Aside from DJ LeMahieu’s free agency, we haven’t heard much about the Yankees’ workings this offseason. It’s been remarkably quiet, though not unlike many of the league’s other 29 teams. Typically, we start to get a decent amount of transactions by mid-December, particularly during the winter meetings. But this year, that of course was not the case thanks to COVID-19. We did get one rumor worth chewing on, though:
Heard today from a couple sources that the Pirates and Yankees have had conversations involving Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell. Unsure on seriousness or scope, but it’s an interesting match.— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) December 9, 2020
Unless I’ve missed it elsewhere, Jason Mackey is the only reporter to relay this rumor. Nothing from Yankees beat writers or national insiders just yet, at least. Nonetheless, I think the names involve pass the smell test for the types of players the Yankees are interested in. Allow me to explain why.
Background & Performance
Bell, 28, was the Pirates’ 2nd round pick back in 2011. He’s been Pittsburgh’s primary first baseman since late-2016. The switch-hitting slugger had put together some solid offensive campaigns through 2018, but really broke out in 2019. That year, Bell hit .277/.367/.569 (135 wRC+) with 37 dingers in 613 plate appearances. It all came crashing down for him this year, though, as his wRC+ dropped to 78 and his strikeout rate (26.5 percent) eclipsed the 20 percecnt mark for the first time in his career. Now, with two seasons until free agency, the Pirates appear ready to move him.
Despite the down season, Bell’s offensive profile is right up the Yankees’ alley. Lots of loud contact (87th percentile in exit velocity this year), patience at the plate (career 11.9 percent walk rate), and outside of this season, not too much swing-and-miss (19.0 percent career strikeout rate). That he’s a switch-hitter is a big plus, though he’s far better from the left side (which is more important, anyway).
What went wrong this year? Well, for one, 2020 has been a hard year for everyone, professional athletes included. We probably should acknowledge that every time we analyze a player’s performance this season. Now, looking at the numbers, one thing immediately jumps out: Bell’s ground ball rate. It’s really hard to put up big numbers, regardless of high exit velocities, with a 55.6 percent ground ball rate. Bell himself acknowledged this issue:
“With regards to my ground-ball rate, I just feel like I wasn’t on time…If I’m missing balls pull side on the ground, that means I was beat. That’s just the way it is.”
Sounds as if there’s something mechanical for him to work out. And given the Yankees’ track record with getting various hitters to take a step forward (i.e. Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela), I don’t see why Bell couldn’t resolve this issue in the Bronx. Besides, the Pirates are not known to be ahead of the curve lately (to put it kindly).
One other thing worth pointing out: Bell had a 5 wRC+ (yes, five) as a designated hitter this season (82 plate appearances). He was much better when he was in the field (117 wRC+ in 139 plate appearances). Perhaps he had a hard time getting comfortable as a DH. That said, he’s probably better off not playing the field. Whether it’s DRS, UZR, or OAA, Bell is rated quited poorly at first base.
Bell has just one big league injured list stint in his career. In late 2018, he suffered a strained oblique and spent the requisite 10 days on the injured list and nothing more. But going back further, he has had some knee issues. He partially tore his meniscus in the minors back in 2012. Additionally, he underwent left knee surgery in February of 2017, though he was ready for Opening Day.
Bell is two seasons away from free agency. For 2021, MLB Trade Rumors projects an arbitration salary between $5.1 million and $7.2 million.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
As mentioned, Bell checks a lot of boxes in terms of what the Yankees like. It seems like there’s some untapped upside there that the league got a flash of in 2019. But the big problem: he’s limited to first base, and really, should be a DH only. The Yankees are covered there already with Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton. That doesn’t mean a trade for Bell results in Voit getting shipped out, as some have speculated.
As things currently stand, Mike Ford would be on the Yankees’ bench next season. Bell could be a substantial depth upgrade over Ford, who still has minor league options. Granted, Bell would be an expensive bench option who probably deserves more playing time, but he might just be able to get that in the Bronx anyway. Injuries and load management are going to be a thing if we get a full 162 next season and expanded playoffs.
Background & Performance
Pittsburgh drafted Taillon with the second overall pick of the 2010 draft, sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. He may not have the name recognition or star power of those two, but Taillon has been pretty good in the majors when healthy. The 29 year-old right-hander owns a 3.67 ERA and 3.55 FIP in 466 big league frames. It’s unfortunate that health issues have only allowed him to throw 466 innings since he debuted in 2016.
Taillon hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 1st, 2019. He was placed on the injured list with a forearm strain and later underwent Tommy John surgery in August. It’s the second Tommy John of his career, the first of which came in the minors in 2014. I’ll dive deeper into his health history in a moment.
When he was last on the mound, Taillon averaged 95 on the gun with his fastball and sinker, pitches he threw a combined 57 percent of the time in his only full season (2018). The sinker has allowed him to maintain low home run rates (0.93 per nine innings for his career). Taillon also has offered a hammer curveball, slider, and rare changeup. The curve has been a spin rate darling (2700+ RPM) and garnered plenty of whiffs. In ’19, he started to lean into his slider much more (up from 18.4 percent in ’18 to 31.9 percent usage in ’19) before the second TJS.
For as great of an arsenal as Taillon has had, he doesn’t post spectacular strikeout rates. His lifetime 21.5 percent K percentage isn’t bad or anything, but he could probably do better. At the same time, he does offer terrific control (6.0 percent walk rate). Perhaps he’s someone who can make a few tweaks in a more forward-thinking organization and unlock some more whiffs. Happened to his former teammate Gerrit Cole, you know.
Here’s where things get concerning. Take a look:
- 2014: Tommy John surgery, missed season
- 2015: sports hernia, missed season
- 2017: testicular cancer, missed five weeks
- 2019 – 2020: Second TJS, made 7 starts in 2019
It’s the two elbow reconstruction surgeries that are the biggest concerns going forward, even as scary as testicular cancer is. Plenty of pitchers can have smooth careers after the first TJS, but a second one is much rarer. Most recently, Nate Eovaldi has had some success after a second surgery, though many have not fared as well.
Like Bell, Taillon has two seasons remaining before free agency. He just signed a $2.25 million deal for the 2021 season to avoid arbitration.
Does he make sense for the Yankees?
A pitcher with seemingly untapped potential who is a couple of years away from free agency? Where have we heard this one before with the Yankees? Yeah, Taillon seems right up the team’s alley. I think he comes with far more risks than those of James Paxton, Sonny Gray, Nate Eovaldi, and others in recent memory, but still. He’s got a repertoire the team can really dream on, is cheap, and fills a need. Again, Taillon certainly isn’t a safe play, but he’s the type of guy the Yankees have been interested over the years.
What would a trade look like?
I can’t imagine the cost for Bell and Taillon being prohibitive. We’re talking about a defensively limited slugger with just one big season to his name and a pitcher coming off a second Tommy John surgery. The Pirates can’t expect to get much other than salary relief for these two, I’d think.
The Baseball Trade Values site is fun and all, but I don’t think it’s a good proxy here. It would take a decent (albeit nothing outlandish) haul to nab them per the site. Here’s one proposal I put together:
Per MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Yankees prospects, Florial, Abreu, and Vargas are ranked 7th, 12th, and 20th, respectively. With Bell coming off a poor season and Taillon a bit of a mystery after a second TJS, that seems like a lot even if they aren’t particularly great prospects.