As the New York Yankees took the field Sunday afternoon at Target Field vs. the Minnesota Twins, a stark reality faced a team struggling to climb over .500: the depth of legitimate American League contenders. From the Baltimore Orioles to the Toronto Blue Jays to the Detroit Tigers to the Kansas City Royals to a trio of really good teams in the AL West, the Yankees are in for a dogfight in order to reach October.
When the Oakland Athletics essentially stole two potential pitching targets—Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel—from the field in Friday evening's deal with the Chicago Cubs, desperation set in for New York. Soon after, Saturday's loss, stemming from an error in extra innings, exasperated the Yankees' plight.
On Sunday, general manger Brian Cashman acted aggressively, changing the Yankees roster in a way that can be described right now as more desperation than brilliance.
First, the team shipped Vidal Nuno to the Arizona Diamondbacks for veteran right-handed starter Brandon McCarthy, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Hours later, manager Joe Girardi announced that the squad had designated outfielder Alfonso Soriano, in the midst of an awful season, for assignment, per Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News.
In the span of one morning, the Yankees added a starter with a 5.01 ERA and cut ties with a former homegrown prospect who helped carry the team after a July 2013 trade reunited Soriano with Yankee Stadium.
On one hand, McCarthy's peripheral stats (3.79 FIP, 2.89 xFIP) could point to an impending turnaround, and Soriano's lost season could be viewed as addition by subtraction for a team that's struggling to sustain offense throughout games.
Yet that's a kind view of Cashman's moves. They may work, but McCarthy's arrival and Soriano's departure are hardly season-changing moves or the blockbuster deals that many fans have clamored for in New York. If the transactions are a precursor to a move for Cliff Lee, David Price or Cole Hamels, perhaps the ball is rolling in the right direction.
For now, however, the Yankees look like a team searching for answers and looking to improve—even by just a game or two—at the margins. In a sport with an unparalleled amount of parity, Cashman's moves and philosophy could turn out to be prescient. With projected stars like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran on the roster, the idea of the Yankees' highly paid assets playing better isn't crazy.
Until then, McCarthy's spot in the rotation must suffice as enough of an upgrade to keep the Yankees afloat in the AL postseason race. With CC Sabathia closer to the operating table than a pitching mound, Girardi needs a starter who can shut down opposing offenses.
As noted, McCarthy's ERA may not be a fair indicator of how well he's actually pitched this season for the Diamondbacks. With an excellent ground-ball rate (55.3) and fielding-independent numbers, it's not unrealistic to expect an uptick in performance for the 30-year-old.
ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews sees the positives in the move, but he notes it is far from a game-changer: "While McCarthy likely represents an upgrade over Nuno, he is not going to carry the Yankees to the division title or pitch them through the playoffs and into the World Series."
Girardi and the Yankees clearly believe in what McCarthy can bring to the table, per ESPN.com.
"McCarthy is an experienced starter, that we expect to pitch well for us," Girardi said. "I know he's had his struggles, but he's seemed to turn it around. He has a good arm. His last few starts have been pretty good."
Of course, that's conjecture, hope and projection for a pitcher sporting a 3-10 record. For now, McCarthy's unsightly ERA is worse than all but two qualified starters, per FanGraphs. If not for the struggles of Ricky Nolasco and Justin Masterson, the Yankees would have the distinction of acquiring the pitcher with the worst ERA in the sport. As it is, the team has traded for the only NL starter with an ERA over 5.00.
If those numbers are stark, almost everything about Soriano's 2014 stat line (.221/.244/.367) is cringe-worthy. After crushing 34 home runs, driving in over 100 runs and contributing more than 2.0 WAR during stops in Chicago and New York last season, the 38-year-old might be finished as a big league player. That idea is all but confirmed by Baseball-Reference: Soriano cost the Yankees 1.5 wins this season.
Addition by subtraction is admirable, but Beltran's injury-plagued season and full-time designated hitter role now leaves the Yankees with a seemingly punchless outfield. If Ichiro Suzuki takes over as the full-time right fielder, the Yankees could sport an outfield alignment that combines for fewer than 25 homers over the course of the 2014 campaign.
To put that in perspective, no outfield grouping hit fewer than 34 homers last year, per FanGraphs. Soriano's season looked lost, but his powerful bat was always streaky. The idea of a diminished, aging Soriano catching fire and hitting 15 home runs over the next few months wasn't outrageous. Thus far, Brett Gardner (eight), Ellsbury (four) and Suzuki (zero) have combined for 12 home runs.
In the aftermath of Oakland's aggressive and timely moves, desperation hit home for Cashman and the Yankees. At 43-43, status quo wasn't working and couldn't be counted on to turn around anytime soon in a competitive AL race.
Now, the team certainly has a new look and could be improved. If you believe in the idea of McCarthy's peripherals and Soriano's unsolvable issues, the moves will likely earn praise.
Skepticism, however, is warranted. The Yankees are desperate to improve and acted like it Sunday morning.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and ESPN unless otherwise noted and valid through the start of play on July 6. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
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