After what seemed like a total dream of a season until a few weeks ago, the Yankees are finally back down to Earth come June. Despite a 30-20 start, they now sit at 38-30, good for an 8-10 record this month so far.
There was so much to be optimistic about, and there still is: Aaron Judge is a true superstar, as is Gary Sanchez. Didi Gregorius is on fire, as are Brett Gardner, Starlin Castro, and Matt Holliday. Luis Severino has been a wonder, and Michael Pineda has tended to avoid his usual troubles. The back-end of the bullpen remains good.
But, there are issues. Greg Bird remains injured, and his return is unknown. Gleyber Torres is having Tommy John surgery, and he won’t be ready until next year. Chase Headley, although hitting slightly better, still has a tenuous hold on the third base spot. Masahiro Tanaka, the ace of the staff, has pitched nothing like it.
All of these facts could lead a reasonable observer to come to two completely different conclusions: one is that this team vastly over-performed their preseason projections and we should be happy with that, and the other is that there are things that should have gone right that haven’t, and that the team should be even better than it is now.
Neither of those is completely right or wrong, but my heart has me leaning to the former, and here’s why: this team, on paper, was not good coming into this year.
With Tanaka and a great bullpen, their pitching was going to be slightly-better-than-average on the aggregate. Their offense had more upside than usual, but even on the most generous end, they weren’t going to be much better than average overall. That makes them maybe an 80-85 win team, give or take a few games depending on luck.
Now they’re something like an 88-90 win team, and the only thing that significantly moved the needle was the offense, which vastly improved, even accounting for a positive outlook with their known upside.
After all is said and done, there are only two “holes” on this team: third and first base. Third base has a player, Headley, but his role is nebulous and he could still be gone by year’s end. First base is currently occupied by Chris Carter, who has been atrocious, and he has merely been a stopgap for Bird.
Yankees fans, as they are wont to do, have already started clamoring for the team to do something come the trade deadline. They have a few options. They could go out and get a pitcher, but that’ll cost them and arm and a leg for someone like Yu Darvish (not like the Rangers are selling) or Jose Quintana.
The more likely point of upgrade is at third or first base, where they could either supplant Headley, or acquire someone to fill Bird’s position for the year if his return looks unclear.
On that front, there are options, but not too many that offer significant upgrades at a decent price. At third, there’s Yunel Escobar (not that much better of a hitter than Headley), Mike Moustakas (a buy-high candidate) and Todd Frazier (his value has plummeted and may not be an actual upgrade).
At first, there’s Yonder Alonso (a buy-high candidate), Eric Hosmer (likely a buy-high candidate who is both overrated and overpriced), Lucas Duda (Good and likely expensive), and a few other less-likely-obtainable players.
The problem with all of these is: are any of these players going to be significant upgrades? On the third base side, there isn’t even a certainty they’re all better than Headley, and they come at a cost.
At first base, there are actually a few that give the team a significant boost, but with Bird returning, that probably doesn’t make sense given the price.
You may hear that Bird is the new Nick Johnson or something, but ignore that. He literally just started his career. You’ll also hear that the Yankees need to go all-in because they need to make the playoffs, and ignore that too. Nothing is as extreme as some would say.
The reality is that this is a team playing with house money and likely a year further into their rebuild than they initially expected. In that they should act accordingly, and I think Brian Cashman will heed that advice. The question is really whether Hal Steinbrenner forces the issue and says that they are officially done with rebuilding and want to gun for the playoffs.
That, in my opinion, would be a mistake. This is a good team, and they will compete for the postseason. They have prospects coming through the pipes and they will need to utilize them to keep them sustainable moving forward, and they already have a healthy core to work around, despite Bird and Torres’ situation.
The Yankees should not panic. They’re way beyond expectations already, and there’s no sense pushing their luck and sending away assets in a season they never expected to compete in the first place. And considering the crap-shoot that is the postseason, they could find themselves deep into a run sans any acquisition at all.