After going big this winter and landing four of the top five free agents, the Yankees are back in the playoff picture. After a win over the division leader on Wednesday, the Yankees are just 2.5 games behind the Blue Jays and in the lead for the second Wild Card spot at the moment . However, this Yankees team- like last season's team- has significantly overachieved in many ways. Their Pythagorean record is almost the mirror-image reversal of their current 37-33 record and Baseball Prospectus places the Yankees at the bottom of the division in both second-order and third-order wins, both of which are based on their underlying statistics and the run differential they imply. Their actual record is the one that matters, of course, but if the Yankees are hoping avoid another October spent watching from the sidelines, it may take some aggressive maneuvering in July to ward off the demon Regression.
Are the Yankees buyers or sellers?
Ok, this answer is pretty obvious. Even if the Yankees weren't one of the richest sports franchises in the game and even if they didn't play in the biggest media market in the country, they would be buyers simply because of their position in the standings and those underlying concerns expressed in the various run-differential based records. Any team that is lucky enough to find themselves right in the thick of the division and Wild Card race when such numbers put them at the bottom of the division would probably move to make some improvements as quickly as possible.
Since this is the Yankees and they are one of the richest sports franchises on earth and they do play in the biggest market in the country, adding talent heading into the final months of the season is basically a given. The interesting aspect here is just how they will go about doing it. Their farm system is weak- Baseball America ranked their farm 18th in baseball at the start of the season- and their top talent there is primarily on the position player side, which may be a disadvantage with potential sellers like the Cubs and Diamondbacks expected to be seeking pitching this July. That doesn't mean they don't have the tools to get a deal done, but it will make things challenging for Brian Cashman.
The Yankees are running out the oldest group of hitters in the game and that formula hasn't translated to success on offense. Despite playing home games in one of the best offensive parks in the game, the Yankees rank just 13th in the American League in runs scored. Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) ranks their offense 13th in the AL, a full nine percent below-league average. Injuries to key players like Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran have contributed to the problem, but underperformance from other stars like Brian McCann and Derek Jeter has been at least equally as harmful. Those two may not be going anywhere, but several other positions offer plenty of room for improvement.
After letting Robinson Cano walk away on a 10-year, $240 million deal with Mariners, and watching Alex Rodriguez lose the season to a PED suspension, the Yankees decided to fill the vacancies at second and third with a pair of buy-low veterans with upside in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts and hope for the best. 26-year-old Yangervis Solarte has emerged as a solid replacement at third, but both Johnson and Roberts have been busts on offense, so the Yankees will have to turn to the trade market to find a solution for the keystone sack.
Fortunately for the Yankees, there are a few strong options that could become available this July. I listed Ben Zobrist among the players the Rays can be expected to shop this summer and Tyler Denon saw the Diamondbacks shopping second baseman Aaron Hill. Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius could also land on the Yankees radar as a stopgap solution at second before moving back to short to replace Derek Jeter next year. Josh Duggan believes the Mets' Daniel Murphy could be made available and Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies could also draw serious interest as the deadline approaches.
Looking at the other teams in need of help at second, you can start to see that this is where the Yankees lack of trade material could be an issue. If the bidding ends up pitting the Yankees against teams like the Cardinals, Athletics, and Royals, New York will have a tough time putting together the best package of young talent. For that reason, the Yankees best bet might be a pricey addition like Brandon Phillips, Rickie Weeks or Dan Uggla. One way or another, they are very likely to seek an upgrade here.
Trade Likelihood: High
The Yankees appear to have a surplus of options at DH with veterans like Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Brian McCann all needing some time there to keep them healthy and in the lineup. Unfortunately, the strategy of filtering players into the role has not worked out at all and even with 10 players making at least one appearance in the DH slot, the Yankees have gotten the second-worst production from the position in the American League. Alfonso Soriano has been the biggest problem with the plan. Injuries sidelined Carlos Beltran for the second half of May, giving Soriano the most starts at DH for New York despite just a .229/.253/.390 batting line. Beltran has been equally ineffective since returning from injury. The Yankees need offensive help, but it is hard to imagine them turning to the trade market for a pure DH option. Instead, they are likely to seek upgrades elsewhere and trust that a healthy Beltran and a mix of other veterans can produce better results the rest of the season.
