Just a few days ago, we heard reports that the Yankees were engaged in talks with the Houston Astros involving Brian McCann. It’s important, especially at this time of year, to take every rumor with less than a grain of salt. However, this particular rumor makes sense on all levels. The Astros don’t have an obvious solution for their starting catching job next season. Jason Castro is departing as a free agent, and Evan Gattis is as much of a major league catcher as…well, Evan Longoria, or Evan Spiegel, for that matter. The Astros have maintained a relatively low payroll in recent years because they have (understandably and prudently) built their current roster iteration through young, controllable players, but don’t forget that they’re a large-market team with large-market pockets.
Assuming they’re wary of Wilson Ramos’ knee or don’t believe they’ll be able to land him, Brian McCann makes perfect sense for the ‘Stros. Among the non-Ramos free agent catcher options, only Alex Avila and Matt Wieters are likely to replicate McCann’s production on a rate basis, but they both come with inconsistency and injury concerns of their own. Both may also command a commitment longer than two years. McCann, on the other hand, comes with just two guaranteed years left on his deal and has been durable enough to club 20+ home runs in each of the last nine seasons. And his pitch-calling, framing, and handling of the pitching staff may also be attractive to an Astros club rife with young pitching.
Unfortunately, there are two main issues with dealing McCann, and they both involve his contract. As a durable catcher that provides league-average offense and plays both sides of the ball, McCann definitely isn’t a liability. But he’s also owed $17 million for each of the next two seasons, meaning he’s probably paid roughly commensurately rather than representing much surplus value. Additionally, he owns a full no-trade clause, so he’d have to approve any deal.
The latter issue may be solved rather easily, as McCann may be eager to join a playoff-expected team, especially if it allows him to continue catching. Staying with the Yankees would probably mean a role as a DH, with the occasional spot starts at catcher and first base.
The first issue is a little trickier. McCann doesn’t really have a place on this team, as Gary Sanchez is clearly the number one option at catcher going forward, and McCann’s offense no longer profiles well at the DH spot, especially at a $17 million price tag. But moving McCann would also mean either getting mediocre prospects back or having to eat some of his remaining salary.
Enter Brett Gardner. Even with Gardner’s slide in offensive production last year, he still got on base at a .351 clip and provides value on the basepaths and in the field as well. And at only $12 million and $11 million respectively in each of the next two seasons, Gardner definitely carries surplus value. Gardner would be a perfect fit for Houston in left field and at the top of their lineup.
Packaging McCann with Gardner, while kicking in a little bit of money for McCann’s contract if necessary, should yield a much more significant return. The tricky part, as always, is constructing a realistic proposal for both sides, so bear with me on this and feel free to lay your criticisms on me in the comments.
The prize of the potential return with the Astros would be one of their heralded young starting pitchers. Lance McCullers is probably off limits, but one of Joe Musgrove, David Paulino, and Francis Martes may be available as the headliner of the deal. Musgrove would be my favorite, as his command, pitchability, and changeup are all ahead of the other two. You can view highlights of his stuff here and here. The four-seam fastball command, wipeout breaking ball, and demeanor on the mound are all reminiscent of a young John Lackey, while the changeup and two-seam fastball are ahead of Lackey’s at any point in his career. From a statistical perspective, Musgrove has compiled a 2.27 ERA in 186 combined minor league innings over the last two seasons, including 186 strikeouts (9.0 K/9) and a preposterous 18 walks (0.9 BB/9). The one downside with Musgrove is that his fastball is more solid-average than plus, and he runs into the Phil Hughes-problem of throwing too many pitches in the zone, but he looks to be a future #2/3 starter in the MLB.
A second piece would be left fielder Preston Tucker, who seems to have fallen out of favor in Houston. Tucker slashed just .164/.222/.328 in 48 games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. Houston’s starting DH spot is probably taken by Evan Gattis, while left field would subsequently be filled by Gardner. And Tucker is in danger of being leapfrogged on the depth chart by promising left fielder Derek Fisher, who has already reached Triple-A. However, Tucker is more than just a throw-in. He produced league-average offense as a rookie over 323 PA in 2015 (.261 TAv, 102 OPS+), and he’s hit at literally every single minor league stop in his career. His career minor league slash line is .292/.359/.499, and he has the potential to hit 25 home runs annually without crazy strikeout numbers or platoon issues.
As you can see from the GIF above, his swing looks like a hybrid of Kole Calhoun’s and Brad Miller’s, two players whose statistical output could also mirror Tucker’s upper quartile outcome in the future. Actually, as a power-hitting corner outfielder that bats and throws left, and has nothing exceptional in the speed or plate discipline department, Calhoun is a very apt comparison for Tucker. As for how he fits into the Yankees’ plans, Tucker is scheduled to be healthy by the start of spring training, and Joe Girardi could feasibly pencil him in as the Yankees’ starting left fielder from Opening Day. If he flops, then the trade still moved Gardner and cleared a space for Clint Frazier once Frazier is MLB-ready. If he hits out of the gate, then the Yankees have a good problem on their hands of too many capable outfielders, and Ellsbury could be moved at the deadline to clear space for Frazier, who can probably handle center field through his pre-free agency years anyways.
The third and final piece of this (completely hypothetical) deal would be third baseman Colin Moran, who is the closest resembling throw-in of the trade. Moran was once a heralded youngster that was taken sixth overall in the first round as recently as 2013, but his star has faded considerably. Moran has already been traded once (in exchange for Jarred Cosart), and his slash line of .259/.329/.368 in the minors last season leaves plenty to be desired. Additionally, Houston’s awesome infield trio of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman means that there’s no obvious spot for Moran, even if he were banging down the door. As a lefty with a supposedly advanced approach at the plate, fringy power for the position, and little to no defensive value, Moran is essentially Billy McKinney as a third baseman. However, the Yankees should be interested in piling young assets at this point in their timeline, and they don’t really have a third sacker of the future.
From the Astros’ perspective, they are moving Musgrove and a couple of pieces that probably don’t factor into their future for their starting catcher and left fielder, both of whom are controlled through 2018 as well, with options for 2019 (Gardner’s is of the team variety).
From the Yankees’ perspective, they are acquiring three young assets whose timelines fit in perfectly with the peak windows of the rest of their future core. Additionally, two of them, Musgrove and Tucker, would ideally be starting for the Yankees’ big club from day one. Lastly, it opens up payroll flexibility should the Yankees want to go after free agents younger than McCann and Gardner.
The odds that this exact iteration of a trade occurs is pretty darn close to zero, but it isn’t difficult to see something with a similar framework take place. There have been more than just whispers that the Yankees have been shopping McCann and Gardner, and Houston seems like a great place to kill two birds with one stone.
Photo: Noah K. Murray / USA Today Sports