MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees

Blue Jays Send J.A. Happ to Yankees for 2B/3B Brandon Drury and OF Billy McKinney

On Thursday, the Blue Jays completed their second deal this week, sending J.A. Happ to the Yankees in exchange for utility player Brandon Drury and OF prospect Billy McKinney.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that the Blue Jays would be trading their top lefty this season, with the Yankees always reported as the most likely destination. That said, it’s still going to be tough to see the tall southpaw go.

Since re-joining the Blue Jays as a free agent following the 2015 season, Happ has been nothing short of spectacular. He started things off with a bang, going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA across a career-high 195 innings in 2016, leading the Blue Jays to their second straight ALCS appearance. Overall with the club, he has posted a 40-21 record with a 3.55 ERA and 435 strikeouts to 141 walks in 454 innings. That turned out to be tremendous value for a three-year, $36M contract, but now it will actually end up being even more valuable, thanks to the trade.

While some fans may have been hoping for Justus Sheffield or Clint Frazier in return for Happ, the already slim hopes for that were likely dashed when Happ struggled in several of his most recent starts. He rebounded nicely against Baltimore though, and New York should be happy with what they get for the three year Blue Jay. As I’ve written many, many times in this space, Happ has really transformed himself since coming to Toronto, using a high break-variance combo of fastballs to keep hitters off-balance despite only throwing 93-94 mphs. It’ll be interesting to see if the Yankees catchers use his stuff the right way, as over-reliance on one of the fastballs instead of the other could see a negative regression.

As for the return, Brandon Drury comes to Toronto, currently sporting a disappointing .176/.263/.275 line, though that is only in 57 plate appearances. The former 13th round pick is hitting .292/.403/.444 in 259 triple-A plate appearances after posting a line of .275/.323/.453 in 979 PA in Arizona in 2016-2017. So he clearly has some track record of hitting in the big leagues. Perhaps the increased walk rate in triple-A this year has caught Toronto’s eye. Drury also will come to the Blue Jays with four years of control, thanks to that time in the minors, which was surely appealing to this front office.

This pickup is probably a somewhat surprising piece to most, as Drury profiles very similarly to a couple of people already on the roster: Yangervis Solarte and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Like the two current Blue Jays, Drury plays second and third, and can fake shortstop if you really need it, though he can also fill in as an outfielder. He also carries a similar approach as Gurriel and Devon Travis with medium pop and high contact, though while Drury has never been called patient, he does walk more than the Blue Jays’ duo. So while he’s probably a small upgrade on Solarte and Travis, Drury’s skills already existed on the roster.

With the logjam in the infield created by this addition, it is likely that either Drury or one of the current Blue Jays infielders will be included in a deal going elsewhere. Solarte is the most likely candidate, but it really could be any of them.

The prospect in the deal is perhaps even more surprising. Despite the Yankees having a very large stable of pitching prospects in their farm system, the Blue Jays ended acquiring outfielder Billy McKinney, who came to the Yankees with Gleyber Torres in the Aroldis Chapman trade of 2016. This is now the third time the 23-year-old has been traded.

McKinney was actually formerly a top 100 prospect according to Baseball America (pre-2015), Baseball Prospectus (pre-2015 and 2016) and MLB Pipeline (pre-2016), but has seen his star fade a bit of late. Following a .300/.371/.454 line in 2015, the left-handed hitting/throwing outfielder has had trouble staying on the field, hurting his development. He is currently hitting .230/.294/.502 with 13 home runs in 228 PA for triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

McKinney currently ranks 20th in a pretty deep Yankees’ farm system, per MLB Pipeline, with scouting grades of 45 hit, 50 power, 50 run, 45 arm, 50 field for an overall grade of 45 (or 4th outfielder). The following is the MLB Pipeline scouting report:

McKinney’s best attributes are his smooth left-handed swing, bat speed and hand-eye coordination. He demonstrated a disciplined approach at lower levels of the Minors but has become more aggressive and now emphasizes power over hitting for average. Scouts who believe his late-season surge in 2017 is for real see his upside as a .280 hitter with 20 homers per year, though he attained that average just once while topping out at 16 homers in his first four full seasons.

McKinney broke into pro ball as a center fielder and has spent most of the last three years as a right fielder. He’s just a decent athlete with average speed and fringy arm strength, so he’s best suited for left field. Because they’re loaded with outfield depth, the Yankees had him play first base in the Arizona Fall League to enhance his versatility.

Here’s what Kiley McDaniel from Fangraphs, who was a bit more bullish on the young outfielder, had to say about McKinney:

McKinney broke into pro ball as a center fielder and has spent most of the last three years as a right fielder. He’s just a decent athlete with average speed and fringy arm strength, so he’s best suited for left field. Because they’re loaded with outfield depth, the Yankees had him play first base in the Arizona Fall League to enhance his versatility.

That’s certainly a useful player, though like Drury, it’s very much something they already possess in the upper minors or big leagues with Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis, Dalton Pompey, Dwight Smith Jr., and Teoscar Hernández. That said, prospect depth is never something to be upset about and we’ve seen some of those guys have trouble staying healthy or have underperformed.

