The Yankees are right in the thick of the race 69 games into the season. They sit at 37-33 despite a run-differential (278 runs scored and 303 runs allowed) suggesting a true talent level of a 32-37 team. They have done well in 1-run (9-6) and extra inning (4-2) games. The bullpen has been excellent, and that explains some of the good fortune in close games, but teams tend to regress towards .500 for these types of games. The Yankees have been somewhat lucky the first 2.5 months of the season, and shouldn’t expect that to continue. Upgrades at several positions are needed as the trade deadline approaches. Usually the Yankees use the trade deadline to fill out the bullpen or add a bench bat. This year they have 2 bigger needs to address: second base and a 3rd starting pitcher.
Brian Roberts used to be an excellent player for the Orioles. Now, Roberts is a 36-year-old who has not played a full season since 2009. Chris Stewart to Brian McCann might have been the biggest upgrade over the winter while Robinson Cano to Brian Roberts is the biggest downgrade. The slash line is .236/.318/.338. The fWAR is 0.0 and rWAR is 0.6. He is a replacement level player. It is theoretically easier to upgrade over a replacement level player than an average (2 WAR) or All-Star (4+ WAR) level player. The Cubs’ Luis Valbuena would provide that upgrade. Valbuena, 28-years-old, has really seen a spike in his walk rate the past 3 years with the Cubs (11.9%, 13.6%, 14.0%). The power (.135 career ISO), mostly doubles, is okay for a middle infielder, and he is a net negative on the basepaths. Valbuena plays second and third (like Yangervis Solarte and Kelly Johnson) and DRS and UZR see him as average at second and slightly above average at third. At worst, the lefty-swinging Valbuena could be a half a win upgrade over Roberts if he can continue drawing walks and hitting for average during the best season of his career. Additionally, the Yankees could keep Valbuena through 2016 as an arbitration-eligible player. Valbuena could play the Kelly Johnson role the next 2 seasons.
Masahiro Tanaka has been excellent and Hiroki Kuroda‘s results are starting to match his process, but the rest of the rotation could use a boost. Ivan Nova isn’t coming back and the Yankees really need to approach the trade deadline as if CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda aren’t either. Jason Hammel would be a solid addition in the 3-spot, and would be no worse than the 5th best starting pitcher option for the stretch run if Sabathia and Pineda came back healthy and effective. A 31-year-old righty, Hammel has the best strikeout (24.0%) and walk (5.4%) rates of his career this year. The ground ball rate (40.3%) is a little below average, but he has kept the ball in the yard (0.71 HR/9 and 7.8% HR/FB). He is also having the best season of his career, although there were glimpses of this in 2009, 2010, and 2012. A byproduct of trading for a starter is that the bullpen improves with the addition of Vidal Nuno or David Phelps.
The acquisition cost for Hammel and Valbuena could be tough to meet for the Yankees. Surely they can afford the pro-rated portion (from the time they acquire them) of $6 million through the end of this season for Hammel, and $1.7 million through the end of this season for Valbuena. The question is if they can meet the Cubs asking price. The deal might be hard to consummate as the Cubs are likely at a point on the championship cycle where they are targeting specific positions (pitchers over hitters) rather than simply stockpiling the best talent they can find without regard for how the pieces fit on a team.
Additionally, as a team that is almost ready to seriously compete, they need starting pitchers that are close to MLB ready, something the Yankees don’t really have to offer. The high-end arms, Luis Severino, Ian Clarkin, and Ty Hensley are all below Double-A and won’t be able to help a major league team for a few more years. Hammel and Valbuena certainly fit and completing one package deal rather than a series of separate transactions has the added value of minimizing frictional costs for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees might not have the specific parts the Cubs seek in a trade.