It's about five minutes to the trade deadline, the big hand on the clock sweeping ever closer to the cutoff. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman is standing just over assistant GM Jean Afterman's left shoulder.
Tick … tick … tick … tick … The Yankees and the Pirates have a deal: pitcher Ivan Nova to Pittsburgh in exchange for two players to be named later or cash considerations. But agreeing on terms is just half the battle. The details need to be filed with the league office by both teams before 4 p.m. or the deal is off.
"There's some screaming going on," Cashman explains a few days later. "'Get it done!'"
Tick … tick … tick … tick …
It's too close to the hard deadline for Afterman and Cashman to go through the typical trade protocol, entering the details into Major League Baseball's proprietary eBis system. Instead, Afterman waits for an email from the Pirates with the details of the trade -- Nova to Pittsburgh; the list of four players the Pirates are offering, from which the Yankees will choose two; the cash amount being offered as an alternative. But the most important detail is the time stamp at the top. For the deal to go through, the Yankees will need to confirm, CC'ing the league office, before 4 p.m.
Tick … tick … tick … tick …
At 3:59, Afterman's email box dings. "Brian's standing there, 'Go! Go! Go!'" she said. "Then I just typed 'agreed' and hit it. We knew that we had a deal, because it was stamped 3:59." From there, it's a waiting game -- Nova is in the clubhouse, watching a news ticker on MLB Network report that he has been traded, but Cashman can't say anything until the league office officially approves the deal.
When it's done, there are deep breaths throughout the Yankees baseball operations department. The deal is official, the last in a week that saw the club add to a farm system that was already on the upswing. "We had an opportunity to press a strong reset button that would benefit us and maybe turn what hasn't been a good 2016 into a much better situation by making these tough decisions," Cashman said. "I think now, what we try to create is a situation of a strong rebound, where we can bounce back really quick into 2017, and that's exciting."
But the buzzer sounding on the 2016 trade deadline starts a new clock ticking. The Yankees, sellers for the first time in a generation, believe that they have brought in the stars of the next Bronx dynasty, that a new era in pinstripes is beginning.
Tick … tick … tick … tick …
Many Moving Pieces
For the front office, the trade deadline is an endless slog of phone calls, texts and meetings. But a fortuitous combination of assets and timing and, put plainly, disappointing on-field performance made Cashman the belle of the ball as the trade market opened in 2016. Once ownership gave him the green light to sell, he sent closer Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs in exchange for four players, set-up man Andrew Miller to the Indians for four players, and right fielder Carlos Beltrán to the Rangers for three players.
"We knew we had the market cornered on high-end relievers, especially high-end left-handed relievers, with Chapman and Miller," Cashman said. "The strategy would be Chapman first, which would create more of a desperate vacuum into Miller. We had some internal predictions as to how it would play out; if you had asked me before all was said and done, I would have said that Chapman would go to Washington and Miller would go to the Cubs."
At times, when baseball ops people talk about trades, they discuss human players as though they're chess pieces. For the guys in the clubhouse, though, it can be way more personal. Most of the Yankees claim -- however unconvincingly -- that they are able to ignore the drama on social media and MLB Network as the days and hours tick toward 4 p.m. on deadline day. But for some, it's not so easy.
"I felt like I dealt with it for two or three years," said Chase Headley, who finally was moved from San Diego to New York during the 2014 deadline run-up. "I thought that I was going to be traded, or everybody thought I was going to be traded. I still get some curiosity here and there, but I think that the people I've gotten close with for the most part know that I don't want to talk about it, so they stay away from it."
When he was hearing the rumors, Headley didn't want to get bogged down on every random Twitter post. He wanted to be notified when it was more than talk, when it was something close. But different players find out in different ways. A lot of the time, a reporter breaks the news to a player, or he wakes up to a flurry of text messages asking questions about news he hasn't even heard yet.
Adam Warren, whom the Yankees dealt to the Cubs for Starlin Castro this past offseason, was struggling in his first season in Chicago's bullpen, and he was actually sent down to the Cubs' Triple-A team in Iowa on July 24 to get stretched out as a starter. But his agent called to say that he was hearing bits and pieces, that reporters were asking him questions that seemed to indicate they knew something he didn't.
"So I'm like, 'Should I take the flight? Should I not take the flight?'" Warren said. "But thankfully, the Cubs called me before I left. Then we went into packing mode as soon as I heard the call."
Cashman and Afterman understand that they're not just trading paper assets; the moves they make affect lives. While Warren, who was acquired in the Chapman deal on July 25, was trying to find the quickest way possible to Houston, where the Yankees were beginning a three-game series, his pregnant wife was left to pack up the apartment so that she could join him in New York. And Warren insists that it's the life he signed up for.