Overall, this is a strange trade to analyze in a vacuum. Based on pure value the Jays did quite well getting a controllable, average MLB regular-type and another big league-ready prospect for a non-ace rental starter. In fact, it’s easy to suggest they did really well. However, the roster fit is confusing and it makes one wonder a bit why the Jays took this offer when they apparently were engaged with a bunch of other teams before accepting the Yankees proposal.

Thankfully, we don’t need to look at this in a vacuum. If the Jays trade Yangervis Solarte one of their other infielders (Milwaukee and Philadelphia could both use upgrades on the dirt), Drury can slot in nicely in the short term and then be re-evaluated in the offseason with to see if he’s a piece for the future or someone to be flipped elsewhere. So while it’s a bit strange on the surface, we’ll just have to wait and see on this one and it could turn out to be a pretty good trade in the long run. If they keep everybody, it’s a weird and somewhat underwhelming one.

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1 comment on “Blue Jays Send J.A. Happ to Yankees for 2B/3B Brandon Drury and OF Billy McKinney”


It’s been a week and I’m still mad about this shitty trade. I’ve thought about it quote a lot and there are a number of reasons why I hate this trade

1. He’s a replacement level bat

In 1,000PA with Arizona his wRC+ was 93 – that’s below average and roughly a replacement level player. He’s had vision problem that may have lead to this low level of production and after this was corrected in 2018 he put up a wRC+ of 144 at AAA. Unfortunately that was entirely driven by a BABIP of 0.393 so is unsustainable. His walk rate did increase from a career 6% to 14% in AAA, maybe that is showing signs that he’s improving but if that were really true, wouldn’t the Yankees have brought him up to take the place of Neil Walker? Granted, some people do have a sudden late(ish) career improvement (Donaldson, Bautista etc.) but it’s much more likely that he won’t.

2. He has no significant defensive value

He’s a natural 3B but most of his playing time has come at 2B so look at both of these. Neither is a premium defensive position so that’s not a strength. For 2B his career UZR/150 is -2.6 and at 3B it’s -9.8. Both of these have sample size issues but there’s no scout saying that he passes the eye test as a defensive wizard so I can believe these numbers. In short, he’s a below average fielder, always has been and is now 26 so there’s no reason to think he’s going to get better.

3. He’s a bench player, those are available other ways

Because he is below average both offensively and defensively his only position on the team is as a bench player to come in and fill in for rest, injury etc and every team needs a player like that. They typically have a high floor & low ceiling and you can get that player from free agency every year. In 2017 Steve Pearce was available at $6.5M per year for 2 years, 2018 had Eduardo Nunez at $4M per year for 2 years in the 2 most recent off seasons. Why spend trade capital on something you can get easily through free agency when you can spend it on prospects who aren’t typically available? Makes no sense.

4. We already had bench players

Is Drury much better than Solarte? Not on past performance (almost identical wRC+ and UZR/150) and, as I’ve argued above, not likely on future performance either. We already had one Solarte, why trade to get another one? Drury is under control for 2 more years at a lower salary but so what? Years 2021 and 2022 are so far away that getting a bench bat is not important yet and saving $12M in 2019 and 2020 isn’t going to help much either. So say that you play Drury, you like him better than Solarte and trade Yangervis in the off season. How much is he worth? He’s a below average hitter and below average fielder with no defensive flexibility on a 2 year contract for $13.5M. That’s not getting you anything on the trade market, certainly nothing game changing. Say you trade Travis instead, you might get something because he’s cheaper but you still only get 2 years of control so the return still won’t be much.

5. He has no clear position on the roster

You have to fill 5 spots with infielders (3B, SS, 2B, 2 bench spots) not counting 1B and DH that Drury doesn’t have the bat to play.
2019 – Vlad, Tulo, Bo, Gurriel/Solarte/Drury/Diaz/Travis
2020 – Vlad, Tulo, Bo, Gurriel/Solarte/Drury/Diaz/Travis/Biggio
2021 – Vlad, Bo, Gurriel, Drury/Diaz/Biggio/Smith/Groshans/Warmoth
He only has a position as a bench bat at best, a AAA position at worst. Why trade for someone who has no real future value? No, you can’t count on Tulo but when he gets injured Drury can’t play SS anyway so it’s a moot point. No, not all of those prospects will become real players but there are enough of them that you should expect one or two at least.

So to summarize – Drury has a below average bat and a similar glove plus he doesn’t look like getting better with either. You can get these guys in free agency every year for not much money and we already had one of them. Getting him allows you to trade someone else who has no real value. He clogs up the roster in future years because all our top level prospects play in his position.

It’s objectively a terrible trade both now and in the short & long term future. Yes, Happ should have been traded but for lottery ticket prospects instead. At least they have a small chance of positively affecting the Jays team, Drury has minimal chance of doing that. Best case scenario is that Drury is a solid bench bat who is a marginal upgrade on freely available talent

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