Penny-pinching Yankees’ trade could be case of robbing bullpen to pay for offense

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners
The Yankees dealt reliever Luis Cessa (shown) and Justin Wilson to the Cincinnati Reds in an apparent salary dump, according to published reports.
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

Not long after the Yankees’ win over the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday night, the team announced a surprising trade — sending bullpen arms Luis Cessa and Justin Wilson to the Cincinnati Reds.

That Cessa and Wilson were traded as the July 30 deadline approaches isn’t as surprising as the return on the deal — which was identified as the infamous “player to be named later.”

Struggling as they are, the Yankees remain in contention for a wild card spot, and fans are clamoring for a trade that will give the Bronx Bombers and their playoff hopes a much-needed shot in the arm. Based on a New York Post report, Tuesday night’s deal reeked of a salary dump — Cessa and Wilson were set to make a combined $3.85 million this season, and the Yankees payroll is about a million dollars under the luxury tax threshold. 

The free-spending days when George Steinbrenner was the boss are but a memory now, as over the last few seasons, the Yankees front office has sought to stay under the luxury tax threshold and avoid the financial penalties of exceeding it.

But the bean-counting could wind up coming back to bite the Yankees later on this season.

While Wilson wasn’t very effective — pitching to a 7.50 ERA in just 18 innings in the Bronx — Cessa was one of the more reliable middle-relief arms that manager Aaron Boone had. The 29-year-old right-hander has seen his ERA drop each of the last four season, down to 2.82 in 2021, with 31 strikeouts in 38.1 innings pitched.

The remainder of the Yankee bullpen has struggled of late, as evidenced by Sunday’s disastrous loss in Boston. Though he’s pitched better of late, closer Aroldis Chapman has pitched to an 8.62 ERA since June 1. Set-up men Chad Green and Jonathan Loisaiga have ERAs above 5 this month.

Evidently, it would appear Yankees Senior Vice President/General Manager Brian Cashman is gambling that the team’s bullpen struggles are short term, and that they’ll be able to right the ship quickly. But the risk is high in a game where good pitching is terribly coveted by every team. 

Meanwhile, freeing up close to $4 million would figure to give the Yankees enough payroll flexibility to bring in a coveted bat before the July 30 trade deadline. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic tweeted that it could be enough for the Yankees to acquire a left-handed bat; Jon Heyman went further in suggesting that could be Washington Nationals outfielder Kyle Schwarber. 

The Yankees have also been linked in the trade rumor mill with the Colorado Rockies in a potential deal for shortstop Trevor Story. The Bombers did lose out on one potential trade target Wednesday, when the Miami Marlins sent centerfielder Starling Marte to the Oakland Athletics. 

Schwarber would be an incredible fit for the Yankees, complementing the right-handed power of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton to a tee. He’s hit 25 home runs and driven in 53 runs so far this season, good for a .570 slugging percentage and a .910 OPS. 

Moreover, Schwarber figures to be well within reach for the Yankee coffers — making just $7 million this season, with a $3 million option for 2022. 

But will the presence of Schwarber or another new slugger be enough to overcome any shortages in the Yankees bullpen in September, when it matters most?