New York Yankees: A Thrilling Year Between Trade Deadlines
TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 26: Yankees general manager Brian Cashman (L) and Manager Joe Girardi #28 of the New York Yankees watch bullpen practice during a spring training workout on February 26, 2015 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

A year removed from the departures of Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran and their status as “sellers” at the deadline, the New York Yankees can go for it all in 2017. 

After a tumultuous entry into the MLB All-Star break, the New York Yankees, winners of three straight series heading into their three-game set with the Tigers, are now primed for not only a playoff run, but a potential AL East title and a World Series berth.

And they have general manager Brian Cashman to thank for landing in such a position, even if he does not procure coveted A’s starter Sonny Gray by 4 p.m. ET today.

A year ago, trading away relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman fueled World Series runs for the Indians and Cubs respectively, with Chicago ultimately ending a 108-year championship drought.

Despite what these trades accomplished in defining MLB’s landscape for the 2017 for other clubs, Cashman’s haul deepened the farm system and shaped what the Yankees could manage in 2017 and beyond, with returns of Clint Frazier (New York’s 2nd-best prospect, currently a mainstay in left field, a fan favorite, and a conundrum for the organization when Aaron Hicks returns from the disabled list), lefty starter Justus Sheffield (currently the organization’s 6th-rated prospect), and righty relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Ben Heller (in the Andrew Miller deal); Gleyber Torres (now New York’s top prospect, even despite the torn elbow ligament he injured sliding into home plate that will keep him sidelined for a year), Adam Warren (an important cog in a stout Yankee bullpen), and outfielders Billy McKinney (the 28th-ranked prospect) and Rashad Crawford (all in the Aroldis Chapman deal); and Dillon Tate (the 18th top-rated prospect), Erik Swanson, and Nick Green (in the Carlos Beltran deal).

Given the performances of various players, some of them gargantuan (Aaron Judge), others, still quite beneficial to the overall construct of the club (Frazier, Jordan Montgomery, a return-to-form for Luis Severino, and the growth of players like Didi Gregorious, Starlin Castro, and Aaron Hicks), the Yankees, a half-game ahead of the Red Sox for first place in the AL East, fancied themselves buyers during this year’s deadline.  And rightfully so.

Because of slumps that plagued Chapman and Dellin Betances around the All-Star break, the front office was encouraged to deal with the Chicago White Sox, yielding a return of relievers David Robertson (whose contract runs out in 2018) and Tommy Kahnle (controlled through 2020, arguably the most crucial component and centerpiece to the deal), and infielder Todd Frazier, who will platoon across the diamond with Chase Headley at first and third base.  Now, thanks to this deal with Chicago, Chapman’s resurgence (he posted a 2-0 record with three saves, a 1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, and eight strikeouts over his last seven innings pitched) and the performances of Warren and Chad Green, New York features a bullpen mightier than the Kansas City’s circa 2014 and 2015, likely “the best the game has ever seen,” according to Buster Olney, ESPN senior analyst and former beat writer for Yankees with the New York Times and author of The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, a man who knows his fair share of pinstriped accolades.

In short, the Yankees can limit a game to six, if not five, innings, all for the price of Blake Rutherford, an immensely touted prospect who, at age 20, was relatively blocked for a long spell from joining a Yankee outfield that features Judge, Frazier, Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury, whom New York is committed to in centerfield for $63.4 million over the next three seasons.  This does not include New York’s potential pursuit of Bryce Harper after the 2018 season, a chase that may prove moot should Dustin Fowler return from the gruesome knee injury he suffered in his major league debut and Cashman decides to hold on to Estevan Florial and/or Jorge Mateo past 4 PM today.

With Michael Pineda opting for Tommy John surgery, the Yankees shipped Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell to Minnesota for lefty Jaime Garcia, a World Series winner with the Cardinals in 2011 who has posted a 67-52 record in 166 starts, sporting a career 3.65 ERA.  Garcia provides grit, experience, and an innings-eating ability that runs counter to Montgomery’s struggles with inconsistency.

Having acquired first baseman Lucas Duda, and Eduardo Nunez and Addison Reed respectively, the Rays and Red Sox put pressure on the Yankees to keep pace, all the more reason why the Yankees remain in talks for Gray and A’s teammate Yonder Alonso, an All-Star first baseman who would fill the black hole sized vacancy rendered unproductive by Mark Teixeira’s retirement and Greg Bird’s injury-riddled campaign.

