The Gabriel Ynoa Deal, and the Search For a Competent Pitching Staff
In modern baseball, buying a player, let alone a pitching prospect, for cash is a little strange. Teams are constantly shuffling and reshuffling the pieces on the board, trying to play the game of leveraging their assets for assets they believe to be better on other teams. When cash is involved, this could mean incompetence, like in the Diamondbacks’ case when they sold Touki Toussaint to the Braves, or it could be as simple as clearing a spot on the 40-man roster and feeling that there’s nothing left in the tank.
For the Mets and their trade of Gabriel Ynoa to the Orioles for cash, it was the latter. The Mets are flush with pitching. Even if you account for the fact that injuries severely hurt the team’s prospects a year ago, it’s not like they still don’t have a wealth of riches: Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Robert Gsellman, Steve Matz, Seth Lugo, and Zack Wheeler, to name a few. In that regard, Ynoa was expendable.
But it’s not like he was without value, and the Orioles saw that. For nothing other than cash, which all teams have on hand, they’re acquiring a pitcher with good-but-not-great stuff, above-average control, and what looks to be about league average production at the big league level; or, more likely, a shade below that. If all else fails, he slides into the bullpen, where he’d fit in nicely behind Zach Britton and Darren O’Day.
By PECOTA, Ynoa is projected to put up a 100 cFIP over 61 innings, so about replacement level. But in a rotation where innings are probably going to be scarce, can you really complain? Right now the rotation’s headliners are Dylan Bundy, Chris Tillman, Wade Miley, Kevin Gausman, and Ubaldo Jimenez. If we’re being real with ourselves, that’s not going to cut it in a division with juggernauts like the Red Sox who are going to trot out David Price, Chris Sale, and Rick Porcello week after week. Only Gausman and Tillman performed better than 90 ERA-, and they only put up a combined 351.2 innings combined.
This points to a larger structural issue, as even the smallest moves do. This is just spring training, so anyone that writes about baseball is going to continue to grasp at straws until there has been a large enough sample of baseball to start writing with a greater fervor, but again, even the smallest of deals can give you a clue as to what this means in a broader context of an organization.
It’s to the surprise of no one that the Orioles struggle with pitchers and pitching prospects. I hate to bring up bad memories to Orioles fans, but shall we walk through every failed project: Britton, an actual success, still couldn’t cut it as a starter; Bundy spent years on the disabled list (despite being drafted in 2011, he only has 280.1 professional innings); Gausman is just breaking out after years of stalling; and, no one can forget that the O’s traded Jake Arrieta to the Cubs, only for him to lead Chicago to their first Championship in over a century.
Meanwhile, Baltimore waits and waits dutifully for their Arrieta, for their star pitching prospect. Ynoa isn’t that, as we know. But taking risks like this one, plucking a player off the heap when a team is merely trying to save space on the roster, could slowly improve the staff despite their structural issues of developing pitchers. If there’s one thing that general manager Dan Duquette is good at, it’s shoring up the fringes of the roster.
Think about, in that respect, how good Duquette has been. Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce, for example, were massive successes on relatively inexpensive deals that worked out wildly better than anyone could have expected. When it comes to identifying quality major league talent, by a position player standard, Duquette is better than most.
But if you have an organizational weakness at developing and scouting pitching, is that the wrong way to go? Why try the same strategies for pitchers as you’d try for position players if the same rules don’t apply, one could argue. And that might be true, but a move like Ynoa, or any number of waiver wire deals Duquette admires, don’t move the payroll or roster needle enough to not warrant them at all. This is not a team with a big payroll, so in a way, this is the way to survive.
To their credit, there was a lot of bad luck involved. Bundy and Gausman were still scouting successes, even if they were injured a ton. TINSTAAPP, as the saying goes. There’s an alternate reality where they meet expectations and we’re saying they were geniuses for acquiring such talents.
This is a fascinating time for Baltimore, to make a long story short. The Ynoa is but a microcosm of a larger trend, that shoring up the staff will be important as they try to leverage the talents of Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones to lead them to a title. Of that core, Jones and Davis are only getting worse by the day, so the clock is ticking. I don’t think Ynoa is anything that special, but he could be a major league regular, and that counts for something. For a team watching the door possibly close before their eyes, one Ynoa success alone won’t do it.