The Yankees made their first move on Tuesday. After dancing along the periphery of the Manny Machado sweepstakes for the past few weeks, the Yankees actually struck on a deal, sending three minor league pitchers to the Orioles in exchange for left-handed reliever Zach Britton.
The deal has multi-fold ramifications. The Yankees have added another elite arm, while Baltimore has fully pivoted to a total rebuild. New York has deprived competing teams like the Astros and Red Sox of a possible trade target, and in doing so further cemented their bullpen advantage on the rest of the league.
The move is most interesting, however, in how it clarifies the Yankees’ strategy and intentions. There is less mystery regarding what approach the Yankees will take regarding this year’s trade deadline. The Yankees also now have an obvious strategic bent to pursue when the temperature falls, the leaves turn, and the calendar turns to October.
As the trade deadline drew closer, it was never clear how exactly the Yankees intended to improve their team. Their primary need was elite starting pitching, but with a dearth of high-end starters on the market, partially thanks to the stinginess of the Mets, the Yankees had no easy way to renovate their rotation.
The question, then, was what to do. Would they add the best player on the market in the form of Machado? Would they double down and add to their already-dominant bullpen? Would they sit on their hands and roll with what they had on the roster and on the farm?
The answer, it seems, is that the Yankees intend to strengthen their biggest strength. Though the Yankees have noted that trading for Britton doesn’t preclude them from renting a starter, the Yankees’ strategy is clearly to make the biggest upgrade to their team even if that upgrade comes at a deep position.
In context of the current market, the strategy is sound. With players like Jacob deGrom and Madison Bumgarner unavailable, targeting the best relief arm on the market was a solid fallback option.
Adding a pitcher, even at a position of strength, is different than adding a position player. Had the Yankees acquired Machado, he would have likely replaced the second-best third baseman on the roster, Miguel Andujar. When a team acquires a pitcher, they don’t replace their second-best pitcher, rather, they replace the innings that would have gone to some combination of their worst pitchers.
More Britton means less Chasen Shreve, David Hale, and Giovanny Gallegos. To some extent, it also means less Domingo German, Luis Cessa, and maybe even Sonny Gray. If the best players on the trade market are corner infielders, well, not everyone has replacement level corner infielders starting on their team. Nearly every team, however, has replacement level pitchers to phase out.
Moreover, the addition of Britton clarifies how the Yankees will approach October, should they advance deep into the postseason tournament. In all likelihood, the Yankees will try to bludgeon their way through the playoffs by deploying their cavalcade of dominant relief arms early and often.
Earlier this month, Joshua Diemert advocated for the Yankees to adopt a piggybacking strategy, in which the Yankees could pull their weaker starters earlier in favor of designated longer relievers to cull together six or seven innings. With Britton, the Yankees can be even more aggressive than that.
The Yankees can let their ace, Luis Severino, and their apparent number two, after his dominant performance this week, Masahiro Tanaka, turn opposing lineups over multiple times in the playoffs. Outside of them, the Yankees can limit their other starters to two or even one time through the order, in favor of Britton, Chad Green, Adam Warren, Jonathan Holder, David Robertson, the list goes on.
The Yankees won’t try to advance in the postseason by trotting out a murderer’s row of a rotation, like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton in Houston, or Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello in Boston. Their strategy will likely be to trust their best pitchers to pitch at the most important times, whether that’s their starters, their closers, or someone in between.
A few weeks ago, it was unclear what the Yankees would do to augment their roster. Now that the first domino of their trade season has fallen, things are starting to take shape. The Yankees will adapt to what the market presents to them, and upgrade in the most practical ways possible. In this case, that meant Britton, and Britton in turn suggests an obvious strategy to try to win the World Series. Acquiring Britton was a sensible, clarifying piece of business.