With hours to go before the August waiver trade deadline, the Yankees made a big move—at least, in name. Late Thursday night, New York acquired outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen from the Giants for prospects Abiatal Avelino and RHP Juan De Paula.
The former MVP will try to fill the giant hole left behind by the injured Aaron Judge in rightfield; the only question is why they waited so long to fix it.
McCutchen, 31, has been decent in San Francisco, his first year with the team after being dealt by the Pirates over the winter. In 568 plate appearances, he’s hit a modest .255/.357/.415 for a 110 OPS+; add in his declining but acceptable defense in right, and he’s totaled 1.7 Wins Above Replacement on the season. Those numbers are nothing special and a ways away from the MVP-worthy performances he was putting up in Pittsburgh in his prime a few years ago, but they’re solidly above-average, even if only a bit.
The issue for McCutchen with the Giants has been the erosion of his power. His .415 slugging percentage is the lowest single-season mark of his career, and his 15 homers are his fewest since 2010, when he bopped just 16. (Amazingly, though, those 15 dingers were enough to lead the Giants; on the Yankees, they’d be good for seventh on the team.) The cavernous AT&T Park is likely the result of some of that power dip: He was slugging just .400 at home, with only five of his 15 homers coming there.
There’s nothing to indicate, though, that McCutchen has suddenly lost it. His launch angle and average exit velocity are mostly unchanged from last year’s strong campaign, and his hard-hit rate is up. Those power numbers, meanwhile, should improve with the switch to the more hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. He’s not a perennial All-Star any more, but McCutchen is still plenty capable of getting the job done.
That’s all the Yankees will need from him over the last month of the season, given their poor production in rightfield since Judge went down with a broken wrist on July 26. Hitting .285/.398/.548 at the time, adequately replacing Judge’s production with what was available on the market was going to be borderline impossible. Instead, the Yankees chose to work with internal options and trust that the team’s deep lineup could weather the loss of its best hitter.
The results have been mixed. New York’s offense has churned out 5.1 runs per game in 33 games without Judge, but that’s no thanks to his replacements. A persistent hamstring issue has kept Giancarlo Stanton—who would’ve handled the bulk of the innings in right—mostly out of the field over the last month. (Stanton has risen to the challenge offensively, though, with a stellar .264/.358/.566 line and 10 homers while Judge has been sidelined.) Instead, rightfield has been split mostly between career backup Shane Robinson and veteran infielder Neil Walker.
The 33-year-old Robinson is good with the glove and can swipe a bag if needed, but he’s helpless with the stick, hitting a horrible .130/.167/.217 since being added to the roster after Judge’s injury. Walker has been better, slashing .255/.339/.468 with six homers over the last month. But playing him out of position in right has forced the Yankees to stick with the slumping Greg Bird at first base, where Walker would otherwise be. Bird’s line in that same span is .146/.217/.281, and he has just three hits in his last 41 plate appearances.
Compounding those issues is the loss of Didi Gregorius, who’s been out since Aug. 19 with a bruised heel, and the continued absence of Gary Sanchez, who’s been on the DL with a groin strain since late July but is set to return this weekend. With all those big names sidelined, the Yankees’ lineup has been Stanton, hard-hitting rookie Miguel Andujar, and not a whole lot else. Along with Bird, Brett Gardner has been stuck in a massive slump, hitting .201/.290/.292 since the All-Star break, while rookie sensation Gleyber Torres has hit a modest .252/.348/.420 since coming off the DL around the same time Judge went on it.
McCutchen should, if nothing else, add a tough bat to that lineup and be an instant upgrade over Robinson, allowing Walker to take more at-bats at first (if he can snatch them away from the suddenly hot Luke Voit, that is) and displace Bird. His addition, then, should improve at least two spots in the lineup by itself. McCutchen also provides a better insurance policy for Judge. Originally expected to be out close to a month, the big slugger is still feeling pain in his right wrist when he swings, and there’s currently no timetable for his return.
But why did the Yankees wait so long to add McCutchen or anyone else? Robinson can’t hit, and Walker—who’d never played the outfield before this season—can’t field well enough to be a regular in right. Almost any available outfielder would’ve been an improvement over that pairing.
The answer is likely money. New York has spent all season trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold to save the franchise millions in penalties. Regardless of how the check that is McCutchen’s remaining contract for the season is split between the Giants and Yankees, the latter can afford him without crossing that $197 million line. That may not have been the case at the beginning of August, or with any bat the front office considered enough of an upgrade to warrant the cost.
Consider that potentially penny-wise and pound-foolish. While the Yankees have survived Judge’s injury, going 19–14 without him, a competent hitter in his place could have been worth a win or two more than the Robinson/Walker combo. That would’ve been nice to have as September rolls around, particularly with the AL East-leading Red Sox slumping as August draws to a close.
Then again, there’s no guarantee McCutchen or anyone else would’ve been enough to make that race closer than it already is, and the Yankees are already guaranteed a playoff spot anyway, barring a late collapse. But manager Aaron Boone will likely be far happier come the AL wild-card game penciling McCutchen’s name into the lineup instead of Robinson’s, should Judge stay sidelined. And if everyone’s back and healthy, then New York’s already deep offense just got even better.