Winter Report Card: New York Yankees
With little less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2013.
New York Yankees
2013 results: 85-77 (.525), tied-3rd place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: 2B Robinson Cano, RHP Joba Chamberlain, CF Curtis Granderson, DH Travis Hafner, RHP Phil Hughes, LHP Boone Logan, IF Jayson Nix, 1B Lyle Overbay, LHP Andy Pettitte, IF Mark Reynolds, CL Mariano Rivera, OF Vernon Wells, 3B Kevin Youkilis
Key arrivals: RF Carlos Beltran, CF Jacoby Ellsbury, IF/OF Kelly Johnson, C Brian McCann, 2B Brian Roberts, 3B Scott Sizemore, RHP Masahiro Tanaka, LHP Mat Thornton
On the heels of just their second season outside the playoffs since the 1994 players’ strike, change has come to the Yankees, and in a big way. Mainstays Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte have retired at long last. Curtis Granderson and pitching projects Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes have departed via free agency after diminishing returns. Most shockingly, Robinson Cano chose to leave New York for the greener pastures of Seattle after the Yankees were outbid by around $65 million, lacking the appetite to do a 10-year deal. Furthermore, arbitrator Frederic Horowitz recently upheld Alex Rodriguez’s suspension for the entire 2014 season for violating the game’s drug policy.
In the face of those losses and the perpetual mandate to contend, general manager Brian Cashman has been forced to remake the roster. Initially, he paid lip service to the team’s multi-year effort to rein in payroll below the $189 million luxury tax threshold so as to reset its marginal tax rate and save tens of millions of dollars. However, with Wednesday’s news that the team had landed Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka via a seven-year, $155 million deal, New York blew by that number. As far as that accounting — which is different from simply adding up its 2014 salary figures — goes, the club is at $192.2 million for 20 players, plus another $11 million in benefits (insurance and pensions) that count against the threshold. Those figures are based upon the New York Post‘s payroll tracker here.
Even before Cano officially departed, the Yankees began retooling with a significant upgrade at a spot where their 2013 roster began unraveling: catcher. Almost exactly a year after letting Russell Martin depart for Pittsburgh via a two-year, $17 million deal and then watching his replacements combine to “hit” .213/.289/.298, New York committed five times that amount ($85 million) to Brian McCann with a five-year contract. A strong two-way catcher coming off a .256/.336/.461 season with 20 homers, McCann is an excellent fit in the short term given his lefty power and value as a pitch-framer, but he’s missed substantial time with injuries in recent years and is about to turn 30, a milestone past which heavily-used catchers tend to peter out. Since World War II, only six backstops with a minimum of 1,000 games caught before age 30 have been worth at least 10 Wins Above Replacement for the remainder of their careers, whether or not they changed positions.
Elsewhere, the Yankees have heavily invested in remaking their outfield and their offense with a seven-year, $153 million deal for Jacoby Ellsbury and a three-year, $45 million pact for Carlos Beltran. As with McCann, both players have had durability issues in recent years. The 30-year-old Ellsbury missed nearly all of 2010 and half of 2012 with various injuries, but he is coming off a strong 2013: 5.8 WAR with fairly representative offense (.298/.355/.426 with nine homers and an AL-best 52 steals) and above-average defense (+13 Defensive Runs Saved). The speedster should provide a few different dimensions than the more power-oriented and less defensively sound Granderson.
Meanwhile, the 36-year-old Beltran has now played at least 142 games in each of the past three seasons after playing just 145 in 2009 and ’10 combined. His offense (.296/.339/.491 with 24 homers in 2013) offsets the loss of Nick Swisher in rightfield, albeit a year too late. Beltran’s presence has consigned Ichiro Suzuki to a role as an expensive ($6.5 million) reserve and effectively bumped emergency solution Vernon Wells from the roster. Beltran and Alfonso Soriano will share time in rightfield and DH.
