What better way to crystallize the strange offseason state of affairs in the American League East than a trade between the Red Sox and Yankees?
In a rare deal with their foremost rivals, the Red Sox acquired reliever Adam Ottavino and prospect Frank German from the Yankees in exchange for a player to be named later or cash. The deal was just the third between the two teams in the last 35 years.
“I feel like I’m going to end up a trivia question now one day,” said Ottavino. “I knew I could be traded, but I definitely didn’t expect that. It’s kind of fun to be a part of something a little out of the ordinary.”
The trade was atypical not only based on the participants but also their motivations. Two teams that frequently have competed this century for the same offseason trade and free agent targets instead recognized complementary interests that made a deal possible.
The Yankees, in an effort to limbo beneath the $210 million luxury tax threshold while freeing money to spend on other parts of their roster, wanted financial relief. The Sox proved willing to take on salary for 2021 not just in an effort to upgrade their bullpen but to “buy” a prospect who might contribute in the future.
Thus, for the first time since a 2014 Stephen Drew-for-Kelly Johnson swap, the two teams crossed the aisle.
“It’s very hard to be great if you’re too busy worrying about everybody else. We have to worry about ourselves,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “It’s the Yankees and I understand what that means. . . But if we’re not willing to do something that helps us because it helps them, or worse, if we’re worried it might not go as we expect and it blows up in our face and we look bad, then we’re just playing scared. We’re not going to play scared.”
Ottavino, a Northeastern alum, is entering the final season of a three-year, $27 million deal with the Yankees that he signed in the offseason of 2018-19 – a winter in which the Sox expressed interest but then backed off once they re-signed Nate Eovaldi.
The 35-year-old — a 2006 first-round selection of the Cardinals who pitched for the Rockies from 2012-18 — was dominant in the first year of his Yankees deal in 2019, posting a 1.90 ERA while striking out 31.1 percent of the batters he faced (league average was 23.0 percent) and walking 14.1 percent (8.5 percent league average) over 66⅓ innings.
In the compressed 2020 season, his ERA more than tripled to 5.89 ERA — though much of that inflation occurred due to one poor outing (0 outs, 6 runs) against Toronto (“Probably the worst game of my career,” said Ottavino), without which he’d have posted a sub-3.00 ERA. Ottavino also gave up harder contact in 2020 (90.6 mph average exit velocity) than the prior three years (85.5 mph).
Still, in some respects, Ottavino’s performance was better than some of his numbers suggested, as his strikeout rate (29.4 percent) remained well above the major league average, his walk rate dipped to 10.6 percent (his lowest mark since 2016), and his 48.0 percent groundball rate represented a sizable improvement from 2019 (39.7 percent).
“[He] has had a lot of success, success in our division, has swing-and-miss stuff that plays against everyone and especially righthanded hitters,” said Bloom. “Really, under the hood, everything [in 2020] looked very similar to 2019. . . That’s all very encouraging as we look ahead to 2021.”
The righthander — who largely shelved his cutter in 2020, working chiefly with a mid-90s two-seam fastball and a slider that imparts misery to righthanded hitters — said that he’s working this offseason to vary the shape of his slider to increase its effectiveness. Ottavino’s exact role will be determined, but alongside Matt Barnes, Darwinzon Hernández, and Ryan Brasier, he gives the Sox greater depth and options.
The Yankees are including $850,000 to subsidize the pitcher’s salary, leaving the Red Sox to pay Ottavino $7.15 million for the upcoming year. For luxury tax purposes, the Sox will be adding $8.075 million in payroll.
Ottavino’s salary is high for a reliever coming off his 2020 performance — a fact recognized by both the Sox and Yankees, resulting in the inclusion of German, 23, in the deal. The 2018 fourth-round selection out of the University of North Florida did not pitch in 2020 due to the minor league shutdown.
But in 2019, he showed promise as an athletic pitcher with a quick arm and a fastball that has been clocked at up to 98 mph who threw strikes while featuring a plus fastball and promising slider. He logged 16 starts in High-A in 2019, forging a 3.79 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts and 4.1 walks per nine innings. While he’s likely to get a chance to start, the two-pitch mix German showed in 2019 more likely profiles as that of a reliever.
“It’s a big-league fastball and a good body, athletic guy who improved a lot in a short period of time starting near the end of his college career — the type of guy that you would bet on to be able to make more improvement,” said Bloom. “We’re excited to get him in here and keep molding him.”
The trade for Ottavino, following recent free-agent agreements with starters Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards as well as utility man Kiké Hernández, pushes the Red Sox payroll for luxury tax purposes to roughly $200 million for 2021, about $10 million below the luxury tax threshold. Assuming the team wants to stay below that threshold in 2021 it would likely need to trade one or two players to free payroll space if it pursues any further additions beyond role players.
Such a reality makes a reunion with free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. less likely, though Bloom noted that the team remains in touch with the outfielder.
“I expect we’ll continue to until his free agency resolves,” he said.
Bloom added the Sox view that threshold as a “factor … [but] not a firm mandate.” And while he noted that the Sox roster is taking shape, he left open the door to other moves.
“We need to always [look for ways to improve] and there are a lot of different forms that can take, as today showed,” said Bloom.
Indeed, as evidenced by the deal with the Yankees, that quest need not be constrained by convention or expectation.