They say banners fly forever, but do you know what doesn’t last forever? Prime championship windows. The Yankees and Padres possess young, talented cores, but both also had gaps that needed to be filled. While the Yankees idly sit by, waiting for players to seemingly fall into their lap, the Padres just orchestrated the wildest 24 hours of the offseason.
It began late Sunday night, when Jeff Passan announced that the Rays were trading Blake Snell to the Padres in exchange for a four-player package headlined by Luis Patiño. The next afternoon, they inked KBO star infielder Ha-Seong Kim to a four-year, $26 million deal, despite there being no obvious hole on the roster for him to plug. The icing on the cake came Monday night, when Jon Heyman confirmed that the Padres had acquired Yu Darvish and personal catcher Victor Caratini from the Cubs in exchange for Zach Davies and a complement of four prospects.
This whirlwind of activity looks like it could ignite the winter hot stove, and it remains to be seen if a flurry of moves will follow. Regardless of whether or not more dominoes fall in short order, the Padres have already won the offseason with this trio of acquisitions, and are making a statement of intent to the rest of the league. The message: “Our time to win a championship is now.”
For Yankees fans, this series of moves stings a little extra. They had clear needs in the rotation for starters of Snell’s and Darvish’s quality, as well as the prospect capital to have theoretically competed in their respective trade markets (the division rival Rays may have demanded more from the Yankees for Snell, but the point stands). Additionally, Kim was rumored to have been one of the Blue Jays’ top targets, so with him off the board, it could potentially lead the Toronto outfit to double down on their pursuit of DJ LeMahieu. There’s also the small fact that the Padres essentially just out-Yankee’d the Yankees when it comes to offseason wheeling and dealing.
Granted, it’s not always the best strategy to snap up all the top players on the market with wanton disregard for cost, but that is hardly what the Padres just accomplished. Their rotation looked compromised by injury for the upcoming season, so they went out and snagged two of the three or four best arms available on the market, free agent or trade. They also saw how much value can be found in a super-utility guy (think LeMahieu when the Yankees signed him, or Kiké Hernandez), so they grabbed the best candidate for that role — a five-tool player who is only 25 — at what is most likely a below-market price
This gambit stands in stark contrast to the Yankees’ apparent plans for the offseason, and their M.O. when adding to the team over the past few years. They have taken a start-and-stop approach to fixing deficiencies in their roster. At times they seem content to make one big move and call it a day, addressing one area of need while leaving several other glaring voids.
Make no doubt about it: signing Gerrit Cole was a past offseason triumph, and prioritizing re-signing LeMahieu is common sense. However, that cannot be the end of their business — not when there are other parts of the roster that need reinforcement. That is precisely why the Yankees need to take a page out of A.J. Preller’s 2020-21 offseason handbook.
That means adequately addressing injuries as they appear. It means trading prospects when the return can help you win both now and in the future. Don’t settle on running it back. Always look for ways to improve the roster. And for goodness sake spend some gosh-darn money!
Stop flirting with dropping below the luxury tax threshold. The Yankees are the most profitable team in baseball, so why not flex that financial muscle? Their ability to carry the largest payroll in MLB is the organization’s greatest strength, so a failure to do so actively hamstrings the team relative to the competition.
As I said earlier, championship windows do not remain open indefinitely. Getting one open in the first place hinges greatly on deriving a significant chunk of value out of young, cost-controlled players. The Padres and Yankees are similar in this regard, but only the Friars are taking steps to build upon that foundation. It is not enough to have a handful of young stars; they need to be supplemented with veteran contributors and sufficient depth. Those young stars will not be cheap forever, so it behooves a team to capitalize on the impact players on their roster and maximize their worth when they are in their prime, low-earning years.
If that means emptying the farm system when you’ve identified the period you feel you have the best chance to win, so be it. Having a stocked farm is all well and good for being competitive five years down the road. That being said, assembling a championship-caliber squad that can put themselves in the World Series picture not just this year but for the next few years outweighs being a mere playoff team for a longer period.
The most amazing part of the Padres’ moves is that they did not even have to go to these extremes. They traded for Mike Clevinger, Snell, and Darvish in a five-month period while still protecting three of their top four prospects. So not only did they greatly improve their team for the next three years, they did so without mortgaging the future.
Snellzilla is bringing some nasty stuff to San Diego. pic.twitter.com/WChk5RTv6D— San Diego Padres (@Padres) December 29, 2020
Meanwhile, Brian Cashman could be accused of prospect hugging over the last few years. He balked at the opportunity to trade for the likes of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Lance Lynn, and Zack Greinke when each could very well have propelled the Yankees into the World Series. It is highly unlikely that the Yankees will make any serious attempt for arms like Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, or Germán Márquez. Throw on top the failure to add a Max Scherzer or Patrick Corbin in free agency, and it is evident that the Yankees are unwilling to fully commit to winning a championship in a given year.
Now on to the real sticking point: injuries. It is no secret that the Yankees have fallen prey to the injury bug in a record fashion over the last two-plus years. But what is even more maddening than the injuries themselves is the team’s plan of action — or more accurately, lack thereof — in addressing the holes in the roster.
When Luis Severino and James Paxton were injured, and when they were without Tommy Kahnle or Dellin Betances for all but an inning of the regular season, the Yankees’ plan amounted to “Well, we’re just gonna wait this one out.” They were inactive at the trade deadline because “getting back their injured players would amount to making a blockbuster trade.” Except we’re still waiting for that strategy to pan out.
The Padres on the other hand did not hesitate to shore up their injury-depleted rotation. Snell slots right in while Clevinger rehabs from Tommy John surgery. Darvish was a Cy Young Award runner-up in 2020 and at worst, locks down the middle of the rotation. Both Snell and Darvish also serve as excellent insurance policies should Dinelson Lamet’s recovery take longer than anticipated. When they are all healthy, that is a starting five capable of shutting down any lineup.
As a final note, sometimes you just have to smile and appreciate shrewd business when you see it. Both Snell and Darvish are just as good as Bauer, but are signed to deals way below the current market value for ace pitching. Snell carries a measly $13 million AAV while Darvish is signed for close to $10 million less annually than what Bauer could make. And here is the final twist of the knife for us Yankees fans: the Bombers could have traded for both and STILL come in below the $210 million CBT threshold.
The Padres sent shockwaves around the league, declaring beyond a shred of doubt that they are ready to compete for their first World Series title. This had better be a wake-up call for the Yankees. Teams are not going to simply roll over and accept the Vegas World Series odds. If the Yankees are not careful, they could be left in the rearview mirror as a new wave of contenders surges forward.
As my colleague Joshua Diemert so astutely put it: “Must be nice to improve the team in the winter.” Alas, if only we knew what that felt like.