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The ripple effects of the Luis Cessa trade on the 2021 Yankees

In a time of need for the bullpen, it’s hard not to think about how Luis Cessa could’ve helped the perhaps-too-budget-conscious Yankees.

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One is always inclined to look for possible explanations to more or less rationalize something that initially doesn’t make sense, not only for you but also for the vast majority. The harder you look for an excuse, a caveat, or something that resembles a reasonable line of thought is often dictated by your own level of confidence in the people ultimately responsible for said decision.

Back in the heat of trade deadline season, the New York Yankees were clearly moving in the direction of trying to win-now, but surprised a lot of people as they struck a deal with the Cincinnati Reds, who were also looking to bolster what then seemed like their slim playoff chances. GM Brian Cashman agreed to send reliever Luis Cessa — who had been excellent out of the bullpen over the last two years — and the struggling veteran Justin Wilson for a player to be named later (eventually minor leaguer Jason Parker).

The initial response to this trade essentially boiled down this thought: Why would a team that appeared prepared to buy and make a run in the second half be willing to flip a young, cost-controllable player in the middle of a fine season? Thus far in 2021, Cessa had pitched to the tune of a 154 ERA+ over 38.1 innings and been one of the steadier arms in Aaron Boone’s bullpen.

It couldn’t be strictly to get rid of Wilson’s ridiculously complicated contract since he followed up a couple of really solid seasons with the Mets with his worst one yet in the Bronx, could it?

Sometimes, things are exactly what they seem to be and there’s nothing like time to prove that.

Undoubtedly coming directly from ownership, the Yankees have treated the luxury tax threshold quite basically as a hard salary cap and this was the ultimate demonstration of that plan. By trading Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson on top of their salaries that came off the payroll, the team also stood in line to save around $1.4 million from their luxury tax threshold.

It’s hard to make a compelling argument for the flexibility side of that deal because at this point for the quantities being discussed, your goal at the end is — or at least would be — to find possibly a cost-controllable reliever, the exact “thing” you just gave it away.

It’s not like the team is going to come out and say that a move like this one was made strictly or at the very least primarily due to financial motives, which leaves us to speculate on the reasons behind it, but the picture is more or less plain for everyone to see it.

Here we are, a month and a half later, and despite the fact that as a whole, the ballclub bounced back from a rough first half to insert itself in the fierce battle for a Wild Card spot in a division with four legitimate playoff contenders, you can’t really ignore what’s right in front of you. Between the rollercoaster also known as Aroldis Chapman, the obvious exhaustion of Chad Green, and the injury to the team’s best reliever, Jonathan Loáisiga, Cessa’s absence is surely felt.

You never know what would’ve happened had they stayed, but you can’t ignore the facts that are right in front of you. Not only did Cessa kick it up a notch, allowing a mere three earned runs in 19 innings (1.42 ERA), but even Justin Wilson experienced a return to form, albeit with a smaller sample size of 11.2 innings while allowing five earned runs (3.86 ERA).

No disrespect to the veteran Wilson, but the source of regret for this trade is all centered around Luis Cessa, a multi-inning specialist making a little over $1 million and controllable all the way until the end of 2023. Sometimes, the criticism of a team’s unwillingness to spend may become a little generic, so it’s nice to put a face to the impact of that decision in order to better appreciate it.