Will Justus Sheffield shore up the Yankees' rotation -- or be trade bait?

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Thursday, July 12, 2018

CLEVELAND -- Manny Machado will receive his share of attention during All-Star Week in Washington -- whether or not he's still in a Baltimore Orioles uniform by the end of it.

As trade talks heat up across baseball, another name connected to the New York Yankees rumor mill is likely to generate buzz in the nation's capital:

Justus Sheffield.

A first-round pick in 2014 from Tennessee, the left-handed starting pitcher has climbed the ranks in the Yankees organization and become a possible piece of the puzzle as New York reportedly tries to land Machado from the O's.

On Wednesday alone, there were conflicting reports as to whether Sheffield, a Triple-A starter, was part of a trade package the Yankees offered the Orioles in exchange for their superstar shortstop.

With Baltimore in need of young starting pitching it can rebuild around, Sheffield would be a slam-dunk addition. But the Yankees like Sheffield's trajectory and are looking for starting pitching themselves, so bringing him to the Bronx sooner rather than later makes some sense.

Potential trade partners will get an up-close look at Sheffield during Sunday's Futures Game at Nationals Park. An annual exhibition that offers an early look at the next crop of rising major league stars, the Futures Game has helped launch some big league careers. Last year, current MLB regulars Ronald Acuna Jr., Rhys Hoskins and Rafael Devers competed in the game.

One of the Yankees' most venerable active pitchers is already singing the praises of his team's lone Futures Game rep.

"What I saw during spring training," CC Sabathia said of Sheffield, "he could pitch in the big leagues and be a great starter."

Based off the reports he has heard about Sheffield's most recent performances for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Sabathia believes it won't be long before the player he considers a little brother is on a big league roster.

And Sabathia would be happiest if Sheffield came up in pinstripes.

"I hope that he gets up here soon," Sabathia said. "If his stuff is there ... it would give us a boost, for sure."

Sheffield -- who was traded to New York at the 2016 deadline as part of a move that sent reliever Andrew Miller to eventual AL champion Cleveland -- has a 4-5 record and 2.44 ERA in 16 starts between Double-A and Triple-A this season. He opened the year with the Yankees at spring training: In 5 1/3 innings across three spring appearances, he allowed six hits and seven runs and struck out four.

Although the numbers weren't impressive, something caught Sabathia's attention.

"Just electric stuff. His slider wipes off the table. His fastball is good," Sabathia said. "He's just got to get the command down."

Sheffield's command and control have appeared to improve as of late. He's lasting deeper into games, allowing fewer runs and giving up fewer walks. He had one three-walk game since June 14 after four such outings in his previous seven starts, and he has surrendered just two runs in his past 18 1/3 innings -- a span of three starts.

Although Sabathia isn't keeping close tabs on Sheffield's minor league outings -- the vet says the two talk each week about practically everything but baseball -- what he has seen of Sheffield reminds him of another lefty: himself.

"It's his stuff for sure and just his mentality," Sabathia said. "He wants to be good, and he wants it now.

"That's how I was. If I can help guide him through some of that, some of those early bumps in the road, then I feel like I can help him."

At times this season, it has appeared the Yankees might need Sheffield's help ASAP. Injuries to Masahiro Tanaka and Jordan Montgomery, coupled with occasional struggles in Sonny Gray's roller-coaster year, had some wondering just how deep the Yankees would dip into their farm system for pitching help before the trade deadline.

To help get through the injuries, they've used rookies Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga before Loaisiga was shelved due to inflammation in his shoulder. Right-hander Luis Cessa has also made the Scranton-to-New York shuttle a couple of times this season.

Gray tossed six scoreless innings with eight strikeouts in Wednesday night's 9-0 win over Baltimore, but hadn't made it past the third inning in his previous two starts. Entering Wednesday, the Yankees were 7-10 with a 5.85 starter's ERA in games Gray pitched. In all other games, they were 52-21 with a 3.53 starter's ERA.

Despite calls to skip Gray in his latest turn in the rotation, the Yankees stuck by him.

"Everybody in the clubhouse understands kind of what I'm going through on the field, but at the end of the day, I'm coming here and contribute the same way I can on the days I'm not pitching," Gray said. "This is probably the longest I've struggled in a period. But I'm comfortable. I'm comfortable in my own skin. I'm not going to hold my head down. I'm going to walk around with my head up high, and I'm going to figure it out.

"That's just kind of how I go about things -- not just baseball, but things in life. I'm going to keep working until I figure it out, and that's kind of how I approach it."

The Yankees have exercised a similarly patient approach. If Gray can show more consistency, they'll have reason to keep that going.

In the meantime, the Yankees need to figure out whether they should keep Sheffield in the fold and, if so, when he should be called up to the big league roster.