The New York Yankees and the $189M Elephant in the Room
Not long ago, hearing a New York Yankees executive throw around phrases like “budget restrictions” and “payroll cuts” would be like hearing that the new color announcer for the radio broadcast team is an ex-Broadway singer from Boston. But, as we’ve learned over the past decade, stranger things have happened. So it’s looking more and more likely that by 2014, management (namely Hal Steinbrenner) is going to attempt to get the team’s payroll under the $189MM threshold set by the new CBA agreement, thus saving the team millions of dollars in luxury tax penalties but also putting a freeze on their seemingly bottomless pit of cash.
I’m not sure I’m buying this story—it seems more like a card for the Yankees to play should an agent try and squeeze a couple of more bucks out of them. But for argument sake, if this plan does go into effect, a bigger question arises – who stays, who plays, and who goes?
At the end of the 2013 season, the Yankees will have $68MM officially committed to three players – CC Sabathia ($23M), Alex Rodriguez ($26M), and Mark Teixeira ($23M). Also, second baseman Robinson Cano and centerfielder Curtis Granderson could be up for free agency at the end of 2013, meaning one or both of them will be handed a very expensive contract extension, adding to the growing sum. And as for the rest of the roster, aside from setup man David Robertson, there isn’t much more than a bunch of question marks.
Let’s start with the rotation, which only eight months ago looked like a cheap and talented foundation that the Yankees could build from. But February feels more like a lifetime ago–their once young and promising cluster of pitchers has been decimated by inconsistency: Ivan Nova (5.02 ERA, 28 HRA); Dellin Betances (6.44 ERA, 6.8 BB/9), and injuries: Michael Pineda (anterior labral tear); Manny Banuelos (Tommy John surgery in August). Sure, the Yankees could bring back Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, but both pitchers will be 41 and 38 (respectively) and aren’t exactly sure-things for a full season’s workload. And now they have CC Sabthia’s elbow injury to worry about, which can only add additional angst to what’s gearing up to be a very stressful winter in the Bronx.
The Yankees offense isn’t in much better shape. Sure, they scored the second-most-runs in baseball this season, but were absolutely atrocious in the postseason, a sure sign of wearing down. Also, the oldest team in baseball is only getting older, and aside from Eduardo Nunez, doesn’t have any MLB-ready internal options. The Yankees also have to decide what to do in left field once Nick Swisher departs for free agency, and need to figure out whether or not oft-injured Brett Gardner fits into the outfield plans going forward. Personally, I would bring back Ichiro Suzuki for another season and hope his resurgence continues long enough for one of the Yankees outfield prospects to step up and replace him in 2014. But relying on hopes and what-ifs isn’t exactly ideal for a team that showed every wrinkle of its age while getting swept in this year’s ALCS.
Then again, there is always a flip-side. The Yankees do have some bright spots on the horizon, although somewhat distant. Outfielder Tyler Austin came out of nowhere and went crazy this season in the minors, posting a combined .960 OPS with 17 home runs and 23 stolen bases across four minor league levels. Right-handed reliever Mark Montgomery has been flat-out dominate for both A and AA this season, posting 1.54 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 64.1 IP. Outfielder and 2009 first round pick Slade Heathcott bounced back nicely after a lost 2010 and 2011 seasons, posting a .307/.378/.470 slash in 60 games at Tampa. Before injuring his none-throwing shoulder, outfielder Mason Williams wowed scouts as he continued his development into a potential five-tool-player. And then there’s the latest “Crown Jewel” of the system, catcher Gary Sanchez, who has done a great job of soothing the loss of Jesus Montero by absolutely killing it at A and A+ stops this season (.290 BA, 18 HR’s, 29 2B’s).
There are also a handful of other players who have shown consistent growth in the system -IF Corban Joseph, IF David Adams, OF Ramon Flores, RHP Brett Marshall – so if you add those in with enigmatic players like RHP Rafael DePaula (who might have the talent to pitch at the front of the rotation once he’s able to situate himself in a stable development system), and there is some real potential. The good thing is, although they might not ready for the major league this instant, the Yankees farm is about fifty-times more plush than it was in the barren days of the early-to-mid 2000’s, so that’s something for Brian Cashman and Co. to be proud of.
But none of this will matter if someone in the Yankees front office decides to push the panic button. Should the worst case scenario come to fruition – CC Sabathia needs Tommy John surgery – the Yankees will be in the mix for any and all starting pitchers, no matter the price tag and/or prospect haul necessary to acquire them. And if Randy Levine decides to have another Rafael Soriano moment of unadulterated panic, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Yankees offer Josh Hamilton a bazillion dollars over a hundred years. I’d like to think that the team is past it’s days of spending big bucks on aging stars, but this is the Yankees we’re talking about, so it can never be completely put to bed.
While I think it makes sense for Cashman to explore free agent deals for Jake Peavy, Anibal Sanchez, BJ Upton, Shane Victorino, and potentially Dan Haren, I think it’s important to avoid the bank-breaking blockbuster deal. There’s no point in taking two steps back to take one step foward, especially when investing in players in their late-twenties and early-thirties.
While the 2013 free agent crop isn’t an overly memorable one, the 2014 crop presents a handful of interesting free agent solutions that the Yankees, at the very least, will have to consider. Barring extensions from their current teams, pitchers Josh Johnson, Matt Garza, and Tim Lincecum will all test the waters, and position players like Hunter Pence, Martin Prado, and Jacoby Ellsbury will join them. If the big contract route is something they want to avoid completely, the Yankees could also return to the bargain hunt and pursue reclamation projects to possibly bridge the gap between the old guard and the new guard. Amongst those name are Michael Young, Aaron Hill, Chase Utley, Justin Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Ted Lilly, and Ubaldo Jimenez.
From a pessimist’s point of view, there is a giant piano hanging by dental floss over Yankee Stadium right now. The Yankees have some decisions on their plate – Cano, Granderson, Phil Hughes (after 2013) and a ton of arbitration cases to handle. They also have to decide whether or not it’s worth eating $85MM to trade Alex Rodriguez and possibly absorb a couple of bad contracts in return. CC could miss 2013 and Tex hasn’t been the durable player he once was. Mariano Rivera will make another go of it after his farewell tour was derailed, and Derek Jeter will fight his way back from the ankle injury, but how much stock can you place in a couple of guys who saw their first action way back in 1995? For the first time in a long time, the Yankees have a ton of legitimate question marks with no easy answers.
But then again, looking at the situation with rose colored glasses, there are a lot of exciting prospects in the farm, and while all of them will not become superstars, some of them could be used as trade bait for other major league players and some of them could become important role players. The Yankees are about two years from seeing their harvest produce real results, and patience is definitely something that will ease the transition. If Brian Cashman can fend off the hounds for that long, expect to see a lot of new (and most importantly homegrown) names in the lineup and in the bullpen come 2014. But as has been the case for over three decades now, that’s a very, very big ‘if’.