It happened. The unthinkable is upon us. The New York Yankees became sellers at this year’s trade deadline. Aroldis Chapman is now a Cub; Andrew Miller now plays in Cleveland; Carlos Beltrán is now a Ranger; and Ivan Nova is now a Pirate. General manager Brian Cashman cleaned house, hit reset, and made his final push for the future. It was absolutely the right decision to wave the white flag, and we may be poised to see another Yankees dynasty emerge in front of us. To understand just how important this trade deadline really was for the Bombers, we need to look back at what made this franchise great, and why it needed to go back to the drawing board.
I often think of history as a noose wrapped around a ray of sunlight. The past can illuminate the present, but it can also strangle hope for the future. So it is with the history of the New York Yankees.
The last time the Yankees traded away an impact player in their major league roster at the non-waiver deadline was 1989, when they shipped Rickey Henderson back to Oakland. Since then, they have been buyers, even when their chances for October contention were slim. Because George Steinbrenner demanded it. Because the payroll demanded it. Because the fans and the media demanded it. Because the pinstripes demanded it.
Of course, the great irony about recent Yankees history is that it took an early-90s rebuild during Steinbrenner’s suspension from baseball to bring the franchise back to its halcyon days. While The Boss was suspended, GM Gene Michael drafted and signed the Core Four. He gave Bernie Williams his major league debut. He traded for Paul O’Neill. I don’t need to tell you what happened after that.
Fast-forward 25 years and the Yankees are staring that moment in the face again. They loaded up on veteran free agents in the last decade the way that they did in Steinbrenner’s heyday. Then Hal Steinbrenner took over, and things didn’t really change. Alex Rodriguez got his bananas extension. CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira were signed to massive long-term deals. Carlos Beltrán and Jacoby Ellsbury joined up a few years after that. When it came to free agency, the new boss sure felt like the old boss.
That kind of deal-making didn’t really work for the Yankees in the 1980s, and it became clear, once a lot of these players began to age, that it wasn’t going to work now. Revenue sharing and the luxury tax disincentivized the Yankees from spending, but it didn’t stop them from doing it. They now have the second-highest payroll in baseball, are paying a 50 percent luxury tax rate, and haven’t played a full postseason series since 2012. They haven’t won a pennant since 2009. The Yankees’ financial flexibility vanished in the last few years, along with their postseason dominance.
What’s more, parity is at an all-time high in baseball. Outspending your opponents doesn’t automatically buy you a title anymore. It probably never did in the free agency era. But the perceived glitz and glamour of America’s biggest media market continued to drive Hal Steinbrenner’s decision making, the way that it did for his father.
The hard truth one must face is that the Yankees will once again miss the postseason for the third time in four years. The team came out of the All-Star break with a losing record for the first time since 1995. They are 5.5 games back of the second wild card berth. Baseball Prospectus currently puts their playoff odds at 4.3 percent. There was no win-now circumstance that would allow the team to play in October this year while also contending in the years to come. This was the time to tear the thing down and start again.
They luckily had assets to move, too. Beltrán, Nova and Mark Teixeira were scheduled to come off the books in November. Teixeira has been sub-replacement level in 2016, but the 39-year-old Beltrán has come out of nowhere and hit for a 134 wRC+ / .301 TAv. Nova’s 4.09 Deserved Run Average in 97.3 innings is league average, but the thin starting pitcher market this July has turned him into an asset.
And then, of course, there is the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller are mind-melting pitchers, but they are only valuable to you if you’re trying to preserve a small lead late in the game. The Yankees didn’t give them many opportunities to show off their skills this season. The bullpen market was insane this year, and Cashman would have been a fool to hold onto those two pieces.
The prospects Cashman got back now confirms the Yankees as having one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, with five consensus top-50 prospects all now playing for Yankees affiliates—six if you throw an injured Greg Bird into the mix. Shortstop Gleyber Torres was the marquee piece coming from the Cubs in the Chapman deal, while outfielder Clint Frazier headlined the package Cleveland offered for Andrew Miller. Frazier has bat speed and power for days, while Torres is a four-tool player who could take over second or third base. Both of these guys project as everyday major leaguers with significant value.
But that’s not all the farm system contains. The funny thing about those early Hal Steinbrenner years was that Cashman was slowly working on putting a new core in place. A few months before A-Rod and company hoisted the World Series trophy in 2009, Cashman signed 16-year-old catcher Gary Sánchez out of the Dominican Republic. Two years later, he drafted Bird. Seven months after that, Cashman signed Dominican shortstop Jorge Mateo. The year after that, the team drafted Aaron Judge.
Look at that group now. Sánchez is in line to be the backstop of the future. After hitting for crazy power in a brief major league stint last year, Bird is ready to take over first base from Teixeira, once Bird is healthy and Teixeira’s contract runs out. Judge now has right field open to him, since Beltrán is off to Arlington. Mateo could be moved to second base or stay at shortstop when he’s ready.
There may appear to be a logjam in the middle infield, but fear not! If Didi Gregorius continues his hot hitting, the team may want to keep him at short or move him to second base, at which time either Torres or Mateo may be surplus to requirements. Should Cashman decide to trade either one, he’d get another haul, and potentially an impact major-leaguer. A deal like that is win-win.
Most importantly, Cashman now has six position players to build around while he sheds payroll and looks ahead to future free agent classes. Once Teixeira is gone this fall, with Rodriguez and Sabathia to follow suit next year, the Yankees’ payroll will become much more manageable, leaving room to go after the Class of 2018—Bryce Harper, José Fernández, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, and Josh Donaldson potentially among them. Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan tweeted a potential 2019 Yankees roster. Wipe the drool off your face.
SP: Fernandez, Tanaka, Sheff, Kap, Tate
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) August 1, 2016
This probably won’t come to pass. Harper might sign an extension with the Nationals, or the Dodgers might offer a bigger contract to Fernández. Not all of the Yankees’ prospects are guaranteed to pan out, either. The point is that the roster as currently constructed was only ever going to hover around .500. The luxury tax prevented the team from throwing money at aging free agents. Selling was the only way to build a contender again.
There’s only one deal you can fault Cashman for doing, and that is Chapman. Once Chapman’s domestic violence incident came to light in December, his trade value plummeted, and Cashman swooped in to get him from the Reds for nothing. Anyone who was paying attention knew that he was going to flip him in July for a massive profit. In other words, Cashman used an incident where Chapman “allegedly” choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots into his garage to get Gleyber Torres without giving up any other prospects. It was a cynical, craven, and slimy move. But that’s “the cost of doing business,” right?
Cashman’s exploitative actions will soon be forgotten, however. The Yankees are bursting at the seams with great prospects, and their payroll is slowly being whittled away. No matter what happens in the next few years, the Yankees will be a force to be reckoned with once more. History will shine brightly on the Bronx again. When Bryce Harper and Clint Frazier jump in the dogpile after the team wins their third World Series in a row in 2021, remember how they got there.
Photo: Brad Penner / USA Today Sports