It’s an odd world we live in when the small-market Astros are snatching big-money veterans off the monolithic Yankees. But here we are, in the bizarre year that is 2016, watching Houston and New York consummate the off-season’s first notable trade by sending catcher Brian McCann from the Bronx to Texas in exchange for two minor league pitchers. It’s a deal that makes ample sense for both sides, and one that reflects a philosophy for each team that’s hard to argue against.
(In a separate move also designed to bolster its lineup, Houston has signed free-agent outfielder Josh Reddick to a four-year deal worth $52 million, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan. The team has not confirmed the report, and Reddick would still need to pass his physical before anything becomes official.)
The particulars of the trade are simple: McCann and a total of $11 million (or $5.5 million per year on the two seasons and $34 million left on his contract) go to Houston; righthanders Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman head to New York. The swap brings an end to McCann’s Yankees tenure after three solid if unspectacular seasons in pinstripes for the backstop, who signed a five-year, $85 million contract after the 2013 season. Part of a massive free-agent spending spree that winter that included the likes of Jacoby Ellsbury, Hiroki Kuroda, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, the 32-year-old McCann was supposed to be an integral part of the Yankees’ post-Core Four future but instead struggled to find his footing on offense.
The former Brave cracked the 20-home run mark in each of his three years in New York but managed just a 99 OPS+ overall across 1,565 plate appearances—a league-average bat, more or less. That offense, coupled with a slip in his defensive numbers, dropped him to 1.6 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version) last year—his second time under 2.0 with the Yankees and worst mark since 2012’s 0.8.
McCann’s advancing age, mediocre numbers and inflated contract put him at odds with the hard pivot toward youth and payroll flexibility that general manager Brian Cashman has made over the last six months—one that includes Gary Sanchez, McCann’s successor behind the plate. The hard-hitting former top prospect set the American League on fire in late 2016, bashing 20 homers in what felt like two weeks and earning a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Just 23, Sanchez is the future in the Bronx; his emergence in the second half sealed McCann’s fate, with the veteran waiving his no-trade protection to facilitate the deal to Houston.
While it’s unusual to see the Yankees flip a productive veteran for prospects, it’s absolutely the right tack for Cashman to take—or continue, rather, given his trade deadline deals that sent Beltran, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller out and brought a fortune back in young talent. The Yankees’ unexpected second-half run—one fueled in large part by Sanchez—could have prompted Cashman and company to try to gear up for a playoff run in 2017. But he wisely realizes that his team, even reloaded, would probably still be an also-ran in the highly competitive AL East and no lock to clinch even a wild-card spot. As such, avoiding long-term entanglements (particularly in what is a weak free-agent market) and shedding age and payroll is the smart play. He also did well to get two live arms in the 21-year-old Abreu and the 20-year-old Guzman—the former sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, and the latter has touched as high as 103 mph with his. If nothing else, they project as potential impact arms in the bullpen down the road.
On the other side, in acquiring McCann, the Astros are also doing exactly what they should be: taking advantage of the financial blessings of having several players providing top-flight production for bargain prices. Jose Altuve, fresh off a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting, will make a mere $4.5 million next season and is under team control through 2019 via two options that will pay him just $12.5 million total. 2015 AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel is under contract through 2018; George Springer doesn’t reach free agency until ’21; Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers won’t be arbitration eligible until ’19; and top prospects Alex Bregman and A.J. Reed are even further away from substantial paydays. Add it all up, and you have a team that entered Opening Day 2016 with a payroll of only $96.8 million—firmly in baseball’s bottom half—and has plenty of money to spend on either top-tier free agents or in absorbing big contracts via trade.
It’s weird to think of a team like Houston—which spent just $23 million in payroll only three seasons ago—flexing financial muscle, but that’s the gift the Astros have been given thanks to the likes of Altuve, Correa, Keuchel, Springer and others. McCann offered them a golden chance to take advantage of that: For just $11.5 million per season and two lottery tickets out of a strong farm system, they’ve acquired a veteran catcher with power from the left side who should be a stabilizing force in the middle of the lineup and a good receiver for a young pitching staff and will fill a position that has been a persistent problem. Last year, Astros catchers—primarily Jason Castro and Evan Gattis—came in at roughly league average by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Average stat; with Castro exiting via free agency, Gattis thoroughly miscast as a backstop, no in-house solutions and a free-agent market bereft of good options, Houston was facing a 2017 season of even less production from that spot.
McCann isn’t the perfect solution. He’s a pull hitter with no speed; as such, defensive shifts have wreaked havoc on his numbers. His abysmal results against lefties (.218/.317/.345 last year) will force Houston to find him a platoon partner from the right side, likely Gattis. (According to a report from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the Astros currently plan to have McCann and Gattis split time behind the plate—an idea that Houston should abandon as soon as possible, given the latter’s terrible defense.) A lot of McCann’s offensive value is tied to his power, and in getting dealt to Houston, he suffers the double whammy of losing Yankee Stadium’s short rightfield porch and of going from one of baseball’s most homer-friendly parks to one of its least. But he still represents a substantial upgrade over the likes of Castro for next season at least. And even as McCann’s numbers go south with age, the Astros will be able to afford that decline given the peanuts they’ll be paying to the rest of the roster. The long-term cost is worth the short-term upgrade, particularly given Houston’s position as a contender in the AL—one that just got a marked boost with the addition of McCann and Reddick.
Just as the Yankees should be embracing their youth movement, the Astros should be seizing their chance to add high-priced veteran talent to a roster in need of it. With this trade, both teams have made a good start on those paths. Expect New York and Houston to stay busy throughout the winter: The Yankees still have other veterans they would presumably love to unload, particularly Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, and the Astros still need to find help in the bullpen and in the rotation. But as the off-season goes on, don’t be surprised at the role each team now inhabits; it’s the right fit for both.