The Yankees are heading into the All Star break atop the American League East, looking like strong contenders for a postseason spot. As such, they make sense as a candidate to be a 'buyer' at the deadline, looking for an extra piece or two that could help put the the team over the top.
Certainly, there are several players on the market who, if acquired, would significantly improve the team's outlook in the second half - hey Johnny Cueto - but in some cases the Yankees might be able to generate improved production internally. This can come from promoting a prospect like Robert Refsnyder to take playing time away from scuffling players Stephen Drew (-0.3 WAR) and Jose Pirela (-0.7 WAR). If Refsnyder can hold down the starting spot at second base and even just be a replacement level player the rest of the way, that's about a win added right there; strong value for any mid-season acquisition.
It is also possible that the Yankees can be better in the second half of the season without actually adding any players at all. There is a lot of talent already on the roster, as jumps out when we consider sources like Fangraphs rest-of-season WAR projections. The Yankees place third, behind just the Dodgers and Nationals, and ahead of the Cardinals. The strong first half has been built primarily on the backs of Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Dellin Betances and Michael Pineda, but going forward the team can look for stronger production from several other key players already on the roster.
All starts with the Yankee ace. Limited by injury to just 11 starts in the first half, and even those have come with a surprising level of inconsistency. At times appearing at his dominant best, Tanaka has had some less sharp starts as well. Four of his eleven starts have come with negative Win Probability Added, where the results of Tanaka's pitching effectively reduced the probably of a Yankee win. Three of those four starts came consecutively, before his steadying 7.2 inning, 1-earned run performance against Oakland in final start before the All Star break. The Yankees will look for their ace to remain healthy in the second half, and to string several positive starts in a row as he did earlier in the season.
Last year's big mid-season acquisition, Headley was brought back on what looked a bargain deal at 4 years and $52 million. So far this year though, he has struggled on both sides of the ball. After posting a strong 121 wRC+ in his first half season as a Yankee, Headley has seen a drop-off in walks and power drag him down to 85 wRC+ in 2015. The offensive slump has been magnified by his defensive struggles at third base. Where last year he looked one of the better glove-men at the hot corner, this year he's been having a tough time fielding his position. The 16 errors and 0.928 fielding percentage jump out to start, and the advanced stats back it up - his UZR is down from 28.0 in 2014 to -4.9 this year; Inside Edge fielding shows fewer balls fielded in all buckets, from the unlikely to the routine.
The track record is here though, both offensively and defensively, so the Yankees will look for Headley to rebound in the second half to be the player they thought they were signing, a player that Fangraphs projections expects to be the second-best position player on the team the rest of the year.
Jacoby Ellsbury & Andrew Miller
Neither of these two can be faulted for what they have provided when on the field. They've both missed a chunk of time through injury in the first half though, which has dragged down their total WAR numbers, and in all likelihood cost the Yankees a win or two in the standings somewhere along the road as well. The Yankees have done well to stay in first place even after their best position player and closer both got hurt in the first half. Getting both players back close to the All Star break has had a clear impact not only on their respective positions, but also a clear trickle down benefit to the lineup, in the outfield, and to the bullpen depth. Gardner slides back to left field, and solidifies the two-hole, while Betances can go back to shutting teams down in the eighth inning. If Ellsbury and Miller remain healthy the rest of the way, the Yankees will be much better for it.
Didi Gregorius & Nathan Eovaldi
This is where we move away from players with established track records and head towards the territory of hope. Looking purely on the Fangraphs depth chart projections, neither of these two players is expected to improve on their first half going forward, which makes sense. Perhaps there is reason for optimism though. Particularly with Gregorius, who has improved from month-to-month both offensively and defensively. After breaking 80 wRC+ through June, he's kept up 115 wRC+ through first half of July. It might be overly optimistic to look for his July performance the rest of the way, but we have seen how a change in approach to hitting more groundballs and using the whole field might work for him going forward. If he can hit to near-league average the rest of the way, and continue to excel at shortstop, Gregorius could be a valued part of the Yankees' postseason push.
Eovaldi may have been tipped as a dark-horse for a breakout campaign coming into 2015, but so far that hasn't played out. We have seen a change in approach, perhaps suggested by Larry Rothschild, less reliance on his fastball particularly. Nearly two-thirds of pitches he threw in 2014 were fastball, this is down to just under half this year, as Eovaldi has mixed in more breaking pitches and changeups. It might seem like a logical plan, but oddly has had minimal impact on the swing and contact statistics from the batters he has faced, which therefore hasn't helped improve his strikeout rate at all. The peripherals are not there, just yet, which does limit room for optimism, but one thing worth noting is his inflated BABIP of 0.353. If that comes down to manageable levels, while hopefully he can continue keeping other key stats like his home run rate down, which he has done well so far, his numbers will be better for it. More than anything else, though, the hope for significant improvement here will have to come from the All Star break giving Rothschild and Eovaldi more time to continue tweaking his pitching arsenal. The hope with the still young Eovaldi is that in the coming years the team can better harness that talented arm. Perhaps as soon as this year.
The Yankees are already a good team this season, so they may not need much more to keep contending. Should any of the early season success stories, like Rodriguez or Teixeira, fall off though, then the team will look for some of the players here to elevate their contributions in the second half of the season to keep the team atop the AL East.