As the Trade Deadline Approaches, Can the the Yankees Be Buyers or Sellers?
In the wake of Masahiro Tanaka’s right elbow injury (which we now know to be a partially torn UCL ligament), people have been advocating for two exactly opposite strategies as the trade deadline approaches: the Yankees should ramp up efforts to trade for impact players or, contrarily, the team should become wholesale sellers at the deadline in an effort to rebuild.
The actual question isn’t whether the Yankees should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline; the question is whether the Yankees can be buyers or sellers.
YANKEES AS BUYERS?
In the first scenario, having been besieged with injuries and wanting to give Derek Jeter one last shot at a championship, the Yankees opt to utilize the team’s young talent stockpiled in the upper minors to acquire a frontend starter and a middle-of-the-order power-bat that can lead the second-half charge into the playoffs.
This certainly sounds like a wonderful plan, but the problem is that such an approach does not fit the current state of affairs.
Initially, the Yankees simply do not have the minor league talent necessary to obtain a frontline starter or a prolific bat. Look at the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel trade. The Yankees do not possess prospects of the caliber necessary to land a marquee player, such as Addison Russell or Billy McKinney. Heck, the team doesn’t even have someone as talented as Dan Straily in the minors because if the Yankees did, he would be pitching in the majors right now (and probably be the team’s de facto ace). The closest talents the Yankees have to that stratosphere are Gary Sanchez, whose stock has taken a little bit of a hit, and Luis Severino, who is having a breakout season in High-A. (Given the Yankees’ dearth of starting rotation depth, the team may be hard-pressed to include Severino in any type of deal.)
Most teams are looking to acquire major-league ready talent, which means players at the upper-levels of the minor league system with a proven track record of success. The Yankees do not have such players. They do have a host of formerly well-regarded prospects (Slade Heathcott, Manny Banuelos, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin) as well as some intriguing prospects in the lower levels (Aaron Judge, Gregory Bird, Eric Jagielo, Ian Clarkin). There are some players enjoying very nice seasons – Jose Ramirez, Peter O’Brien, and Rob Refsnyder – but for various reasons (injury concerns, lack of plate discipline, and lack of hype), none of these players appear to be viewed as a centerpiece to a blockbuster trade.
Aside from the lack of trade pieces, the other issue is that there are not a lot of impact players available to acquire. Due to birth of the second wild card, there are simply not as many sellers at the trade deadline anymore. And, with the noted exceptions of David Price and Cole Hamels (who the Yankees don’t have the prospects to get), what starting pitcher can the Yankees acquire who will actually be an upgrade? John Danks (who hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2010)? Jorge De La Rosa (a 33-year-old with a career ERA of 4.70)? Bartolo Colon (a 41-year-old who could turn back into a pumpkin at any moment)? Wade Miley and Ross Detwiler would be great pitchers to take chances on in a trade, but what incentive do the Diamondbacks and Nationals have to trade young, cost-efficient starters?
Unless you consider the likes of Marlon Byrd, Josh Willingham (just what the team needs, another oft-injured, designated hitter), or Carlos Quentin to fit this category, there are also no impact bats available. The Yankees could probably swing a trade for Chase Headley (since the Padres overplayed their hand with him and will likely take whatever they can get for him at this point), but what would be the point of giving up prospects for a two-month rental or a player whose OPS this season is .651, which is worse than Kelly Johnson’s mark (.666).
Another thorn in the side of this plan is the reality that, unlike other years, the Yankees are not “one or two players away” from being really good. If one is being honest, the Yankees need upgrades at every infield position (except first base), right field, designated hitter, and four-fifths of the starting rotation.
YANKEES AS SELLERS?
The Yankees-as-sellers crowd suggests that the team finally bite the bullet and turn its sights to next season: “Let’s trade away all of our starting players for minor league prospects who may be in a position to assist the team’s rebuilding process next season.”
Theoretically, this strategy is quite sound. However, answer me this one question: if you are a team trying to make the playoffs, who on the Yankees do you want to acquire?
There are teams that could use a solid backup catcher for sure, and given the potential seen in John Ryan Murphy, Francisco Cervelli could certainly be moved. But, again, such a trade would net the Yankees a low-level prospect.
And, in terms of the Yankee offense, the only player another team would want would be Brett Gardner. The rest of the bunch are either over-priced or ineffective (or both).
So, the Yankees moveable players consist of Brett Gardner, David Roberston, and Dellin Betances. But, there is no reason to trade Gardner. He is the only player on the team who has hit consistently this season and he should be considered a player to build with, not trade away.
Robertson is set to become a free agent next season, but what type of prospect could the Yankees expect to receive in return. Last off season, Jim Johnson was traded for Jemile Weeks and Addison Reed was traded for Matt Davidson. Alternatively, the more reasonable plan would be to keep Robertson and give him a qualifying offer after the season, which is attached to draft pick compensation. As far as Betances, this is his first full year in the majors, he is under team control for many years (2020), and has the makings of a potential closer. While I understand relievers are extremely volatile and there is always a chance of injury, it seems short-sighted to “sell-high” on Betances after a total of 47 major league appearances.
Perhaps more to the point, if the Yankees were going to “blow the whole thing up” and rebuild, the time to implement this strategy was after last year’s horribly disappointing season. Instead of committing hundreds of millions of dollars to players in their thirties and losing early draft picks in the process, the Yankees should have clutched the draft picks tightly, spent frugally, and initiated a plan to trade away as many aging players as possible, even if it meant eating some salary. The time to rebuild is not after you signed McCann, Ellsbury, Tanaka, and Beltran to long-term contracts.
JUST KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON
Honestly, I think the Yankees have no choice but to keep doing what they are doing: attempt to stay competitive in the playoff race by making little moves. The Brandon McCarthy trade is a perfect example. Is McCarthy a top of the rotation starter? No, he is not. But, is he a professional starter who is a significant upgrade from Vidal Nuno? Yes. By agreeing to take on McCarthy’s salary and giving up a player (Nuno) who was clearly not in any long term plan, the Yankees got slightly better. This is probably the team’s model for approaching prospective trades.
The Yankees’ ability to take on salary may also come into play. If the Phillies were looking solely to shed salary, perhaps a package of mid-level prospects would be sufficient to secure a trade for Cliff Lee. That being said, Lee is still working his way back from a significant injury and, given his age and prior reluctance to come to New York, one wonders how effective he would be for the team. (Not to mention the fact that the Yankees would still owe him at least another $37.5 million the following two seasons.)
But other than some Band-Aids or a potential change of scenery trade (Dominic Brown?), the best option for the Yankees appears to be just to keep going: hope you can trade for a few arms to stabilize the rotation; hope underperforming players (McCann, Beltran) stay healthy and find themselves in the second half; start playing the Triple-A players the team has to see if you can capture some lighting in a bottle (Refsnyder, Yangervis Solarte, Zealous Wheeler, Zoilo Almonte); and hope the rest of the AL East remains terrible.
On Thursday night, Brian Cashman vowed that the team would remain aggressive in pursuing potential trade partners. According to the Star Ledger, however, Cashman also said, “We’ll continue to look at options to upgrade ourselves, and I’ll certainly present that to ownership. And until I’m told otherwise, I’ll continue the course of action.”
Cashman’s statement reminded me a lot of Shelby Forthright from WALL•E when he informed the autopilots that the plan to save Earth had failed and deflatedly stated: “So, uh, just stay the course . . . .” I think this may be the Yankees’ only realistic option this season.