ETTINGER: Yankees trade for “keys to the kingdom”

In the course of an evening, the fate of the New York Yankees for the next decade (and perhaps longer) changed irreversibly. Last Friday, the Yankees pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Mariners that saw the two teams swap uber-prospects Jesus Montero and Michael Pineda. In Pineda, the Yankees receive a flame-throwing all-star under team control for five more seasons. In Montero, they lose an elite slugging prospect under control for at least six. The only certainty is that these two players have the ceilings to dominate Cy Young and MVP voting for years to come.

Much of the chatter surrounding the trade has focused on whether the Yankees made a “good deal.” It is worth noting that the answer is not at all obvious. While Pineda has a full season of Major League experience, neither player has even begun to prove his potential in the Bigs. Further, by swapping a hitter for a pitcher, the Yankees have traded a delicious apple for a delicious orange. It may be years before we have any idea whether Brian Cashman and the Yankees brass made a smart move. That said, I would not be a true Yankees fan if I did not throw my opinion into the overcrowded ring.

The place to start in evaluating this trade is the relative ceilings of Pineda and Montero. Quick consideration reveals that neither really has a ceiling. Pineda, a 6-foot-7-inch righty with a 95-100 mph fastball and a devastating slider, has all the trappings of a future ace. As a 22-year-old rookie, Pineda posted 173 strikeouts in 171 innings — good for the third highest strikeout rate (24.9 percent of batters faced) in the majors (ahead of both CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez). He also posted the majors’ best opponent batting average (.184) against right handers. Perhaps more impressive is his control. Pineda threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes and walked just 7.9 percent of hitters — figures rarely seen by pitchers with his strikeout totals. Mariners fans will also miss his superior composition on the mound — something that will serve him well under the bright lights in the Bronx.

Montero’s potential appears similarly limitless. While he doesn’t have much of a Major League track record, the sweet-swinging righty positively mashed his way through the minor leagues, whacking 39 home runs in 900 at bats at the AAA level. Rated the number-three prospect in all of baseball before 2011, Montero was called up for a month in the Bigs at the ripe old age of 22. In 18 games, he clubbed four home runs and hit .328, including a game featuring back-to-back moonshots to the opposite field. Montero is also noted for his precocious patience behind the plate — he truly has middle-of-the-order written all over his bat.

Both players also carry a fair amount of risk. As a starting pitcher, nothing is guaranteed for Pineda, who had never thrown more than 150 innings in a season prior to 2011. Despite his plus fastball and slider, the electric fireballer needs to develop a strong changeup to continue to elude lefties at the Major League level. His high fly ball rate will not play as well in Yankee Stadium as it did at spacious Safeco Field, where he will also be facing the more elite lineups of the AL East. Finally, despite posting dominant numbers during the first half (3.03 ERA) and at home (2.92 ERA), Pineda had troubling splits after the All-Star break and on the road (although BABIP suggests his late-season struggles may be the product of bad luck).

Montero, meanwhile, boasts only 18 games of Major League experience. While few doubt he can hit at the big-league level, it remains to be seen where and if he will play the field. The slugger came through the Yankees’ system as a subpar catcher, but many scouts project him as a full-time DH. When they traded for him, Seattle took a big bet that he could stick behind the plate. Should his bulky frame prove unable to support backstop duties, his value will plummet.

While the ceilings and the risks of the two players project relatively evenly, their fit on the Yankees’ roster does not. Pineda is immediately the second-best starter on a Yankees’ staff that was desperate for elite talent behind Sabathia. While the Bombers boast solid pitching at the back of the rotation (Ivan Nova, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia) and the upper levels of the minor leagues (Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos), the team craved a true ace (or potential ace) to line up behind Sabathia in a one-two punch. Meanwhile, the offense will easily survive Montero’s absence. The team, which ranked second in the majors with 867 runs scored last season, already has an elite catcher in Russell Martin and a future logjam at DH in the aging bodies of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. It was never clear where, exactly, Montero would fit.

What makes this a true victory for the Yankees, however, is the disparate replaceability of the two trade chips. Jesus Montero may become an elite hitter, but big-swinging DH types represent some of the cheapest bargains on the free agent market. Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrerro and Johnny Damon may no longer possess Montero-level abilities, but at $1-2 million annually they represent low-cost signings that could easily approach Montero’s production. Young, cost-controlled pitchers, in contrast, are what Cashman calls “the keys to the kingdom.” Pitchers of Pineda’s caliber rarely make it to free agency, and when they do, they command enormously pricey and risky contracts.

One way to examine Pineda’s scarcity value is by comparing the trade to those for Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez, the other two young aces moved this offseason. Latos, a three-year pitcher who was worth 2.6 wins (as compared to Pineda’s 2.8) in spacious Petco Park last year, was traded to the Reds. In return, the Padres received a top-50 prospect (Yonder Alonso), a top-100 prospect (Yasmani Grandal), a solid major-league reliever (Brad Boxberger) and a former ace (Edinson Volquez). To acquire Gonzalez, a power pitcher who lead the AL in walks last year, the Nationals gave up each of their third- (Brad Peacock), fourth- (A.J. Cole) and ninth- (Derek Norris) ranked prospects. In comparison, the Yankees gave up only Montero and Hector Noesi (who projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter) and received Pineda and 19-year-old Jose Campos, a young slinger with excellent command who scouts say could be an ace one day.

While Montero is the biggest prospect included in any of the deals, the Yankees’ package was likely the weakest. At the same time, Michael Pineda likely offers the largest upside of the three pitchers traded.

There is really no telling whether this is a good deal for the Yankees. It will take years for both young stars to reach their full potential, and there are too many variables involved to make confident predictions. It is impossible to deny, however, that the Yankees received a commodity far more difficult to replace than the one they traded. At the very least, this Yankees fan is much happier to have dealt with five seasons of Pineda than half a season of Cliff Lee.

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