By Joe Lemire
Everything has been a bit smaller in the Bronx this season: the offense, the expectations, the payroll.
So too were the Yankees' trade deadline additions of all-around player Martin Prado, middle infielder Stephen Drew and, earlier this month, starting pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano and third baseman Chase Headley.
Just 3.5 games back in the wild card, five games out in the division as of July 31, the Yankees were clearly too close in the standings and probably too proud in reputation not to make any moves, but they weren't in position to acquire a true gamechanger.
Adding any of those players would have drawn bold-faced headlines two years ago, but this summer such news belonged in small agate type on the transactions page, at least when compared to the moves made by league rivals in Oakland (Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester) and Detroit (David Price).
Each new Yankee was in demand prior to the 2013 season. Prado was the centerpiece of a trade package for Justin Upton and subsequently signed a four-year, $40 million deal; McCarthy inked a two-year, $18 million free-agent pact; Drew signed a contract worth nearly $8 million that winter; Capuano was due a guaranteed $7 million for his services with a mutual option that could have doubled that; and, most notably, Headley was in line for an extension worth as much as $100 million.
This month, however, those players were acquired for a relative pittance, at least in terms of prospect cost. First baseman Peter O'Brien, who went to Arizona for Prado, has hit 33 home runs in 102 High-A and Double-A games, but he is not thought to be a blue-chipper. None of New York's top few up-and-comers changed addresses.
Mirroring the big league team, the Yankees' farm system has seen some attrition due to injury and underperformance. In Feb. 2013, ESPN Insider's Keith Law ranked the organization's minor leaguers 10th in the majors. A year later, they ranked 20th with this opening line from Law: "It seemed like everyone who mattered in this system got hurt in 2013, and of those who didn't most had disappointing years." In other words, New York didn't have the prospect depth to spare for a frontline star, and it also lacked the young, expendable big league talent sought by most teams in Thursday's trades.
The Yankees' payroll decreased by some $30 million this season, owing primarily to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez, and money is rarely an object of much concern in the Bronx, so taking on a star player's salary in an August waiver trade is always possible. (Cliff Lee would have been a likely target if not for an elbow injury that will probably cost him the rest of the season.)
Instead, general manager Brian Cashman was realistic about his club's chances. Though the Yankees are clearly playoff contenders, they have a -30 run differential, which signals some degree of overachievement, and Cashman was shrewd to target buy-low, bounce back candidates. Headley, Prado, et al. were available because of their protracted slumps and their ages. Cashman relied on scouting -- both the old-fashioned kind and the statistical kind, such as Headley's cited uptick in "hit velocity" that showed better contact -- to identify hidden value in recent performance.
That may seem like over-reliance on small sample sizes, but that's what baseball's stretch run is: a roughly 50-game sample in which a single player's hot streak carries outsized importance. An extreme recent example is how Manny Ramirez carried the Dodgers to the postseason in 2008.
Already Cashman's moves have paid some dividends: Headley is 10 for 33 with an .816 OPS; the Yankees have won all four of McCarthy's starts, during which time he has a 2.55 ERA in 24 2/3 innings; and left-hander Chris Capuano logged a quality start of two runs in six innings in his first outing wearing pinstripes (but got knocked around a bit on Friday, giving up 4 ER and 8 hits in 6 1/3 IP).
In Drew's last 13 games in Boston, he was 12 for 45 (.267) with eight walks for a stellar .377 on-base percentage. Maybe Drew can learn second base on the fly -- he has never played there as a professional -- and Prado can adapt to right field, where he's only logged two career innings. Prado has rated as well above-average by Ultimate Zone Rating for his extensive play in left, and Yankee Stadium's right field is notably smaller than most. It's all small sample sizes.
Entering play on Friday, the Yankees were on pace for 650 runs. That would match their total from last season, which was the fewest they had scored in any year since 1990 (even without making exceptions for the strike-shortened 1994 and '95 seasons). They are on pace for 147 home runs -- three more than in 2013 but otherwise the fewest since '95 (or '91 if counting only 162 game schedules).
Headley, Prado and Drew aren't appreciably going to fix that. Prado has never hit more than 15 homers in a season. Drew hasn't topped 15 since 2008. Headley hit 31 in 2012 . . . and never more than 13 in any other season.
The Yankees are scoring 32.6 percent of their runs on homers -- about 10 ticks higher than that at home and 10 ticks lower on the road -- which is their lowest overall power dependence since 1997. As a result, the lineup needs to string together more rallies, which requires more players on base and more base hits.
That's where Prado, Headley and maybe Drew can help. Cashman's five most important acquisitions were all left-handed or switch-hitters -- Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and the now departed Kelly Johnson (traded for Drew) and Brian Roberts (designated for assignment). While the former three haven't had the hoped-for power surges, they certainly can contribute to a base-to-base barrage. Maybe the onetime Bronx Bombers can learn to score like the Giants of recent vintage who singled-and-doubled their way to two World Series titles.
New York will still need an improvement in its starting staff to hand over leads to an excellent bullpen anchored by the otherworldly Dellin Betances and David Robertson. Four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation is on the DL, though Michael Pineda is about to make his first rehab start. And the ace in the hole (er, training room) is Masahiro Tanaka, arguably baseball's best pitcher in the season's first half who is resting and rehabbing his elbow in hopes of a September return (and in hopes of avoiding Tommy John surgery).
The Yankees are still very much longshots for the postseason, with 17.5 percent odds they play in October. But Baltimore hardly looks like they'll run away in the division, and wild-card contenders Toronto, Seattle and Kansas City all have their own flaws.
The Yankees moved in the right direction and at little long-term cost -- sensible moves, rather than flashy, headline-grabbing deals. This really is a new era in Yankees baseball.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.