Over the weekend, the Yankees welcomed the Athletics to the Bronx for what would normally not have been a very noteworthy series. The mini-rivalry of the early 2000s is long over, and the A’s, while starting to move in the right direction, have finished last in the American League West three straight years.
However, this series featured a serendipitous storyline worth following: former Yankees prospect Dustin Fowler, now with Oakland, had just been activated, less than a year after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in his major league debut with the Yankees – after only two-thirds of an inning in the field.
On Friday, in the first game of the series, Fowler finally stepped to the plate for his first major league at-bat, a strikeout. His next time up, Fowler singled for his first major league hit.
Both of these at-bats came against Sonny Gray, and there’s the serendipity. Gray is the reason that Fowler now wears green instead of pinstripes. At last year’s trade deadline, Brian Cashman traded Fowler, pitcher James Kaprielian, and shortstop Jorge Mateo to the Athletics for the righthander.
Gray did not come cheap, as all three of the prospects acquired by the A’s had major potential. Prior to the 2017 season, MLB Pipeline ranked Mateo as the Yankees’ No. 5 prospect, Kaprielian No. 6, and Fowler No. 9.
While those rankings indicated high ceilings for the players the Yankees shipped out, both Fowler and Kaprielian had undergone season-ending surgeries, while Mateo was still far from the majors, having only just been promoted to Double-A. Oakland got a talented package, but one rife with question marks.
The Yankees, in Gray, acquired a cheap young starter under team control through next year. Gray has shown flashes of mastery in his young career: during his first two full seasons in Oakland (2014-15), he averaged 214 innings and pitched to a 2.91 ERA (3.46 FIP). In 2015 he was named an All Star and came in third in the Cy Young voting. And that was after he made two playoff starts for Oakland, eight scoreless innings in a Game 2 no-decision and a no-run support loss in Game 5 of the 2013 division series.
Gray did take a step back in an injury-plagued 2016, when he pitched to a 5.69 ERA (4.67 FIP) with an inflated 1.38 HR/9 in 117 innings, and he has had trouble limiting walks throughout his career.
So far in 2018, Gray is having exceptional difficulty throwing strikes: he is currently walking 12.9% of batters, or 5.68 batters per nine innings. Additionally, his tendency to allow home runs, 1.18 per nine innings, mirrors that of his disastrous 2016 season.
In 38 innings in 2018 Gray has pitched to an ERA of 6.39 (5.25 FIP). Since joining the Yankees in 2017, he has pitched to a 4.70 ERA (4.98 FIP), not the pitcher that the Yankees thought (and definitely hoped) they were acquiring when they sent three of their top prospects to Oakland.
Gray has yet to truly impress on the Yankees, but he has previously shown that he clearly has the ability somewhere inside him to be a front of the rotation starter. It may primarily be an issue of command, or perhaps his decline in fastball usage is the main culprit in his struggles.
However, Gray’s success (or lack thereof) over the course of his remaining year and a half before reaching free agency may not be of much import in analyzing whether the Yankees should regret making the trade to acquire him; it is equally important to consider the repertoires of the prospects traded away and check in to see how they are doing in Oakland.
Prior to the trade, Mateo was the highest ranked of the three Yankee prospects. A shortstop by trade, the Yankees had been testing Mateo at second base and in center field.
Leading up to the 2017 deadline, Mateo had hit .300/.381/.525 (147 wRC+) in 140 plate appearances in Double-A Trenton. Primarily known for his 80-grade speed, he had begun to show some power as well, posting an ISO of .225. He continued to rake following the trade, hitting .292/.333/.518 (133 wRC+) in 147 plate appearances with Oakland’s Double-A team.
However, 2018 has not been kind to Mateo, as he has hit .190/.227/.298 (29 wRC+) in 129 Triple-A plate appearances. His ISO has cratered to .108. Given that his BABIP is currently at .259, well below his career mark of .331, and far below that expected of someone so fast, some positive regression to the mean is likely.
Still, Mateo’s precipitous drop in ISO is concerning. Additionally, Mateo was blocked at shortstop and second base on the Yankees by Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres, respectively, with the outfield no less crowded. The Yankees thus likely do not and should not regret parting ways with Mateo, especially in exchange for a controllable young starting pitcher.
Kaprielian was drafted by the Yankees with the No. 16 overall pick in 2015. He was lauded for his fastball and considered a high-floor talent with a ceiling as a No. 2 starter in the majors.
Kaprielian’s talent on the mound was evident during his time with the Yankees: with the Yankees High-A affiliate in 2016, Kaprielian pitched 18 innings with a 1.50 ERA (2.03 FIP) and 11.00 K/9.
He impressed scouts with his strikeout repertoire in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, fanning 8.67 batters per nine innings while pitching to a 4.33 ERA.
Unfortunately, arm injuries all but completely prevented Kaprielian from pitching during his time in the Yankees system. First it was elbow inflammation and a flexor tendon strain in 2016, and then at the start of the 2017 season, Kaprielian underwent Tommy John surgery.
Kaprielian is only now just returning to facing live hitters as part of his rehab process. He is expected to make a full recovery and could still eventually fulfill his potential.
However, he is already 24 years old and has a total of 29.1 innings of professional baseball to his name, none since 2016.
There’s definitely a chance he reaches his ceiling and leaves the Yankees with some regret, but this won’t be for at least another year or two at a minimum – and it isn’t as if the Yankees’ system is hurting for strikeout-happy righty pitchers. The Yankees need starting pitching right now as they seek ring number 28, so they traded (perennially injured) future potential for a major league pitcher with a track record of success.
That’s a move Brian Cashman makes 100% of the time, as he should.
Fowler, who will forever hold a place in Yankees history, was raking in Triple-A before last year’s fateful call-up: in 313 plate appearances, he hit .293/.329/.542 (138 wRC+).
After rehabbing from his traumatic knee injury and subsequent surgery, Fowler began the 2018 season back in Triple-A, hitting .310/.333/.484 (109 wRC+) in 132 plate appearances for Oakland’s affiliate in Nashville before earning a promotion to the majors.
In terms of 2018 overall, the Steamer projection system predicts he will accrue 237 plate appearances and hit .251/.285/.403 (81 wRC+).
Fowler has a high ceiling and could certainly be a player of great impact for the A’s. However, had the Yankees kept him, he would have been right alongside Clint Frazier and Billy McKinney in being capable of playing in the major leagues, but not really having a spot with the Yankees.
Both Fowler and Mateo were blocked at their positions on the Yankees, and while the former has reached the majors and could have an impact for the A’s this year, the latter is majorly struggling in Triple-A in 2018. Kaprielian could become for the A’s something like what Gray once was for them, but he’s 24 already – older than Gray was when he got started in the majors – and has missed significant development time due to arm injuries.
In five years, Kaprielian may be the player the Yankees miss most and wish they had on their team. But the Yankees were fighting for a ring last year and are hoping to capture it this year. Having Gray on the team gives them a better chance of achieving the goal, both this year and next, and given the chance to make the trade again, the Yankees would be wrong to reconsider it – even with Gray’s struggles, it was the right move.