Like it or not, the Yankees spent modestly this winter.
While two big fish sat in free agency, the Bombers instead looked for lesser improvements. Still, the Yankees came away with arguably the best starter and reliever who changed teams this offseason while retaining three pitchers, Brett Gardner and adding two infielders.
For many fans and observers, that offseason wasn’t enough. The Yankees, after all, are the richest team in baseball and could have easily made room for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. You can just imagine what either hitter would look like next to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup. The common complaint was that if you’re not going to spend on either Harper or Machado, why did the team get under the luxury tax?
However, when one looks back at the last time the Yankees spent big in free agency, there was a much more pressing need. Let’s take a look back at the 2013-14 offseason for a second.
The 2013 Yankees were as much of a disaster as an 85-win team can be, at least in New York. Injuries ran roughshod through the roster, claiming Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Michael Pineda. The big money starter, CC Sabathia, sported a 4.78 ERA and was well-below league-average.
To summarize how bad it got, look at the team’s Baseball Reference page. Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, late-career Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki to go with 36-year-old Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner each played in more than half the Yankees’ games. Yikes.
The team was set to get worse in the offseason. Alex Rodriguez was suspended for all of the 2014 season, giving New York more spending flexibility but one fewer big bat. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were retiring and Robinson Cano, one of just two above-average regulars, left for the greener pastures (at least in terms of dollars) of Seattle. There was no Judge or Luis Severino coming through the Minors to save the day.
This was also right at the time of the Yankees’ first attempt to evade the luxury tax in what was known as Plan 189 around these parts. The Steinbrenners were faced with the choice of getting under the tax and abandoning a realistic playoff chase or spending their way to a competitive-looking roster. This was before Brian Cashman was able to convince ownership to sell off parts and said owners chose to remain competitive.
Thus, the team went hard, eschewing Cano and signing Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann early in free agency. With a clear need still present in the rotation, Cashman got sign-off to pursue Masahiro Tanaka and acquired the righty in January 2014.
It’s easy to say that this was short-sighted with the aging roster and Ellsbury’s onerous contract. However, while one can question the methods, the intent was clear.
Back to the present day, the roster has shed the ancient appearance for a youthful glee as the Yankees returned to prominence. That ultimately was a large part of the plan after the 2016 trade deadline, turning to a young, sustainable core.
However, this core arrived well ahead of schedule. Just think back to Spring Training 2017. Aarons Judge and Hicks had combined for -0.7 WAR the prior season while Severino failed in his first go-around as a starter. The team traded two of its most prolific hitters, Beltran and McCann, as “transition” hung in the air as the buzzword. In other words, expect a worse product in the short term.
From there, Hicks, Judge and Severino turned into All-Star caliber players while Stanton fell into the Yankees’ laps. The team has won 191 games over the last two years and made it within a game of the World Series. Not a championship, but certainly poised to reach that height.
Looking at it from ownership’s perspective, the team has the infield set for years behind Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius and Gleyber Torres. The outfield has Hicks, Judge and Stanton while Brett Gardner and Troy Tulowitzki serve as stopgaps for Gregorius and Clint Frazier. The Bombers are already on the cusp of the World Series.
So Yankees chose to leave very good alone instead of go for standout greatness as no team pushed their postseason spot. Likely, if Judge, Sevy and others don’t turn into stars right away and reach the ALCS in 2017 — if 2018 looks more like 2013 than 2017 — the front office views Harper or Machado (or both) as necessities rather than luxuries.
The media has occasionally pointed to Ellsbury’s contract as a reason the Yankees or other teams would be hesitant to give out big contracts, but that simply doesn’t apply to the Bombers. This is the team that traded for A-Rod and Stanton’s record deals while giving Rodriguez and Sabathia top-of-the-market contracts, all while giving long-term deals to Jeter, Teixeira and so on. They’ve stomached bad deals and they’ve thrived with great ones.
The team now turns to its in-house options as well as their fine additions with Paxton and Ottavino. The team relies heavily upon Didi’s recovery, avoiding regression from Andujar and a five-man rotation with plenty of injury risk. Still, the talent and promise in the Bronx is palpable even without Machado and Harper.
Whether they regret that comfortable feeling of having essentially reached the postseason in March will play out as it may, but it’s hard to deny that compared to 2013-14, or even 2008-09, there wasn’t the pressing need. Harper or Machado wouldn’t have guaranteed the Yankees would surpass Boston or Houston and ultimately, that opportunity cost spelled the difference between either player donning pinstripes and our2 current reality.