The Yankees announced Monday that they’ve acquired right-handed reliever Clay Holmes from the Pirates in exchange for minor league infielders Diego Castillo and Hoy Jun Park. Catcher Rob Brantly, who’d been on the roster as a Covid-related replacement player, has been returned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to open a roster spot. Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported about a minute before the announcement that Holmes was being traded to the Yankees for a pair of minor leaguers (via Twitter).
Holmes, 28, has spent the season in the Pittsburgh bullpen and pitched to a 4.93 ERA, a 23.3 percent strikeout rate, a 13.2 percent walk rate and an enormous 72.8 percent ground-ball rate. To offer a bit more context on that percentage, Holmes has pitched 42 innings this season and surrendered just 16 fly-balls (three of which were pop-ups) and 15 line drives. He’s induced 83 grounders.
Control has been an obvious issue for Holmes, who has always hit four batters and thrown five wild pitches, but he’s only allowed 10 home runs in 119 2/3 career innings (0.75 HR/9). He’s also among the game’s best at limiting premium contact so far in 2021 (86th percentile average exit velocity; 91st percentile barrel rate).
Holmes has yet to reach arbitration but will be arb-eligible for the first time this winter. He’s making scarcely more than the league minimum and can be controlled all the way through the 2024 season if he ultimately sticks in the bullpen. He’ll have to prove his mettle with the Yankees at the Major League level, however, as he’s out of minor league options and cannot be sent down without first being exposed to waivers.
For much of his minor league career, Holmes worked as a starting pitcher. He’s made just four starts in the Majors, however, against 87 bullpen appearances. Because he can’t be sent down, it’s unlikely that the Yankees would try to stretch him out at the MLB level. He’ll head into the bullpen for now, where he can give them some length. Holmes has worked several outings of one-plus or two innings at a time and topped 30 pitches in an appearance on a few occasions.
Ground-ball rate looks to be something the Yankees have zeroed in on in recent years, at least with regard to their bullpen. Zack Britton is one of the most prolific ground-ball pitchers in history, and the current Yankee bullpen sports five more pitchers who’ve tossed at least 10 innings of relief this year with a grounder rate of 50 percent or better: Albert Abreu, Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Mike King and Wandy Peralta. At a time when the league is working to curb the use of foreign substances that increase the spin rate on four-seam fastballs and sliders, it’s perhaps not coincidental that the Yankees are seeking out another extreme ground-ball pitcher who relies on a low-spin sinker.
Yankees fans may be surprised to see Park included in this deal after he’s posted a .327/.475/.567 slash with 10 homers, nine doubles, a triple and eight stolen bases in 223 Triple-A plate appearances so far. The 25-year-old was recently called to the big league roster for the first time but only got one appearance before being sent back out.
Notably, however, the Yankees outrighted Park to Triple-A, however, indicating that he went unclaimed on outright waivers at the time of the move. The Pirates (or another club) could’ve had Park for free at that point, were they willing to dedicate a 40-man roster spot to him. The 29 other clubs passed. The Bucs will now pick up his rights (without having to dedicate a 40-man spot) and hope he can continue to build on that breakout showing he’s enjoyed so far in Triple-A this year. FanGraphs’ Eric Lonenhagen ranked Park 31st among Yankees farmhands prior to this deal, noting that his ability to play a viable shortstop an control the strike zone make him a “high-probability utility infield piece.”
Castillo, 23, had a history as a light-hitting middle infielder with premium contact rates before his production exploded in a pitcher-friendly Double-A setting this year. He’s hitting .277/.345/.504 (127 wRC+) with 11 home runs, 18 doubles and eight steals in 249 plate appearances on the year. Castillo has walked at a career-best 8.4 percent against a 13.4 percent strikeout rate. He’s another shortstop-capable infield prospect to add to the middle levels of the Pirates’ system — one whom Longenhagen ranked 21st in the Yankees’ system at the time of the swap.