Culture / Sporting Life

Trade Wars — The Yankees Are Fooling Themselves If They Think They’ve Passed the Astros With Hyped Deadline Deals

James Click's Houston Counters Look Very Underrated in the American League's Real Superpower Race

BY // 08.02.22

The New York Yankees are still great at making noise, even all these years after George Steinbrenner. And if you listen to sports TV and Twitter, the Yankees won the day before Major League baseball’s trade deadline by landing Frankie Montas, the Oakland A’s best pitcher, the ever wildly inconsistent reliever Lou Trivino and sidearming Cubs reliever Scott Effross.

The Astros’ counter? Three more lower key acquisitions. First, Orioles first baseman/sometime outfielder Trey Mancini and Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, two moves that upgrade Houston’s offense without giving anyone visions of Juan Soto. Two moves for almost universally beloved good clubhouse guys. Plus another for former Braves closer Will Smith — at the cost of sixth starter Jake Odorizzi.

Astros general manager James Click made his team better while holding onto all of the club’s enviable younger starting pitching power. Including Jose Urquidy.

“It’s honestly a very difficult roster to upgrade,” Click says. “That’s because our players have been playing so well and they’ve put us in this position. We’re going to have to get creative.”

That’s a different kind of win. A much less flashy one. But don’t be so sure it does not still keep the Astros a few steps ahead of the team from the Bronx that they love to torment. Even holding the best record in baseball (three games ahead of the Astros after Houston’s 3-2 loss to the Red Sox Monday night), the Yankees are the ones that need to be convinced that they’re really set up to beat the Astros in October.

Maybe Frankie Montas, Lou Trevino, Effross and Andrew Benintendi, Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s earlier hitting acquisition, will make Aaron Judge sleep sounder at night. But a big splash doesn’t always equal a big reality.

“We all want the big ring on our finger at the end of the year. Today was a day where I feel like we really helped those guys out and improved.” — Astros GM James Click

The truth is that the Astros still have better starting pitching than the Yankees and arguably a more complete October proven lineup too. Go up and down the two teams’ rotations, even after these trades, and Houston’s is consistently just a little better.

Verlander is a better 1A ace than Gerrit Cole, who’s pitched to a 3.30 ERA this season and hasn’t been close to as dominant in pinstripes as he was in his two seasons in Houston. The Astros’ No. 2 starter Framber Valdez is more consistent, dependable and effective than Frankie Montas despite Montas’ success against the Astros this season. Cristian Javier is at least as scary as the funky Nestor Cortes Jr in the stuff department. And some combination of Lance McCullers Jr., Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia could potentially blow Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery and Domingo German away.

The Yankees got better with Montas. But they still might not be better enough. Not with the Astros having gone 5-2 against Judge and Co. this season. Not with the Yankees still haunted by being eliminated from the playoffs by the Astros in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

The Astros rent enough head space in the Yankees’ collective psyche to be considered New York real estate barons. Donald Trump wishes he actually owned this kind of property.

In many ways, it’s still better to be the Astros.

Yes, the Yankees have Aaron Judge, the Babe Ruth of 2022. But do you know how much pressure there is going to be on Judge to produce in these playoffs?

Meanwhile, Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman and Co. know they’ll be able to lean on each other. To pass the baton in many ways. One that seemingly gets longer with the addition of Trey Mancini and Christian Vazquez.

“Mancini is huge,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado says. “Mancini’s a great bat. Guy that can play multiple positions. A guy that was a tough out to get out when we played them in the past. A guy that can hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere.”

Trey Mancini Astros trade
Trey Mancini is bringing his fire to the Astros, and that’s just one of general manager James Click’s new acquisitions.

Another outfield bat would be beneficial, but the Astros aren’t desperate. The way they’ve played this season lets Click measure his shots in many ways. Mancini makes the Astros less dependent on Yuli Gurriel who’s struggled for large chunks of the year. Vazquez gives the Astros another experienced catcher and seemingly precludes Dusty Baker from running the always game (but often bat light) Maldonado into the ground.

The Astros are a deeper, more experienced and even more professional team that morning than last. The moves cost Houston energetic swag master Jose Siri, who arguably had the Astros’ best (and certainly most unexpected) World Series moment against the Braves last October, and 2021 fourth round pitcher Chayce McDermott, who’s flashed some serious strikeout stuff in High A, most significantly.

Could the 27-year-old Siri still end up putting his intriguing mix of speed and power together with the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the best organizations in baseball? Sure. But Mancini seemingly pushes the Astros closer to a championship this year, which is what matters most to Click and his demanding boss, Astros owner Jim Crane, who always pushes for more.

The Houston Astros defeated the Chicago White Sox 6-1 behind the pitching of Lance McCullers with a home runs from Yordan Alvarez during the opening game of the American League Division Series
Astros owner Jim Crane is always ready for some playoff baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With these moves, the Astros should not have games where they’ll need to pinch hit J.J. Matijevic and Taylor Jones in the bottom of the ninth inning in a one run game like they do in the one run loss to the rudder-less Red Sox on Monday.

“Sometime you watch the game and there’s not much you can do,” Click says of life as a baseball GM. “That’s why we take it as such an important step when are a front office and able to contribute. To let those guys know that we’re all in this together. We all want the same thing.

“We all want the big ring on our finger at the end of the year. Today was a day where I feel like we really helped those guys out and improved.”

Click Wins Chemistry

Chemistry is not supposed to matter — or often even be factored into trades — in this world of baseball sabermetrics. But Click, who is supposed to be the most new age of GMs, clearly seems to have weighed that old fashioned virtue in with the Mancini and Vazquez pickups.

Mancini is one of the most inspirational players in all of sports, having come back from a shocking colon cancer diagnosis. He’s also Mr. Baltimore, the guy who always seemed to find the sunny side of things even when the Orioles mired around in the deep rebuilding muck forever before their surprise emergence this season.

“Just a tremendous guy,” Click says of Mancini. “I’ve heard unbelievable things about him as a human being. And he’ll fit right into the clubhouse.”

And Vazquez? Red Sox manager Alex Cora almost tears up when talking about seeing him go.

“They’re getting a great player,” Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez says of Vazquez. “A guy that you know is going to put everything he has into the game.”

Good players. Better guys. Perfect Astros?

“Both of them I’ve heard are excellent teammates that will help our ball club,” Baker says.

When he meets the media in the press box on this Monday night, with the clock still ticking down to MLB’s 5 pm Tuesday deadline, Click admits the toll this time of year can take.

“I am not sleeping much these days,” Click says.

It turns out that Cashman and the Yankees are the ones who probably still should be tossing and turning.

The Astros didn’t make these trades to beat the Yankees specifically. They made them to try and add a second title to that 2017 World Championship. But if a collision of the two best teams in the American League seems almost inevitable in October, this day before the trade deadline — and the three new players for each team — is liable to loom large in this battle of baseball superpowers.

Just don’t be so sure the Yankees won the day. No matter what Twitter tells you.

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