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What if this is as good as the Yankees get?

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A quiet trade deadline lends some concern to the club’s future

New York Yankees v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Another trade deadline has passed, and the Yankees stood pat. After making deals for Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn in previous seasons, a reliever pickup or two, and even snagging Terrance Gore in 2019, the Yankees decided that no move was the best move. Like last year, I’m not sure they’ve done all they can to make this team as good as it can be.

There is nothing in baseball I like more than to see a team go for it. Last year, the Astros shook the game by landing Zack Greinke, who pitched so well for them down the stretch, into Game Seven of the World Series, and has been one of the best pitchers in the game in 2020 as well. That’s the kind of trade I like the best, pushing your chips in for this season, while also having that talent stick around for another run the next year.

San Diego did that this year, landing Mike Clevinger and the two additional years of club control he comes with. Lance Lynn, arguably the second-best pitcher in the game since the start of 2019, came with another year of control and stayed in Texas. Rumors swirled that the Yankees knocked on the Rangers’ door, but that the club may or may not have asked for talented righty Deivi García in exchange.

I would have done that deal.

Maybe that’s why I don’t run a pro ball club, or have a real job in baseball, and that’s fine. I understand the calculus of team control, that what clubs value above all else is how many years of service they can accumulate. By paying too much attention to the future, though, you run the risk of losing in the present, and winning in the present is what matters.

The 2016 Cubs were supposed to be a dynasty, pairing a young core with established veterans and a front office willing to spend. They won, once. They’re good again in 2020, but not running over the league like they were supposed to for a half-decade or more.

The Astros, in 2017, were shaping up to be the team of the future. Advanced analytics, prospects blossoming, and the dash to acquire arms like Justin Verlander at the deadline. They’ve been more successful than the Cubs, to be sure, but just three years removed from a championship, and less than a year from a pennant, they’ve lost their best pitcher to free agency, their second best is out indefinitely, and the farm system has lost luster. The window is closer to closure for the Astros.

When the Yankees lost in 2017, they were beat by the best team in baseball, and we all said, “Hey, look at this core! They’re set up for next year!”. Then they lost in 2018, to the best team in baseball. We said, “Next year, we’ll have full and healthy seasons from Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, plus the core is sticking around! They’re set up for next year!”. Then they lost in 2019, and all of a sudden this iteration of the New York Yankees looks less like the 2016 Cubs or 2017 Astros, and more like the 2010s Dodgers. Plenty of talent, plenty of wins, but every year coming up just a bit short, not wasting the primes of their core, but not getting there, not finishing the job.

We don’t know what 2020 will look like, but in 2021, Judge and Stanton and Gary Sanchez and Gerrit Cole and DJ LeMahieu will be a little older, a little slower. What if we’ve already seen the best of this core, and not even known it, because we were so worried about the Big Picture? What if García flames out, like almost every pitching prospect, and he would have been enough to land Lynn and given the Yankees a playoff rotation on par with the Rays?

Obviously if the Yankees win in 2020, this post becomes moot. But as I say, over and over, year after year, your window is never as open as you think it is. You might pick up some surprises - LeMahieu, Gio Ursehla have dazzled us - but you’ll have just as many unpleasant surprises, like Judge and Stanton being unable to stay on the field. For all the talk about the Yankees’ window, they’re the second-oldest team in baseball.

How do you reconcile the possibility that this core never wins the World Series, or even a pennant? I don’t have the answer for that, and certainly there isn’t a trade that would “guarantee” a championship. But this club has a problem pushing all their chips in - even this winter, after signing Cole, the Yankees pretty publicly announced they were done, despite all of us knowing pitching depth would be a problem.

It’s fine to say, “They’re set up for years to come!”. But we’ve said that, over and over, and the team hasn’t won. I don’t want to watch Aaron Judge get his number retired knowing he was maybe the best Yankee to not win a World Series, even if the cost of that win might be a few extra years of a hard-throwing right-hander.