If the outfield is largely set, the infield is shakier; at no position does the team have a player coming off full-time duty in 2013, either with New York or elsewhere. First baseman Mark Teixeira and shortstop Derek Jeter will both return after injuries wrecked their seasons, with the latter — who turns 40 in June — expected to need backup support from light-hitting defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, whom the team re-signed to a two-year, $5 million deal. Ryan could see time at second base as well, though 36-year-old Brian Roberts, who was signed to an incentive-laden deal with a $2 million base salary, is the preferred option. The oft-injured two-time All-Star, who had spent the entirety of his 13-year major league career with the Orioles, hit .249/.312/.392 — about 30 points below his career marks in the first two categories — in 77 games in 2013, his highest total since 2009.
Other low-cost potential solutions at either second base or third are Kelly Johnson and Scott Sizemore; both have far more experience at the keystone than at the hot corner. The 31-year-old Johnson, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal, is the presumptive third base starter until a better solution arises. He hit just .235/.305/.410 with the Rays in 2013, for a 99 OPS+, and has been below 100 in four years out of his past five. Sizemore, who just turned 29, was signed to a minor-league deal; after hitting.245/.342/.399 (105 OPS+) for the Tigers and A’s in 2011, he lost all of the last two seasons (save for two April 2013 games) to ACL tears in his left knee. If Sizemore does carve out a regular spot, he’ll be the lineup’s only starter under age 30.
Until Tanaka signed, the infield’s uncertainty had been mirrored by that of the rotation. The departures of Pettitte and Hughes left the Yankees with just two pitchers under contract who made more than 20 major league starts last year: the going-on-39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, who stayed with the team on a one-year, $16 million deal, and CC Sabathia, who’s coming off a career-worst 4.78 ERA and surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow. Beyond that pair, the remaining three starters under contract — Ivan Nova, David Phelps and Michael Pineda — combined for just 32 major league starts in 2013, none by the latter as he works his way back from labrum surgery. Given an underwhelming set of major league free agents to choose from (Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Bronson Arroyo), the Yankees understandably were keen on signing Tanaka even if it undid their luxury tax efforts. As the Steinbrenner family learned long ago, winning is a better means of making money than scrimping.
With the addition of Tanaka, Nova is pushed back to the fourth spot, leaving the rest of the field (which could include Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno, who combined to make five starts in 2013) in competition for the fifth starter job. In all, that’s a much better rotation than New York had prior to adding its new trophy, one that should help the team compete for a playoff spot.
Unfinished Business: Bullpen
So far, the Yankees haven’t done a whole lot beyond their grand sendoff for Rivera and lesser fanfares for Chamberlain (who signed with the Tigers) and Boone Logan (who signed with the Rockies). Matt Thornton inked a two-year, $7 million deal to be the team’s top lefty, but the 37-year-old is coming off a 3.74 ERA with a meager 6.2 strikeouts per nine — 3.0 below his career mark — for the White Sox and Red Sox and didn’t even make Boston’s postseason roster. Under “Plan 189,” that left top setup man David Robertson tasked with filling Rivera’s shoes at closer, with Shawn Kelley thrust into a setup role, and 2013 rookies Warren and Preston Claiborne likely to be tested with more responsibility as well.
But since there’s no point in missing the luxury tax cutoff by a little, the addition of Tanaka opens the doors for the Yankees to spend more money. While they could add salary via trade for another infielder, the likely place where they’ll spend first is the bullpen. One possible scenario would be to add free agent Fernando Rodney, who saved 85 games for the Rays over the past two years but saw his ERA rise from 0.60 to 3.38 from 2012 to 2013, and his blown save total quadruple from two to eight. Other options come either with significant injury histories (Joel Hanrahan, Octavio Dotel) or lower ceilings (Kevin Gregg, Kyle Farnsworth) or both.
Preliminary Grade: B+ (up from B- pre-Tanaka)
The Yankees have certainly made a splash this winter, and should be a more competitive club in 2014 than 2013. Their moves have rendered their previous efforts toward austerity moot, and will leave them vulnerable yet again to an expensive and inflexible roster a few years down the road. Winning trumps all of that, however, and the loosening of their purse strings should allow them to address all of their needs. If New York can shore up its bullpen, it should be back in the thick of the AL East race.