This time of year exaggerates reactions. Each win. Each loss. It plays larger. Time is expiring for teams to determine exactly who they are — if they still don’t know — and to externally fix what is wrong.
So when a club closes the first half as the Yankees did — blowing a five-run, ninth-inning lead in Houston — and comes back from the break with a quarter of its roster lost to COVID-19 or injury before sleepwalking through a shutout loss to the Red Sox, what ensues is a sell-everything furor.
That is until two straight well-pitched, underdog-spirit victories over Boston brings a “hold on, maybe, buy” rebound.
The Yankees are not alone on vacillation island. The Angels, Indians, Braves, Nationals and Reds also are teetering between buy or sell — and to what levels. A few wins or losses in a row carry additional weight between now and the July 30 trade deadline.
The Yankees want to go for it. They are out hunting outfielders, preferably someone who can play center field, if perfect someone who bats left-handed. They have inquired about Miami’s Starling Marte (a righty hitter). They remain fascinated with Texas’ Joey Gallo. They have wondered about Minnesota’s Max Kepler.
No team at this time of year completely ignores pitching. After all, the Dodgers added to the deepest rotation in the majors by signing Trevor Bauer in the offseason. The Padres obtained Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell. Yet due to injury and/or Bauer’s legal problems, those NL West powers are pursuing starting pitching now.
So the Yanks would not ignore that market completely — no team truly has enough. But they appear willing to gamble that the pitching answers come internally. With Nestor Cortes Jr. and Jonathan Loaisiga returning from the COVID-19 list. With Corey Kluber, Luis Severino and Clarke Schmidt returning from the injured list. With Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman rediscovering their best form.
The Mets, conversely, are much more headlong into finding pitching. That was true even before Jacob deGrom went to the injured list. That is partially because they have lost depth pieces such as Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto for the season. The fear about having too little pitching — especially with so many concerns about what arms look like the rest of the way after a COVID-shortened 2020 with no minors — is palpable, especially because you essentially upgrade in the next 10 days or the chances to do so virtually vanish.
This year, as part of rewritten COVID rules, there are no August waiver trades, like the one that sent Justin Verlander to the Astros in 2017 or Andrew McCutchen to the Yankees in 2018. No 40-man player can be traded after 4 p.m. July 30. Pure minor leaguers can be dealt and clubs can still add players via waiver claim or signing free agents such as released players. But this is not a bin likely to provide meaningful help.
So how much will the Yanks push into a market that has further complications for them.
Consider that through the weekend, five AL teams outside the East had either the same or a better winning percentage than the Yankees, who were 14-5 against the White Sox, Indians, Astros, A’s and Mariners. But against the three teams ahead of them in the AL East — the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays — the Yanks are 13-21.
Beginning Thursday, the Yanks play seven straight at Boston and Tampa Bay. That will take them to deadline day. To even be the second wild card, the Yanks must finish at least third in the AL East. The current occupant, the Blue Jays, not only can upgrade with trades, but can anticipate a strong emotional bump July 30 upon returning to play in Toronto for the first time since 2019.
The Yankee situation also is complicated by how much they are willing to spend. Hal Steinbrenner has said he would consider going over the $210 million luxury tax threshold. I am dubious. Is he really authorizing going over to pursue the second wild card or in a year in which projection models currently have the Yanks missing the playoffs at least 60 percent of the time?
If the Yanks don’t go over, they have, perhaps, $3 million in wiggle room; unless they can free marginal dollars by, for example, including a prospect along with Justin Wilson as they did to trade Adam Ottavino in the offseason.
The Yankees are not surrendering. At least not yet. But there are real questions about just how far they will go in this trade market.