The Yankees could have a bit of room to add another big contract this winter, though a greater need may be finding young depth to bolster its veteran core.
- Masahiro Tanaka, SP: $111MM through 2020 (Tanaka can opt out after 2017)
- Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $105.714MM through 2020 ($21MM club option for 2021 with $5MM buyout)
- Brian McCann, C: $51MM through 2018 ($15MM club option for 2019, can vest to become player option)
- Alex Rodriguez, DH: $40MM through 2017
- Chase Headley, 3B: $39MM through 2018
- Brett Gardner, OF: $36MM through 2018 ($12.5MM club option for 2019, $2MM buyout)
- Andrew Miller, RP: $27MM through 2018
- C.C. Sabathia, SP: $25MM through 2016 ($25MM vesting option for 2017, $5MM buyout otherwise)
- Mark Teixeira, 1B: $22.5MM through 2016
- Carlos Beltran, OF: $15MM through 2016
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections by MLB Trade Rumors)
- Sergio Santos (5.110) – $900K projected salary
- Andrew Bailey (5.034) – $900K arbitration projection (has $2MM club option).
- Ivan Nova (5.024) – $4.4MM
- Michael Pineda (4.099) – $4.6MM
- Dustin Ackley (4.087) – $3.1MM
- Nathan Eovaldi (4.013) – $5.7MM
- Adam Warren (3.036) – $1.5MM
- Justin Wilson (3.035) – $1.3MM
- Didi Gregorius (2.159) – $2.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Santos
In many ways, 2015 was a successful year for the Yankees. They returned to the postseason (albeit for just one game, losing to the Astros in a wild card matchup), got some solid contributions from building-block younger players and received several bounce-back seasons from their expensive veterans. While anything short of a World Series championship is generally considered a disappointment in New York, the Yankees at least made some positive strides.
The trick for GM Brian Cashman, however, is figuring out how exactly to add major upgrades to a roster that has over $180MM committed to just 10 players. There’s a light at the end of the guaranteed-salary since at least $37.5MM (Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran) will be freed up after 2016, plus Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia (a combined $45MM) will be off the books after 2017. The Yankees don’t seem likely to go on another free agent spending spree, but with some financial relief in sight, it doesn’t seem out of the question for them to make one or two major free agent signings on backloaded contracts. It may make more sense for New York to strike in free agency now rather than next winter, when the projected open market doesn’t look nearly as deep in talent, particularly in frontline pitching.
Starting pitching indeed stands out as an area of focus, and free agent righty Jeff Samardzija has already been cited as a Yankee target this offseason. Samardzija would cost less than pursuing one of the top-tier arms in this winter’s free agent pitching market, though the lower price tag is due to Samardzija’s lackluster 2015 season. He posted a 4.96 ERA over 214 innings with the White Sox, and while ERA predictors were a bit more kind to his performance (Chicago’s bad defense certainly played a role), Samardzija also suffered drops in his strikeout and grounder rates. It should be noted, though, that the Yankees weren’t interested in signing free agents that required draft pick forfeiture, and Samardzija reportedly will receive and reject a $15.8MM qualifying offer from the White Sox.
Acquiring a new starter would require the Yankees to bump a current rotation member. The 2016 rotation projects as Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda and Sabathia, with Ivan Nova and Adam Warren on hand as depth. Sabathia recently entered an alcohol rehabilitation program, adding a far more pressing personal concern to his 2016 status beyond just his knee injuries and declining performance. Sabathia has only made one relief appearance in his 15-year career (during the 2011 playoffs) and he still ate 167 1/3 innings last season, yet as strange as it would be to see him coming out of the bullpen, he’s the most logical candidate to leave the rotation. Tanaka and Severino obviously aren’t going anywhere, and trading promising young starters like Eovaldi and Pineda (whose ERA indicators show he drastically outperformed his 4.37 ERA) would be an odd move for a club that claims to want to get younger.
It’s hard to see where a major new salary could be fit around the diamond since that’s where most of the Yankees’ payroll commitments can be found. Aside from shortstop Didi Gregorius and the unsettled second base situation, every other position is filled by a veteran with an eight-figure salary, the youngest of whom (Chase Headley) is entering his age-32 season. The Yankees enjoyed several bounce-back seasons from many of these older stars in 2015 but even those came with some caveats; Teixeira missed the last six weeks with a shin fracture and Rodriguez hit only .191/.300/.377 in 213 PA after Aug. 1.
Combine those with down years from Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, and a team-wide lackluster defense (24th in team UZR/150, 27th in team Defensive Runs Saved), and you have to question if the Yankees can realistically expect to catch lightning in a bottle again and contend with this aging lineup. Manager Joe Girardi was already pretty liberal with off-days for many of his veterans last year, and the same can probably be expected in 2016 now that the manager has a few more young reinforcements to be called upon.
