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What should the Yankees’ priorities be at the trade deadline?

Although the Yankees are in the thick of things, they face an uphill battle this season.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The summer solstice has come and gone, schools are dismissed for the summer, and Fourth of July barbecues have just appeared on the road ahead of us. That can only mean one thing: Major League Baseball’s annual trade season is upon us!

As always, over the next few weeks here at Pinstripe Alley, we will provide all the trade deadline coverage that you need, breaking down what the most likely sellers have to offer, how the various players available on the market might fit the Yankees, and of course, how the moves that the team makes — or doesn’t make — affects the team both this year and beyond.

Of course, before we can dive into any of this, we have to take a good hard look at the Yankees roster and figure out what the team actually needs and how they ought to approach the deadline.

First things, first: I don’t even have to read the comments section to know that some of you will be advocating that the team ought to sell at the deadline. Barring a collapse akin to last August’s 3-14 stretch between now and the All-Star Break, however, that’s just not going to happen. The Yankees are currently 43-35 (an 89-win pace), just took two of three against the team with the second-best record in the AL, anticipate adding Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes back to a pitching staff whose 113 ERA+ is already tied for fourth in the AL, and are right in the midst of the AL Wild Card race. I have a better chance of hitting a Gerrit Cole fastball than the Yankees do of becoming sellers.

Despite this, however, the Yankees still have plenty of room for improvement. When we break down their fWAR and wRC+ by position (substituting K-BB% for pitchers), we see a team with quite a bit of holes.

From this data, the Yankees are in the top-third of the league at first base, center field, and right field. While it must be noted that the team’s stats in both center and right are inflated compared to the current active roster by Aaron Judge’s 18 games in center and 25 in right, these three positions represent areas that the team will likely not look to add: even with his recent cold stretch, Anthony Rizzo has been among the league’s better first basemen, Harrison Bader’s defensive prowess in center gives him a strong floor out there (so long as he can stay healthy, that is), while the team is likely to use some combination of Giancarlo Stanton, Billy McKinney, and Jake Bauers to hold down the fort in right field until Judge’s hopeful return.

On top of that, it’s also unlikely that the team will seek major additions behind the plate, at shortstop, and in the DH slot. Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka may not be powerhouses at the plate, but they have handled the pitching staff well enough to not be a major area of concern. Even if the team decides that Anthony Volpe needs a stint in Scranton, an unlikely scenario, it seems more likely that they would simply promote Oswald Peraza rather than looking at external options. And lastly, although the DH spot has been a major black hole for the team, with the way the team prefers to rotate guys at the position (the Yankees have used eight different designated hitters this season and 10 last year), the main path towards increased production there is simply the rest of the offense starting to click.

That leaves four spots the team realistically could add: the pitching staff, second base, third base, and left field. You can make the case that any of these spots should be the No. 1 priority. While the team’s pitching staff has been, even with extended absences from Rodón, Severino, Cortes, Frankie Montas, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Loáisiga, Ian Hamilton, and Lou Trivino, the main reason the team has the record it does, the old adage “You can never have too much pitching” has been repeated yearly for a reason. Although Gleyber Torres has been one of the team’s most productive hitters (his 106 wRC+ ranks fourth on the team among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances), his lackluster defense at the keystone has stripped away a major portion of his value. Neither Josh Donaldson nor DJ LeMahieu has looked like a major league hitter in several weeks. The last time the Yankees had something resembling consistent production from left field was when Brett Gardner had a 109 OPS+ during the 2020 season.

Of course, on the flip side, there’s arguments to be made to deprioritize each of these positions at the expense of others. While in a vacuum it’s never bad to add to the pitching staff, the opportunity cost of spending prospects to add pitching when the offense has been the problem may be too great. Oswald Peraza might be a sufficient replacement for Torres at second. Josh Donaldson’s Statcast data suggests he’s underperforming and is due for regression to the mean (his .051 BABIP is unsustainably low, after all). Once Judge returns, the Stanton/McKinney/Bauers trio can fill left field. I’m not saying I agree with these arguments, but the case can be made.

In my mind, however, the position that the team looks to add at matters less than the type of addition they make. Heading into action on Sunday, the American League standings looked like this:

There are eight teams within four games of a Wild Card spot. Only three will make the postseason. While the Yankees currently hold one of those spots and are in prime position to make a run even with Aaron Judge on the shelf indefinitely, this is not the year to go all-in. Rather than focusing on players who will be free agents at the end of the year, Brian Cashman should prioritize on adding players who will be under contract for at least another year. This is how the team approached the 2021 trade deadline: while Anthony Rizzo, who was a free agent that winter, ended up as the better acquisition in the long run, it was Joey Gallo, who was under contract for the 2022 season, that was the big prize at the time.

Because you should never punt a season in the middle of a window, look to improve in the second half, but do so with an eye towards 2024 — that is how Brian Cashman ought to approach this year’s trade deadline.