Jon Heyman reported this morning that there is a lot of interest in San Diego Padres’ relievers Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit. He goes on to say that the Yankees would seem to be a fit because of “uneven relief work”. Let’s take a look at each relievers’ projected performance, roster fit, and acquisition cost to see if it makes sense for the Yankees to inquire.
Street, the former Oakland Athletics’ closer, misses bats (25.4% career, 28.9% in 2014) and keeps the ball in the yard (.90 HR/9 career, .64 HR/9 in 2014). Some of the low home run-rate in this and previous seasons is likely due to playing a lot in Oakland and San Diego (although he did play in Colorado for 3 years) as the ground ball-rate isn’t anything special (37.6% career, 43.3% in 2014). The 0.96 ERA this season is propped up by an unsustainable 99.0% LOB rate. Benoit’s strikeout rate is up this year (31.4% in 2014 compared to 23.3% career), and the walk rate is down (5.9% in 2014 compared to 9.7% career). The 35.5% career ground ball rate has led to some fluky HR/FB seasons in 2003, 2004, and 2012. Even in seasons where the HR/FB is closer to normal, he surrenders a lot of home runs due to the high volume of fly balls. He will give up a fair amount of homers, especially in a hitter’s park like Yankee Stadium.
Some argue that the WAR model falls apart for relievers because some pitch higher-leverage innings that aren’t accounted for. For what it’s worth, Steamer projects Benoit at 0.3 WAR for the rest of the season, while ZiPS has him at 0.5. Street projects at 0.0 WAR through Steamer and 0.1 through ZiPS. Both pitchers excel at striking hitters out, the number one skill for a reliever in this max-K environment. The low WAR projections show how little effect a single reliever can have by only pitching 60 innings.
Despite being solid relievers, the fit on the roster isn’t apparent. The late-game, high-leverage combination of David Robertson, Adam Warren, Dellin Betances, and Shawn Kelley have been extremely effective, and upgrading over them would be difficult. Matt Thornton is the lone lefty in the bullpen, and while Benoit actually has a reverse platoon split due to his heavy change-up usage (26.5% career according to PitchF/x), it’s unlikely the Yankees role with 7 right-handers in the bullpen. Cesar Cabral, Freddy Lewis, or even Jacob Lindgren would replace an injured or ineffective Thornton before a trade for Benoit. That leaves 2 more bullpen spots. Neither Benoit or Street can fill the long-man role as each is the typical 1 inning, 15 pitch air-it-out guy. The final spot, currently held by Jose Ramirez, would likely be upgraded on paper with the addition of Street or Benoit. However, it’s not going to move the needle all that much. Street/Benoit over Ramirez/Danny Burawa/Matt Daley/reliever versions of Phelps or Whitley for 2 months is worth about a quarter of a win. The small workloads of these relievers leads to high unpredictability and small projected differences from one reliever to the next over short periods of time.
Both relievers’ contracts are palatable. Street’s contact pays him $7 million this year and has a nice $7 million team option for next season. Benoit will earn $6 million this year and $8.5 million next year. There is an $8 million team option for 2016 with a $1.5 million buyout (effectively a question of whether Benoit is worth $6.5 million for that year). The Yankees can certainly afford both of these contracts. The uncertainty lies in whether they are willing to part with the talent the Padres seek. San Diego recently fired their GM, Josh Byrnes, and they will likely try to cash in any non-core players during their lost 2014 season. Neither of these players should command a return of a top-20 Yankees prospect and the Padres ownership might just be hoping to get these entire contracts off the books. Maybe international bonus pool money would come into play.
It would be hard to upgrade on an already very good bullpen (90 FIP-, 88 xFIP-). The lower hanging fruit is another starting pitcher or a 2B/3B. The overworking of the bullpen has certainly been an issue for a team that consistently plays close games due to a bad offense and starters (Vidal Nuno, Chase Whitley, and David Phelps) that don’t provide them much length. Adding a starter either through trade (Jason Hammel) or health (CC Sabathia or Michael Pineda) while improving on a 92 wRC+ seems much more appropriate. Street and Benoit would definitely help the Yankees, but the bullpen is already great and there are other roster spots that can be more easily upgraded. These guys would surely be targeted by the Yankees if the lineup had 9 above average regulars and a rotation that gave them innings at a minimum.