Greg Bird and John Ryan Murphy lead the way in this regard, as the rookie first baseman and third-year backup catcher both had strong seasons, particularly Bird stepping in to deliver big numbers after Teixeira was lost to the DL. There has been some speculation that Bird could be tried out at third base or right field so he could get regular time spelling Teixeira, Headley and Beltran, though it remains to be see how Bird could adjust to playing two new positions for the first time in his pro career. Murphy could also see some time at first base, though it’s probably more likely that he could get more time behind the plate spelling Brian McCann (who would either rest on those days or play first himself). More at-bats for Murphy would also get a right-handed bat into the lineup on a more regular basis, which would help a Yankees offense that struggled badly against southpaws.
Chris Young was a valuable weapon against left-handed pitching last season, posting a .972 OPS in 175 PA against southpaws en route to an overall very solid .252/.320/.453 slash line and 14 homers in 356 PA. Young and his new representation will be looking for a multi-year contract and a job that offers more regular playing time, though I’d expect the Yankees will explore keeping a lefty-masher who can play both corner outfield spots and handle the occasional fill-in game or two in center. If Young signs elsewhere, the Bombers will be in the market for another versatile backup outfielder.
Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela were the two young second base candidates rumored to be in for long looks in 2015, though Stephen Drew ended up seeing most of the at-bats at the keystone. It’s unlikely that Drew returns in the wake of his rough season, so the Yankees could go with a platoon of left-handed hitting Dustin Ackley and either Refsnyder or Pirela (both righty batters) at second next season. Ideally, the Yankees would probably prefer to have Refsnyder or Pirela win the job outright in Spring Training as Ackley has only played in 10 games at second over the last two years.
Could New York look for a more permanent answer at second base? Names like Howie Kendrick, Daniel Murphy and Ben Zobrist stand out as the most promising options on the free agent market. Murphy and Zobrist, in particular, could fill depth needs as Murphy can also play third and Zobrist can play short and left. Neither are defensive standouts, though, as Zobrist’s usually-solid defensive metrics took a plunge in 2015; signing Zobrist in particular would mean the Yankees would commit another big contract to another mid-30’s player.
Signing an everyday second baseman would allow the Yankees to package Refsnyder as part of a trade, as he could be a young talent the club would be willing to part with if rumors of attitude issues are true (Cashman has denied these rumors, for the record). The Yankees have become much more wary about trading top prospects for established stars over the last few years, so you’re more apt to see the likes of Aaron Judge, Eric Jagielo or Jacob Lindgren in the pinstripes next season than another Major League uniform.
The bullpen was rebuilt last winter with good results, as Yankees relievers led the league in K/9 (10.11) and ranked third in fWAR (5.2). Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson should again be a very tough late-game trio for opponents to overcome, and if another starter is acquired, adding Warren or Nova as a full-time reliever would further strengthen the pen. Warren and Nova could also be trade chips; Nova’s stock isn’t high after a tough 2015 campaign, but it was his first year back from Tommy John surgery.
While the relief corps was already a strength, the Yankees also explored adding elite bullpen arms like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline. If the Yankees make another attempt at creating a super-bullpen, perhaps they could offer Major League pieces rather than prospects. This is entirely speculation on my part, but maybe the Padres be interested in adding a needed left-handed bat and outfield defense in the form of Gardner (plus a prospect or two) for Kimbrel.
Since Ellsbury may be untradeable at this point due to his big contract and disappointing season, moving Gardner or Beltran would open up a corner outfield spot. This could open the door for a big signing, and Mike Axisa of the River Ave. Blues blog recently opined that Jason Heyward would be an ideal fit, even without the Yankees making room by trading someone else. Heyward would play every day and then Ellsbury, Gardner and Beltran would be rotated (or, Beltran would DH on days that A-Rod sits), which would be a uniquely big-market way of solving a fourth outfielder problem if Young doesn’t re-sign. The juggling of playing time would only be an issue for 2016 since Beltran’s contract is up next winter, or it might not end up being an issue at all if someone gets injured, as Axisa notes.
Heyward is only 26, is one of the game’s elite defensive outfielders, and he’ll command the kind of massive long-term contract that only the Yankees and a handful of other big-market teams can afford. He’s also a player that New York targeted last offseason in trade talks when Heyward was still with the Braves, so the interest is there. The Yankees, as usual, will be linked in rumors to just about every notable free agent name, though in Heyward’s case, there could be some legitimate substance to the whispers. Adding Heyward would bring both youth and elite talent to the Bombers in one fell swoop.
On the surface, Cashman doesn’t appear to have a ton of maneuverability given that his club is still a year away from finally starting to shed some of its major salary commitments. Last winter, however, Cashman was very active on the trade market and came away with such important pieces as Gregorius, Eovaldi and Wilson. If he can expand on that creativity and manage to unload one of his big contracts, it could unlock several new offseason possibilities.