The Yankees are going all in. On Tuesday night, New York made a big move to try to bolster its hopes for an AL East title and World Series berth, picking up third baseman Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle from the White Sox for reliever Tyler Clippard and a trio of prospects, led by former first-round pick Blake Rutherford. It’s an aggressive acquisition by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, though the Bronx Bombers still have work to do if they want to stay in contention.
The best non-Astros team in the American League as recently as the beginning of June, the Yankees have gone just 18–24 since then, falling out of first place in the division. A large part of that slump had to do with the bullpen, which going into Tuesday’s action had posted a 4.02 ERA since June 1. Clippard was absolutely abysmal over that stretch, with 16 runs and five homers allowed in 14 1/3 innings, so getting rid of him is essentially addition by subtraction. But setup man Dellin Betances (17 walks, 6.23 ERA in 13 innings since June 1) and closer Aroldis Chapman (six runs allowed and two blown saves in 10 innings since coming off the disabled list on June 18) have been shaky, making late-game situations a dicey proposal for manager Joe Girardi.
With Robertson and Kahnle in the fold, getting through those final innings should be far easier. Robertson is a known quantity for the Yankees, who drafted the righthander in 2006 and turned him into an elite setup option and, in their first post-Mariano Rivera season, a top-flight closer. Robertson doesn’t throw hard, averaging a relatively light 92 mph on his four-seam fastball, but the 32-year-old Alabama product uses a darting changeup and hard curveball to keep opponents off balance and rack up strikeouts. Among all relievers with 150 innings or more since the start of 2015, Robertson’s 11.8 strikeout-per-nine rate is seventh best.
Kahnle is also a former Yankees product, though his road to becoming a relief ace has been far longer. A fifth-round pick by New York in 2010, the righty was lost to the Rockies in the Rule 5 draft in ’13, spent two uneventful years as a league-average arm in Colorado’s bullpen, then was designated for assignment after the ‘15 season and traded to the White Sox. His first season in Chicago saw him ride the Triple A shuttle for the first half of the season due to his horrible control (20 walks in just 27 1/3 innings), but his power fastball (he averages a staggering 97.9 mph on his four-seamer) made him an intriguing project.
This season, Kahnle has gone from question mark to crucial bullpen piece. With newfound control and a dramatic increase in his swinging-strike rate, Kahnle is punching out a ridiculous 15 batters per nine. He’s been absolute murder on righthanders, holding same-siders to a .165/.183/.316 line on the season. And best of all for the Yankees, the 27-year-old is under team control for another three seasons; next year will be his first of arbitration eligibility. Robertson is the bigger name, but Kahnle is arguably the better reliever. He’s a savvy addition by Cashman and the most likely to have an outsize impact on a beleaguered Yankees bullpen.
But that’s not all for New York. The third piece of the deal is perhaps its most well known: Frazier, the 2015 Home Run Derby champion. A native of Toms River, N.J. (and noted Derek Jeter fan), Frazier was a two-time All-Star for the Reds before being shipped to the White Sox in a three-team deal in 2015. But the move to the South Side was mixed for Frazier, who still hits for plenty of power (56 homers in 239 games with the White Sox) but has seen his rate stats slip since leaving the Queen City.
At this point in his career, the 31-year-old Frazier isn’t quite a one-tool player, but he doesn’t offer much to a lineup beyond home runs—and, troublingly, his slugging percentage and isolated power are both in decline for a third straight year. Defensively, he’s average at best at the hot corner, and he’s an indifferent base runner to boot. He’s still a moderately valuable player—his 1.8 Wins Above Replacement on the season puts him on par with Jose Abreu, Dustin Pedroia and Daniel Murphy—but he’s not a difference maker for a lineup.
For the Yankees, though, Frazier doesn’t need to be a savior. Incumbent third baseman Chase Headley, while still strong with the glove, is amid a third consecutive season of sub-par offense: He’s contributed a paltry .258/.341/.371 line and just four homers in 340 plate appearances so far. And while it’s unlikely that Frazier will take Headley’s job outright, he would make for a valuable platoon partner; Headley has just a .534 OPS against southpaws on the season, as compared to Frazier’s .818 mark versus lefties.
Frazier also immediately becomes the Yankees’ best option at first base, which has been a total disaster all season long. With Greg Bird likely done for the season following foot surgery and Chris Carter dumped at the All-Star break, New York has been forced to make due with minor league castoffs Ji-Man Choi and Garrett Cooper at the position. All told, Yankees first basemen have a .686 OPS on the year, the second-worst mark in the AL. Just about anything Frazier does, should he see time at first, would be an upgrade on that.
To upgrade the bullpen and add a corner infield bat, though, cost the Yankees plenty in the form of Rutherford, lefty starting pitching prospect Ian Clarkin and speedy Colombian outfielder Tito Polo. Rutherford is the big prize: The 20-year-old outfielder was the No. 18 pick of last year’s draft out of a southern California high school and a global top-50 prospect, topping out at No. 37 on MLB.com’s preseason list after raking in rookie ball. Class A ball hasn’t been as kind to him, though Rutherford is holding his own despite being nearly two years younger than the competition; his combination of tools and results landed him the No. 36 spot on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list.
Rutherford is an advanced hitter for his age, though the Yankees’ system is deep and crowded: Along with top prospect Clint Frazier (acquired in last summer’s Andrew Miller deal and currently in the majors), New York also has 19-year-old Haitian outfielder Estevan Florial tearing up the South Atlantic League, making Rutherford expendable. So was Clarkin, another former first-round pick who has seen his stock diminished by injuries that have kept him from climbing the minor league ladder. The 22-year-old southpaw is pitching well for Class A Tampa, but his low strikeout rate (7.1 per nine) and struggles with control (3.1 walks per nine) suggest his ceiling may no longer be all that high.
Regardless, Clarkin is a worthwhile piece for the rebuilding White Sox to gamble on, and Rutherford gives them yet another highly touted piece for a system that has skyrocketed to the top of the league’s rankings. On top of the Eloy Jimenez-led haul received from the Cubs for Jose Quintana last week, Chicago now boasts eight of BA’s midseason top 100, including No. 1 overall prospect Yoan Moncada, who will be called up to the big leagues on Wednesday morning. The future is blindingly bright on the South Side, and this trade is yet another nice addition to Chicago’s rebuild by team president Rick Hahn, who acquired three high-upside players in exchange for a pair of relievers and a league-average hitter who was set to be a free agent at season’s end anyway.
The Yankees’ rebuild, meanwhile, is over: Just a year after Cashman flipped veteran pieces for prospects, New York has emerged as a serious buyer at the deadline. What’s left to address, though, is a rotation that still feels one piece short thanks to the loss of Michael Pineda to Tommy John surgery. Robertson and Kahnle will help shorten what’s needed of the starters and turn every Yankees game into a six-inning affair, assuming Betances and Chapman can get right. But a third high-caliber arm behind All-Star Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka would help take the Yankees from contender to a serious World Series threat in the AL.
New York isn’t in win-now mode and won’t mortgage its future for that starting rotation piece. But the long-term presence of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Severino and Frazier, to say nothing of the prospects behind them, has made the idea of going for it all the more appealing: Even if this summer’s deals don’t work out, the Yankees remain a young franchise with plenty to look forward to in the future. It’s not World Series or bust in the Bronx, but Tuesday night’s deal suggests that Cashman and company think a title is realistically within reach.