As I was watching the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday, a great tweet by CBS’ Mike Axisa crossed my feed: “5.2 scoreless innings for Blake Rutherford tonight.” It encapsulated a point I was trying to make without quite the same punchiness: Brian Cashman did a great job creating the type of monster bullpen that enables you to survive a win-or-go-home game when your aces only gives you two-thirds of an inning.
But wait a second, Blake Rutherford isn’t a relief pitcher or even a Yankee anymore, so how does that tweet make any sense? Let’s take a trip in time back to June 2016, specifically to the 2016 MLB Draft. The Yankees got Keuchel’d in the 2015 Wild Card Game after winning 87 games, and ultimately picked 18th in the first round. As the draft progressed, Rutherford—widely considered one of the five best players in the draft, and a candidate to go first overall—kept falling amidst rumors of high bonus demands and a potential pre-draft deal with a team later on. The Yankees eagerly popped Rutherford, and paid him a well-above-slot yet not outrageous $3.282 million signing bonus.
About a year later, the Yankees were sitting in the thick of a comically-overloaded 2017 American League summer playoff picture. The Chicago White Sox, though, were one of the few teams out of that picture, realistically having waved the white flag before the season by dealing Chris Sale, and having pushed the hard-seller button earlier in July by parceling out Jose Quintana to the Cubs. The White Sox didn’t have any Sale or Quintana pieces left, but they did have a plethora of interesting relievers, plus New Jersey native and versatile rental bat Todd Frazier. They also really liked Blake Rutherford. The Yankees already had Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances in the bullpen, but if this century of baseball has taught us anything, it’s that you can never have too many elite bullpen weapons once the leaves start turning. It probably didn’t hurt that two of the best White Sox relief arms—closer David Robertson and suddenly dominant flamethrower Tommy Kahnle—were not only more than just second-half rentals (under team control through 2018 and 2020 respectively), but well-liked former members of the Yankees organization.
When we think of draft picks accruing quick value for contenders drafting later in the round, it’s often the dreaded low-upside college reliever that occasionally get comically overdrafted because of MLB need. Once in a blue moon, you get a Sale or Brandon Finnegan that can contribute in their draft year. But almost all prospects of significance can be traded for good MLB talent before they become good MLB talent themselves—as soon as the offseason following the draft now with the implementation of the Trea Turner Rule. Blake Rutherford had an okay season in Low-A in 2017, nothing special and probably a bit disappointing. Starting from there, even if he starts to put it together immediately, he’s still two years or more from any direct MLB impact. But what you can get for Blake Rutherford on the trade market can help you immediately, if you shop as wisely as Cashman.
Rutherford’s impact on the 2017 Yankees—through the proxy of those he was traded for—is undeniable. At the time of the Rutherford-plus for Robertson/Kahnle/Frazier deal, I lauded the Yankees for dealing what amounted to their second-tier of prospects to fill significant holes. The narrative filled in the rest. Todd Frazier stabilized a disastrous third base position, and was robbed of his own heroic postseason moment via a backbreaking catch by Byron Buxton. Yet it was the two relievers that racked up the crazy value.
Robertson pitched to a 1.03 ERA after his return to the Bronx, and he did so in a setup role reminiscent of, well, David Robertson in the days when the Bombers had Mariano. In the Wild Card Game, Robertson entered in a bases-loaded jam in the third inning, escaped only allowing one run, preserving a 5-4 Yankees lead, and ultimately pitched a career-high 3 â…“ innings without getting a run charged to himself.
As I’ve discussed in this space and elsewhere, the Yankees seem to have a factory where they produce dudes with awesome fastballs and sliders, and they’ve had real trouble keeping them all in the organization over the past few years. Kahnle was himself one of those dudes, a fifth-round pick from a college you’ve probably never heard of, who threw a little harder than the bunch and had a change that was way better than almost all of these guys. What Kahnle didn’t have in his first go-round with the Yankees was control, and he was exposed in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft. Picked by the Rockies, Kahnle stuck and pitched in Colorado for two uneventful years, before being dealt to the White Sox for interesting pitching prospect Yency Almonte. After spending much of the first half of 2016 dominating Triple-A—experience he’d never really had because he was Rule 5’d—Kahnle came back up to the majors to stay. In the first half of 2017, he emerged as one of baseball’s best relievers, and he retained his dominance and control after the trade. On Tuesday, he came in behind a fading Robertson in the sixth, pitched 2 â…“ perfect innings, and delivered the ball right to closer Aroldis Chapman for the ninth.
The Yankees survived and advanced out of the Wild Card Game in large part because of these brilliant relief performances. What makes that especially valuable is the crazy leverage inherent to a close elimination game—these will still be among the two most valuable relief performances of the entire playoffs by the time all is said and done. It is still possible that some years down the road that the Yankees might miss Blake Rutherford, if Rutherford defies the huge odds in front of him and becomes a superstar. But it will take that kind of outcome to overcome the value Robertson and Kahnle have already provided, and that’s not even counting their future contributions, or the contributions of Todd Frazier. The Yankees have probably already won their side of this deal, and that’s with the potential for an entire postseason’s worth of deployment of their bullpen of death ahead.