The off-season is a time for teams to re-stock their rosters after a long season. The New York Yankees are normally very active in their pursuit of the most talented free agents, but this year they took a different approach. Evan Halpine-Berger joined us from GardyGoesYardy.com to explain why the new approach is a breath of fresh air.
While this has been in many ways an atypical winter for Yankees fans, it shouldn’t have been a surprising one. New York owner Hal Steinbrenner has been very candid about his plan to lower the team’s payroll below the luxury tax threshold at some point in the next few years. Only a modest $12.5 million was scheduled to come off the books with the departure of free agents Stephen Drew, Chris Young, and Chris Capuano, and most of that was expected to be eaten up by arbitration raises. Despite the ever rising tide of payrolls in the game (20 of 30 teams are expected to crack the $100 million mark in 2016 according to Baseball Reference), the Yankees apparently have hit their spending ceiling, or at least their comfort level. The $217 million payroll that they opened 2015 with is shockingly similar to the $208 million total of a decade earlier on Opening Day 2005. The expenditures of the Steinbrenner family, which once seemed practically limitless, have slowed to a trickle.
Many fans are frustrated by the team’s approach this winter, but there are definite benefits to their new fiscal responsibility. Brian Cashman has cultivated the best crop of young, big-league-ready talent they’ve had since the dynasty years. Jim Callis of MLB.com ranked the farm system tenth in baseball following last year’s trade deadline, although that was including Luis Severino and Greg Bird as prospects. Even after several key promotions, the Yankees’ system is expected to rank somewhere in the middle of the league. After seeing a completely empty cupboard for more than a decade, New York fans will perceive even average contributions from young players to be a major windfall.
Much of that upper-level talent can be tied directly to Cashman’s focus on holding onto draft picks in recent years. Two of their top four prospects according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, Aaron Judge and James Kaprielian, were taken in the first round of the amateur draft – 2013 and 2015 respectively – as was Eric Jagielo, the centerpiece of the Aroldis Chapman trade. The decision to stand pat during last year’s trade deadline and the coinciding promotions of Severino and Bird was a clear vote of confidence by the team’s brass in their young players. They thrust their top prospects into key roles in a pennant race, for better or for worse. The relative inaction we’ve seen this winter likely indicates that will be the case again.
The most notable fact about this offseason has been that the Yankees have abstained from the free agent market entirely, failing to make a single major league signing. That is a first for Brian Cashman’s tenure as GM, and a complete change in philosophy for an organization that has acquired the majority of its key contributors in recent years by signing them to big-money deals. Last year, the team began to show restraint by focusing on the middle tier of the market. Neither Chase Headley nor Andrew Miller required draft pick compensation, and by allowing David Robertson to walk and signing Miller, they actually netted a compensation pick. Those were smart signings that are not going to hamper the team’s long-term finances or their ability to build from within.
The fact that the 2015-2016 free agent class was among the deepest and most accomplished in history meant that there were plenty of opportunities to do the same. The cost of pitching skyrocketed on the whole, but there were still plenty of economical choices available. Scott Kazmir, Kenta Maeda, and Hisashi Iwakuma stood out as potential bargains on short-term deals. Looking at any particular player, it’s easy to say that maybe the Yankees pursued them and just didn’t make the best offer, or maybe the guy just preferred to play somewhere else. The fact that New York has gone the whole winter without signing anyone, however, indicates that they were probably not serious players in the market. Wanting to hold onto draft picks is a completely defensible strategy for a team that is quasi-rebuilding; so is avoiding long-term, $100-million-plus commitments for players over 30. However, choosing not to sign a single free agent from such a talented pool of players feels like a financial decision rather than a baseball one, which is something that Yankee fans really haven’t had to live with for the majority of the team’s history.
That said, the Yankees were involved in some significant transactions over the past few months. Cashman has done a nice job the past two offseasons of identifying and acquiring talented young players who are undervalued for whatever reason by their current clubs. Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi looked like the club’s best position player and best starting pitcher, respectively, for much of the summer after being acquired for Martin Prado and spare parts. The three major trades Cash made this winter also followed this pattern. Aaron Hicks finally began to show flashes of the guy that made four Baseball America Top 100 lists from 2008-2012, but Minnesota’s talented group of young outfielders made him expendable. Starlin Castro’s maddening inconsistency the past few years made it much easier for the Cubs to ship him to the Bronx, as did the presence of Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and a shiny, new Ben Zobrist. On the other hand, Castro made three All-Star teams before his 25th birthday, and seemed to turn over a new leaf after switching to second base down the stretch in 2015. Aroldis Chapman comes with some ugly baggage, but that is the inefficiency that Cashman exploited. The Yankees were able to get him for pennies on the dollar because no one else would touch him. With the news that there will be no criminal charges against Chapman, the deal looks like even more of a steal, although some may still feel uncomfortable rooting for him.
In all three trades, the Yankees dealt from areas of depth. John Ryan Murphy quietly had a nice season as McCann’s backup, but Gary Sanchez’s breakout 2015, along with promising 19-year-old Luis Torrens, made Murphy superfluous. Eric Jagielo’s future is likely at first base, where Greg Bird has already cemented himself as the heir apparent. Rookie Davis has had a nice few seasons in the lower minors, but doesn’t have much of a ceiling. The loss of Adam Warren might have the biggest impact as he was the best swingman in baseball over the past few years. Given the sheer number of young relief arms the Yankees have stockpiled, along with the three-headed monster they now have for the late innings, it’s safe to say the bereavement of Bombers fans should be short.
The problem with these acquisitions is that they did not do much more than maintain the status quo from 2015. A fourth outfielder who can platoon against righties? Check. Hicks should approximate Chris Young’s solid 2015 season. A talented shortstop who is moving to second base and attempting to bounce back from a subpar season? Check. Castro has more upside than Stephen Drew, but there is little guarantee he will improve over Drew’s 2015 production. Drew hit .236/.299/.536 last year while Castro slashed .265/.296/.375. Starlin hit for a little more average, while Drew hit for more power. This may sound blasphemous to Yankees fans, but the upgrade is not as clear as many suppose, especially considering that Drew was a good defensive second baseman, whereas Castro definitely was not. Also, remember that Rob Refsnyder exists. The team’s fourth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com will be undeservingly blocked for the third straight year. As for Chapman, he undoubtedly will help the team this season. However, when you look at the big picture, the team traded away two young and controllable arms in Warren and Justin Wilson this winter. The left-handed closer will make between $9 and 13.1 million through arbitration in 2016. Between the financial cost, the price in prospects, and the loss of two key relievers from the excellent 2015 pen, this deal may not ultimately move the needle much, despite Chapman’s big name. The Hicks trade is the only one that is a clear win for the team long-term. At best, the Castro acquisition is a gamble on a return to form, but it blocks a potential solid starting player who is younger and cheaper.
The saving grace of the Yankees’ offseason is that, to a certain extent, they are finally committing to building from within. While individual moves can be quibbled about, it will be refreshing to see a younger, largely home-grown Yankees team develop over the next few years. Luis Severino and Gary Sanchez should have semi-regular roles out of spring training, with Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Rob Refsnyder, and James Kaprielian not far behind. The lurking financial motivation behind all of this adds a slightly sour taste, but it’s probably best to ignore that. A major sea change is taking place that will take patience, but should be good for the long-term health of the club. On the whole, this is an exciting time to be a Yankees’ fan.
Evan Halpine-Berger runs GardyGoesYardy.com where he writes about the Yankees’ and their young players, who will be the best Yankee in 2016, and the Hall of Fame case for Jorge Posada.
Follow Evan on Twitter @GardyGoes_Yardy.