NEW YORK — Zack Britton knows how this feels. Year after year, just when he thought his Orioles had a shot at the AL East, he would log onto Twitter or turn on his TV and see: The big guys had done it again.
In 2012, with Baltimore six games back of the Yankees in late July, New York traded for 10-time All-Star rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki. The Orioles countered with such megadeals as signing free-agent lefty Randy Wolf. In ’14, Baltimore led the division by four games in late July when the Yankees got Gold Glove third baseman Chase Headley. The Orioles … signed Randy Wolf. In ’16, with Baltimore two games up on the Red Sox in mid-July, Boston traded for All-Star lefty Drew Pomeranz. With Randy Wolf apparently unavailable, the Orioles nabbed lefthander Wade Miley, who had a 4.98 ERA.
So Britton, now with the Yankees, can imagine the sighing and eyerolling that must have gone on among the Rays when the news came down on Saturday: DH Edwin Encarnación and his 401 career home runs were headed to the Bronx.
A lot of sighing and eyerolling, as it turns out.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Tampa Bay centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted by the Rays in 2010 and in ’17 signed a six-year, $53.5 million extension. “These guys and the Red Sox, with their financial flexibility and their farm system, they’re able to do many things. … They just have a lot more ability to get the top-tier talent. That’s the way they’ve always been, and I don’t see it changing in my lifetime.”
After a 3–0 loss on Monday, Tampa Bay is a game and a half back of New York in the AL East. And the scary just got scarier. The Yankees add the league leader in home runs, with 21, to a team that already employed five other guys in double digits. (One of them, rightfielder Clint Frazier, went to Triple A on Monday to make room for Encarnación.) That figure does not include frightening leftfielder Giancarlo Stanton or terrifying rightfielder Aaron Judge, who have missed much of the season with injuries. Stanton, who is slated to return Tuesday from a strained left calf, has the hardest-hit ball in the majors this year, at 120.6 mph; Judge, who will likely need another week as he works his way back from a strained left oblique, has No. 5, at 118.1 mph. They are the two most recent players to top 50 homers in a season, both in 2017. (Stanton smacked 59 and won the NL MVP, while Judge blasted 52 and was the AL Rookie of the Year.) The Yankees have always relied on firepower, from Ruth and Gehrig to Mantle and Maris, but these days, fans might want to wear batting helmets in the bleachers.
“It’s going to be fun,” Encarnación said on Monday, before his first game as a Yankee. “We’re going to hit a lot of homers and we’re going to win a lot of games.”
That will be a new experience for Encarnación this year. Before the 2017 season he signed a three-year, $60 million deal with the Indians, a team that added escalators to his contract depending on the club’s attendance. Cleveland shed his salary two years later by sending him to the Mariners in a three-team trade with Tampa Bay. Seattle jumped to a 13–2 start but has gone 19–41 since, and it began selling assets this month. New York will owe Encarnación $8 million, making him the 12th-most expensive Yankee.
The Rays pay exactly two players that much money: righty Charlie Morton, who got a franchise-record two years and $30 million last winter, and Kiermaier. New York’s payroll will total about $204 million this year; Tampa’s will be more like $60 million. (Perhaps the ultimate indignity: Because of the way the Cleveland-Tampa Bay-Seattle trade was structured, the Rays will pay $5 million of Encarnación’s salary this year.) And so the perpetual little brother watches as, yet again, the big brother holds the toy just out of reach.
“We don’t have a pity party about our payroll,” Kiermaier said. “We’re not expected to do anything. … It always makes it a lot sweeter when you do beat those teams.”
And that’s the warning Britton has delivered to his teammates: A trade like that can and should fire up the big guys. But sometimes it can motivate the little guys, too.