By John Harper
With every win, with every Aaron Judge moon shot, Brian Cashman is surely assessing and re-assessing his timetable for chasing a championship again, even here in early May.
In other words, he’s probably already canvassing the baseball landscape and asking: “Where can I get a front-line pitcher come July?”
Before the Yankees turned into the surprise team of the 2017 season, I believed Cashman was already looking ahead to the day he would turn his newly acquired depth of prospects into a trade for a top pitcher at some point, probably next winter.
In January, I speculated Gerrit Cole could be that ace-type starter to help put the Yankees over the top in 2018 or beyond, but with the Pirates’ slow start perhaps pushing them toward a rebuild sooner than expected, maybe such a deal could happen at the trade deadline this summer.
It’s too early for either team to seriously consider such a move just yet. The Yankees need to continue mashing, establishing themselves as serious contenders to the point where it would be worth taking a big chunk out of the farm system for the right pitcher.
And the Pirates have to be far enough out of contention in another month or two to be convinced they do need a rebuild.
But sooner or later they’re almost certainly trading Cole, an elite power pitcher who will be a free agent after the 2019 season, because they won’t be able to afford to sign him. So the question is when.
In the meantime, the Yankees’ stunning start invites another intriguing question: should Cashman, in retrospect, have gotten in on the Chris Sale sweepstakes?
The Yankee GM declined last winter, famously saying, “that’s a move you make when you’re one player away.”
It made sense at the time, at least partly because Cashman wanted another year to evaluate his prospect haul from last season before deciding who was untouchable among the likes of Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, etc., and who wasn’t.
As it turns out, though, it’s possible the 2017 Yankees really are only one player away from doing big things this season.
More precisely, one pitcher: because even if they continue to bash the ball all over the Bronx, which doesn’t seem so unthinkable at the moment, with Judge emerging as a monstrous force and Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird not even joining the party yet, they’re going to need more pitching to make it stick.
Imagine Sale in the Yankee rotation?
In truth, however, even with their replenished farm system, I don’t think the Yanks could have trumped the Red Sox package of Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech.
That is, unless they were willing to trade Gary Sanchez, which at the time was unthinkable.
Sure, if you knew Judge was going to turn into Babe Ruth, maybe you would have considered it.
Sanchez and James Kaprielian for Sale?
“That’s probably what it would have taken to outbid Boston,” an executive from another major league club said on Thursday. “But it’s not realistic to look at it that way five or six months later.
“Everybody loved Kaprielian, but now he’s out for the year (Tommy John surgery) and Sanchez has been hurt, so it’s easy to look back. But there’s no way the Yankees in a rebuilding mode were giving up two young, untouchable guys, even for Sale.”
Fair enough. But what would it take to get Cole? The same executive offered an interesting idea: Frazier and Justus Sheffield, the top two prospects the Yankees received from the Indians in the Andrew Miller trade last year.
“Frazier hasn’t hit much in Triple-A but he’s still young (22) with a high ceiling, and Sheffield projects as a No. 3 or 4 starter,” the exec said. “It might take another solid prospect and a fringe guy too, because Cole would be a hot commodity if he is available, and Pittsburgh would want quantity as well as quality. But the Yankees have the depth to outbid other teams.”
Even with Frazier’s “legendary bat speed,” as Cashman called it the day he made the trade, the Yankees could afford to deal the outfielder, in part because of what Judge is doing, in part because they’re high on two other outfield prospects, Dustin Fowler and Blake Rutherford, and in part because they’ll have the money to go get free agent Bryce Harper after the 2018 season.
Of course, if they decide to spend on Manny Machado instead, they’ll still have plenty of offense.
In any case, it seems the future has arrived sooner than expected, and Cashman may have to adjust his planning.
Certainly he needs to see more. Certainly Chase Headley, Starlin Castro and Matt Holliday, not to mention Judge, could go as cold as they’ve been hot.
But already this has the feel of one of those starts that builds a confident vibe for a ballclub as the pieces fall into place, and if it still feels that way in a month or so, if you’re the Yankees you go for it.
Right now it looks like they have the offense and the bullpen, but even with Masahiro Tanaka rounding into form and Luis Severino showing signs of dominance, they would need at least one more top starter.
There will be other starters available at the deadline, namely Jose Quintana or perhaps Marco Estrada or J.A. Happ, but Cole, at age 26, would be the best option, for this season and the long term as well.
He’s off to a strong start in 2017, incorporating a changeup more than in previous years to go with his 96-mph fastball. And Cole is also the guy who got away, famously spurning the Yankees for UCLA after they made him their first-round draft pick in 2008.
Cashman would love to close that old wound as well.
We’ll see. The Yankee GM earned industry-wide kudos as a rare seller last season. But he may well need to complete the circle faster than expected as a surprise buyer this summer.