Never forget, when analyzing Brian Cashman's worst trade and roster construction blunders, that they don't all have to be blockbusters.
Before the 2021 season, Cashman quite simply put a "Bad Player" on the roster in place of a "Good One." It wasn't to clear out the 40-man. It wasn't to suss out the middle infield picture. It involved adding a middle infielder with a bad big-league track record and removing a prospect who'd worked his lower half off to become a valuable utility guy. Boom. Bye. We'll take the bad one.
That transaction was DFAing Thairo Estrada, sacrificing six years of control in the process, in favor of Rougned Odor, a chronic itch of a Yankee who was shucked off the 40-man roster following the 2021 season. Did Odor have his moments with the Bombers? Sure. Occasionally, he went yard (15 times). Often, he'd pop up behind the mound or inside the first base bag or somewhere else insane. Somehow, his OPS+ remained well below league average (82).
Several times in recent years, the Yankees have based their roster construction around clearing the long-term pathway for Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, even after bringing back DJ LeMahieu. They've dealt away infielders rather than add them to the 40-man (we'll get to that in a bit). They've shied away from excellent free agent fits like Corey Seager (while adding short-term concerns like Josh Donaldson). You might not love the plan, and you're bound to make some incorrect judgments along the way, but at least it's a strategy.
Sending Estrada -- who was already on the 40-man -- to no man's land, just to add a worse ballplayer with more defensive flaws in his place? You probably didn't foresee him posting a 125 OPS+ with 2.5 bWAR through June 12 with the 2023 Giants, but you didn't have to. Forget forecasting growth for Estrada. The process was already inscrutable. It was a grocery list written in sanskrit on whale blubber.
Yankees should've kept Thairo Estrada (and maybe Zeke Duran?)
Add in the story of Estrada's emergence as a top-30 prospect (you know, how he was shot in the hip and let the bullet stay there for a while), and it feels all the more ridiculous to have let him waltz in order to wedge a worse and more expensive version of himself onto the roster. Even if Estrada hadn't broken out at age-27 in San Francisco, he would've remained a valuable and versatile solution for the Yankees (he even plays a little left field!). Of course, he did break out. That's also part of it.
Which brings us to the other variety of Cashman Blunder that's plagued the past three seasons, where seemingly every single, "Will it work, or won't it?" coin flip has gone in the wrong direction. The process of packaging Ezequiel Durán, Josh Smith, Trevor Hauver and Glenn Otto together in a four-for-two deal in 2021 was sound. Both Durán and Smith would need to be added to the 40-man at the end of the season, lest they be subjected to the Rule 5 Draft. If Durán wasn't ready to be called up and contribute at a moment's notice, the win-now Yankees would've had to either trade him after the season or trade him during the season. They deemed him ... not ready. Based on his 2022 performance (82 OPS+), they were probably right. It took a little while.
The only problem here? The player they targeted in trade was Joey Gallo; no Cashman blockbuster looks worse in retrospect. Even Frankie Montas had the common decency to make himself disappear.
And while Durán might not have been a better fit than 2022 Gleyber Torres, it certainly seems possible he would've been a better addition to the 2023 roster than the current version of Torres, outclassing him in OPS+ 141 to 110 and starring for the best offense in recent baseball history with the Rangers. You want to trade Torres last summer/this offseason without worrying about decimating the offense by adding top prospects like Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe? It's a much easier call to make if Estrada is still here, or if Estrada had been traded in 2022 so Durán could get some big-league bench seasoning (in place of, say, Miguel Andújar) and take the next step in 2023.
Instead, the Yankees removed Estrada to add an unnecessary piece in his place, who then blocked a 40-man spot for Durán, leaving him as an ideal trade gamble ... for someone better than Joey Gallo. Alas, the Yankees ended up with the worse option on the active roster every single time they tried to shuffle things.