Over the past several years, the New York Yankees have subtly shifted their organizational approach from constantly churning older, expensive, but still-mostly-productive players in order to stay in contention (and continuously bloat payroll with dead money), to a more steady, youthful building process.
No, they weren’t quite rebuilding, but the Yankees have now largely stayed out of the deep end of free agency for two years now.
One notable exception there is reliever Andrew Miller, one of the studliest relief arms in the game today, whom the Yankees signed for a sigh-why-didn’t-other-teams-have-the-same-foresight four-year, $36 million deal before the 2015 season. I say it that way, because I was pretty high on the Cubs going after Miller before that season, even though it was not to be.
Fast-forward to 2016, after another dominating season by Miller in 2015, and an absurd start to the season in 2016:0.96 ERA, 1.26 FIP, 0.88 xFIP, 18.2 innings, and – wait for it – 47.1% K rate, 1.4% BB rate (not made up numbers). The Yankees stand at 22-24, already 6.5 games back of the Boston Red Sox, and not looking like an especially competitive team this year. Having Aroldis Chapman back in the fold, and Alex Rodriguez returning from an injury will help, but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to hang around all year, even in the Wild Card race.
And if the Yankees come to see it the same way, it’s very possible they could deal off some of their more valuable, short-term chips … like Miller.
Indeed, Buster Olney writes about that very topic, hearing from a rival evaluator that Miller’s clear highest and best value to the Yankees is in trade. Olney adds, while discussing potentially interested teams: “Miller would presumably draw significant interest from the Cubs, who are in win-now mode; let’s remember that Cubs exec Theo Epstein already has dealt for Miller once before, acquiring him from the Marlins in November 2010 to pitch for the Red Sox.”
Set to make just $9 million per season through 2018, Miller, 31, is among the most valuable relievers in all of baseball, and arguably one of the most effective overall players. Consider something I wrote in the offseason when the possibility of the Yankees shopping Miller after acquiring Chapman came up, and rumors connected him to the Cubs:
After reinventing himself as a reliever with the Red Sox – a process that started in 2011, by the way, when Theo Epstein was still in charge there – Miller has emerged as one of the best relievers in the game the last two years, posting utterly ridiculous numbers (ERAs, FIPs, and xFIPs all right at or below 2.00, and WARs of 2.2 and 2.0 in just 60ish innings of work). He has worked the most important innings in those years – in the tightest games at the tightest moments, when the win probability is most fundamentally shifted in one direction or the other*. Hence his win probability added (WPA) of 5.8 over those two years, making him the 13th most valuable pitcher in all of baseball – including starters – by WPA in 2014 and 2015 ….
*(Yes, runs in the first inning count just as much as runs in the 8th or 9th inning. But in the first inning, you don’t know if you’re playing in a 5-4 game or a 10-0 laugher. Late-inning, elite relievers can be brought into games when you already know that the stakes are at their highest, and appearing in that particular game (as opposed to yesterday or the next day) is incredibly valuable.)
Of course, the Cubs already have at least one reliever who is, himself, already up there in the tier of the best relievers in baseball (Hector Rondon), and it’s not as though the bullpen is a disaster.
But should Miller be made available, the Cubs are going to have to consider how much his addition could help them down the stretch and into the playoffs. It’s a rare player at whom I’d look and think, “Yeah, the potential impact in the playoffs, specifically, is tantalizing,” but an overpowering reliever – a guy who can shut another team down in the biggest moments of the biggest games of the year – is in that rare class.
How exactly Miller would fit into the mix, and how the “roles” would be impacted in the Cubs’ pen seems like the kind of thing you worry about after seeing if a move is realistic in the first place, not the kind of thing that deters you from even exploring the move.
Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that Miller is under team control through 2018, so adding him this season would be about much more than just 2016.
I don’t want to get anyone too riled up about this right now, because there’s a whole lot of ifs and whens and maybes built into a conversation about the *Yankees* selling off an asset for prospects/younger players in late *May.* I also don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that, if Miller is made available, the competition for his services wouldn’t be intense, or the price wouldn’t be significant.
Olney mentions several other potentially interested teams, and also acknowledges the possibility that the Yankees would prefer to deal Chapman, who is a free agent after this season (though the return would be less).
But, since it really is plausible that the Yankees could sell a bit, and it really is plausible that Miller could be shopped, I think this is worth keeping on our radar.