On July 25th, the Yankees were 51-48 (.515). They were 7.5 games out of first place in the AL East and had an 5.1% chance of making the playoffs (per Baseball Prospectus). There was almost no chance the team would reach the postseason, so Brian Cashman traded one of the best relievers in baseball, Aroldis Chapman, to the Chicago Cubs. Just six days later, on the 31st, with a 2.5% chance of making the postseason after losing three straight to the last-place Rays, Brian Cashman dealt Andrew Miller (also part of baseball’s upper echelon of relievers) to the Cleveland Indians. The next day, after yet another loss, Carlos Beltran, the team’s best hitter, was sent packing to Texas.
Fast forward a month. A month where, on paper, the Yankees have a much worse roster, with what should be dimmer than ever playoff hopes. Yet, this month, on the field, the team is better than ever before, opening up a chance at a Wild Card appearance. In large part because of the Baby Bombers, New York has gone 15-9 in August and is now just 3.5 back in the Wild Card. Although a postseason berth is still a long shot, the Yankees have a 9% chance of making it.
Thirty days ago, there was little doubt that the Yankees should sell for future seasons. Now, we’re left wondering. The team is in a far better position now than they were at the trade deadline, playing much better baseball (despite facing a relatively harder schedule) and gunning toward a second place Wild Card spot which is now in sight. If the Yankees were just 3.5 games back on July 25th, they probably wouldn’t have kickstarted a rebuild. Now that they are only 3.5 games back, do they regret their deadline decisions?
If the Yankees knew they would have had a much better chance to make the playoffs with Chapman, Miller, and Beltran still on the roster, then second thoughts wouldn’t be surprising. Given how productive the three are, the answer to the “regret” question seems fairly obvious. Yet, it’s not quite as cut and dry as one would think.
Beltran’s departure left a hole in right field, filled through a combination of Aarons: Judge and Hicks. Although Hicks has a 62 wRC+ on the season and Judge has hit just .225 since arriving in the Bronx on August 13th, the duo has been surprisingly effective. Hicks has slashed .310/.347/.493 with four home runs and three stolen bases since the beginning of August, good for a 125 wRC+, while Judge has hit .225/.319/.425 (99 wRC+), with a pair of home runs. Both have also brought in average-to-above average defense in right.
Beltran, on the other hand, has hit .221/.256/.337 with two home runs and a 49 wRC+, primarily as a designated hitter. Before last night, he was mired in an 0-for-33 slump. Despite Beltran’s prior contributions to the Yankees, which were undoubtedly substantial, a Hicks and Judge combination in right field has been far more productive over the past month, and could easily continue to be in September.
In the bullpen, two of the best relievers in baseball, Chapman and Miller, were replaced by two of the most meh relievers in baseball, Adam Warren (brought back in the Chapman deal) and Tyler Clippard (acquired for Vicente Campos). Chapman and Miller haven’t exactly been out-pitched by the two new faces, but it’s closer than you would expect. Miller and Chapman have combined for a 1.78 ERA since the trades, but Clippard and Warren have combined for a 2.60 ERA. The new Yankees closer, Dellin Betances, has allowed just one run (0.87 ERA) in August.
In this case, the Yankees certainly downgraded, but it’s unlikely that revoking the two moves would have caused a big change in the standings. In all but two of the Yankees’ nine August losses, both relievers either did not make an appearance or had scoreless appearances. In one of the losses, Warren gave up a rather benign run with the Yankees already behind, and in the other, well, that’s the game where the Yankees blew a six-run lead, with Warren allowing four runs. It doesn’t appear that there were any losses where the presence of Chapman or Miller would have swayed the outcome, so, tentatively, one could say the Yankees would have directly won one more game had the trades not been made.
Given the talent that has been dealt versus the replacements, one could reasonably expect the Yankees to technically lose another couple of games because of the trades in September, but the overall impact hasn’t been nearly as large as expected. Realistically, the Yankees probably won’t make the playoffs, and they probably wouldn’t have even if the team had held at the deadline. But if they did make the playoffs in the theoretical trade deadline situation, the real life team would also have a solid chance of reaching the postseason.
Even if the trades are the difference between Wild Card versus no Wild Card, the front office may not regret selling in 2016. Although making the playoffs would be a pleasant surprise, it’s unlikely the team would go far, and that brings up an interesting question: would the Yankees rather make the playoffs this season (but likely lose in the first or second round), or be significantly better situated for the future? I think almost everyone would lean toward the latter.
Although the Yankees had a decent farm system and crop of young talent before the trade deadline, the current stash of prospects the team has is among the league’s best, setting New York up for an extremely bright future. In choosing between short term gratification (in the form of a short run in October) versus much greater long term success (of course, assuming most prospects do pan out), the vast majority would go with the second choice.
While this entire exercise assumes the Yankees are playing just as good baseball in the non-sell scenario as they are in real life, that may not actually be the case. Gary Sanchez has been the catalyst for this incredible August run, and had the Yankees not sold, he might not have been given the opportunity to unleash havoc on pitchers. The Yankees may have stayed with Brian McCann and Austin Romine behind the dish. If Sanchez was called up, McCann would need to DH, but that spot may have been occupied by Carlos Beltran once Alex Rodriguez was released. In fact, before the trade deadline, there was no indication from within the Yankees organization that Sanchez was on the cusp of a promotion.
On the surface, Yankees fans may regret making a slew of trades at the deadline, as it looks to have weakened the big league club and may cost a playoff spot. In reality, though, the trades didn’t hurt the roster as much as it seems, and the Yankees wouldn’t have a significantly better chance of making the postseason. What’s more, a guaranteed postseason spot in 2016 probably isn’t worth giving back the many top prospects New York gained in the trade deadline.