL team hoping he can provide a spark at DH or as a backup outfielder against left-handers, but at 38 years old, it's possible that Soriano is simply at the end of the line.
To replace Soriano, the Yankees will likely call up outfielder Zoilo Almonte from Triple-A. But the Yankees will likely need to do more to climb the standings than swap Nuno for McCarthy and dump Soriano. The team still needs another starter if Sabathia is indeed done for the season (and can't rely on the injury-prone Pineda), not to mention help in right field, the bullpen and ideally an upgrade somewhere in the infield, either at second base or third. Given the depleted state of the team's farm system, New York can't afford a player along the lines of Samardzija. But a few more moves around the margins could go a long way to improving the team's rotation and offense, setting it up for a summer charge at the Blue Jays and Orioles.