It has started way too early. We have gone from looking forward to a deep playoff run to looking at — though not necessarily forward to — the off-season. Emotions are still running high from the ALDS loss, making it difficult to address the Yankees’ challenges with a clear head. In an attempt to step back and soberly examine the Yankees, I’m going to address a few principles. Hopefully they can help answer a number of more specific questions that will arise as the free agent and trade markets develop.
As the title says, we’re starting with the Yankees’ No. 1 prospect, Jesus Montero. After waiting all season for his arrival, Yankees fans got a glimpse of the future starting on September 1. He played in only 18 games and accumulated 69 PA, which doesn’t give us a representative sample. Still, he did impress in that short time, hitting .328/.406/.590. Is anyone not excited for the offense he can produce in the future?
In this way Montero represents the future. In another way, he represents an opportunity. Despite his lack of a position, scouts have said for years that Montero’s bat will play anywhere. That type of talent can bring back something of value in a trade. As Brian Cashman said just after the Yankees’ season ended, his team needs pitching. It’s easy to make the connection. Might the Yankees flip Montero for that No. 2 starter they need?
It sounds like a good idea in theory. Pitching has long been a problem for the Yankees. They could conceivably acquire a relatively young No. 2 pitcher by trading one of the best hitting prospects in the game. At least, that’s what it seems like. In reality that might not be the case.
Why they can’t
The Yankees will likely have difficulty finding a team that matches up with them. This theoretical team would need to fit a few criteria. They’d have to be a team with no designs on contending in 2012, since few teams could continue contending after trading a high-caliber starter and not receiving one in return. They’d also need pitching on the farm, so that they could eventually replace the starter they traded. Their offense would probably have to rank near the bottom of the league, which would give them reason to trade for a big bat with no position. If it’s a National League team, they need an opening at first base — and a coaching staff that thinks it can turn Montero into a first baseman.
Where does that leave the pool of suitors? The Giants might be the only team that could conceivably trade a high-end starter and not cripple themselves. Matt Cain is the interesting name here. The Giants might be willing to listen on him, since he hits free agency after the 2012 season. They also need offense, as they scored the fewest runs per game in the NL. But with Brandon Belt at first base, there isn’t really a spot for Montero. Even if the Giants thought he could catch, they have Buster Posey at that position. The Yankees and the Giants simply do not match up on a Montero trade.
The White Sox are another team that comes to mind, since they’re apparently going with a youth movement in 2012. John Danks becomes a free agent after next season, and so he might hit the trade block at some point this winter. But the Yankees face the same matchup problems here. The Sox are in the AL, which makes things a little easier, but they also have the DH and 1B spots locked up for a few more years. They might want to replace Adam Dunn, but his contract mostly prevents that. If the Sox were to trade for Montero they’d have to believe he could catch. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks that he can.
A look around the rest of the league returns few results. It’s hard to find a team that would trade a top-flight starter in the first place. When the return is a hitter without a position, the pool shrinks even further. There might be an answer out there somewhere, but it’s certainly not an obvious one. Something would have to change before a trade in order for said trade to make any sense.
Why they shouldn’t
Just because the Yankees can, in theory, trade Montero for a starter doesn’t mean that they should. They have a rare talent in Montero, and can use him to help propel the offense for years to come. While pitching might hold importance for the immediate future, offense could become an issue down the road — and not so far down the road, really. Why would the Yankees trade one of their few young power bats?
Take a look at the composition of the 2011 Yankees. Specifically, look at the age column. The only player under 30 to produce an OPS+ of league average or better was Robinson Cano. He and Granderson were really the only elite hitters on the team this season. The other guys on the roster have uses, for sure, and there’s a chance that one or two of them returns to glory. But even a return to glory would be short-lived, given their advanced ages. Combine that with an uncertainty about Granderson’s future — his 2011 was clearly an outlier in a career that started in 2005 — and it’s easy to see a need for offense.
Again, this is more of a far outlook. Maybe Mark Teixeira refocuses this winter and retains the swing that made him the Yankees’ MVP in 2009. Maybe Alex Rodriguez remains healthy and productive next season. That’s all fine and good, but it’s not as though the Yankees can expect them to do that for years into the future. Rodriguez will turn 37 next July, and Teixeira will turn 32 right around Opening Day. There’s hope that Teixeira can still produce high quality numbers for a few more years, but the window is closing on A-Rod. In just a few years the Yankees could find themselves lacking an elite bat beyond Cano.
(At which point Cano will cost $20 million or more per season.)
Montero represents the Yankees’ best opportunity to add a power bat to the middle of their lineup. If they trade him, they’ll again scramble for free agent hitters. While that has worked out in some instances, it has failed in others. Rather than roll the dice in both a trade of Montero and hoping for the right free agent to hit the market, it’s probably a better idea to keep Montero and let him do work in the middle of the lineup for years to come.
The right deal
No player should be untouchable. As an old friend of mine says frequently, everything’s for sale for the right price. If the Yankees can jump on a starter that they truly love and it costs them Montero and little more, they should probably jump on it. But as I described above, those convenient opportunities don’t appear to exist.
Furthermore, even if the Giants were willing to trade Cain for Montero, or the White Sox were willing to part with Danks for him, I still wouldn’t favor such a deal. Both of those players hit free agency after 2012. Even if the Yankees retained them they’d pay market value. That further drives up payroll, which in turn makes it more difficult to acquire other players. It’s not our money, of course, but if the Yankees are only going to invest a certain amount in payroll, it’d be nice to see them allocate it in a way that allows them to add the most production for the least amount of money. That becomes more important when contracts like A-Rod’s, Teixeira’s, and hopefully Sabathia’s are on the books.
Montero, on the other hand, represents one of the greatest values in baseball. Through 2014 he’ll cost no more than a half million per season. After that he has three years of arbitration before hitting free agency. Those cost-controlled years can prove integral in keeping payroll open for other acquisitions. It means they can overpay for someone on the free agent market. But if they trade for Danks they’ll have to either 1) worry about paying him market value in 2013 and beyond, and 2) worry about finding, and paying, a big bat to help replace the declining production of their current guys. And if the Yankees were to let Danks go after a year, adding Banuelos and other young arms to the rotation, they’ll have given up six years of Montero for one of Danks. It just doesn’t make sense.
If the Yankees were to trade Montero, it would have to not only involve a No. 1 or 2 pitcher in return, but that pitcher would have to be under contract for many years. That would necessarily mean that the Yankees would include more than just Montero to complete such a deal. If Felix Hernandez is the target, then perhaps the conversation moves somewhere. But after him, are there any starters that fit the criteria of a No. 1 or 2 pitcher and are under contract for three or more years — and could be had for a Montero-centered package?
Maybe the right deal is out there somewhere. Maybe there’s a GM who is holding back and waiting for the right deal to come along. At this point, it’s difficult to see. What’s easy to see is the potential impact Montero could have on the Yankees lineup. He’s their best power bat prospect, one of the few in their system that could conceivably slide into the No. 4 or 5 spot in the coming years and help ease the declines of their aging stars. That need could be just as important as a No. 2 starter.