The Yankees and Royals have made the biggest move of deadline season to date. New York announced an agreement to acquire outfielder Andrew Benintendi from Kansas City in exchange for pitching prospects Beck Way, T.J. Sikkema and Chandler Champlain.
Benintendi has been one of the game’s most obvious trade candidates for the past few months. The Royals entered 2022 with designs on competing, but they stumbled to a 16-32 record through the end of May. That made Kansas City an obvious deadline seller, and an impending free agent like Benintendi likely to change uniforms.
New York adds a contact-oriented bat to their outfield mix. Benintendi owns a .321/.389/.399 line on the year, walking at a strong 10.1% clip while only punching out in 13.5% of his trips to the plate. He’s only connected on three home runs, but Benintendi leads the majors with 91 singles and has picked up 14 doubles. He hasn’t looked like the 15-20 homer bat he was during his early seasons with the Red Sox, but he’s made contact on a strong 82.6% of his swings.
Benintendi’s production has been propped up by a career-high .368 batting average on balls in play. As a line drive hitter who uses the entire field, he typically generates solid results on batted balls, although it’s unlikely the Yankees are anticipating his 2022 mark remaining quite so high. Even if his BABIP regresses closer to his .325 career figure, his plate discipline and bat control should support a solid on-base percentage.
Those plus bat-to-ball skills contrast Benintendi sharply with the player whom he’s likely to displace from the lineup, Joey Gallo. New York’s biggest deadline pickup last summer, Gallo has struggled mightily since landing in the Bronx. He’s a .160/.293/.371 hitter in 498 plate appearances as a Yankee, striking out at a massive 38.4% clip over that stretch. Among hitters with 200+ plate appearances this season, Gallo has the third-highest strikeout rate (38.1%) and third-lowest rate of contact on swings (62.2%).
The Yankees are now set to roll out an outfield of Benintendi, MVP candidate Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks — owner of a massive .333/.471/.593 line this month after a slow start to the season — on most days. Giancarlo Stanton is the primary designated hitter, although he landed on the injured list yesterday. New York has already begun to cut back Gallo’s playing time while working the scorching hot Matt Carpenter into the corner outfield mix, and tonight’s acquisition is the firmest signal yet the Yankees are prepared to squeeze Gallo out entirely. It stands to reason they’ll try to find a taker for him in trade before next Tuesday’s deadline.
Judge has adequately handled a move from right to center field this year, leaving Hicks and Benintendi to play the corners. The latter has played exclusively left field since landing in Kansas City’s spacious home ballpark, rating well in the eyes of both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Statcast’s Outs Above Average has pegged him as exactly a scratch defender in each of the past two years. He should add an adequate to above-average glove in the outfield while offering a notable improvement over Gallo’s recent work at the plate. It’ll be a boost to a lineup that already led the majors with 523 runs scored.
That the Yankees pulled the trigger on a Benintendi deal is sure to raise a few eyebrows for an off-field reason. He was placed on the restricted list before the Royals recent series in Toronto, indicating he’d not been vaccinated against COVID-19 at the time. That renders him unavailable for series in Toronto barring a change in his vaccination status or the removal of the ongoing prohibition of unvaccinated athletes crossing the border. Reports shortly thereafter emerged the Yankees could be dissuaded from pursuing him due to concerns about his availability.
That obviously proved not to be the case in the end. Jon Heyman of the New York Post and Andy Martino of SNY each suggest (Twitter
links) that some close to Benintendi believe he’s now willing to be vaccinated. Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark of the Athletic indicate that vaccination status didn’t come up in talks between the Yankees and Royals front offices (Twitter link). Whether that’s because the Yankees anticipate he’ll eventually be eligible to play in Toronto or whether they’ve just decided to accept his possible absence for a few games isn’t clear.
The Yankees, who ironically open a four-game series against the Royals tomorrow, only have three regular season games remaining in Toronto. With an 11 1/2 game cushion over the Jays in the AL East, a three-game absence — if it comes to that — seem unlikely to have much of an effect on the regular season standings, although it could be relevant in the event the Yankees and Jays meet in the playoffs.
Benintendi is playing this season on an $8.5M salary, around $3.3M of which will be paid out through the remainder of the season. The teams didn’t make any mention of cash considerations, so it seems the Yankees will assume the remainder of that tab. New York’s luxury tax payroll now sits just under $265M, in the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. They’re paying a 20% tax on their first $20M over the $230M base threshold, with a 32% fee on every dollar spent between $250M and $270M. If they exceed $270M via future trades, they’d owe a 62.5% tax on any money up to $290M (with higher fees thereafter). It’s a franchise-record level of spending for the Yankees, who seem likely to explore both rotation and bullpen upgrades over the next few days.
Turning to the Royals return, they’ll bring in a trio of lower minors arms. Way, Sikkema and Champlain were each ranked among the Yankees top 30 prospects at Baseball America, with Way topping the group at #13 in the system. Kiley McDaniel of ESPN concurs that Way is the headliner of the return, tweeting that he looks like a possible mid-rotation starter.
A fourth-round pick in 2020, Way has spent this season at High-A Hudson Valley. He’s worked 72 1/3 innings of 3.73 ERA ball, striking out an above-average 27.6% of opposing hitters. The 22-year-old righty (23 next month) has posted strong ground-ball numbers throughout his early pro career, and he’s walking a career-low 9% of batters faced. Way’s control has previously been spotty, but BA credits him with a mid-90’s fastball and a promising sweeping slider.
Sikkema was the 38th overall pick in the 2019 draft. The canceled minor league season in 2020 wiped out his first full professional season, and he missed all of last year on the injured list. That confluence of factors means he’s made just 15 appearances as a professional, but he owns a 2.48 ERA with a huge 38% strikeout percentage and a strong 6.3% walk rate through 36 1/3 innings in High-A this year. BA praises his strike-throwing ability and suggests his lower arm slot adds some deception to his delivery. He’ll have to be added to the Royals 40-man roster at the end of the season or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft.
Champlain was a ninth-round draftee out of USC last season. The 23-year-old has spent the entire year with Low-A Tampa, posting a 4.30 ERA with a 30.5% strikeout rate against a 6.2% walk percentage in 16 outings against generally younger competition. Baseball America credits him with a mid-90s fastball and a promising slider.
The Benintendi deal will be the first of plenty of dominoes to fall over the next few days. Rosenthal and Stark report that the Blue Jays, Brewers and Dodgers were among the teams that had some interest in Benintendi, and it stands to reason the remainder of that group could look for other ways to add to their outfield. Ben Gamel, David Peralta and Tyler Naquin are among the other lefty-hitting rental outfielders who should be available, although none seems likely to draw as much interest as Benintendi.