With the deadline still several hours away, this MLB trade season has already been one for the books. The biggest team in baseball has made some of the biggest moves—and for the biggest players. In the past two days the Yankees have made a pair of blockbuster deals for former Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo and former Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. That’s splashy; the only way the Yankees could make a bigger splash would be to drop Gallo and Rizzo, nearly 13 feet and 500 pounds between them, off a high dive. Like the burger chain or half of Outkast, these are big boys.
Gallo and Rizzo add both offensive power and celebrity pizzazz to a team that wasn’t exactly short on either to begin with, and doing so cost New York six prospects. Prized apprentices like Anthony Volpe and Jasson Dominguez aren’t going anywhere, but the departed youngsters include several well-regarded names, including toolsy teenaged outfielder Kevin Alcantara, fast-rising right-handed pitcher Glenn Otto, and promising infielder Ezequiel Duran.
Neither of these trades will go down as Milt Pappas–for–Frank Robinson, but the Yankees truly shelled out for two of the biggest names on offer at the deadline. And while that is as it should be—the telos of the Yankees is to acquire and consume—the on-field fit might look a little curious at first blush. A team with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez in the lineup and Luke Voit close to returning from the IL isn’t exactly in dire need of an impact bat. More than that, the Yankees are on the wrong side of the American League playoff bubble, a full three games behind Oakland for the second wild-card spot and 8.5 behind the Red Sox in the division. And while the Yankees are a good weekend away from catching the A’s, they’re also a bad weekend away from falling behind Toronto, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. It’s a logical time to buy, but it’s also a risky one.
By adding 490 pounds’ worth of lumber to a team that already pays extra in fuel costs on its charter flight, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is perhaps hoping to assemble the heaviest lineup in baseball history. Or perhaps he just finished a book about Sacco and Vanzetti and thought a pair of Italian American lefties would scare the hell out of Boston.
But first impressions can be deceiving, because Gallo and Rizzo are far from the glorified slow-pitch softball players they might appear to be. In fact, they’re quite a logical fit for a team like the Yankees.
For starters, while every team could use an offensive upgrade, this Yankees team is particularly in need. As of Thursday, the Yankees have the best walk rate and fourth-best OBP in the AL, but they’ve struggled to convert base runners into scoring. The Yanks’ team wRC+ is 100—dead-on league average—and they’re 11th in the AL in isolated power. And they’re a cartoon-eye-bulging 14th in the AL in runs scored per game.
Strikeouts and double-plays get a lot of the blame, but the Yankees have only the ninth-highest team K% in MLB, and while their 97 double-plays lead the league, the Astros have grounded into 94 double-plays and are still outscoring every other AL team by a third of a run per game. The Yankees’ situational hitting could be better, but Voit and Aaron Hicks have been hurt, and DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres have struggled at times. They just need some better hitters.
That much they’ve acquired, and then some. Gallo, for all the talk about his penchant for strikeouts—and judging by the discourse around Judge and Stanton, there will be plenty of talk—has 25 home runs, a .379 OBP, and more walks than any player in the league. Gallo and Rizzo are now second and fifth, respectively, in wRC+ among Yankees hitters with at least 50 plate appearances this season. And unlike Gallo, Rizzo puts the ball in play a ton. His strikeout rate, 15.7 percent, is not only in line with his career norms, but it’s lower than that of any Yankees regular except LeMahieu. Rizzo’s .248/.346/.446 slash line this season is down somewhat from his prime, but that’s still about 180 points of OPS better than what the Yankees have gotten from their first basemen this year. Mike Ford, Chris Gittens, and Jay Bruce—who up and retired two and a half weeks into the season—have combined to start 38 games at first base, bringing to mind a certain former Yankees manager’s proverb about what you want.
And it’s not just that Gallo and Rizzo are both good hitters. It’s that both are good left-handed hitters. On Tuesday, the Yankees’ biggest left-handed power threat was Rougned Odor. That wouldn’t be a huge deal ordinarily; the Yankees have hit lefties far better than righties this year, and it’s possible to construct a potent lineup that’s almost entirely right-handed. But while Yankee Stadium plays basically neutral for righties, its famous 314-foot short porch in right field makes it one of the five best home run parks for lefties. Gallo, in particular, should adapt to his new home well; he has more raw power from the left side than any human being except maybe Shohei Ohtani. The Yankees are going to have to hand out hard hats to fans in the right-field seats when he’s up.
Finally, both Gallo and Rizzo are more than just bats. Rizzo is one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, and would kick LeMahieu back over to an infield position where his bat plays better. Gallo, despite being the size of a Soviet tractor factory, likewise brings significant defensive value. In some respects, he’s like Judge in that he looks slow but plays a good defensive right field, but Gallo is a better all-around athlete with a much stronger throwing arm. And while he hasn’t played these positions in 2021, Gallo has big league experience at both third base and center field, the latter of which I’d feel especially comfortable playing him in a pinch, particularly when the other option is Brett Gardner.
Adding both Gallo and Rizzo to the lineup probably means there’s no room left to trade for Trevor Story, who’d been linked to the Yankees throughout the summer, though the Rockies slugger would likely be an upgrade over Torres—particularly defensively—if Cashman decided to go completely berserk on deadline day. It’s far more likely that if the Yankees make more trades they’ll be for pitchers, but a team can never have too many bats.
The question now, with two new corner bats in the fold, is what will happen to Voit. With his playing status unclear, and with Rizzo set to become a free agent at season’s end, the Yankees might as well keep him. He would give New York an unparalleled power threat off the bench and insurance should one of the other big sluggers go down. Thanks to Gallo’s defensive versatility, keeping Voit would also give manager Aaron Boone the option of writing out a credible defensive lineup, including DH and pitcher, with a combined listed weight of 2,372 pounds. That’s roughly the weight of a 2013 Hyundai Accent.
Perhaps more relevant to the Yankees’ short-term plans, Rizzo’s expiring contract not only made his cost in traded prospects relatively cheap, but it also leaves a spot open for Voit in 2022 if the Yankees think they can count on him as a starting first baseman going forward. If he has to play a part-time role for the last six weeks of the season, so be it. Gallo, the better, younger, and more expensive of the two newly acquired players, is under team control for one more year, meaning he’s still quite valuable to the Yankees even if they don’t make the playoffs this season.
But that’s not exactly Plan A. Each year, all across MLB, competitive teams weigh the virtues of spending resources to get better now or hoarding them to get better later. (Usually, ownership prefers the latter option because it’s cheaper.) Not the Yankees, who might sell off bits and pieces of their roster in a down season by means of short-term tactical withdrawal, but they do not rebuild.
So while their three-game deficit to Oakland is a big problem with two months to go, it’s not worth conceding over. The A’s are catchable. The Mariners, who also sit ahead of the Yankees in the wild-card standings, are more than catchable. So Cashman brought in reinforcements to help with that chase.
If there’s a fault in the Yankees’ process, it’s that they shipped over extra prospects to both Texas and Chicago in order to get the teams to cover part of the money owed to Gallo and all of the money owed to Rizzo. But these two big names fill a serious need in the Bronx, as the Yankees chase the playoff berth to which they’ve become so accustomed.