The reason it is so delightful to fantasize about the New York Yankees as sellers at Major League Baseball's non-waiver trade deadline is because it has never happened before. Never.
The deadline was set at July 31 for the 1986 season. And though the Yankees have had a few relatively hopeless seasons in the intervening 27 years, they've never responded to that adversity by trying to build the prospect base and giving up on the season at hand. That's not in the Yankee manual. An early trade-deadline deal back in 1987 led to Ken Phelps and this fit from Frank Costanza. And so it has been every July, ever since. A few years, there's been radio silence. Otherwise, binge shopping.
But then, much of what's happened in 2013 is new to the Steinbrenner-era Yankees, too. Russell Martin was the team's catcher. They let him go to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the relative pittance of $17 million over two years. And having failed to replace him, the result has been a 621 OPS from their catchers.
Nor is this the only black hole. Their catchers, collectively, are out-hitting their left fielders (600 OPS), their third basemen (577 OPS) and their shortstops (565 OPS).
As a result, despite a capable pitching staff, the Yankees find themselves seven games out of 1st place in the American League East entering Tuesday's games. They trail the Orioles by 3.5 games for the second wild card spot, and the Texas Rangers are ahead of them as well, while the Cleveland Indians are an identical 52-46.
Most teams this close to contending wouldn't sell. And the Yankees, whose entire business model is largely built around the inevitability of playoff games at Yankee Stadium, aren't a good bet to throw that over.
Then again, who'd have believed the Yankees would have eschewed spending whatever it takes?
Accordingly, if the Yankees wanted to sell, they could do so judiciously -- building around a young group of outfielders expected sometime in 2014 or early 2015, plus young pitchers aplenty (led by Michael Pineda, bizarrely) -- and prepare to spend aggressively this offseason to augment them. And with precisely the opposite problem of virtually every other contender -- a surplus of pitching, and not nearly enough hitting -- finding trade partners would be awfully easy, while they have younger pitching replacements for virtually everyone they'd be dealing away.
Here are the players I'd definitely deal, were I in their shoes (and, in some cases, if no-trade clauses could be gotten around): Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte.
Mariano Rivera? Let me stop you right there. I know the Yankees won't deal Mariano Rivera. It's too bad, too: for the final few months of the greatest relief pitcher of all time, someone could give the Yankees an elite prospect, providing the Yankees and their fans a living monument for Rivera, the way John Smoltz, acquired from the Tigers for Doyle Alexander at the 1987 trade deadline, served as one for the Braves.
And second basemen with 151 OPS+ aren't assets you trade. You lock them up. So it should be with Robinson Cano.
So no, the Yankees aren't likely to deal Rivera or Cano. They almost certainly wouldn't deal Pettitte, and there's almost no way they deal Kuroda, even if they could convince either of those two to waive their no-trade clauses.
But consider what they'd achieve if they did trade them all.
The Yankee system is not teeming with position players who are big-league-ready, or nearly so. That's been obvious this season, with injuries forcing the Yankees to examine all their in-house options, their Zoilo Almontes, their Thomas Neals, their David Adamses. If you were hoping the opposite of an over-hyped Yankees prospect doing poorly was an unheralded Yankees prospect doing well, 2013 was a disappointment for you.
Now, when it comes to Hughes and Chamberlain, the Yankees can't expect much in return. Both are hitting free agency this winter, and neither one has been particularly effective. But with 10 National League teams considering themselves in contention, finding a couple of them to bet on Hughes faring better in a less homer-conducive environment, or Joba helping out of the bullpen for a couple of months, shouldn't be hard.
And remember, the standard isn't Wil Myers. The Yankees, by adding young players more capable than Zoilo Almonte, are improving their system, and even the major league team in 2013. The Colorado Rockies are 3.5 games out of first place, and their starting pitcher Monday night, Drew Pomeranz, has an 8.76 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. Doesn't seem crazy to think they'd consider giving up the just-demoted Josh Rutledge to rent Hughes and take a shot at the winnable NL West.
But this pales in comparison to the haul the Yankees could get for Kuroda. It's too late, apparently, to offer Kuroda to the Rangers for the package they sent to the Cubs for Matt Garza, but Mike Olt at third base in The Bronx for years to come would have made that deal worthwhile by himself. C.J. Edwards is a right-handed strikeout machine in A-ball. Justin Grimm, too, has promise. Had the Yankees looked for a more hitter-friendly prospect package, teams who prize young pitching certainly wouldn't have argued with them.
It's really hard to build a comp for trading Cano, the best second baseman in baseball by an wide margin. Dustin Pedroia, maybe, but note that the Red Sox are instead trying to sign him, and that Pedroia is no Robinson Cano.
Cano is about to hit free agency, but would a team give up several of its top prospects for the chance to acquire him conditionally, with a 72-hour window to sign him long-term? Getting ahead of the winter -- and ahead of the Dodgers -- could be irresistible, given Cano's skill level and the talent scarcity at the position. Or it could be irresistible to the Dodgers, who could add him a few months early and put some distance between themselves and the rest of the National League West.
While the return wouldn't be as significant for Pettitte, it is easy to imagine any number of teams wishing to add the playoff experience, if you're into that sort of thing, and the effective-ish season of Pettitte, who has an ERA+ of 90 this year. He's just a year removed from a 145 mark last season. A comparable deal occurred when the Oakland Athletics traded Kenny Rogers to the New York Mets in July 1999 for outfielder Terrence Long and minor league pitcher Leo Vasquez.
Long wasn't anything spectacular. But he was an outfielder, a year removed from top-100 prospectdom, who put up league average production over the next two seasons for very little money. That may not seem like a ton of return. But it is far beyond what the Yankees have managed to produce, on their own, at either outfield corner this season.
Realistically, none of the selling resets the Yankees toward the playoffs next season. But next year Pettitte will be 42, Kuroda 39, and Chamberlain/Hughes likely gone. Cano isn't signed beyond the end of the season. In fact, they're all free agents anyhow, so if the spirit moved the Yankees to get this band back together, regardless of the sound, they could. But wishing isn't going to make them young and healthy, anymore than that worked for Derek Jeter this season.
And think of all the young players they'd have to show off to Cano and the others, as part of the effort to woo them back via free agency. Now think of the alternative, hitting the offseason, and trying to spend Yankee money to be relevant in 2014, with the cupboard bare on the hitting side until that young Trenton outfield and catching prospect Gary Sanchez come of age.
These are strange times for the Yankees. George Steinbrenner's unlimited budget is apparently gone. That means it's time to put up a For Sale sign in The Bronx for the first time.