Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 28, 2016

Decision Time In The Major Leagues

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey this weekend. Sunday’s post will be delayed until Monday. Thanks to everyone for your continued support.

Two weeks ago, as all thirty major league teams prepared to resume play following the All-Star break, we noted that fans of every team with a record above .500 could tell themselves that their heroes had a genuine chance to make the postseason. With two Wild Card spots available in both leagues, and with plenty of historical precedent for a Wild Card to get hot and go deep into October, there were an unusually high number of clubs still playing meaningful games. Now the final weekend before the non-waiver trade deadline is upon us. Now the owners and general managers of some of those teams must make hard decisions. Just how genuine are those playoff chances? That’s the question being asked in front offices all around the country. Inevitably some fans aren’t going to like the answer.

Already two clubs, the White Sox and Royals, that were above .500 coming out of the break have slipped and now sport losing records as this is written. Both are looking a long ways up at AL Central division leader Cleveland. Chicago is six and Kansas City is six and a half games back of Boston for the second AL Wild Card. It’s not just the number of games that either team would have to gain over the final two months; but also the number of other teams that would have to be passed. White Sox GM Rick Hahn might convince himself that with the addition of a player or two his team could get back on track and move up in the standings. But is it really logical to believe that Chicago can overtake not just Boston, but all of the other four teams that currently sit closer to that second Wild Card than do the White Sox? No great surprise then, that baseball’s rumor mill has both the White Sox and Royals looking to sell at the deadline.

For some clubs the last two weeks has brought decidedly better news. The Houston Astros, despite just dropping a series to the Yankees, continue their determined climb back from a dreadful April. At the end of the longest season’s first month the Astros were ten games under .500 at 7-17. Since then Houston has been winning at a 101 game full-season rate. The Astros go into the weekend just a game back of Boston, but also just two and a half behind Texas for the AL West lead, having cut their division deficit by three games in a fortnight.

Three other division races have also tightened since the break. Cleveland and Washington still lead the AL Central and NL East respectively, but Detroit and Miami have crept closer, giving the leaders something to think about. Meanwhile the NL West is now a tight battle between the two teams that took their old rivalry from Gotham to the West Coast more than half a century ago.  That’s thanks in large part to a road trip that San Francisco fans would surely like to forget. The Giants lost seven of eight in San Diego, Boston and New York.  Things didn’t get better when they returned home at the start of this week. San Francisco just dropped two of three to the lowly Reds. The Dodgers are now just two and a half back in the division and comfortably atop the NL Wild Card race, and have gotten there without the services of the Great Game’s best pitcher.

Teams that are clearly in the thick of the pennant races will be strongly tempted to shore up any weak spots in the next few days. Already the Cubs have paid a king’s ransom to the Yankees for a two month rental of closer Aroldis Chapman, who is a free agent at the end of the year. To acquire Chapman’s hundred mile an hour 9th inning fastball, Chicago had to send its top prospect, 19-year old infielder Gleyber Torres, the versatile right-handed swingman Adam Warren, and two more promising prospects to New York.

But what about clubs like the Yankees, which remain on the fringes of the race? New York GM Brian Cashman could honestly assert that the Chapman deal did not represent a decision by the Yankees to become trade deadline sellers, something they haven’t been in a generation. The back end of New York’s bullpen is formidable, with both Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances more than capable of assuming the role of closer. Starting with a series in Cleveland just before the All-Star Game, the Yankees have gone 11-6 and won four of five series against the Indians, Red Sox, Orioles, Giants and Astros – all teams very much in the playoff race.

The temptation will be strong for Cashman to add rather than subtract, and it’s been reported by the Gotham media that even before this latest stretch of wins that’s exactly what Hal Steinbrenner wanted to do. But if the Yankees go that route they will have committed the old sin of drawing big conclusions from a small sample size. They may improve their long-shot chances for making it to this year’s postseason. But in doing so they will miss an opportunity to build for a brighter long-term future.

Manager Joe Girardi gets the most out of his players. This year, as in three of the last four, the Yankees have been outscored by their opponents. The Pythagorean expectation formula developed by Bill James uses run differential to project wins. Over the years it has been a remarkably good method of forecasting results. Simply put, a team that gets outscored shouldn’t wind up with a winning record. Somehow Girardi’s Yankees have defied the formula, and perhaps they will do so again this season. But their team OPS of .702 is last in the American League, and their normal starting lineup features just two players under the age of 30.

This is not a team built to win a World Series; and that, not simply making the playoffs, is the perennial goal of the fans who flock to the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. So Brian Cashman, here’s a plea from a lifelong Yankee fan: don’t yield to temptation. Carlos Beltran is having a great year at the plate. Surely an AL contender will part with some good prospects to get a slugging DH for the stretch run. Neither Ivan Nova nor Nathan Eovaldi are Cy Young candidates, but teams can never have too much pitching. And of course, either Miller or Betances, who aren’t about to be free agents, could command a package even better than what you got for Chapman.

So sell Brian, sell, sell, sell. Stock up on youth, cut the payroll, and let’s clear the decks for that ever so appealing free agent class of 2018. Jose Fernandez on the mound at the Stadium? Bryce Harper in pinstripes? Yankee fans may be the only ones who won’t be disappointed if their team becomes a trade deadline seller, but our expectations are unique. We aren’t interested in tickets to a single Wild Card game. Yankee fans are only interested in championship number twenty-eight. That was always management’s goal when the Boss was alive. Is it still?

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