What a difference two years can make. Today marks the second anniversary of the Yankees’ three-team deal with the Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks that brought infielder Brandon Drury to New York. While Drury’s stint with the Yankees lasted only 18 Major League games, it set into motion a series of consequential roster moves and foreshadowed developments that have shaped the 2020 team.
Just five months after the Yankees acquired him, Drury was shipped to Toronto with Billy McKinney in exchange for J.A. Happ, who went on to re-up with the Bombers, signing a two-year deal with an option for a third. The lefty’s performance in pinstripes has been uneven, but certainly not uneventful. Happ delivered down the stretch after arriving in 2018, posting a solid 1.0 fWAR over his final 11 regular season starts, nine of which the Yankees won. By comparison, rotation stalwart Masahiro Tanaka accumulated 2.4 fWAR in 27 starts that year. While Happ’s 2018 playoffs and the subsequent season disappointed, he again finds himself in a high-impact spot: stepping into a breach in the rotation caused by James Paxton’s back surgery this offseason. Even at age 37, Happ is still a valuable cog in the Yankees’ pitching staff, one that might not be present were it not for the original acquisition of Drury.
Drury also set the roster dominoes falling at third base. He actually started at the hot corner on Opening Day in 2018, but it wasn’t meant to be. Chronic migraines that induced dizziness and blurred vision knocked him out of the lineup and opened the door for Miguel Andujar, who burst through it in style, slashing .297/.328/.527 with a 130 wRC+. It’s possible Andujar, who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Shohei Ohtani that year, would have slugged his way into the starting role even if Drury had stayed healthy, but his early exit might have accelerated the process, and it certainly portended changes to come.
In an eerie echo of the previous year, Andujar began the 2019 campaign as the Opening Day starter, only to lose his season to a torn labrum after three games in April, followed by an ill-fated comeback attempt in May. Just as Andujar had done the year before, Urshela stepped in and made the job his own, to the tune of an awesome .314/.355/.534 line with a 132 wRC+. In a turn of events that would have seemed improbable two years ago, when Drury and Andujar were competing for time, Aaron Boone recently declared the third base job Gio Urshela’s to lose in 2020.
The move for Drury also revealed the Yankees’ preference for a flexible infield starter capable of playing across the diamond. Along with some time as a corner outfielder, Drury had experience at first, second, and third base, offering the team a pu pu platter of defensive skills that would enable them to diversify their lineup decisions. If this plan for a starter-quality utility man sounds familiar, it’s because the Yankees acted on it the very next season by inking DJ LeMahieu to a two-year contract. LeMahieu, who was told to “bring a lot of gloves” to camp in 2019, filled his new multi-positional role with aplomb. He wound up starting 66 games at second base, 47 games at third, and 28 at first. Drury didn’t boast LeMahieu’s offensive profile when the Yankees signed him, but his promise of versatility was a clear forerunner to the shapeshifting of the team’s present-day leadoff man.
It’s a shame Drury’s time with the Yankees was derailed by health concerns. But the stubborn, mysterious nature of his ailments also helps highlight the ongoing challenge of keeping players healthy. Lingering and difficult-to-pinpoint conditions are a part of life as a professional ballplayer, as Paxton’s surgery and Aaron Judge’s shoulder “crankiness” this February illustrate. While Drury isn’t the only Yankee ever to be sidelined by health issues, his migraine woes were a fitting prelude to last season’s injury debacle. In 2020, the Yankees’ overhauled Player Health and Performance department will try to keep players fit using the industry’s most sophisticated methods.
So two years later, what should be the takeaway from Brandon Drury’s abbreviated episode in pinstripes? Apart from the Gerrit Cole signing and the inevitable questions about the Astros’ cheating scandal, it’s been a quiet run-up to 2020 for the Yankees. Under-the-radar minor league deals for feel-good story Chad Bettis, fellow comeback candidate Tony Zych, and a couple of catchers won’t generate huge headlines. But if the ripple effects of the Drury move prove anything, it’s that no two transactions are entirely unrelated; there’s no such thing as an insignificant move. Even the briefest of Yankees careers can have unanticipated knock-on effects, which means the next major Yankees move might be one that’s already happened.