This isn’t the first time Brian Cashman has struck a blockbuster trade with the intention of bolstering an area of strength, rather than amending one glaring deficiency. He’s implemented this strategy into practice twice since last December, and both deals have increased the Yankees’ odds of reaching and winning the World Series in 2018.
When Cashman learned that his pursuit and sales pitch to Shohei Ohtani was all for naught in the offseason — the Japanese phenom ultimately expressed no interest in playing on the East Coast — he opted to pivot, and instead of obtaining a coveted starting pitcher, he exploited the low market value for Giancarlo Stanton, which shocked baseball executives during the winter meetings.
Perhaps it was gluttonous and characteristic of Cashman and the Yankees to make such a splash, but the timing was just too convenient. In the moment, balking at the opportunity to revamp an already powerful offense would’ve seemed foolish. Things fell into place, and Cashman pounced.
On Tuesday night, Cashman encountered a scenario quite similar to the one he faced eight months ago. In this instance, he orchestrated a trade for Baltimore Orioles’ left-handed reliever Zach Britton, in exchange for three pitching prospects. Considering the Orioles’ blatant need to sell their uncontrollable assets in order to start the grueling rebuilding process — Manny Machado and Britton will be free agents this upcoming winter — Cashman sprang into action, and acquired the top reliever left on the market.
“We’re not asking Zach Britton to come in here to be anything other than what he already is,” Cashman said in a conference call on Wednesday. “We’re asking him already to just be a part of a group of people that are all more than capable… So he should blend in rather nicely.”
Much like Stanton’s potent presence in the lineup, a pitcher of Britton’s caliber should make the Yankees’ bullpen nearly indestructible. The proof is in the numbers, as entering Wednesday, New York’s relief unit leads the majors in strikeouts (448), opponents batting average (.199), and ERA (2.75). Now, the Yankees have four of the 14 active big league pitchers (with at least 100 relief innings) who have career ERA’s under 2.50.
That’s a force to be reckoned with.
“I believe [Britton] is one of the best relievers in the game,” closer Aroldis Chapman told the New York Post on Tuesday, through an interpreter. “Having the opportunity to add someone like that, with so much talent, would be very helpful to us.
“When you bring somebody like him, it gives you an opportunity to rotate and divide the workload… Definitely helpful there.”
Although the Yankees’ well-established need of rotation help remains their top priority this week, Cashman’s deal for Britton can be viewed as a useful reminder of how thin the starting pitching market is. There is no team with a front-line ace for the Yankees to woo. It’s an inconvenient reality, but it’s reality nevertheless.
Still, nothing can stop the Yankees from trading for a starter like J.A. Happ and Cole Hamels, even if these two veterans aren’t necessarily postseason difference makers. With the Yankees required to pay the remainder of Britton’s salary (roughly $4.4 million, according to Spotrac.com), Cashman has about $11 million left to spend without exceeding the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Plus, the Yankees have the prospect pool to make money even less of an issue in negotiations. And who knows, maybe a Happ or Hamels turns out to be a pleasant surprise for a contending team down the stretch.
But what shouldn’t be ignored is that the Yankees now have a tactical advantage — one that can and should pay dividends when the stakes are high.
In the modern age of baseball, analytics and pitching matchups are constantly dissected by coaching staffs and front offices. And to have the ability to call upon a group of dominant relievers to face any given lineup in any given inning of any given game is something that just a few championship teams have ever possessed. Sure, it’s imperative to have reliable starting pitching in a division and pennant race. No one disputes that. But in the past few seasons, shutdown bullpens have spearheaded title runs. The blueprint has been laid out before.
“It’s clearly something that teams can do,” Cashman said about calling on relievers in early, high-leverage game situations. “If it’s the best avenue for any team to take versus the alternative, they’ll be willing to do it and we’ll be no different. But it’s not something that’s on the forefront of our thought process.
“The preference would be to have a strong starting rotation that gets you deep into games and then you can turn it over to a fresh, usable, high-ceiling-type bullpen. That would be the perfect recipe, but I know it doesn’t play out that way.”
One of the other perks to the Britton trade is that it took the Red Sox and Astros out of the sweepstakes. Right now, Boston and Houston look like American League favorites, with the Yankees not too far behind. How steep would New York’s mountain have been if one of their rivals seized Britton instead? It’s safe to assume this thought never slipped Cashman’s mind.
“The best way to do business is to put a price tag on something and be willing to walk away,” Cashman said. “No matter what we do, our opponents are going to do something also or continue to do things that they’ve already started. And they’ll reinforce and improve in their own form and fashion. You respect it, you understand it, and you just keep plowing forward, regardless of it.”
Since Britton missed a large chunk of the 2017 campaign and two months of this season with a rupture to his right Achilles tendon, it’s unlikely that the Yankees will receive the 2016 version of the 30-year-old, who posted a stunning career-low 0.54 ERA in 67 innings and recorded a career-high 47 saves. However, Britton has shown signs that he’s turning a corner and possibly finding his old groove. In 16 games this year (15.2 innings), Britton owns a 3.45 ERA and four saves.
If Britton can be just half of what he was for the Orioles two years ago, the Yankees will take it and run. After all, they know firsthand how Britton looks when things are clicking for him.
“Obviously he’s got a power sinker. How close he is to the All-Star guy, I don’t know. Our hope is we’ll be able to see something like that on a consistent basis,” Cashman said. “But he obviously had a major injury that he’s come back from with the Achilles and he’s missed a lot of time and knocking the rust off and closing the gap on where he was and what he’s capable of.
“We certainly had a chance recently to see him up-close and personal when he was carving up our lineup… Hopefully we can come close to some of the success he’s had for so long while he was in Baltimore.”
A pitcher like Britton comes at a cost, but Baltimore’s desperation to move him gave Cashman and the Yankees some leverage. For a two-month rental, New York yielded two Top-20 prospects — righties Dillon Tate (No. 9, per MLBPipeline) and Cody Carroll (No. 15) — and left-handed starter Josh Rogers. The package was headlined by the 24-year-old Tate, who some scouts believe has the makeup of a back-end rotation or bullpen piece in the majors.
Based on that evaluation, it’s possible the Yankees aren’t losing much young, promising talent. They should be able to sleep well at night. And to their delight, elite youngsters like Justus Sheffield, Estevan Florial, Clint Frazier, Albert Abreu, and Chance Adams are still with the club. Whether or not those names are moved is solely up to Cashman. Based on the incessant July trade rumors, they’re not going anywhere at the moment.
With all of this taken into account, the acquisition of Britton upholds the Yankees’ goal of competing for a world championship this year, even though the pressing matter of starting pitching has yet to be addressed. And if Britton is a perfect match on the field and in the clubhouse, New York will be in a good position to try to bring him back on a long-term basis.
Also known as, another method of business Cashman is quite familiar with.