It’s been said that there are three parts to a baseball season. In the first, you figure out what your team needs. In the second, you work to get your team what it needs. And in the third, you fight like hell for the postseason.
The Yankees found out what they needed early. Jordan Montgomery went down for the year, Sonny Gray imploded, and Domingo German proved unable to replace either. Moreover, with Masahiro Tanaka struggling with hamstring injuries, it was unclear whether Luis Severino would have a strong running mate in the rotation. After a few months, it was obvious: the Yankees could use a rent-an-ace.
There is no stronger move a pitching-needy team can make in the thick of a pennant race as adding a premier starter. The primary benefit of adding a pitcher is that he doesn’t replace his new team’s second-best pitcher, rather, he replaces the innings that would have gone to team’s worst pitchers. Taking innings away from German and Gray and Luis Cessa, among others, and giving them to an ace would improve the team in a way no other move can.
Moreover, adding starting pitching has added benefits for October-bound teams. While a team needs several starters and dozens of relievers to navigate the regular season, once the postseason rolls around, it can hand almost all important innings to their three or four best starters and a handful of their best relievers. Ace pitchers pitch more in October than they do in the regular season, while sluggers play the same amount.
In most any other year, renting an ace would have been a layup for the Yankees. They are the perfect team for the situation: one that obviously intends to play in the postseason, one that has a clear hole in the rotation, and one that wants to keep its options open going forward. Adding a pitcher with team control like Michael Fulmer or Chris Archer brings questions about whether that pitcher can live up to their potential in future years. There are no such questions with a rent-an-ace.
Yet this deadline was unique. It was the first time in years in which the market featured no ace rental for the best team that needed a starter to poach. There was no gun for hire, just a mixture of J.A. Happ, Cole Hamels, Tyson Ross, and the Mets’ refusal to make their team controlled aces available.
At last year’s deadline, the Dodgers rented Yu Darvish, who was coming off a year in which he posted a 134 ERA+ and an 11.7 K/9. The season before, the Dodgers brought in Rich Hill three months before he hit free agency, when he had posted a 2.04 ERA with a 10.8 K/9 over the previous two seasons.
In 2015, the Blue Jays traded for David Price, who had a 158 ERA+ at the time, and then rode him right past the Yankees to the AL East title. In 2014, the Athletics went for it, renting Jon Lester, who also had a 158 ERA+ at the time. You have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a team when an ace rental wasn’t available. The best pitcher traded at that deadline was Jake Peavy, who was more of a number two than a number one at that point of his career.
Even before that, history is littered with names of hired guns who pushed their new teams over the top. The Rangers rented Cliff Lee right out from under the Yankees in 2010, and beat them in ALCS, in no small part thanks to Lee. CC Sabathia’s run with the 2008 Brewers, months before signing with New York, was the stuff of legends.
This year stands out, with no such option available. The Yankees, of course, worked within that framework, making lesser moves for Happ and Zach Britton to improve the team on the margins without sacrificing much of value. Yet those moves pale in comparison to what could have been, if this was a more typical year with a more typically appealing rental option on the starting pitching market.
The price for ace rentals in recent years is one the Yankees easily could have met. Darvish required Willie Calhoun, a good hitting prospect without a defensive position. Price cost Daniel Norris, a good-but-not-great pitching prospect at the time. Rentals have essentially cost one quality prospect, but not a deep package. That cost would have allowed the Yankees to address their primary need, while still giving them the flexibility to add in other ways.
Instead, the Yankees were hamstrung by this odd market, unable to make a move that could have truly moved the needle in the race to catch the ever-distant Red Sox. They did what they could with what they had, but it certainly doesn’t look now like it will have been enough to win the division. Most other years, Brian Cashman would have played the obvious rent-an-ace card. This year, it just wasn’t available for him.