All of baseball knew that New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was standing by, waiting for the right moment to flip the switch that would shift his team out of transition mode and into go-for-it mode. The only question was when. Given the Yankees’ vast resources – not only in regards to their economic might but the formidable army of prospects they had been stockpiling during their rare downsizing – it was a scary proposition for the rest of the game.
That moment, as it turns out, came in July, with a pair of major trades that have turned the Yankees back into legitimate World Series contenders this summer and fall for the first time in perhaps half a decade. And now that the switch has been flipped, the Yankees also appear to have staying power, with a window for contending that, having now been thrown open, could stay open for years.
“We’re trying to go from good to great,” Cashman told reporters on Monday. “I can’t predict a time frame on that. I just know we’re the New York Yankees, and we’ve represented a championship-caliber effort on a year-in, year-out basis, and we’re trying to get closer to a championship and hopefully deliver one.”
Two weeks ago, the Yankees acquired relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle and infielder Todd Frazier from the Chicago White Sox for three prospects – only one of whom, outfielder Blake Rutherford, was rated among their best – plus reliever Tyler Clippard, a deal that immediately filled one hole in their lineup and made their bullpen arguably the deepest in the game in quality, back-end options.
And then Monday, Cashman pulled off a second blockbuster, getting 27-year-old right-hander Sonny Gray, one of only a handful of front-end starters available at the deadline, from the Oakland A’s for three more prospects. While those three prospects were all highly regarded, two of them – pitcher James Kaprelian and outfielder Dustin Fowler – suffered serious, season-ending injuries this year, making their futures less certain, and the third, shortstop/center fielder Jorge Mateo, is 22 years old and still in Class A.
A year ago, the deadline trades of veterans Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran for prospects signaled the start of an unusual transitional phase for the Yankees, an acknowledgment that their old ways of throwing money at their problems had left the roster bloated, inflexible and old. But those deals, plus a stellar player-development system that produced 2017 all-stars Luis Severino and Aaron Judge, gave the Yankees a strong, youthful core, anchored by a farm system that had jumped from among the worst in the game to among the best.
In dipping into that farm system to pull off two major trades, Cashman gave up less than what he got back for his veterans a year ago. Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield, the top prizes from last summer’s Chapman and Miller trades, are still Yankees, as are most of the other top names in their farm system.
“We traded upper-tier talent,” Cashman told reporters following the Gray deal. “But we’re deeper than most. Our number 9 through 13 [prospects] are the equivalent of someone else’s one through six.”
Supremacy in the American League this summer appears to be up for grabs, with the Houston Astros, at 69-36 holding by far the league’s best record, suddenly facing big questions about their pitching depth and strangely failing to do much about it at the trade deadline.
Beyond them, in the next tier, the Yankees (57-47) did the most to improve their roster at the trade deadline – more than the Boston Red Sox (58-49), their closest pursuers in the East, and the Central’s Cleveland Indians (57-47) and Kansas City Royals (55-49). All of them are scary in different ways, but as the regular season enters its final third, none appear as loaded as the Yankees.
But the Yankees’ trades were as much about 2018 and 2019 – and beyond – as they were about 2017.
Of the players acquired in those two big July deals, only Frazier is a free agent at the end of this season. Robertson is under club control through 2018, Gray through 2019, and Kahnle through 2020. Best of all, those three combined will cost the Yankees only about $22 million in 2018, keeping the franchise on track to meet its goal of getting under the luxury-tax threshold of $197 million next season.
Future offseasons are likely to find the Yankees back to being the big-time free agent predators they were in winters past, with their targets potentially including Japanese superstar Shohei Otani, the two-way ace/slugger who could become available as early as this winter, and/or Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the twin prizes of what is expected to be an epochal free agent class after the 2018 season.
It has been two years since the Yankees’ last playoff appearance, five years since their last division title and eight years since their last World Series championship. But in the wake of two trades that have recast both their present and their future, it is clear the Yankees are back to being the Yankees again.