Believe it or not, the Yankees might not be aggressively seeking pitching in the next two weeks. We’ll see them connected with any starting pitcher that becomes available, and we’ll continue to find potential fits for the rotation, but the pitching situation isn’t quite as dire as we might have imagined when the season began. Both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon continue to exceed expectations, A.J. Burnett isn’t going anywhere, and Phil Hughes showed signs of life in his last start. Beyond that, the Yankees have depth with Ivan Nova at AAA. Where, then, would a new pitching acquisition fit?
The perceived surplus shouldn’t stop the Yankees from hunting for a rotation upgrade. As we saw last year after the Cliff Lee trade fell through, the rotation’s identity can change dramatically between July and August. But with a lack of available options who represent true upgrades, there just might not be a move to make. Does this mean that the Yankees will stand pat at the deadline? Probably not. There are always upgrades they can make, even when it comes from an area of perceived strength.
Make no mistake: the Yankees offense is top-notch. They’re second in the AL in runs scored, and are .8 runs per game better than league average. But there are areas where they can upgrade. Three of their nine starters are below average with the bat, and for the next few weeks they’ll be without their second best offensive contributor this season. It does raise an interesting question: is upgrading the offense a worthy endeavor?
The Yankees could stand to upgrade at three positions: catcher, DH, and shortstop. Clearly they won’t make a move at short; if they won’t even move Derek Jeter down in the order, there’s no chance they’re replacing him. Not that they’d really have an opportunity to do so. The players who have hit better than him are either not available or not worth a trade. The Yanks are stuck there, but again, it’s not the worst position to be in, considering the realistic alternatives.
At DH they face a similar situation, though they could more easily replace Jorge Posada. He’s already been relegated to duty only against right-handed pitchers, but even with that he’s struggled lately. He had an excellent two-month run, hitting .303/.380/.447 in May and June, quelling the calls for his removal from the lineup. Yet he’s tanked again in May, which again raises the question of what he can produce going forward. There might be political ramifications of further reducing his playing time, but it’s less of an issue due to Jorge’s contract situation.
At catcher the Yanks have a conundrum. The pitching staff reportedly loves Russell Martin behind there, which makes it difficult for him to replace. Yet his performance has declined markedly: .185/.296/.275 since his two-homer game against Baltimore on April 23rd. That’s 233 PA of replacement level production. There’s little chance they’d remove Martin as starter, because of his rapport with the staff. But that doesn’t mean they have to continue starting him four out of every five days.
To the outside observer, there is a clear opportunity here to bring up the team’s top prospect, Jesus Montero. He could not only take over DH duties for Jorge, but he could also jump behind the plate and reduce Martin’s playing time to three out of every four days, rather than four out of five. The Yankees, however, have not displayed a willingness to consider Montero as an option this year. We can disagree all we want, but it appears to be the same situation as with Jeter in the leadoff spot: we can whine and complain, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. The Yankees might upgrade their offense, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be with Montero.
There isn’t any player on the market, or even remotely available, who could help with the catching situation. If the Yankees don’t use Montero, they’re stuck in that regard. That leaves DH as the only realistic spot where they can upgrade. It would be easier, and more cost-effective, for them to just stick with Posada and hope that his current slump ends the same way as his first one did. But that might not be in the cards. It’s hard to say what Jorge will do at this age — he turns 40, remember, next month. If the Yankees can upgrade anywhere, it’s here.
The problem, of course, is that an upgrade isn’t free. Teams don’t just give away players, and while we’ve seen such actions in the past, there don’t seem to be many teams that absolutely need to shed payroll right now. Those that do — and it appears to be just the Astros at this point — don’t have anything to offer the Yankees. That makes it more difficult to find an upgrade. At this point, given the team’s resources, its options on the market, and its needs, I can’t see any better move than bringing up Montero. Failing that, I’m not sure anyone — whether Carlos Beltran, Jason Kubel, or Josh Willingham — will be both worth the cost and represent a significant upgrade.
The Yankees stand to improve their 2011 team, and in the next few weeks I expect to see them connected to many players. On offense, though, the wise move is to wait things out. There are a few areas of weakness, but the market doesn’t bear completely logical fits. The Mets want a top prospect for Carlos Beltran, and none of the other options provide an instant, noticeable upgrade. Considering the what’s out there and what they have, Montero appears to be the only logical upgrade.