For more than six months Yankees fans looked forward to July. After missing out on Cliff Lee* the plan was clear: make due with the roster until a pitching upgrade materialized at the trade deadline. But July came and went without the Yankees making a single move. Yet that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Circumstances always color this type of evaluation, and the circumstances certainly weren’t favorable in the weeks preceding the deadline.
* I can’t count the number of times I’ve written that exact phrase, and I promise that it’s the last time you’ll ever see it under my byline.
How it went wrong
The Yankees staff put together an unexpectedly solid first half. Both Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia realized their best case scenarios, holding down rotation spots for the first three to four months. That bought the Yankees enough time to search for alternatives on the trade market. But when the time came to make those upgrades, they declined to do so. Again, circumstance colored this decision. But that doesn’t completely excuse it.
We saw a similar situation last year. In early July, when the Yankees thought they had a deal worked out for Lee, the Yankees already have five starting pitchers. Phil Hughes, while slumping, still had the luster of his excellent first few months. Javy Vazquez had recovered and was pitching better than any non-CC member of the rotation. Andy Pettitte was Andy Petttite. A.J. Burnett, despite a disastrous June, was not a candidate to leave the rotation. And so it didn’t hurt so badly when the Yankees lost out on Lee.
In the second half everything changed. Vazquez quickly declined. Burnett produced a 5.95 ERA in the second half. Pettitte hurt himself and suffered a costly setback. Hughes continued to decline and produced a 4.90 ERA in the second half. That left the Yankees with precious few pitching options. When the playoffs rolled around they had to rely on a still-injured Pettitte and a shaky Hughes. The lack of pitching absolutely killed them in the ALCS.
This year the Yankees again had five starting pitchers around deadline time, six if you count Ivan Nova, who was in the minors in the weeks prior. In a way that made it easier for them to get through the trade deadline period without making a rash move. But in another way they were setting themselves up for a repeat of 2010. Sure enough: Phil Hughes continued his mediocre pitching, Freddy Garcia got hurt and then lost some of his sharpness, Bartolo Colon’s magic wore off, and Burnett’s production dropped off considerably. For the second straight year the Yankees had few solid options beyond CC Sabathia for their playoff rotation.
How it went right
It’s tough to deal for a quality starting pitcher when there aren’t many available. As July approached it seemed as though few teams would make available a useful starter. Throughout the month the market continued to appear weak. Some teams remained in denial about their chances. Others asked for far too much in exchange for their pitchers. It led to a real dearth of opportunities for the Yankees.
Only a few mid- to high-range pitchers moved in July, and the Yankees had good reason to not pursue any of them.
Ubaldo Jimenez: The Rockies wanted the moon for a pitcher who just didn’t look the same as he did in the first half of 2010. He might have made a nice addition, but at the price Cleveland eventually paid — their two top pitching prospects plus two other prospects — he likely wasn’t worth the effort. Had the price come down he would have made a good deal more sense, but at that point why would Colorado trade him?
Doug Fister: After a decent full-season debut in 2010, Fister was rolling along at a similar pace for the Mariners in 2011. Problem was, he didn’t miss bats, and his home run rate was a bit low — it’s usually a warning sign when a pitcher in a large ballpark has a big FIP-xFIP difference. I’m typically scared of that type of pitcher with the Yanks, since it can lead to a lot of home runs. Even in the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park his home run rate increased. But so did his strikeout rate, which isn’t something you normally see. There’s no “should of” in this for the Yanks, but the Tigers got an absolute steal.
Erik Bedard: After throwing about 80 innings in each of 2008 and 2009, Bedard missed the entire 2010 season. As always, he was the guy with a lot of potential who couldn’t stay on the mound. So it came as no surprise that, after a very good start to the 2011 season, he got hurt at the end of June. He made one poor appearance upon his return, at which point the Mariners immediately traded him. He went to Boston and did pitch well there — until he got hurt in September.
Edwin Jackson: This actually might have been a nice move for the Yanks. Jackson had produced good numbers for the White Sox in the first half, and was clearly on the trading block. The Blue Jays ended up getting him for the minuscule price of Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart. The only catch was that the Jays took on the remainder of Mark Teahen’s contract. Again, with the Yankees’ monetary advantage they could have done that and just released Teahen if they were so inclined. Yet Jackson put his inconsistency back on display with his move to the NL, as his strikeout rate dipped considerably in the second half. At the time we couldn’t have seen that, though, and for the cost Jackson might have been a quality upgrade.
Other pitchers might have been made available, but with the slim market chances are they would have cost too much. For instance, the Astros and Yankees had a brief conversation about Wandy Rodriguez that ended when Houston declined to pick up roughly half of Rodriguez’s salary. The Yankees clearly did not intend to overpay at the deadline, and in many ways that helps them now and in the future. But that’s going to happen when there is only one pitcher on the market who stands to help you for ar easonable price.
It was hard to call the Yankees losers at the deadline given their needs. The position players and bench were well in place, as was the bullpen. The only needs existed in the starting rotation and the market was thin, filled with flawed and overpriced players. At the same time, they did need an upgrade in pitching. It didn’t cost them the division, and it really didn’t even cost them in the ALDS (the offense was to blame there). But in the ALCS it could have hurt a lot. The trade deadline didn’t go wrong, really, but it didn’t go right, either.