Should the Yankees pursue All-Star closer on the trade market?

mlb: st. louis cardinals at milwaukee brewers, devin williams, yankees
Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees are currently looking for bullpen help, and they might have a new target on the board if they want to land one of the best relievers in the sport. A stunning trade that sent Corbin Burnes to the Baltimore Orioles creates a question of whether the Milwaukee Brewers are open for business or not. Devin Williams, who has emerged as one of the best closers in all of baseball, could be available in trade talks following their trade of Burnes, and the Yankees might have a chance to form one of the best bullpens in baseball.

On paper, this sounds like a no-brainer, but recent trends have suggested that investing lots of capital into a reliever can prove to be risky. Is Devin Williams an exception, or is he another example of a pitcher who will cost far too much on the trade market?

Is Devin Williams Worth Acquiring For the Yankees?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Milwaukee Brewers
Sep 15, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Devin Williams (38) delivers a pitch against the Washington Nationals in the ninth inning at American Family Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Williams is undoubtedly one of the best relievers in the entire sport, pitching to a 1.53 ERA across 61 games in his age-28 season. He has a nasty changeup that has given him the nickname of the “Airbender”, and it’s a dominant pitch that has proven impossible to hit for opposing batters. Since his breakout season in 2020, Williams has a 1.75 ERA and 40.5% strikeout rate, becoming their primary closer with the trade of Josh Hader a couple of years ago.

Looking at the changeup, it generates -2 inches of Induced Vertical Break with nearly 20 inches of arm side run, and it’s simply one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. He had just a .097 batting average allowed on the pitch with a 42.2% Whiff Rate, and he’s emerged as arguably the best reliever baseball has to offer. His 7.55 Win Probability Added is tied for the best mark in baseball over the past two seasons, and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be a game-changer.

The value of acquiring a reliever comes down to having an advantage in one-run games, which are oftentimes susceptible to variance. For example, the San Diego Padres had an excellent Run Differential, but poor performance in these close-fought games kept them from making the postseason. If the Yankees add Devin Williams, they ensure that in close games, they’ll have an increased chance of coming out on top.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
Jul 28, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) turns to the home dugout after hitting a walk off home run in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Scoring wasn’t the Yankees’ forte in 2023, but this offense is projected to put up big numbers next season. It’s entirely possible that with a better offense, having a lockdown bullpen can net them one-run wins and get them a higher seeding in the postseason. Sure, they could use a starting pitcher more than a reliever, but the market for starting pitching is not where the Yankees want it to be.

Acquiring Devin Williams would push everyone in the bullpen down a spot on the depth chart, giving the team a more dynamic unit with excellent talent up and down the roster. As for the starting pitching, there’s a larger margin for error if the bullpen is remarkable, something the Baltimore Orioles took advantage of during the regular season. Baltimore finished 15th in ERA- (99) from their starters, but their bullpen helped carry their ERA- into the top 10 (95).

A fair counterpoint would be that the Yankees can develop relievers extremely well and, therefore, don’t need to splurge in the trade market on a bullpen arm. Despite all of the Yankees’ troubles last season, they still finished with one of the best bullpens in the entire sport, getting breakout seasons from arms like Ian Hamilton. If the Yankees trade for Devin Williams, they might be spending resources on a player that some would argue only makes the team marginally better.

The tricky question is, what would the Milwaukee Brewers want in a deal with the Yankees?

mlb: arizona diamondbacks at new york yankees, oswald peraza
Sep 22, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees third baseman Oswald Peraza (91) throws the ball to first base for an out during the sixth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Infield depth is something the Yankees have, and the Brewers lack, but it’s also evident that what New York has to offer isn’t as valuable as some may think. Oswald Peraza has made some physical strides in the offseason and looks to be in the best shape of his life, but that doesn’t have a direct correlation to on-field success. Making proper swing decisions, consistent contact, and other variables that go beyond physical skills play a huge role in one’s projectability.

Perhaps the Yankees get a breakout season from Peraza, but it’s clear that the former top-100 prospect isn’t as valuable on the trade market as people think. He’ll have a chance to prove people wrong this season, but if the Brewers don’t have a high evaluation of the slick-fielding shortstop, then there’s no chance he’s going to sway a team into trading arguably the best closer in the game two years ahead of free agency.

Ben Rice, a power-hitting first baseman, has generated plenty of hype within the organization and could potentially catch the eyes of a Brewers team that has Jake Bauers penciled in as their starter at first. Jorbit Vivas is another interesting infield prospect that could garner some interest on the trade market, and he has a swing that’s perfect for right field at both Yankee Stadium and Milwaukee.

Pitching could become an issue for the Brewers, who might demand MLB-ready arms like Will Warren in a deal for Williams as well, and while we don’t know their evaluations of these players, this is what I’d imagine a competitive offer from the Yankees could look like:

  • Will Warren RHP
  • Ben Rice C/1B
  • Carlos Lagrange RHP

The Brewers may value different players in this deal in ways that we don’t, but based on how I value them, I think this at least gets a conversation started. Perhaps instead of the upside, Lagrange comes with, the Yankees offer a more MLB-ready arm like Luis Gil, who could make starts or come out of their bullpen. Maybe Ben Rice isn’t a player they value highly, or maybe they prefer Chase Hampton to Will Warren.

Another question worth asking is whether it’s worth it for the Yankees in the first place, they finished first in bullpen ERA last year (3.34) and they have an excellent track record of developing relievers. Perhaps one of their smaller free agent deals convert into a high-leverage reliever like Ian Hamilton in 2023, and the team could hold pat until the deadline when they have a better idea as to what their needs are.