Trade Likelihood: Low
The main reason the Yankees have been able to out-produce their peripherals has been their pitching. At the start of this week, the Yankee rotation ranked fifth in the American League in ERA despite pitching in one of the most difficult environments in the game. They rank sixth in the league in FIP and they have been the best in the league by xFIP, which normalizes home run rates- the biggest disadvantage of their home park. Their bullpen has an ugly 4.15 ERA, but they rank fifth in FIP and second in xFIP.
Unfortunately, that brilliant starting rotation has been hampered by injuries and over the past four days, they have already slipped down to seventh in ERA . They will be without Ivan Nova for the rest of the year thanks to a UCL tear. CC Sabathia is out until after the All-Star break and Michael Pineda will not return until at least August. Rookie Chase Whitley has been a savior in his six starts this season, but the other fill-ins have been mediocre or worse. The Yankees farm system offers little hope for an internal replacement, so a trade is likely at some point. Unfortunately, a second tier starter like Brandon McCarthy or Ian Kennedy might be the best the Yankees can do with their limited arsenal of near MLB-ready prospects.
Trade Likelihood: High
Pieces to Deal
.235/.307/.412 , 4 HR, 15 RBIs, 98 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR
According to Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News, the Yankees have made Johnson available. And why not? Johnson was brought in to be a left-handed bat with some power that could help them at first, second or third. The power has been there to some degree but Johnson's rising strikeout rate and weak contact on the balls he does put in play have limited his production. He is still a serviceable role player, but if the Yankees can use him as part of a package to bring in a superior second baseman or a starter, they would certainly jump at the chance. The desperation of a team like Rangers could play into their hands, but it is hard to see Johnson have much value on his own.
Trade Likelihood: Moderate
.229/.253/.390, 6 HR, 23 RBIs, 70 wRC+, -0.6 fWAR
With the trio of Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Ichiro producing well in the Yankee outfield and Carlos Beltran back from injury, Soriano appears to be completely expendable. Unfortunately, even teams struggling to get production from corner outfield spots or at DH aren't guaranteed much of an upgrade from Soriano. His strikeout rate is just under 30 percent and he has the fourth lowest walk rate among qualified hitters this year. Projection systems like ZiPs and Steamer see him improving on those numbers and getting better results on balls in play, but even those steps forward are not necessarily going to be enough to make him a productive option for most clubs. He is still making $19 million this year as well, so the Yankees will need to pay almost all of his salary if they want to get anything at all in return.
Trade Likelihood: Low
Gary Sanchez/ J.R. Murphy
Baseball America rated Sanchez as the Yankees best prospect and the 35th best prospect in baseball prior to the start of the season. His .251/.324/.409 batting line in 241 Double-A plate appearances isn't breakout material, but it certainly won't hurt his prospect status much. Sanchez's bat has tremendous upside, especially if he can stick at catcher, but the five-year deal the Yankees gave Brian McCann, along with solid early results from J.R. Murphy make Sanchez prime trade bait this summer. With Mason Williams struggling and Slade Heathcott injured again, Sanchez might be the only top prospect teams are interested in as the centerpiece of a big trade. Murphy has been attracting trade interest as well and a .286/.308/.365 batting line in 65 major-league plate appearances this season should help his value, but Sanchez is probably the player the Yankees will need to deal if they want to land an impact player this summer. Between the two, the Yankees have impressive depth in their system behind the plate, so dealing at least one of the two is very strong possibility.
Trade Likelihood: High
It feels like Manny Benuelos has been on the Yankees top prospect charts forever, but the Mexican southpaw is still just 23 and his stock is on the rise again now that he is back from Tommy John surgery. He has made 13 starts and pitched 35 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A this season for a combined 3.34 ERA. His control has been an issue since his promotion to Double-A but a 8.9 K/9 rate is tantalizing. In a system where most of the top arms are still in the lower levels, Benuelos stands out as the best option for teams looking to score a near-MLB ready arm in a deal with the Yankees.