During the window between Sunday morning’s trade for Jaime Garcia and the afternoon start by Jordan Montgomery, it seemed like the appropriate time to ask Joe Girardi if he felt encouraged by his new starting five, if he thought this group would be sufficient to carry the Yankees where they want to go.
“Yes, I am,” he said. “The rotation has gotten us to this point, so yes.”
It was a predictable response from Girardi, who wasn’t going to bad-mouth his own pitching staff. But now that we’re down to the final hours before Monday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline, the person best equipped to answer that question is general manager Brian Cashman, and his actions leading up to the buzzer will speak louder than any words.
What happened Sunday during the Yankees’ 5-3 loss to the Rays probably worked to the A’s advantage as they try to force Cashman’s hand in a deal for Sonny Gray. While the acquisition of Garcia, who has playoff experience from his days in baseball-crazed St. Louis, supplies the Yankees with another steady veteran arm, Montgomery’s skittish performance reminded the club’s decision-makers that he’s still a rookie entering uncharted territory these next two months.
Montgomery has been solid, with a 3.92 ERA entering Sunday, but he stuck around for only 2 2⁄3 innings, his shortest outing to date. Combine that with Caleb Smith’s quick hook after 3 1⁄3 innings Saturday, and the Yankees got a total of six innings from their two weekend starters — but still managed to take three of the four games.
Smith was seen packing up his gear when the clubhouse opened Sunday morning and he departed for Triple-A Scranton shortly afterward, so Garcia easily slides into his vacant spot. But Montgomery’s wobbly performance put further pressure on Cashman to consider just how far he wants the Yankees to go in 2017.
He remained in talks with the A’s on Gray on Sunday, but there seemed to be little movement. Cashman is up against the fact that Oakland doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to trade him by this deadline unless the Yankees satisfy a steep price in prospects.
Before Cashman signaled a seemingly new direction by passing on Chris Sale last December, adding Garcia while still pursuing Gray is how the Yankees always had operated, Why trade for one starting pitcher when you can get two? Just like with the White Sox swap two weeks earlier, when Cashman pushed for both David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle rather than only one more arm for the bullpen.
Gray isn’t Sale, obviously, but the Yankees can’t afford to let another top-shelf pitcher get away for the sake of a few coveted prospects, especially now that they sit atop the AL East again. Letting Sale get to Boston was easier to do four months before Opening Day. Here in the middle of a pennant race, the adrenaline is up, and there is a compulsion to lean on the gas pedal.
Trading for Gray would give the Yankees an extra starter, and Girardi indicated Sunday that he doesn’t plan on going to a six-man rotation regardless of how this shakes out. Garcia could switch to the bullpen as the long man, and if Montgomery struggles in the coming weeks, the Yankees have an easy replacement ready.
Montgomery said he feels fine and shook off any mention of an innings limit. But with Garcia on board and Gray possibly on the way, his job could be threatened depending on how he performs.
“It’s not my decision,” he said. “I’ve been up here all season and I’ve done pretty well.”
He’s not wrong. Sunday’s loss was only his second in 11 starts since June 3, and Montgomery’s total of 104 strikeouts leads all rookies. He’s shown uncommon poise for a first-place team and helped stabilize a rotation that has pitched much better than anticipated.
But it’s all about the upgrades as Monday’s deadline approaches, and Cashman must seize the opportunity to not only bolster he Yankees’ front five but protect the rotation against injury down the stretch.
“I think it will solidify it,” Montgomery said. “For the most part, we’ve been pretty consistent and we want to try to keep doing that.”
Even without Gray, the Yankees probably can win the division title, as Girardi hinted. But they’ve been great at raising the ceiling this year, so why stop now?