John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Only a few days after refusing to budge on Dallas Keuchel's asking price, Yankees brass had to recoil in horror watching James Paxton get lit up in the Subway Series, as a troubling question hovers over an otherwise feel-good season in the Bronx.
That is, does this team have an ace?
Paxton's left knee problem, which cost him three weeks on the Injured List, seems to be impacting the quality of his stuff, judging by his performance Tuesday night.
"Velocity was down a little and his breaking stuff wasn't crisp," a major league scout told me on Wednesday. "It's hard to believe the knee isn't a factor because he hasn't looked the same since he came back."
All of which leads to another compelling question:
When do the Yankees trade for Madison Bumgarner?
It's starting to feel practically inevitable, especially with the Yankees at a championship-or-bust point in their development of their not-so-Baby-Bombers-anymore.
You can talk about Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, and even Zack Wheeler as possible trade acquisitions come July, but considering the Yankees would have to give up a significant return for any of those names, why would they not go for the guy with the history of postseason brilliance?
Passing on Justin Verlander two years ago may have cost them a championship already, but that was all about money at a time when Hal Steinbrenner was determined to get the payroll under the luxury tax threshold, which he finally did in 2018.
Do they want to take that chance again of seeing Bumgarner be the difference, as Verlander was for the Astros in 2017, for another team denying them a title?
This time money isn't the issue. It's more about making a determination of whether the 29-year old lefthander is close enough to the guy who was so heroic for the Giants in their three championship Octobers -- especially 2014 -- in order for the Yankees to justify giving up a package of players in a trade.
There was considerable doubt about that when the season began, after two years in which freakish injuries -- including Bumgarner's infamous dirt bike spill -- reduced his effectiveness. But in recent weeks he has begun to look more like his old dominant self.
Teams noticed when he got 17 swings-and-misses, his highest total since 2016, in a start against the Braves on May 23. And for all the attention his dust-up with Max Muncy received a few days ago, evaluators were far more interested in how he shut down the mighty Dodgers that day, allowing one run -- on Muncy's home run -- in seven innings.
"What you love about him is that after he goes off, screaming at Muncy, he pitched at such a high level against the best lineup in baseball the rest of the way," an executive from a contending team said Wednesday. "You can argue all you want about whether his old-school attitude is over the top, or outdated, but it's part of who he is, and I don't think it's coincidence that he raised his level after that, and he made it look pretty easy."
Indeed, Bumgarner needed only 86 pitches to get through those seven innings against the Dodgers, and no doubt could have finished if Bruce Bochy hadn't pinch-hit for him.
For the season, Bumgarner's numbers are unspectacular, if you look at his 3.83 ERA, his 1.161 WHIP, and his 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings. But he has dominated in two of his three starts against the hated Dodgers this season, and Sunday's performance was another reason to believe he's still capable of greatness in a big-game atmosphere.
"He's still in that handful of guys you'd pick from to start a postseason game you had to have," the same executive said. "I don't think I'm alone in that opinion."
The Giants, of course, aren't going anywhere near the postseason any time soon, which is why they're resigned to trading Bumgarner as he heads for free agency. A report in The Athletic this week said the Giants have had discussions with teams, including the Yankees, about such a deal, but that all indications are new GM Farhan Zaidi is demanding a haul of young players in return.
The question is where Brian Cashman would draw the line on that front, especially with a farm system that has been thinned out at the top levels in recent years.
Clint Frazier seems like an obvious starting point, and indications are that Cashman would be willing to trade him, especially in light of his recent defensive issues in the outfield. But two scouts I spoke to said they'd be reluctant to move Frazier in a rental deal of any kind.
"The bat is really starting to play," one scout said. "You're starting to see a little more pitch recognition, and you can see growth to go along with the bat speed. He could be their everyday left fielder for a long time and hit 30-plus home runs a year.
"He'll be ok defensively. I have to think his problems in the outfield are mostly mental, and he'll get past that."
It's something Cashman has to consider, especially since Brett Gardner doesn't figure to be back next season, and as it is, the Yankee GM has shown discipline in holding tight to his young players, going back to his refusal to include Miguel Andujar in a deal that cost him the chance to acquire Gerrit Cole from the Pirates.
In fact, discipline practically defines Cashman's way of doing business these days, from passing on the big-splash buys of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last winter to refusing to pay a couple of million more for Keuchel than the Yankees saw as his value.
But if Paxton's knee is going to compromise him in some way and Luis Severino can't be counted on to return from his shoulder injury, there has to be a point where Cashman sacrifices discipline for the move to help the Yankees win a championship.
Whenever that point arrives, I'm betting Bumgarner will be part of the equation.