The Yankees were never happy being the underdog. It’s not who they are.
They tried to roll with the charade during the past year with all the rebuilding talk, the reliance on the Baby Bombers, and Brian Cashman’s famous labeling of the Red Sox as the Golden State Warriors.
On the inside, however, the idea of maybe sitting out this season for the sake of future title runs — and conceding to the hated Sox? — made Cashman feel as comfortable as a 6-year-old in his first tuxedo, right down to the shiny patent leather shoes.
But in trading for Sonny Gray, a deal that closed roughly an hour before Monday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver deadline, the Yankees were back in their element again, big-game hunters loose in the baseball jungle. This wasn’t too hard to see coming, either. As soon as word leaked that the Yankees were targeting Gray, about a week earlier, it was inevitable that the young Oakland ace soon would be wearing pinstripes.
It’s just the natural order of things. At one end of the table, there was Cashman, sitting on a pile of prospects, musing over a rotation that badly needed an upgrade. At the other was Billy Beane, his A’s counterpart, who has built a career on pressing the refresh button. Once these two hooked up, all that was left was deciding on the names, and Cashman had plenty to pick from.
Compared to what the Yankees went through a year ago, with Cashman having to hold a fire sale that gutted his roster, this was fun for him, the thrill of a midseason reload, just like the old days. Cashman gave us the standard speech about how much it hurt to part with Dustin Fowler, James Kaprielian and Jorge Mateo — all valuable pieces, to be sure. But on the pain scale, this barely registered.
Dismantling the 2016 club, selling off the coveted parts and staring ahead at an uncertain future was a place Cashman never wants to revisit.
“Turning the clock back,” he said, “that was difficult.”
The traumatic events leading up to last year’s deadline plunged the Yankees into what amounted to an eight-month identity crisis in which neither Cashman nor Hal Steinbrenner sounded entirely OK with the revamped game plan. Their usual “World Series or bust” mantra had been replaced with “Wait and See.” The Yankees not only let Chris Sale end up with the Red Sox, but Cashman acted as if he were fine taking a backseat to a Warriors-type superteam in the same division.
But now, halfway through this season, the script has been flipped. Order has been restored. Once the Yankees again got to admire the view from atop the AL East, those age-old instincts, perhaps a little dusty, kicked right in.
Cashman undercut the Red Sox in trading for a pair of top relievers, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, along with the third baseman Boston coveted, Todd Frazier. That was the first indication that the Yankees wouldn’t be content treating this as a bonus year.
Taking stock of their AL competition, Cashman saw an opening, and a clubhouse that had proved itself deserving of improvement. Cue the phone calls to Beane, the conversations that led to the framework of Monday’s swap, and the eventual landing of Gray, a 27-year-old pitcher who won’t be a free agent until 2020.
“They’ve given us the opportunity to do something good,” Joe Girardi said of Cashman and Steinbrenner. “Now we’ve got to go out and do it.”
The Yankees already were in first place, and with the dysfunction up north on Yawkey Way, maybe they win the division even if Cashman doesn’t trade for Gray. But this is a franchise that traditionally seeks redundancy — more pitching, more hitting, more everything — with money no object.
A day earlier, the Yankees grabbed Jaime Garcia from the Twins, another experienced arm for rotation insurance. Then Cashman landed Gray, a splashy move that prompted Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski to return serve by dropping a Warriors reference on the retooled Yankees.
“We’re just trying to get closer to that trophy,” Cashman said, “so we can grab it.”
Gray does nudge the Yankees more in that direction, and now that Cashman is talking about trophies again, the Bronx is a happier place. It’s what they’re meant to do. The Yankees can stop pretending otherwise.
After missing the first month of the season with a lat injury, Sonny Gray has improved month by month:
MONTH W-L ERA WHIP
May 2-2 4.72 1.252
June 1-2 3.52 1.226
July 3-1 1.480.986