Rosenthal: Why the Yankees traded Montgomery, plus Ohtani talks and wild-card pressure

Rosenthal: Why the Yankees traded Montgomery, plus Ohtani talks and wild-card pressure

It’s an old baseball adage: You can never have enough pitching. So how is it that the Yankees traded a quality starting pitcher for an injured center fielder at the trade deadline, perplexing many of their fans and even some in the industry?

The answer comes down to this: The Yankees, according to major-league sources, believe Harrison Bader will be more valuable to them than Jordan Montgomery would have been through 2023, especially in the postseason.

The exchange is not without risk. If one or more of the Yankees’ current starters gets injured or struggles, general manager Brian Cashman very well might regret this move, perhaps even before the postseason begins. The Yankees, after lacking home-field advantage in their ALCS losses to the Astros in 2017 and 2019, want to maintain their 1 1/2-game lead over Houston for the best record in the AL.

Bader, recovering from plantar fasciitis in his right foot, is not expected to return before September, eliminating any short-term benefit from the trade. But the Yankees still believe the calculus of the deal is in their favor, in large part because they did not see Montgomery starting a postseason game over Gerrit Cole, Frankie Montas, Nestor Cortes and Luis Severino, who is on the 60-day IL until mid-September with a right lat strain, but already has resumed throwing.

Jameson Taillon is another Yankees starter who might have bumped Montgomery from the postseason rotation, depending upon the matchup. Domingo Germán will replace Montgomery in the rotation. Clarke Schmidt, currently back at Triple A, offers further protection against injury. So, that’s six potential starters for the stretch run, plus Severino once he returns.

Earlier this season, Cole said of Montgomery, “the more he pitches, the better he gets.” Over time, Montgomery has gained confidence in his stuff, becoming less afraid to pitch to contact. The change in mentality led to better results — his 4.9 percent walk rate and 14.9 pitches per inning are both the lowest of his career. Yet from the Yankees’ perspective, he still wasn’t good enough.

The Yankees did not envision using Montgomery out of their bullpen in the playoffs. Even if he somehow had made it into the rotation, he might not have lasted more than the four innings he pitched in his only career postseason start, Game 4 of the 2020 Division Series against the Rays. Montgomery threw only 62 pitches that night and allowed only one run, but the Yankees deployed their bullpen aggressively, as teams often do in October.


Harrison Bader (Gregory Fisher / USA Today Sports)

So then the question becomes: What will Bader offer once he is healthy?

For starters, defense. Center field is the Yankees’ worst defensive position, according to the advanced metrics. Since 2018, Bader leads all center fielders in Statcast’s Outs Above Average. His sprint speed this season is in the 94th percentile. And while he struggled offensively before getting injured, his OPS-plus in both the shortened 2020 season and 2021 was 14 percent above league-average.

In the Yankees’ view, Bader is simply a more useful part than Montgomery might have been. On most nights, he will start in center. But if the matchup calls for say, an outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Andrew Benintendi, with Matt Carpenter at DH, Bader can come off the bench as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

The Bader-Montgomery talks grew out of the Yankees telling teams, “If we import another starter, we would have a starter available.” Yet the Yankees kept trying to acquire another starter even after adding Montas, sources said, pursuing deals for the Marlins’ Pablo López, Giants’ Carlos Rodón and Tigers’ Tarik Skubal. So obviously, they were not entirely comfortable with their rotation.

Both Bader and Montgomery are under club control through 2023, and the Yankees will save a bit of money in the exchange. While the difference in remaining salary between the two this season is negligible, Montgomery’s salary will rise from $6 million next season in his final year of arbitration, while Bader’s will remain flat at $5.2 million.

The Yankees, though, did not make this deal to save a few million, or protect themselves against the possible loss of Judge in free agency; if Judge leaves, they will need a lot more than Bader. No, they made the deal for the same reason teams usually make deals. Because they believed it improved their overall team.

No way to get Shohei

Officials from two clubs interested in trading for Shohei Ohtani were left with the impression that to start the discussion they needed to offer six high-end players, and in the end probably more. A few teams threw out names, even though the Angels made it clear that owner Arte Moreno was resistant to moving Ohtani, making a deal all but impossible.

An Angels official said the team never asked for a set number of players, but merely invited clubs to make offers. The Padres proposed some of the same players they sent the Nationals for Juan Soto and Josh Bell, sources said, and a comparable level of talent overall. The Angels believe if Moreno had allowed talks to advance to completion, Ohtani would have warranted an even stronger package.

Soto is under club control for two-plus seasons, Ohtani one-plus.  Ohtani, however, is two players — a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and a middle-of-the-order hitter. Combine those, and a team would have obtained the equivalent of 2 2/3 seasons of control, or the same amount the Padres gained with Soto and Bell. Considering the returns dominant starters usually command at the deadline — see, the Reds and Luis Castillo — perhaps the Angels indeed could have exceeded the return for Soto and Bell.


Shohei Ohtani (John McCoy / Getty Images)

The next chance for the Angels to move Ohtani will come this offseason, and as The Athletic’s Jayson Stark writes, rival clubs doubt they will even do it then.  If a deal were to happen, the Angels likely would want the return to include more major-league-ready players than long-term prospects. The same would have been true if they had gotten serious at the deadline. Moreno, with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon signed long-term, shows no interest in rebuilding.

