Mankiewich: Win now or win later – NY Sports Day


NY Sports Day
Matt Mankiewich

Mankiewich: Win now or win later

Neil Miller/NYSD

Win now or win later?

 The question dominates trade-deadline talk in all sports, whether a team is willing to add talent to make a run at a championship now or sell off talent to stock up on prospects to win later. Expansion of playoffs on one front and increased parity among teams on another have slowed deadline dealing down a bit from previous years, but the conversations still command the bulk of attention in late July or late February.

Always in “championship-or-bust” mode, the New York Yankees have been the poster child for the win-now philosophy. Team representatives will say when you’ve won more than anyone else, anything less than a World Series win puts you way behind on the team’s historical pecking order. They’re not wrong.

 In 1998, when the Yanks were en route to a 114-win season, there was some debate on whether they had to win the World Series for that run to mean anything. Fortunately they steamrolled their way through the postseason and established themselves as the best team ever in terms of overall won-loss record including postseason (125-50). Three years later, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games, fell to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series in five games, and wondered what might have been.
 Their last losing season was in 1992. Not bad, except when one considers they filled the space between 1925 and 1965 with .500 or better performances as well.

The story since last year’s trade deadline has been well documented. Unload a fading veteran or two, hold up a couple of contending teams for prospects (who later used their acquisitions to meet in the World Series), build up the farm system and see what the kids do. 

Contrary to years of popular belief, fans were actually happy. They saw a team that was overladen with oldsters who struggled to score runs and was in steady decline. Something radical had to be done to keep fans interested, and the front office obliged. New blood like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge kept the Yankees in the wild card race until the final days of the season.

Fans and media tempered their hopes this past spring, though, trying not to expect too much as the young team gelled. But a 21-9 start threw that idea out the window, and the outlook in mid-June was as bright as a cloudless summer day. Then a rough west-coast trip followed by a month-long streak of lost series dragged the Yankees back down to earth with a dull thud. 

Still in the American League East race thanks to the Boston Red Sox’s failure to pull away, Yankee general manager Brian Cashman decided to make a move to fix the one glaring problem through the entire rough spell – the bullpen. Too many leads thrown away, too many one-run games lost, and all that needed to be done was add an arm or two, right?

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That move, reacquiring David Robertson while bringing in Tommy Kahnle and Todd Frazier as well, seemed to transform the team. They’re 9-3 since, going into Wednesday afternoon’s rubber match with the Tigers, and have shored up their starting rotation by picking up Sonny Gray from the Athletics. He’ll start Thursday in Cleveland.

Win later became win now pretty quickly.

Of course, it’s the Yankees, and when they get even a whiff at a championship, they’re expected to go all in. Previously, it was about picking up a player or two with a fat contract or just about to enter into one via free agency, which never intimidated the free-spending Steinbrenner family. Once the national television contract allowed smaller-market teams to compete for talent on nearer to equal terms, the Yankees could no longer buy themselves out of trouble. 

The thing now is, they’ve been able to adapt to changes in the game quickly and relatively painlessly. Fans of other teams that were hoping the Yanks would be dragged down by dead-wood deals like Jacoby Ellsbury’s now have to fear Aaron Judge’s tape-measure home runs.

So they got lucky. Cashman found one problem, solved it for now and the team appears to be back on track. What about all those other teams with longer-term plans like the Royals and Cubs, both of whom had to wait a few years for their prospects to form championship-caliber teams? What about the Reds whose rebuilding project seems to go back at least a decade?

 What about the Mets, who after an impressive run in 2015, appeared to be on the doorstep last year but have since tumbled into mediocrity again as injuries and the steady play of the Nationals take an equal toll?

The answer is, it’s a tough call. It’s easy to say a team is sticking to its master plan, easier still to say the money isn’t there to deviate from it early, but one thing a reporter learns covering teams like the Yankees and Mets is that when you have a chance to go for it, you can’t hold back because you never know when you’re going to get another shot. Look at the Mets again with their once-vaunted pitching staff. A bad move or two (letting Daniel Murphy go), a couple of injuries and all of a sudden a team goes from World Series contender to deadline seller.

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There’s still a lot of baseball left in this season, and the Yankees did lose on Tuesday. Cashman’s gamble can still backfire if the prospects traded to get any of these new additions turn out to be superstars, or the youngsters fall into slumps at the same time. There’s plenty left in the cupboard both at the Major and Minor League levels, but we said that about the Mets two years ago. 

But the opportunity is there, and you never know when you’re going to get another one.



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