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Do the Braves want The Best Reliever, 2019 Edition?
Thus far, Kirby Yates has been the best reliever in baseball (2019 edition). It’s not actually clear whether the Padres, who are three games out of a playoff spot after enduring a sweep at the hands of the Braves, are keen on selling Yates, but if they are, and the Braves find themselves with an overwhelming urge to acquire a superlative performer, he’s out there.
What’s he done so far?
After blossoming into a dominant relief force in 2018 and finishing as a top-20 reliever, he’s kicked it up another notch in the year of the re-juiced ball, and leads MLB in fWAR and FIP-, as well as a top-10 rankings in ERA- and xFIP-. He also leads all relievers in WPA and shutdowns, while only blowing up three times all season (twice in back-to-back games against the Dodgers). Despite being a reliever, Yates’ fWAR currently places him top 25 among all pitchers, which is a pretty insane concept; only one other reliever (Liam Hendriks) is in the top 50.
Overall, Yates’ numbers are insane, as is befitting literally the-best-guy-at-a-certain-thing-through-over-half-the-year. He’s striking out over 40 percent of batters he’s facing, has a below-average walk rate (i.e., fewer free passes issued than average), and has suppressed homers like it’s an exaggerated version of 1968 where the hitters have to wear Harrison Bergeron-esque arm weights while facing him. (By this I mean that he’s allowed one homer all year, and that homer was during garbage time at Coors Field where Yates was just getting some work with a five-run lead.)
Arsenal- and batted-ball-profile-wise, Yates is a bit of an odd duck. He found success after ditching his slider for a splitter, and his best-in-class contact management happens even though he doesn’t throw particularly hard or get particularly good spin on his fastball. He doesn’t even force hitters to beat the ball into the ground or get pop-ups very often — it’s all just about insane whiff rates on both of his pitches, and an inability for batters to do anything consistently interesting with them when they do connect. He’s a z-whiff machine rather than a guy who makes you swing and miss at stuff off the plate, a Josh Hader with two pitches and less propensity for wildness. He’s good. The best, at least right now. (Don’t trust relievers, long term, you’ve been warned.)
Is this a pure rental?
Actually, no! Yates has one more year of arbitration eligibility after the 2019 season. It’s kind of funny, although his earnings potential isn’t quite laughing — Yates expended many of his team control years bouncing around different teams as an interchangeable up-and-down arm, at least until he came to the Padres and got the splitter working, by which point he had already exhausted his league-minimum seasons.
Yates is making around $3 million this season, about $1 million of which would likely need to be covered by a prospective acquiring team. Next year, he may command an arbitration payday of $5 million or so (assuming no extension or similar arrangement, which would be very risky to proffer to a reliever), though it may increase somewhat over this figure if he continues his insane relief work through September.
Why is he going to be dealt?
Well, there’s no way to know whether he will or won’t be. The Padres could hold on to him and try to make a run this season, at which point his presence becomes fairly important: San Diego actually has a fairly mediocre bullpen so far this season, and Yates’ 2.3 fWAR completely eclipses that the relief corps as a whole has only managed 1.4 fWAR, including Yates. Furthermore, if the Padres actually want to compete next year, they might view Yates as a short-term-ish building block, too…
…but then again, they already traded Brad Hand and Adam Cimber last year, and again, say it with me: Kirby Yates is a reliever. His value may never be higher than it is right now, and if the Padres want to get some cool non-relief assets for him, they’ll probably be able to do so. So, in short, Yates is going to be dealt if someone makes the Padres a good offer, because it’d be weird to hold on to an asset that’s likely only going to depreciate if you’re still in the midst of trying to build a competitive club. The Padres turned Yates from a zero into Relieverus Maximus; I can’t imagine they won’t take the chance to reap a windfall from that transformation and try to do the same thing again with some other name.
Why do the Braves need him?
The Braves’ bullpen ranks 22nd in fWAR. While that’s hardly an impetus for acquiring Yates specifically, the Braves probably won’t want to rest on their biggest-ERA-FIP-gap-for-a-bullpen-in-the-majors-which-is-twice-as-big-as-the-next-biggest-gap laurels for too long. On top of that, the Braves have been pretty good at handling lefties as a relief corps, but have a bottom-six FIP against righties for their bullpen (only one contender, the Nationals, is worse in this regard). Yates would help this both innately and by freeing up Luke Jackson to work more as a matchup guy (though he hasn’t really exhibited platoon splits much this year given that his breaking pitches are so vertical).
But yeah, the Braves don’t “need” Yates. Again, I don’t think they “need” anything, and Yates is getting the yacht with gold plating and T-Pain as the permanent first mate (he’s on a boat) when they could just as easily ride the Jackson–Swarzak ferry around the waterfront like all the other workaday commuters and buy the equivalent of a Brad Brach/Jonny Venters 2019 bus pass elsewhere.
Why the Braves aren’t a good fit
The Braves probably aren’t interested in shortening their window at all to get a reliever, especially given that they’ve managed to transform the thrice-DFAed Luke Jackson and a will-it-blend mixture of Jesse Biddle and Anthony Swarzak’s contract into a pretty potent one-two bullpen punch. There are some contenders/pretenders (Cubs, Phillies, respectively) with bigger bullpen woes right now, and if San Diego is really inclined to sell him, you can’t count out the Nationals acquiring Yates by sending a guy that will just become the next Yates in a year or two anyway… again.
Yates is definitely an odd duck value-wise — relievers are volatile but he’s put up so much value so far, it’s hard to see the Padres selling anything resembling “low” on him, especially since they don’t have to deal him. On top of that, they might require a price that factors in some kind of duplication of his 2019 next year, too. The Baseball Trade Values site identifies a range of $16 million to $20 million as Yates’ value; that’s a little too rich for me for a reliever (my guess is more around $13 million in value, but the auction market/winner’s curse will likely require a winning bid above that) but not unreasonable. That’s probably commensurate to a 45/50 FV pitching prospect, but it’s hard to imagine that San Diego is going to look at that sort of offer and decide to send Yates away in lieu of keeping him next year. Or that some desperate team that just suffered a key bullpen injury won’t throw in, say, two 45/50 FV pitching prospects to get a deal done instead.
There aren’t great comparisons to the Yates trade situation in the recent past, either. Joakim Soria and Jeurys Familia fetched comparatively little last year, but both were on expiring deals and neither was anywhere near as good as Yates has been so far. Same for Pat Neshek in 2017. The 2016 Andrew Miller deal may be the closest viable comparison in recent history, but Miller had an extra year of control relative to Yates at that point — but it’s worth noting that that trade netted an at-the-time 55 FV position player (Clint Frazier) and 50 FV pitcher (Justus Sheffield), plus two other throw-ins. Even if you bump each of those two guys down a grade for the lack of another year of team control, you get a 50 FV position player and 45 FV pitcher, which is a pretty hefty ransom to demand for a reliever, even one as awesome as Yates has been.
My guess is that the mismatch between what teams are looking to pay for a reliever and what the Padres would need to get Yates to pack his bags prevents him from moving, but we’ll see. Desperation is never a kind look, but it does have a way of getting things done.