To some it came as a shock. To others it made complete sense. But regardless of the reaction, the Yankees made a bold statement yesterday by completing no deals ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline. They will fight down the stretch and into the playoffs with the men currently on the roster. That seemed inconceivable at the beginning of the season, but after watching the first four months unfold and looking at the options on the market, Brian Cashman sounded pretty adamant about standing pat. Let’s take a moment to consider what it all means.
The Yankees’ Position
Despite the cries of an inconsistent offense, and despite the fear that the rotation won’t hold up, the Yankees are in a favorable position at the two-thirds mark. They’re just two games behind Boston for the AL East Lead, with Tampa Bay sitting 8.5 games back. They also lead Anaheim by 6.5 games in the Wild Card standings. The guys already on the roster have put them ahead of the pack. Furthermore, neither the Angels nor the Rays made any significant moves, so they remain on even ground. Boston added Mike Aviles, which hardly counts as a big move, and Erik Bedard, who will replace Clay Buchholz, who will miss the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his back. They might have added, but it was more about replacing a player than purely adding.
The Areas of Concern
Since the Yankees missed out on Cliff Lee last winter, they were expected to add a starter at the deadline. Cashman found nothing worthwhile on the trade market in January, and so played the waiting game. A team might not be willing to trade a high-end pitcher in the winter, when every team has a shot, but when reality set in by July perhaps a few would become available. This did happen, and in a way it is disappointing that the Yankees did not pounce. But as in all stories, there is more than one angle to this
The first angle comes from within, where the winter’s scrapheap signings, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, have exceeded expectations for the first two-thirds of the season. What’s more, they’ve actually looked good doing it. It’d be one thing if they were cruising along with super-low BABIPs, with regression just around the corner. It’s quite another when they have FIPs of 3.58 and 3.36 and BABIPs around .300. Their performances place them among the better pitchers in the league, so therefore fewer of the available arms represented upgrades.
(The other angle comes in the next section.)
On offense the team didn’t have many areas where upgrade was possible. All eight positions are capably claimed, leaving only the DH role as an opportunity. The Yankees DHs have hit .235/.317/.402 on the season; the .719 OPS ranks 11th in the AL, ahead of only Minnesota, Anaheim, and Seattle. Jorge Posada just finished an awful July, in which he hit .217/.284/.250. That takes away from the run he had from May to June, and leaves him with numbers far below expectations for a DH. There wasn’t necessarily a viable replacement on the market, but that doesn’t make DH any less an area of concern.
When the season began there was no indication that Ubaldo Jimenez would become available. It became even less of a possibility when Colorado got off to a hot start. But then they faded quickly, their flaws exposed for the baseball world to see. By July they were telling teams that they’d trade Ubaldo for a package that would help them address their several needs. That represented the best opportunity for the Yankees to truly upgrade the rotation.
The price, though, was deemed too great. The Rockies were asking the moon from the Yankees: Dellin Betances, Jesus Montero, and Ivan Nova just for starters. Phil Hughes was mentioned in these talks, and surely other names were exchanged between the two sides. That’s quite a prospect haul, though, and it’s one the Yankees did not deem worthy of the return. They had clear health concerns about Jimenez, and they made sure the media caught wind of those concerns.
Does injury concern justify the non-trade? I’d like to think that the concern, combined with the high prospect cost, was enough for the Yankees to eschew their best chance to add the one player who fit their needs. But I can’t help shed the idea that this is a post-facto justification. After all, there were no available No. 1 or No. 2 starters other than Ubaldo, and there is really only one available this winter (C.J. Wilson, at the cost of roughly $90 million). What are the chances that even one of Betances and Montero pans out? Isn’t it worth the cost in prospects to add a pitcher who has been a top-15 pitcher in the league since 2008, and who is under team control, at a huge discount, for the next two seasons?
There are certainly red flags involved. Jimenez has experienced a dip in velocity, and the Rockies refused the Yankees’ request to perform a pre-trade MRI. Of course, few pitchers maintain 96 mph fastballs for very long, and it’s not as though Ubaldo has dropped to the low 90s; he’s still averaging 94 mph this year. The Rockies’ refusal to perform an MRI makes sense as well, since you can find some sort of damage in any pitcher’s shoulder. It seems that the Yankees, for whatever reason, determined that they didn’t want to pay the cost in prospects for Ubaldo, and they covered themselves well. From the outside perspective, though, I’m still a little disappointed they didn’t put a suitable offer on the table.
Beyond Jimenez, the only other starter who represented a true upgrade was Hiroki Kuroda, but he invoked his no-trade clause and will remain a Dodger. There’s nothing anyone can do about that, so we might as well consider him unavailable from the start. There’s a chance Wandy Rodriguez could be a No. 3 in the East, but the Yankees wanted Houston to eat 45 percent of his contract. It’s understandable, since there’s a chance that Rodriguez would merely be a No. 4 in the East and therefore greatly overpaid. The two sides found no common ground, and so the Yankees avoided that risk. Every other starter was of the No. 4 or No. 5 ilk, a resource that the Yankees possess in relative abundance. They’re actually carrying two right now in Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes, and then they have Adam Warren at AAA. They might be able to find even more of this type on the waiver wire, should all of their current No. 4 and No. 5 options falter.
The Next Two Months
The Yankees didn’t necessarily need an upgrade to make the current rotation better. They’re fifth in the AL in ERA, fourth in FIP, second in xFIP, and fourth in WAR. What the Yankees needed at the deadline was insurance against drop-offs from Colon and Garcia. They’re the two unknowns right now, and the Yankees would do well to protect themselves against possible attrition.
That isn’t to say that either or both will necessarily decline later in the season. Garcia has actually seemed stronger as the season has moved along, missing more bats as he’s more fully harnessed his arsenal. He also pitched 150 innings last year, so he has a recent history of relative durability. Colon, on the other hand, hasn’t pitched more than 100 innings since 2005. He might stay healthy yet — we have no idea what the stem cell procedure truly did for his arm health and strength — but there is a matter of general fatigue. Can a 38-year-old out of shape man continue throwing darts for the next three months?
Essentially, all the Yankees lost here was a chance to hedge their bets. Unfortunately, since the bets are so big — both Colon and Garcia are in the top 20 in the AL in ERA and FIP — the hedge costs that much more. In this case it was Ubaldo, and the Yankees thought that the three, or more, prospects weren’t worth what they were getting. That might blow up in their faces, but they’ve pretty firmly stated that they’re willing to take that risk.
It’s surprising, for certain, that the Yankees made no moves at the deadline. But after examining the market, it appears that there was only one player available who truly fit their needs. They don’t need another No. 4 or No. 5 starter; they have enough of those in-house, and those don’t work out there’s the waiver trade market. What they needed, if anything, was a No. 2 starter who would represent a hedge against attrition from Garcia or Colon. But a bet on such a high level of performance will always cost a lot, and the Yankees deemed it unworthy. It’s certainly a risk to move forward with a reliance on Colon and Garcia, but it’s not as though they’ve failed the team this year.