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The Yankees need to buy at the deadline

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What can the 2012 Nationals teach us?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At 45-42, the Yankees are in no-mans-land as the trade deadline approaches. Their 52-35 pythagorean win-loss record suggests Brian Cashman should trade for a first baseman and an additional reliever, then wait for the Yankees’ bad luck (9-18 in one-run games) to abate.

However, complicating this matter is New York’s top-ranked farm system and young core of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, Luis Severino, and Jordan Montgomery. It is tempting to put this year’s championship plans on hold and sacrifice winning now for a chance at a future dynasty. Both approaches are defensible; however, given baseball’s unpredictable nature, I believe the Yankees need to buy at the trade deadline.

Why the Yankees should sell

There are numerous valid reasons the Yankees should sell, and many are laid out in an excellent FanPost by Nick, which you can read here. As noted in the introduction, the Yankees have an incredible wealth of young talent that, if they allow it to develop, could establish them as one of the top teams in baseball for the next decade.

Based on the Jose Quintana trade and common sense, we know that other teams will want premium returns from the Yankees in win-now trades. If you don’t believe me, look at the difficulty the Boston Celtics had executing trades this offseason; the more assets a team has, it seems, the more opposing teams demand.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Most importantly, while the Yankees have been unlucky in terms of converting runs to wins, the youngsters that have powered this team may regress. The same can be said for the veterans having career-years or their best year in some time, like Aaron Hicks, Matt Holiday, or Starlin Castro. Even without a big trade, moreover, the Yankees may be able to stay in the hunt AND keep their talent.

What we can learn from the 2012 Nationals

There’s a simple reason the Yankees should buy: “you can’t predict baseball, Suzyn! Let’s take a look at the 2012 Nationals, a team that infamously shut down their phenom young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, in September of a playoff year.

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Besides the obvious desire to protect Strasburg from injury, the Nationals also predicated much of the decision on the fact that, as a young team, they would be perennial playoff contenders. Sacrificing this year, the thinking went, would provide future payoff to the organization.

Washington finished the 2012 season in first place with a 98-64 record, but lost in the first round to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to two. Maybe if they had Strasburg, who won 15 games and posted a sparkling 3.14 ERA (and 2.83 FIP!) that season, they could have advanced to the NLCS. Indeed, in games two, three, and five, the Nats suffered from horrendous starting pitching performances, losing 12-4, 8-0, and 9-7.

More importantly (and to the surprise of many), Washington failed to make the playoffs the following season, lost in four games to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in 2014, missed the playoffs again in 2015, and STILL have not won a playoff series. Further, the shutdown did not bestow magic powers on Strasburg’s arm, as he was placed on the Disabled List four times over the 2015-16 seasons.

Obviously, the Yankees are not the Nationals, and, even if they were, this is not a perfect analogy. However, we can still learn a lesson from that 2012 team: there’s no guarantee of future success in baseball, regardless of how much young talent you have. If you have a chance to make the MLB playoffs, in this case to win title number twenty-eight, you take it.

The Yankees aren’t THAT young

Pieces that argue the Yankees should sell are (rightly) framed around the team’s young core of talent. However, there’s another reason New York has surprised analysts and fans this year: the play of veteran major leaguers who have supplemented that of the younger ballplayers. The Yankees are definitely a young team, but with an average player age of 28.4 years, there are 12 teams younger.

If the Yankees wait one more year for their prospects, rookies, and second-year players to develop, they will be throwing away solid seasons from Matt Holliday (128 OPS+), Starlin Castro (117 OPS+), Aaron Hicks (139 OPS+), C.C. Sabathia (120 ERA+), Brett Gardner (109 OPS+), and Didi Gregorius (102 OPS+). It would be unrealistic to expect such consistently strong production from this group of players in future years.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees
Matt Holliday and Aaron Hicks have surprised for the Yankees this year
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I understand why selling some of the veterans listed above who are over-performing, in exchange for more prospects, is the popular idea. However, I think this approach underestimates the difficulty of creating a team that is as well-balanced, in terms of age and skill-set, as the current Yankee ball club.

A healthy mix of veterans and young players, solid starting pitching, and a strong bullpen is a viable championship formula, and one that the Yankees are not far off from completing. As the Washington Nationals have taught us, such an opportunity is not always as widespread as it appears.