The Padres, by the way, were not in position to acquire both Soto and Ohtani; they had some of the same players in both proposals. The more interesting question is whether they would have had enough left for Soto if they had succeeded in landing José Ramírez from the Guardians shortly before Opening Day.

The Padres’ offer to the Guardians included the 39th pick in the draft, a competitive-balance pick, but not as much overlap in other prospects with the Soto-Bell package, sources said. Both deals, then, might have been possible. But Ramírez ended any possibility of a trade that when he agreed to his new, seven-year, $141 million contract just before Opening Day.

Wild cards facing enormous challenge

The motivations of the Padres and Mariners are easily explained. The Padres are seeking to become the first San Diego team to win a championship in a major professional sports league. The Mariners are seeking to end their 20-year postseason drought, the longest in the four major North American professional sports.

Both teams stand virtually no chance of winning a division title, much less securing a first-round bye. Under baseball’s new, expanded postseason format, the only remaining incentive for each is a top wild-card berth. That’s no small thing — the top wild card will play entirely at home in the best-of-three first round. Yet every team that fails to secure a bye will find it exceedingly difficult to win the four rounds necessary to become a World Series champion.

The lowest wild-card qualifier will be entirely on the road against the lowest-ranking division champion. The other two wild cards will face each other, with the survivor advancing to the Division Series against one of the clubs that earned a bye — most likely the Yankees and Astros in the AL, and the Dodgers and Mets or Braves in the NL.

So, consider the plight of the Blue Jays, who are in a similar spot to the Padres and Mariners, likely capable of only securing the top wild card. The Jays, too, should be highly motivated, considering they have not won the World Series since 1993. Yet, they also know they would use their two and possibly best starting pitchers in the first round, leaving them compromised for the Division Series against the Yankees or Astros.

Is it possible the difficulty of such a task discouraged the Jays from going all-in for a top starting pitcher at the deadline? That might be a stretch — the Jays did not exactly stand pat, adding relievers Anthony Bass and Zach Pop at the deadline, infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield and depth starter Mitch White. But in a world of hyper-rational club behavior, it will be interesting to see if front offices in the coming years perceive the path to a championship to be too difficult without a bye, and adjust at the deadline accordingly.

Explaining the Iglesias trade

One rival official expressed surprise the Angels traded closer Raisel Iglesias to the Braves only eight months after signing him to a four-year, $58 million, free-agent contract. Iglesias rejected the team’s qualifying offer, and the Angels could have received a draft pick after Competitive Balance Round B if he had signed with another club.

That pick, which this year extended between selections 67 and 80, might have represented greater value than the return the Angels received for Iglesias — left-hander Tucker Davidson, whom rival officials described as highly available, and righty reliever Jesse Chavez, who turns 39 on Aug. 21. But for the Angels, circumstances are markedly different than they were last offseason.

The Angels no longer see themselves as a closer away from contention. By trading Iglesias, they cleared $51.5 million. They can use that money to invest in position players, including, perhaps, viable backups for Trout and Rendon, both of whom have spent significant time on the injured list the past two seasons.

Brandon Marsh, who once projected as the Angels’ center fielder of the future, might have been the alternative to Trout, but the Angels sent him to the Phillies for catcher Logan O’Hoppe, whom MLBPipeline.com immediately installed as the team’s No. 1 prospect.

Around the horn

• The Cubs’ best chance of trading catcher Willson Contreras might have been if the Padres had been unsuccessful in their quest to land Soto. The Padres, according to major-league sources, had interest in Contreras; left fielder Ian Happ, whom the Cubs also did not trade; and reliever David Robertson, who went to the Phillies for pitching prospect Ben Brown.

In the end, no team made an offer for Contreras the Cubs found acceptable. The Astros parted with low-ranked prospects for Christian Vázquez. The Mets might have been spooked by last year’s trade of outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong to the Cubs for shortstop Javier Báez. The Guardians and Rays were not willing to meet the Cubs’ price.

• One thing to remember about the return the Nationals received at last year’s deadline for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, which a number of rival officials regarded as too light: The Nationals were restricted by Scherzer’s no-trade clause, and his initial willingness to go to only one of three teams — the Dodgers, Giants or Padres.

Scherzer’s stance compromised the Nationals’ leverage. He also was only a rental, while Turner was under club control for one additional season. The Nats, who received catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-hander Josiah Gray as part of a four-player package, did much better for Soto and Bell, neither of whom had no-trade protection. Soto also came with two additional years of club control.

• Mitch White gave the Dodgers the same type of versatility and adaptability that fellow right-hander Ross Stripling provided from 2016 to 2020, and now the two are reunited with the Blue Jays.

White, 27, frequently played catch with Stripling, 32, during his first few spring trainings with the Dodgers, and the two would talk about clawing their way into different roles. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said earlier this season that White’s fastball command is much-improved, his slider was real, and that he was showing more confidence in his curveball.

For now, White represents insurance for the Jays at Triple A.

• And finally, perhaps the biggest reason to believe in the White Sox is their remaining schedule, which is the weakest of the three AL Central contenders and one of the weakest in the game.

The caveat: The White Sox face the first-place Twins nine more times, all in September. Six of their last nine games are against the Twins with three against the Padres in between.

The Twins lead the Guardians by one game and the White Sox by two in the most competitive of the division races.

(Top photo of Jordan Montgomery: Joe Puetz / Getty Images)

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