In late July of 2017, the Yankees were mired in a weeks-long skid and working to avoid their second straight season without a playoff berth. After a 38-23 start to the season, the Yankees suffered a loss to the Twins on July 17 to fall to a so-so 47-44. They were in the midst of a free-fall, and general manager Brian Cashman decided he had seen enough. While the Yankees did get a win on the 18th, Cashman acted aggressively that night to acquire third baseman Todd Frazier and two relievers – right-handers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle – from the White Sox. In doing so, Cashman surrendered three prospects – left-hander Ian Clarkin and outfielders Blake Rutherford and Tito Polo – as well as reliever Tyler Clippard.
The deal played some role in helping the Yankees to a 91-win finish, a playoff berth and a trip to the ALCS, where they lost to the eventual champion Astros in seven games. Frazier seemed to be a hugely positive influence in the clubhouse (remember the thumbs-down craze?), and on the field, he slashed a decent .222/.365/.423 with 11 home runs in 241 plate appearances. Frazier was only a rental at the time, though, and he wound up with the Mets the next offseason on a two-year, $17MM guarantee.
Robertson, a Yankee from 2008-14 before he signed a four-year, $46MM contract with the White Sox prior to 2015, was excellent in his return to the Bronx. He threw 104 2/3 innings of 2.49 ERA ball with 12.21 K/9 and 2.37 BB/9 over parts of two seasons, though he left the Yankees as a free agent yet again when the Phillies inked him to a two-year, $23MM in advance of the 2019 campaign.
Kahnle, meanwhile, is still in the Bronx. The year the White Sox gave him up, Kahnle (who entered the pros as a fifth-rounder of the Yankees back in 2010) was amid a breakout season in which he wound up throwing 62 2/3 frames of 2.59 ERA/1.83 FIP ball with 13.79 K/9 and 2.44 BB/9 between the two teams. The 2018 season proved to be an injury-shortened disaster for Kahnle, who could only manage a 6.56 ERA/4.19 FIP in 23 1/3 innings, but he bounced back last year with a 3.67 ERA/3.33 FIP and 12.91 K/9 and 2.93 BB/9 across 61 1/3 innings.
The Yankees can control Kahnle at reasonable prices through 2021, so he should continue to be an important part of their bullpen for at least a little while longer. However, when they made this deal, the Yankees were no doubt hoping it would help propel them to a championship. That hasn’t happened, though they have made three consecutive playoff appearances since swinging the trade. As for the White Sox, who were still a long way from contention when they agreed to the swap, here’s how their return has gone so far…
- Ian Clarkin: The former first-rounder (No. 33 in 2013) struggled enough in Double-A in 2018, his first full year in Chicago’s system, for the team to designate him for assignment. He threw 13 1/3 innings with the Cubs’ Double-A club last season and is now in the San Diego organization.
- Blake Rutherford: The 18th pick in 2016, Rutherford topped out as Baseball America’s 45th-best prospect after 2017, though his stock has dropped since then. After the 23-year-old batted .265/.319/.365 with seven homers in 480 PA at Double-A last season, FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen ranked him as Chicago’s No. 15 prospect.
- Tito Polo: Now 25, Polo only lasted in the White Sox’s system through 2018. He divided last season between the Mariners’ Triple-A team and the Mexican League. He’s currently a free agent.
- Tyler Clippard: Less than a month after acquiring Clippard, the White Sox traded the veteran to the Astros for cash considerations.
Almost three full years since this trade occurred, it seems Kahnle has emerged as the most valuable long-term asset involved. Now, Chicago’s only hope is for Rutherford to turn into a viable major leaguer, as the other players it received left the organization and didn’t bring back any assets when they departed.