The Yankees have to think about next year. That does not mean surrendering now. Not when, despite all that has gone wrong this season, they began Tuesday just four games out of the second AL wild card. Not when seven road games against the Red Sox and Rays, which begin Thursday, can change their trajectory.
But the 57 percent of the season that has been played cannot be dismissed. The Yankees completed that period more likely to miss the postseason than to make it. If they do reach the playoffs, their most likely entry would be as the second wild card, which assures only a sudden-death game on the road.
Thus, reality must trump optimism. Those seven games at Boston and Tampa Bay could go horribly wrong too. Thus, they must consider more than 2021 between now and the July 30 deadline. Can they add players who help the present, but begin to address what is wrong to make the near future better?
Every contender is pursuing this strategy. Thus, clubs with controllable players are placing high prices on them, and that is why the bulk of players traded — such as Joc Pederson, who recently went from the Cubs to Braves — tend to be in their walk years. The players most likely to be traded are free-agents-to-be, such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Marlins’ Starling Marte.
Nevertheless, I am going to recommend two players I think the Yankees should try to obtain, who would be under team control beyond 2021, because I think they would improve the team both now and later with their lefty bats and athleticism. But I am also using these players as symbols of the direction the Yankees should be heading:
The Yankees have already inquired with the Twins about Kepler. In fact, Minnesota is a natural place to shop because the Twins have such an abundance of lefty hitters. I also have heard the Yankees have talked about a bunch of those lefties — imagine Luis Arraez, Alex Kirilloff and switch-hitter Jorge Polanco. The Yankees also asked about center fielder Byron Buxton and shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
Minnesota’s focus is to extend Buxton long term, as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported. That is a difficult needle to thread. When Buxton plays, he is among the majors’ best two-way players. But he plays infrequently. He is a much better version of another Twins’ first-round draft choice, Aaron Hicks. As talented as Buxton is, however (and he is talented), if Minnesota should fail to extend him and he gets on the market, the Yankees should avoid the potential adding of another injury-prone Hicks-type.
The Twins also are being asked about ace Jose Berrios. He, like Buxton, can be a free agent after next year. But Minnesota, MLB’s most disappointing team, wants to try to win in 2022, so it will consider trading Berrios and Buxton, but wants to make sure to maximize deals for walk-year players such as Simmons, Nelson Cruz and Michael Pineda.
Kepler is hardly on an onerous contract. Including his 2024 option, there are three years at $25.25 million left after this season. So why would the Twins consider trading him? Because in Arraez, Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, they have lefty bats to play the corner outfield cheaply, can acquire needed pitching in return and can repurpose Kepler’s dollars for other needs.
Why should the Yankees buy him, especially amid a down season (Kepler was batting .207 as play began Tuesday)? Because he is 28 and the belief is that he is more the 36-homer and .855 OPS player of 2019 than the 2021 version. Because he is lefty and athletic enough to play center field until a better Yankees idea comes along.
The Royals have been disappointing this year, though not to the extent of the Twins. They thought they could be at least .500. Instead, they are a last-place club. A piece of the reason why is that Mondesi has been on the injured list three times, once with a hamstring injury and twice (including currently) with an oblique. Like Minnesota, Kansas City wants to win as much as possible next year. So why would it consider moving Mondesi?
The Royals learned this year that Nicky Lopez can handle shortstop, and their best prospect, Bobby Witt Jr., is a shortstop who has been promoted to Triple-A to begin the second half. Thus, Mondesi can be used as a chip to fix other areas.
Mondesi does not fit the Yankees matrix in that he does not draw walks. But one of the 2021 Yankees’ problems is how one-dimensional and sleepy they are. Just having, for example, Greg Allen and Ryan LaMarre run the bases aggressively Sunday against Boston was different and energizing.
Mondesi can really run and is a switch hitter with untapped power potential. He will turn 26 next week and cannot be a free agent until after the 2023 season. He has just a career 89 OPS-plus. Didi Gregroius’ was 88, when the Yankees made an upside shortstop play.
There is a 10-triple, 20-homer, 30-steal, defensive-gem level in Mondesi, which could allow the Yankees to move Gleyber Torres to second (I think part of Torres’ hitting problems this year stems from taking on the full-time shortstop burden) and DJ LeMahieu to first. That is a much better defensive team.
Like the Twins, the Royals have been concentrating on moving walk-year guys, though the fact left-hander Danny Duffy went on the IL Tuesday with a flexor strain damages that goal.
Kansas City is not compelled to trade Mondesi, who is about 10-14 days from returning from the IL. The Yankees, however, should be forcing teams’ hands on players who will upgrade them now and really begin to change the dynamic of a redundant roster.