NEW YORK — As Major League Baseball’s trading deadline approaches, the pressure at Yankee Stadium is not in the clubhouse, but in the office of the team’s GM.
For the first time in recent memory, not a single player in the Yankees’ clubhouse has been the subject of trade rumors. No one has had to deal with being asked if he believes he is playing his last game in pinstripes, as Sonny Gray was last year at this time and as Brett Gardner has been several times in his 11-season Yankees tenure. This season, it is highly unlikely that anyone wearing a Yankees uniform on Wednesday will not be wearing one on Thursday.
The question is, which player who is not currently a Yankee will be one come Aug. 1?
That is the question Brian Cashman must answer, and as the hours wind down to the deadline, at 4 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday afternoon, Cashman’s options seem to be narrowing while his need remains the same.
The Yankees need a starting pitcher, and they need one now. And it is the job of Cashman, who has done a remarkable job of building depth in his roster and maintaining a winning ballclub as one after another of his position players has gone down, to pull off one more coup if his team is truly to be a serious contender this fall.
Tuesday night, the Yankees got what would on most nights be considered a workmanlike performance at best out of J.A. Happ: six innings of eight-hit, three-run ball that was just good enough to lose 4-2 to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Yankee Stadium.
But compared with what the Yankees have been getting out of their starting rotation recently, Happ’s outing must have seemed like a vintage Whitey Ford start.
Over the previous eight games, only one Yankees starter, Domingo German — an emergency addition to the rotation when the presumptive ace, Luis Severino, went on the IL with a lat strain before the season started — lasted as many as 5 1/3 innings.
None of the other four starters — Happ, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia — made it out of the fifth inning. In that stretch, in which the Yankees lost five of the eight games, the ERA of their starters was 14.65. You read that right.
Happ, acquired at last season’s trade deadline because of his track record against the Boston Red Sox, bombed out in the playoffs. Paxton, acquired in a trade last winter, has been injured and a disappointment. Tanaka has been erratic and Sabathia is 39 years old and hobbled by a chronic degenerative knee injury.
There is no real ace on this staff and if the playoffs were to start tomorrow, no one could say with any certainty nor sense of confidence whom manager Aaron Boone would hand the ball to for Game 1.
That is what makes Cashman’s next few hours so vital to the immediate future of his ballclub.
Over the past few years, the Yanks GM has pulled off some trade deadline stunners, and none more stunning than in 2016, when, faced with the prospect of an October without baseball, Cashman shed relievers Andrew Miller (to Cleveland) and Aroldis Chapman (to the Cubs). Those two wound up facing one another in the World Series while the Yankees finished out of the money.
But this year, his job is not being made easier by the fact that two of his potential targets are off the board — on Sunday, Marcus Stroman was traded to the Mets, and on Tuesday, as the Yankees were losing to the Diamondbacks, they were also losing Trevor Bauer to the Cincinnati Reds.
Plus, the whole league knows how badly the Yankees need pitching. Other teams can sense their desperation and are not about to cut a sweet deal for a franchise that is widely envied and resented around the league.
Already, some Mets executives have told Yahoo Sports that the Yankees would have to offer a significantly better deal than any other club to score one of their coveted starting pitchers. Plus, on Tuesday a Mets front office executive said the club was not interested in either Clint Frazier or Miguel Andujar, two of the Yankees’ most attractive big-league ready trade chips. That makes it highly unlikely that either Noah Syndergaard or Zack Wheeler, both of whom are on the block, will wind up in the Bronx.
That leaves the Yankees with slim pickings. There is the Tigers’ Matthew Boyd, and Madison Bumgarner of the Giants and Robbie Ray, who will be in the visitors dugout when the Yankees and Diamondbacks wrap up their two-game series on Wednesday afternoon.
And there has even been talk that the Yankees might stand pat, hoping for the return of Severino in September and perhaps cobbling together a game or two with reliever Chad Green as an opener or using Jonathan Loaisiga, who has made seven big-league starts in two years but is still a rookie, as a spot starter.
“I would say that at this time of year, with 24 hours to go, anything is always possible,’’ manager Aaron Boone said before the game. “It’s not me up there having those conversations, but I don’t think we ever could rule anything out.’’
That would be an extremely risky move for a team that has survived a seemingly crippling rash of injuries — Giancarlo Stanton, Dellin Betances, Brett Gardner, Gary Sanchez and Andujar are currently on the IL, and Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, Paxton and Gregorius have missed significant time this season — but still managed to build a 10-game lead in the AL East as recently as July 24.
Having lost five of their last eight games, mostly due to ineffective starting pitching, the Yankees lead has shrunk to 7 1/2 games, and Tuesday night, they potentially lost Voit again when he left the game with a recurrence of the “core muscle injury’’ that sidelined him in June.
Throughout the season, the Yankees’ party line has been to find someone in their clubhouse to pick up the slack for the regulars that have gone down, and they have gotten remarkable performances out of DJ LeMahieu, a surprise winter free-agent signing, and Gio Urshela, acquired at last season’s trade deadline, when Andujar and Gregorius were injured.
Last month, the Yankees added Edwin Encarnacion, who is capable of replacing Voit if his injury is serious enough to warrant another IL stint.
But it will not be as easy to find a pitcher who can fill the role Cashman expected Happ to fill last season, and Paxton to take over this season, that one stud starter who can match up with Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole or Charlie Morton if the Yankees are to have any hope of making it out of the AL in October.
“I don’t think there’s any question sometimes a move can galvanize your team. It can certainly have an effect,’’ Boone said. “But I don’t worry so much about our guys. I think they look around at each other in that room and know what they’re capable of doing with the people who are in there now. They hear the rumors and whispers and whatnot. But whatever does or doesn’t happens over the next 24 hours, I don’t expect it to affect anyone in that room.’’
But it does have an effect, even if just in terms of wondering if come Thursday morning, there will be new faces in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
“You can’t help but think about it,’’ Judge said. “I know guys are probably watching and wondering what’s going to happen, just based on the position of us being contenders and being first in our division. But guys still know there’s a job we got to do, whether it’s with this crew or if we add people. No one knows. I just think we’ll all be happy once the trade deadline’s past so we can just concentrate on playing baseball.’’
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