As the trade deadline approached last year, the Yankees were contenders, but not of the highest magnitude.
They were well behind the Red Sox in the AL East. Their most probable postseason entry point was the sudden-death wild-card game — and even that was iffy. Plus, they were near the $210 million luxury-tax threshold with orders not to exceed that level.
They already had sacrificed four prospects for Jameson Taillon during the offseason. The 2021 Yankees certainly wanted to get better at the deadline. But at what cost, especially considering the internal sense that the team was just not right? So taking a cautious approach was viable.
But Hal Steinbrenner wanted to go for it. So the Yankees expended 10 more prospects to land Joey Gallo, Andrew Heaney, Clay Holmes and Anthony Rizzo, and were trying — ultimately without success — for others, such as Javier Baez and Josh Harrison.
This year, to date, the Yankees have no such confusion. They have the majors’ best record. They have what appears to be a unified group playing at a high level buoyed by a potentially historic season from Aaron Judge. One long-time rival executive said, “In these situations, Brian Cashman will know he has a team that can win, and he will recommend going for it.”
There are two potential problems to this thinking:
1. It is not necessarily true.
In 1998, with arguably the best team in Yankees history, Cashman stood pat. He tried for Randy Johnson (who was traded from Seattle to Houston). But he had heard from long-time Mariners manager Lou Piniella that Johnson did not love pitching in The Bronx. That kept Cashman from making an overwhelming offer. Ultimately, the Yankees won without Johnson, whom Cashman nevertheless acquired after the 2004 season.
2. If the Yankees want to go all in this year, what would that be for?
The extra playoff team in each league is likely to keep more clubs from selling, and the bad teams are the bad teams, in part, because they lack desirable veterans.
If Nationals GM Mike Rizzo is to be held to his word — that he will not deal star outfielder Juan Soto in this market — then it is difficult to find no-doubt difference-makers. The Andrew Benintendi-Josh Bell Sweepstakes is not exactly a ratings magnet.
The deadline is still seven weeks away, so a lot can change: Just look at what happened to the Angels in the past two weeks. Even after a letdown at Minnesota, the Yankees’ rotation has been a strength. But it also has been remarkably healthy. Will that hold?
Cashman said in a phone conversation that he would not hesitate to improve the team today if it made financial and prospect sense and not wait around to see what might be needed before Aug. 2, which is the trade deadline this year.
He also said he would not publicly offer his views on the Yankees’ current areas of need. The general manager sees a team melding well and did not want to upset any faction by stating dissatisfaction.
At this moment, I would identify the Yankees’ desires as relocating Joey Gallo, adding at least one outfielder, particularly one who can defend well in center, and finding one more reliever who can be trusted over the final nine outs:
1. Gallo’s long-ball bat stirred recently. But there is enough evidence that the lefty slugger is uncomfortable in New York, plus his strikeout penchant screams that he will not hit the best pitching in the biggest moments.
This is not about caring. Gallo is trying. His teammates have rallied around him. This is about fit. Can the Yankees convince themselves that Gallo will not be overwhelmed by October moments, when he so often seems unnerved by April and May?
He is in his walk year. The Yankees are not going to re-sign him. Conversely, of all those deals Steinbrenner inspired last July, the one in which the Yankees gave up the most inventory was for Gallo — long an organizational obsession. Three of the prospects already have made their debuts with the Rangers, who seem to have particularly high hopes for infielder Josh Smith.
The Yankees are not going to get nearly as much back for Gallo as they gave up. He might be untradeable, due to how poorly he has performed. But the Yankees are going to have to decide if this is a classic addition by subtraction.
2. The only certainty in the Yankees’ outfield is Judge. He has handled center well, but do the Yankees want to keep putting that greater mileage on him? Aaron Hicks, who like Gallo has perked up recently, has not played well on either side of the ball overall. Giancarlo Stanton is a part-time outfield option — at best.
Hicks has three years at $30.5 million left after this season, so unless the Yankees are willing to eat a bunch or take on a bad deal, he likely stays.
The ideal player would be a lefty-swinger who plays center well. In the offseason, Pittsburgh’s Brian Reynolds and Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins would have fit this ideally. But both are having down years on both sides of the ball compared to last season, yet the cost for either would remain in the staggering category. Would the Giants, in attempts to improve elsewhere, trade Steven Dugger (recovering from an oblique injury) or Mike Yastrzemski?
Or should the Yankees try for something like Kansas City’s Benintendi to play left, then someone like Washington’s righty-swinging Victor Robles to start against lefties plus defend in center late with a lead?
Getting more offense either from Gallo, Hicks or elsewhere is important. The Yankees should not touch their catching. There will be calls for the Cubs’ Willson Contreras (in his walk year), in particular. But one reason the pitching has been so good this year is how well it has worked with Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino.
In 2008, the Yankees traded for Ivan Rodriguez, and Cashman noted later how difficult it was to integrate a catcher during a season. And there is so much more put on a catcher’s in-game planning now than then. The Yankees decided this season to emphasize defense at catcher and at shortstop, with Gary Sanchez out and Isiah Kiner-Falefa in. It is the job of others in the lineup to support that.
The Yankees could try to upgrade on Marwin Gonzalez, but the caution would be that the import must be able to defend at short in case Kiner-Falefa gets hurt. The Yankees do not want to have to move Torres back there, and there are no immediate signs that prospects Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe are ready to step into a championship race.
3. I recently asked a long-time Yankees official if they still had David Robertson’s old jersey around. It was a joke — kind of. The Cubs’ closer is near definite to get traded, is having a strong year and clearly can handle New York. If the Yankees ended up with Robertson, Benintendi and Robles, I would not be shocked.
But the Yankees’ strong pro personnel group have done a terrific job of finding relief arms. The Yankees’ best trade last July was for Holmes — heck, it might turn into one of Cashman’s best ever. So this is an area in which a big name might not be the top alternative.
Among those who I would suspect will draw July interest from many teams (including the Mets): Baltimore’s Keegan Akin and Jorge Lopez; Detroit’s Gregory Soto; Kansas City’s Scott Barlow; Pittsburgh’s David Bednar; Arizona’s Joe Mantiply, Mark Melancon and Ian Kennedy; and the Cubs’ Chris Martin.