The Yankees Should Be Realistic, Put Team on Short Leash in 2013

A week ago, the 2013 Yankees were walking on a tight rope. Their roster, while a significant downgrade from the 2012 squad, looked strong enough to contend for a wild card spot in the American League. The team's rapidly aging core was still effective last year, and should a few things go right should have been good for 90 wins this year. And then Curtis Granderson suffered a freak broken arm. Spring training has barely started, and probably the third or fourth most valuable hitter on the Yankee roster will miss around 1/4 of the season, without an able-bodied replacement in sight. The Yankee outfield/DH group was already razor-thin, and just lost its most valuable contributor for awhile.

By no means should the Yankees throw in the towel on the season, but at some point they need to decide whether they want to bet  on this team to make the playoffs. I don't know what the cut off point is, but  it can't be, "never." This roster is not a vintage Yankee, sure-fire playoff team. It would be a huge mistake to assume that no matter what, the Yankees have to approach the trade deadline as a buyers.

Perhaps more than any other year in recent memory, the Yankees have a ton of players that could be sold off at the trade deadline for a valuable return. Any of Hiroki Kuroda, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, Boone Logan, Phil Hughes and especially Robinson Cano, are all free agents after the season, could plausibly fetch good prospects from buying teams in late July. Not all of them will be performing great--otherwise, the Yankees would be unlikely to be out of contention--but a number of them could be.

What kind of prospects are we talking about? Below are seven 2010-2012 trade deadline deals that could serve as analogs:

  • Robinson Cano - Mariners trade Cliff Lee for Justin Smoak (BA #13), and Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, and Josh Lueke, all solid MLB prospects
  • Hiroki Kuroda - Indians trade Ubaldo Jimenez for Drew Pomeranz (BA #30), Alex White (BA #47) and Matt Mcbride and Joe Gardner (Both unranked, but solid MLB prospects)
  • Curtis Granderson - Cardinals trade Carlos Beltran for Zach Wheeler (BA #35)
  • Kevin Youkilis - Red Sox trade Kevin Youkilis for Ethan Martni (BA #80)
  • Travis Hafner - Phillies trade Jim Thome for Kyle Simon (decent prospect)
  • Boone Logan - Pirates trade Javier Lopez for Joe Martinez and John Bowker, both fringe players.
  • Phil Hughes - Cubs trade Paul Malholm to the Braves for Arodys Vizcaino (BA #83)

It seems highly plausible that the Yankees could pull off some kind of hall that looks like the following at the trade deadline: Justin Smoak, Zach Wheeler, Joe Martinez, and Ethan Martni, at the trade deadline, plus a few other pieces.

The point isn't that the Yankees can pull off this entire prospect haul or that these trades are perfectly equivalent, but that they have a ton of valuable ammunition at the trade deadline. Under the best case scenario, the Yankees could infuse a lot of life into their farm system, easily doubling their number of top-100 prospects. Every single player listed is a free agent, and does not affect the team past 2013. The cost includes a couple of compensation draft picks as well.
The Yankees would enter the off season with one of the strongest farm systems in baseball, and could potentially pull off some significant trades for talent, or roll the dice on a group of new young stars. They'll be better set up over the next 3-4 years than they otherwise would have been.

Here's the problem: the presence of the 2nd Wild Card slot makes contention status less clear. Its tempting to use it as an excuse to never give up hope that a strong performance in the last two months of the season will propel a team to an unlikely playoff spot. But this is a dangerous thing to have around. Good teams need to go through a rebuilding cycle at some point. The Yankees were never immune to this, and are significantly less sheltered from it than in past years due to the new CBA soft cap, huge legacy contracts on the books, and a general trend toward higher payrolls and fewer players reaching free agency around the league.

The Yankees face a medium term trade off that every other aging contender faces: maximize your shot at the playoff this year, or sell off and increase your chances of a quick rebuild next year? If the Yankees are winning, this is a pretty easy question to answer: go for the playoff dice roll. But if the playoffs look unlikely (I'll peg it at a 15% chance or less in late July), they should bite the bullet and maximize what they can get.