It’s July 1st, and the Yankees are merely .500. Eight and a half games out of first place in the AL East, the majority of the fanbase is campaigning to sell during this year’s trade deadline to build for the future. This is a noble and sensible strategy, one that makes sense long term for the franchise. It gives New York a clear direction to go in, and a method to leap out of the rut of mediocrity that has plagued them over the last couple years.
However, giving in on this season is going to hurt fans more than they might expect. The idea of throwing away the rest of 2016 is easier to swallow when considering the light at the end of the tunnel, but the fruits of this strategy are far away. This harsh reality is independent of whether the Yankees sell in the next month, but fans may not realize that they are welcoming in an extended period of non-contention.
Unfortunately, the poor on-field product the Yankees have been trotting out this season won’t be improving in the coming year. Fans might want to look forward to next season, when Greg Bird is (probably) healthy and Aaron Judge is (probably) launching balls in the Bronx, but there’s a good chance 2017 is just as bad, if not worse, than 2016.
Although there is the possibility of Brian Cashman making something out of nothing in a trade and Hal Steinbrenner deciding to give the Yankees a free agent budget after allowing last offseason to pass without a single signing, the overwhelming odds lie in the Yankees only getting worse over the next couple of months.
Perhaps most back-breaking will be the loss of their best hitter, Carlos Beltran. The 39-year old may be a zero with the glove, but he’s anything but at the plate. His 136 wRC+ is 30 points better than anyone else on the Yankees, and Beltran also leads the team in home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, and WAR. Without him, the Yankees have just one hitter whose bat is above league average (Brian McCann) and a hopeless offense. Consider the Yankees, who have scored the seventh least runs in all of baseball, without their top bat. It’s an ugly reality.
Yes, this loss will be mitigated some by the impending major league debut by top prospect Aaron Judge. The 6’7” behemoth leads the International League in home runs and has taken a substantial step forward in his second taste of Triple-A. Still, to expect Judge to come close to reaching the lofty standards Beltran set this season is simply unrealistic.
By BaseRuns, a metric from FanGraphs, the Yankees should be 34-44. Instead, they’re at .500. This can be attributed to the team’s special bullpen, one that has been the Yankees’ lone strength this season. Next season, that lone strength will be considerably weakened. Aroldis Chapman, the controversial flamethrower who was acquired by the team this winter, is set to depart this offseason via free agency, though he could very easily be dealt prior to the trade deadline.
With the loss of Chapman (assuming he isn’t signed to an extension, which we can only hope doesn’t occur), the Yankees bullpen is made up of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and…that’s about it. This doesn’t even take into account the possibility that Miller is also traded, which wouldn’t be surprising considering how interested the market is in elite relievers.
Also set to leave the Yankees are Mark Teixeira and Ivan Nova. Neither will be particularly missed, especially Teixeira at this point, though Nova is capable of providing quality innings of long relief to keep the Yankees in games. Without Nova, there aren’t many other options. Of course, Teixeira will be replaced with Greg Bird, which is something to look forward to. Bird was electrifying in his rookie season and boasts impressive offensive potential, though he also brings risk in the form of major shoulder surgery that cost him all of 2016.
Beyond these departures, there’s an inevitable decline that is to be expected from some of the Yankees’ roster. Among the 32+ year olds whose best years are probably behind them are Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, and Brian McCann. Regression is almost a given with CC Sabathia, and a bounceback from Alex Rodriguez would be unprecedented.
There are a couple players who could see improvement at the big league level, such as Didi Gregorius, Rob Refsnyder, and Aaron Hicks, but that won’t be enough to offset players leaving and declining. Nobody else on the roster is likely to get better (one might suggest Nathan Eovaldi or Michael Pineda, though the wait for them to ‘break out’ will be two-plus years and counting by then), so this doesn’t have the look of a team that can improve.
Given the Yankees’ current state, there’s a much better chance of them selling and letting players depart via free agency than the opposite approach. With that in mind, the only way for the Yankees to improve would be from within the organization. As mentioned earlier, Greg Bird will be back, which could be a big boost to the offense, but Aaron Judge is probably a downgrade from Carlos Beltran. Gary Sanchez and Bryan Mitchell could be in the big leagues, but Sanchez will be part-time player and Mitchell had a 6.37 ERA in 2015.
In the long term, all these young players could be key pieces on a successful team. On the other hand, you have to wonder just how much these players will help short term. Getting excited about the future of the Yankees is perfectly reasonable, but expecting them to turn around a mediocre team is anything but. It’s really hard to hear, but weathering the storm of a disappointing 2016 won’t yield a rainbow next season. Maybe 2018 will be better, but the Yankees are most likely going to be selling later this season and won’t be buying in the winter or next season. There is a light at the end of the tunnel in New York, but the Yankees won’t reach it for a while.