Despite the anticipation for the 2019 season in San Diego, the Padres are two games below .500 in the middle of June. At this point even after the return of Fernando Tatis Jr. the team has lost four straight games, making a playoff appearance quite unlikely. A bright spot out of the team’s middling bullpen has been Kirby Yates, the team’s closer and the MLB leader in fWAR by relievers. Should the team trade him in return for a premium prospect, as they did last season with Brad Hand?
The Padres are in a tough spot with regard to the Kirby Yates situation because this is a team that is looking to contend next year.
If the team’s bullpen is already struggling to hold leads down, why get rid of the only guy who’s been able to do it consistently?
On the other hand, we can just as easily argue that a trade of Yates would net them a player worth far more than the closer will be worth over the next season and a half. As a guy that’s only controlled through 2020, it’s certainly reasonable to say that Yates’ value is at its peak right now.
However, we must also ask ourselves the question of whether the Padres are giving up a relief ace they simply cannot replace.
Let’s take a look at his numbers from this season, to get an idea of just how special he’s been:
|2019||28.0||0.96 (3rd)||0.79 (1st)||15.43 (4th)||45.3% (2nd)||1.9 (1st)|
Based on the numbers above, we can safely conclude that Yates is currently the best reliever in baseball. He ranks at least among the top five qualified relievers in the statistics shown, which cements his status as a truly elite closer. Oh yeah, he’s also the only qualified reliever yet to give up a home run in 2019. He’s been worth more fWAR on his own than 21 MLB teams’ bullpens have produced as a unit. Yates is a pitcher who holds a lot of value for any potential contending club looking to deal for him. Is there a precedent for trading a relief pitcher of this caliber in the modern era of increased bullpen usage?
To try and find a relief ace who has been as valuable as Yates already has, let’s look at the last five seasons at relievers who have been acquired mid-season by a contender. Looking at the 30 highest fWAR totals posted by individual relievers dating back to 2014, here are the relievers who were traded at the deadline:
|Season||Reliever Acquired||Return for Reliever||Former Team||Acquiring Team||
fWAR Before Trade
|2018||Roberto Osuna||Ken Giles, David Paulino, Hector Perez||Blue Jays||Astros||0.5|
|2016||Andrew Miller||Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield||Yankees||Indians||1.8|
|2016||Aroldis Chapman||Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford||Yankees||Cubs||1.4|
|2017||Pat Neshek||Jose Gomez, JD Hammer, Alejandro Requena||Phillies||Rockies||1.0|
Each of the relievers above was key to their new team’s success, and two of them pitched in the World Series. Specifically, in the Miller and Chapman trades, the Yankees received premium prospects in return for their valuable relievers. Furthermore, only Andrew Miller came close to equaling the value put up by Yates thus far in 2019, in terms of fWAR. To be clear, the fWAR values in the table above represent what the pitchers produced while playing for their original teams before being traded at the deadline. Based on this data, it would make sense for the Padres to receive an even better prospect return than the teams who traded the relievers in the table above.
So what kind of a return could the Padres realistically expect for Yates if they were to trade him? What teams would make sense as trading partners with San Diego? Let’s look at the contending teams that need relief help at this point in the season. By fWAR, the Braves and Phillies stand out as the two teams that would stand to benefit the most from a bullpen upgrade. They each rank 26th and 24th, respectively in terms of fWAR. Other teams that would still likely be interested in acquiring Yates include the Cubs and Rangers. Perhaps the Twins would be willing to go all-in on this season and trade for Yates, despite the fact that their bullpen is already solid.
It’s clear that the return would have to be impressive, for the Padres to trade Yates in any case. The Braves seem to make the most sense — As their bullpen is the weakest among the teams mentioned earlier, and they also have a loaded farm system. Ideally, the Padres would receive Cristian Pache for Yates, as he would be capable of taking over center field duties for San Diego in 2020. Unfortunately, he’s likely untouchable in any trade. More likely is a scenario in which the Braves sent outfielder Drew Waters and pitcher Ian Anderson for Yates. That may seem like a steep price to pay, but Yates should be worth a haul if he’s traded by GM A.J. Preller.
The Phillies don’t boast the most impressive farm system, so a trade between them and the Padres seems unlikely. Largely the same issue comes up when attempting to predict a trade involving the Rangers. As for the Cubs, their top prospect Nico Hoerner is an infielder, where the Padres are likely set for years to come. In the case of the Twins, a potential trade is quite intriguing. Their top prospect Royce Lewis would almost surely be off-limits, but the same may not be true of outfielder Alex Kirilloff. The young lefty-hitting outfielder would be a welcome addition to a Padres team that has lacked strong performance from left-handed hitters outside of Eric Hosmer.
Considering the value brought by Yates, it will be very interesting to see if the Padres decide to move him at the trade deadline. If the right trade isn’t proposed by contending teams, the Padres would be happy to hold onto him. Even though replacing a closer of his caliber would be nearly impossible, the team could still use an impact player at another position. Although it would be riskier to take on a prospect than to hold onto Yates, it’s a risk AJ Preller is probably willing to take.