Recent reports suggest the A’s GM Billy Beane has moved away from requesting Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres in a Sonny Gray deal (one that could also include Alonso), instead, focusing much of his attention on Mateo, who could serve as Oakland’s shortstop or centerfielder of the future, and Florial, who is assumed to have, at age 19, the greatest upside of any current Yankee prospect.  The price is obviously steep for a young starter who would be arbitration-eligible the next two season and franchise-controlled through 2019.

Gray appears to have rebounded from a dismal 2016 season.  This year, the 27 year old righty sustains a 3.43 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, mustering the second best K/9 IP of his career young career.  In 2015, Gray’s lone All-Star campaign, the ace flashed Cy Young potential, finishing third in voting that season.

Acquiring Gray proves tempting, but would come with risk:  like Masahiro Tanaka, Gray had his share of arm troubles, experiencing a forearm tightness that ruined his 2016 campaign and a strained lat muscle that forced him to start the 2017 season on the DL.

Say Tanaka strings together more masterful performances like his gem on Friday against Tampa (eight innings of two-hit, one-run ball, buttressed by a career high 14 Ks); the Yankees will truly find themselves in a predicament, more so if they acquire Gray at the expense of diminishing its farm system.

Great starting pitching amounts to more victories and more juice for a playoff run, but for Tanaka, success equates to his ability to opt out of his contract after 2017.  Should the Yankees acquire Gray, he may be under organizational control, but then the Yankees encounter the prospect of a cataclysmic scenario that eradicates the good feelings associated with this year’s club:  the potential to own two ticking time bombs in acquiring Gray and re-signing Tanaka, both of whom could just as easily aid in winning New York a 28th World Series title or opt for Tommy John surgery and prove worthless to the Yankees in 2018, if not 2019, as well.

The Yankees only need to observe their club from within (see James Kaprielian) or their crosstown rivals (see Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, and even Steven Matz) to note what arm injuries can do to cripple young pitching.  Cashman must proceed with caution.

In spite of this injury potential, at present, the Yankees’ greatest need remains starting pitching.  Landing Jaime Garcia was a fine acquisition, but getting him was a necessity, especially given Luis Cessa and Caleb Smith’s inability to impact the Yankee starting rotation, the organization’s desire to groom Chance Adams at Triple A (he is still working on a third pitch to his arsenal), the loss of Pineda to injury, and the rising inning thresholds of Severino and Montgomery.  Even with CC Sabathia’s surprising revival, the Yankees may ultimately resort to landing Sonny Gray, or perhaps even Lance Lynn or Justin Verlander, should Beane’s demands for Gray prove too steep.

Thanks to Cashman’s ability to revitalize his farm system and resolve to shed and divert from poor contracts (Ellsbury’s notwithstanding), the New York Yankees remain in the driver’s seat down the stretch, even if they forgo a deal for Gray.

The Red Sox, beyond Chris Sale, boast a shaky rotation (case in point:  Drew Pomeranz is outperforming David Price and Rich Porcello has lost his Cy Young flair), an inferior bullpen to New York’s, and a fading offense whose designation of Pablo Sandoval for assignment demonstrates why acquiring Nunez was a necessity, more so given Xander Bogaerts’s injury-stricken season and less-than-desireable outputs from rookie Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley, Jr.; Mookie Betts, the Red Sox’s best power bat, has only managed 17 homers (tied with Hanley Ramirez), five better than anyone else on the roster.

The Rays, with arguably the division’s deepest rotation (Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and rookie Jacob Faria are collectively spinning together superb campaigns in light of Jake Odorizzi’s falling victim to injury), boast a decent offense that, beyond Evan Longoria, Logan Morrison, Steven Souza, and Corey Dickerson, is in need of another bat beyond Lucas Duda.  In all, Tampa may pose more of a threat to the Yankees’ chase for the division title than Boston.  Taking three of four from them this weekend, behind a rejuvenated bat of Brett Gardner’s and Ronald Torreyes’s ability to fill in for Starlin Castro, demonstrated the Yankees’ resilience and could further prove vital to the club’s push for a division title.

Even so, understand that the Yankees are currently playing with house money.  They were not projected to be sitting atop the AL East at the trade deadline.  The pressure is on others, not them, to better their club at the trade deadline.

The ascension of Judge and Frazier, even Gary Sanchez, is ahead of schedule, but even with the deals Cashman managed (for Robertson, Frazier, Kahnle, and Garcia) and has yet to cultivate (for Gray and Alonso or both), the team as currently designed may not be prolific enough to best the Houston Astros or the Los Angeles Dodgers, let alone the Cleveland Indians or Kansas City Royals (both winners of nine of their last ten who are currently making moves and are all in for World Series runs of their own).

Regardless, Cashman and manager Joe Girardi have put together the most exciting club in recent memory, one that need not win it all this year to illustrate what this team is and will be for some time.

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