In case you haven’t visited any Yankees news sites or any social media service, there is quite a lot of discussion about whether the Yankees should buy or sell during this trade deadline season. I would even argue, honestly, that this debate has been going on with varying intensity since spring training of 2013, when the Yankees lost Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez to various injuries. There was an honest discussion, at that time, that this was possibly the end of Yankees dominance extending from 1996 to 2012, and that was essentially true. Here we are over three years later, and the team is still stuck in limbo.
A strategy that defined the Yankees from 2013 to the present has been coined "retooling," instead of rebuilding, meaning that the organization would acquire players with an eye towards the future, but they also had to be players that could perform at the big league level at the day of acquisition. This led to the acquisitions of a number of younger and higher-upside players: Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Nathan Eovaldi, and Dustin Ackley. These players would fit into the short-term plans of the team because they were not prospects (and they were cheap), but they also had a place on the club if they continued on an upward trajectory.
Well, that didn’t exactly happen. If you tally the production from these players since they got to the Yankees, you get a paltry 7.8 rWAR since the beginning of last season. Gregorius, the only true success of that group, has been worth 4.8. Put another way, they were exactly average by Wins Above Average on a per-162-game basis, meaning that they weren’t bad, but they weren’t spectacular.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this method. I would say that Gregorius is a great player, and while the likes of Castro and Eovaldi aren’t great by any stretch, they are still big league capable. But going forward, big league capable isn’t nearly enough.
I’ve mentioned before that a large reason that the team has fallen into such a rut is that they have landed a ton of quality players but no stars, so their median talent is about a .500 team. This is obviously a problem, and that can be addressed at the trade deadline, at least in part.
For the first time in years, the Yankees must admit that they can't have it both ways. They can't continue to believe in earnest (when I say "they", I often mean ownership) that they can both contend and rebuild at the same time, at least in the sense that the more they prioritize the present, the more strung out they will appear years down the road. Of course this isn’t a science, and roster construction is fickle with a ton of luck involved. That being said, "retooling" acquisitions shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all in a season that is all but lost. For at least half a season, they need to focus on assets for the future, and forget about the present.
Consider some good cases of this: The 2015 Reds flipped an expiring Mike Leake for both minor leaguer Keury Mella; and, more notably, 2016 All-Star Adam Duvall. Of course their case was a bit different because they were in full rebuild, but they still extracted a solid everyday player from an otherwise worthless expiring contract. He will be useful even when the rebuild is complete.
Another are the 2014 Red Sox, who traded Andrew Miller to the Orioles for pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez. Whether Rodriguez can be relied upon is something else entirely, but he has still produced 1.7 wins (and a wealth of team control) for a useless half-season of a reliever.
The 2015 Tigers traded Yoenis Cespedes and David Price for Luis Cessa, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt. That team is also in an odd transitional phase, but they took advantage of expiring contracts for players they wouldn’t necessarily rely on immediately to win them a World Series. Fulmer, as it turns out, has a 200 ERA+ so far this year.
There are obviously quite a few more of these cases, but these are some of the more recent examples. Some of these teams were in full rebuild, and some of them were not. Some intended to immediately turn that into playoff contention, while others were just trying to squeeze value out of players they didn’t need anymore. I would hope the Yankees do the same.
In past years the Yankees have tried to feign contention down the stretch, particularly from 2013 to 2015. They have been hesitant to trade big league players for prospects, and as I mentioned before, they particularly focus on returns that they can immediately put on the field. I would say to stray away from this, at least until the end of this season.
This team is not great, and it isn’t getting any better soon. There are quite a few players that they can easily part with, like Carlos Beltran and Aroldis Chapman, as we all know. For once, the Yankees should not be looking for immediate returns but high-risk, high-reward prospects that can help them grasp at the star they desperately need on this roster.
I don’t have any illusions: whatever they net at the trade deadline isn’t going to solve all of their problems, and they most likely won’t net a future star. At the very least, though, the Yankees should be able to gracefully concede, while trading expiring contracts for pieces they could use down the road, and not just in 2017. For once, they need to think of the future and the future alone.