But independently, the Yankees' execs stress that while they don't want to sound heartless, it's simply not something that they consider when they're doing their actual job, which is fielding the best baseball team they can. And they're careful to point out, the trials and travails of life in the Majors do happen to come along with a minimum salary of half a million dollars.
"My father said the greatest line to me in my first or second year, when there was some absolute devouring of my personal life," Afterman recalled. "He said, 'This is what happens when you serve Rome. The question is, do you want to serve Rome?'"
The Youth Movement
To Cashman, the benefits of the trade deadline maneuvers are clear. Forgetting about the Miller deal for one moment, he was able to turn about 180 remaining Beltran at-bats and 20 remaining Chapman innings -- production that likely would have come for a team that was fading from contention -- into six intriguing, young prospects plus a reliable known quantity in Warren. Will they all turn into All-Stars? Almost certainly not, but they don't have to. Beltran and Chapman were assets on expiring contracts, and it's almost a given at this point that Cashman got value in return.
The Miller deal is, of course, trickier, because the tall, dominant reliever was signed through 2018. The return looks awesome on paper, but unlike with the case of a Dillon Tate, the former Rangers prospect whom Cashman called a lottery ticket, the GM expects to answer questions if the prospects that came over from the Indians don't pan out.
"We gave up two years of control," Cashman said. "If Miller stays what he is for the next two years, without injury and stuff, obviously those guys need to live up to and hit their ceilings to justify the decision I made."
The shift in team philosophy doesn't end with the trade deadline. The Yankees are ready to start relying on the young players who have been making their way up the system for the past few years in addition to the new prospects who just arrived. Already, the team is playing Gary Sánchez at catcher and designated hitter, and Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin had headline-grabbing debuts, each homering in his first at-bat. The 2017 roster, though, could feature any number of young and exciting homegrown up-and-comers. Each can likely make a convincing argument for having earned a spot on the 25-man roster, but more than that, they're cheap. So Cashman will be able to supplement, to use the Yankees' still-deep pockets to build around a newly exciting core. And contrary to conventional wisdom, this rebuilding process -- accelerated though it may be -- actually isn't new to the Yankees GM.
"I started with the Yankees back in 1986, as an intern," Cashman said. "I worked my way up the ladder. I was the assistant farm director from '90 to '92. We were building. We hadn't been a playoff team as an organization from 1982 until '95. That was a long stretch in between, and it was when the Bernies, the Pettittes, the Riveras, the Jeters, the Posadas, and many, many more were being developed, and I was in that system. I was an assistant farm director and then ultimately an assistant general manager for six years.
"So this is not my first rodeo. I've been on the back end. We did rebuild in New York. People just forget. I just scratch my head, or laugh, or chuckle. Because history's important. You can't forget how the '90s run took place, and what the foundation of that was, and the fire we had to walk through to get there. We walked through fire, built something up, and rode a tidal wave of success because of it. And sometimes you have to do that again to get back to where you need to be. And the one thing the Yankees have always stood for was championships. And championship efforts. And sometimes those efforts hurt."
Afterman recalls trade deadlines of yore -- or at least about 10 years ago -- when she had to send their fastest front office staffer to run down to the clubhouse at the old stadium so a player could sign a form waiving his no-trade clause. The timing was so tight that he couldn't even afford to wait for the elevator; he had to glide down and then back up the stairs so that they could fax the form to the commissioner's office in time. "It was a little bit like the Battle of Marathon, I imagine," Afterman said.
These days, with email and the eBis system, things are much easier. Most of the time, Afterman's role is to tell Cashman what can and can't be done, based on careful understanding of player contracts and the labor agreement between the league and the players association. She'll pore over documents in the system, taking note of escalator clauses and assignment bonuses and anything else that could have implications on the deal.
But when things are coming down to the wire, as they did with Nova, Afterman's desk can become mission control, with her computer juggling messages to a handful of different teams, each about a deal that may or may not be culminated under the wire. "Any challenge is fun," she said. "Anything that is a little bit like the movies is fun. Most of what I do is the mundane business of baseball, so this makes it a little bit more dramatic."
Cashman signed Nova as a 17-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. The right-hander moved his way up through the system, debuting in 2010 and eventually winning 53 games over seven seasons. On Aug. 1, Cashman called to say goodbye, that he was grateful for what Nova had given the team, but that he wouldn't be part of the future the Yankees were so publicly building.
When they hung up, Cashman went to Citi Field to address the media before the Yankees-Mets game. The Yankees won in dramatic fashion that night, the GM's adrenaline flowed, and he didn't get to sleep until way later than he had expected. He was exhausted, but exhilarated.
"It was a big day for our franchise, and an important day. I think we accomplished some high-end business for our future, and then we won in the present. That's about as perfect a day as you can get."