It’s no secret that the Yankees have suffered more than their fair share of injuries in the early going. At the time of writing this article, the team is without its starting left fielder, its starting center fielder, its backup center fielder, its starting third baseman, its starting shortstop, its backup shortstop, its setup man, its ace, its fifth starter, its sixth starter, its top prospect, and a decent reliever to boot. Measured in awards, that’s 22 All-Star appearances, five Silver Sluggers, three Gold Gloves, an MVP, and a Cy Young on the shelf. For comparison, the entire roster of the Tampa Bay Rays — who currently hold the division lead — has a total of two All-Star appearances between them.
More than any other organization in baseball, of course, the Yankees have the depth to weather the absence of a few key players. They paid DJ LeMahieu $24 million to be a utility infielder. But this is more than a few players; it’s half the team. And in a year that was long promised to be the year that the Bombers finally win it all, their title hopes would suffer a devastating blow if stars like Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, and Miguel Andujar aren’t on the field, performing at 100%.
Championship windows close faster and faster these days, meaning that the Yankees simply can’t afford to squander the last year of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez making essentially the league minimum salary. With that in mind, here are some trade candidates that the team should explore well before the deadline — when it may be too late.
Big Splash: Robbie Ray
2019 salary: $6 million
Last year before free agency: 2020
A long-time target of the Yankees, Ray has ace-level stuff and would provide terrific insurance in case Severino can’t shake his injury. Despite a merely solid 4.05 career ERA, Ray’s Cy Young-caliber 2017 is a testament to his extraordinary ceiling, rendering him a strong buy-low option. Unlike the other players on this list, Ray makes sense even if the team is fully healthy. A rotation of Severino, Ray, Paxton, Tanaka, and Happ would be the best in baseball, at least on paper. Moreover, his extra year of team control would allow the Yankees to field the same dynamite rotation in 2020.
Medium Splash: Nick Castellanos
2019 salary: $10 million
Last year before free agency: This season.
It seemed a foregone conclusion that Castellanos would be dealt in the offseason after posting a career-best 130 OPS+ in 2018 — the 25th best mark in baseball among qualified hitters. Meanwhile, the Tigers, who miraculously find themselves atop the AL Central after drubbing the Yankees’ B-Team, are still almost certain to fall out of contention. Yet the Detroit front office found no takers willing to match their lofty asking price of multiple top prospects, despite the fact that Castellanos’ -2.4 defensive WAR was worst in the Majors last season, rivaled only by Miguel Andujar at -2.2.
Should Andujar indeed undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, the Yankees could replace him with his doppelgänger: Andujar hit .297 last season with 47 doubles, while Castellanos hit .298 with 46 doubles. In fact, both players had exactly the same sprint speed in 2018 of 27.8 mph — about the 64th percentile — and both stole two bases in three tries. Castellanos can also play the outfield to give the team more versatility, though he’s just as mediocre there on defense, or he could DH while DJ LeMahieu plays third. Either way, Castellanos is a leader and a veteran presence. At just 27 years old, he’s played 157 games in each of the past two years, which is exactly the durability the Yankees need right now. His impending free agency should, in theory, lower the Tigers’ demands at some point.
Stopgap Solution: Freddy Galvis
Team: Blue Jays
2019 salary: $4 million
Last year before free agency: This season, with a $5.5 million club option for 2020.
The antithesis of Castellanos in terms of his on-field value, Galvis is a defensive wizard at shortstop — ESPN ranked him the 18th best defender in the sport — and a non-factor with the bat. Still, Galvis has steadily improved at the plate almost every year. And albeit with a very limited sample size, he boasts a Ruthian 1.061 OPS through 10 games in 2019, while his switch-hitting would complement the Yankees’ righty-heavy lineup. More importantly, his lockdown defense alongside DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, and possibly Didi Gregorius would turn an infield that struggled with routine plays last year into one of the game’s best on that side of the ball.
Playing style aside, Galvis and Castellanos actually have a lot in common when it comes to durability, WAR, and team control. Galvis is quite simply Mr. Reliable — he’s the only MLB player who’s appeared in all 324 games over the last two seasons. And in a Blue Jays infield that’s already crowded before the arrival of elite prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, Galvis figures to be far cheaper than Castellanos to acquire despite producing a comparable WAR.
Major trades well before the July 31 deadline are uncommon, in part because many teams aren’t sure whether they’ll be buyers or sellers by May. Yet FanGraphs gives the Blue Jays and Tigers around a 1% chance apiece to make the playoffs, making it a pretty safe bet that both are open to moving soon-to-be free agents. The Diamondbacks’ playoff odds, meanwhile, sit at a little under 7%. After losing so many key contributors in the offseason, though, it’s hard to imagine them keeping pace with the Dodgers for long. Regardless of who’s available, the Yankees must act quickly to patch the holes in their roster, to avoid another Wild Card appearance, and — most importantly — to stop losing to the Orioles.