Now that the Yankees have wrapped up a successful 2017 season, the attention can shift fully to their efforts in 2018. Well, mostly. This is the era of responsible stewardship in the Bronx, so at least one eye will surely also train its gaze to the horizon.
As the team ponders its options at third base, then, it won’t simply be a matter of deciding which top free agent or trade candidate is best. On the face of things, the team is losing its third bagger to free agency and must find a replacement. And, indeed, mid-season acquisition Todd Frazier is headed to the open market. For a Yankees team that’s primed to compete, that could mean its time to add a star. But there’s more at play here, making for a particularly interesting situation.
First, GM Brian Cashman has made clear that the Yankees’ payroll will not top $197MM. The Yanks are finally determined to get under the luxury tax line and seem quite committed to doing so. Given its slate of existing commitments, and assuming the team pays the full amount projected for all of its arbitration-eligible players, it will have just under $145MM committed and the bulk of the roster accounted for. After accounting for pre-arb salaries and the standard medical and other employment allocations, the organization could have something in the realm of $35MM to play with — perhaps a bit more, if some of Jacoby Ellsbury’s salary can be moved — though the front office may also need to keep some powder dry for mid-season moves. While that’s still a healthy amount of wiggle room, since the Yanks will return quite a few key pieces, it creates some real constraints.
Second, it’s worth bearing in mind that next year’s free agent class offers some extremely exciting possibilities. Among the many superstars hitting the open market, barring extensions, will be Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson — two of the game’s very best third baggers. Two others, Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rendon, will reach free agency in the ensuing winter. It’s difficult to structure near-term decisions around such hypothetical opportunities, of course, but the possibility of landing a star performer in the relatively near future could weigh in favor of some restraint on this year’s market.
Third, the Yankees may well actually already have their next stud already lined up. Gleyber Torres seemed on the verge of a call-up this past summer before going down to season-ending surgery. He’s expected to be prepared for a full and complete spring. But he’ll enter camp just a few months removed from his 21st birthday. Though the much-hyped prospect carried a .863 OPS at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2017, those 235 plate appearances represent the full sum of his upper-minors experience. He’s not even the only quality prospect that could be in position; Miguel Andujar was also excellent in the upper minors last year and even enjoyed a brief but exciting MLB debut.
Fourth, the Yanks may also already have a perfectly useful immediate option on hand. Chase Headley was dispossessed of the job at third when the team added Frazier. But he ended up turning in his best full season at the plate since re-signing with New York. The switch hitter did not grade out positively with the glove at third, but perhaps there’s still reason to believe he can play palatable defense entering his age-34 season. Notably, as has typically been the case throughout his career, Headley was particularly effective against right-handed pitching, posting a sturdy .279/.374/.405 slash line. That makes him a fairly easy player to platoon, perhaps increasing the universe of possibilities as Cashman weighs his options.
So, just what are Cashman’s options?
As always, it’s possible to imagine the team simply going out and signing the best available player in free agency. This year’s market is led by Mike Moustakas, the 29-year-old slugger. His profile is similar to that of Frazier: good power, generally solid glovework (though his metrics slipped in 2017), and on-base struggles. Frazier himself is another possibility, of course, and ought to be available on a shorter term and perhaps at a lower annual salary than will be required to land Moustakas. Those two likely represent the universe of plausible starters, however, unless Zack Cozart is willing to change positions (and teams like the Yankees show interest in trying him at third).
On the trade market, it’s really not yet clear what might be possible. Machado and Donaldson would be major prizes, but the Orioles and Blue Jays have given hints that they won’t be selling either player. (And they’d be especially hesitant to allow them to go to the Yankees, surely.) Eugenio Suarez is a controllable piece coming off of a nice year, an perhaps he could be had for the right price, but it’ll be steep. Adrian Beltre would make for a nice target, but the Rangers aren’t likely to deal him. The Cardinals may have a bit of an infield logjam, potentially freeing Jedd Gyorko or Matt Carpenter, but it’s not yet clear how they’ll proceed. Maikel Franco could conceivably be dangled by the Phillies, though perhaps taking a shot on a talented but inconsistent young player isn’t the right approach at this stage.
Acquiring a new regular would mean not only paying a hefty acquisition price, but also figuring out what to do with Headley. He could be traded, but that would likely mean paying down some of his $13MM salary. Committing to a player such as Moustakas may not be all that desirable given New York’s excellent young options. Plus, his on-base woes come with real risk. Even Frazier could prove a questionable investment and inflexible asset, though at least he’d pair more naturally with Headley and first baseman Greg Bird and wouldn’t require such a lengthy commitment. While the trade side is worth considering, it’s also entirely up in the air at this point. Regardless, if the Yankees are going to make a big move at third — potentially blocking Torres — then perhaps it ought to be saved for next winter.
Under the circumstances, then, the Yanks might be better-served by looking instead at a platoon candidate with broader function. Yunel Escobar could provide a veteran accompaniment to Headley, though perhaps he’ll prefer to join a team that’s willing to promise him more playing time. The versatile Eduardo Nunez might be an interesting option for New York, as he’d also offer some insurance elsewhere around the diamond while upgrading over Ronald Torreyes as the primary utilityman. Asdrubal Cabrera might also make sense if his option is declined (or even if he’s dangled in trade) by the cross-town Mets.
On the trade market, possible options to join Headley at third while also seeing action elsewhere could include Josh Harrison — who’d have the highest acquisition cost and would perhaps take primary duty at the job — as well as Jed Lowrie, Logan Forsythe, David Freese, and old friend Yangervis Solarte (the player dealt to acquire Headley). Nicholas Castellanos and Martin Prado are among other possible trade targets, but the former doesn’t seem to have the glove for third and the latter is coming off of a poor and injury-riddled campaign, though as with Solarte he’s a player the Yankees know well.
That largely covers the array of outside options. Of course, it’s conceivable too that the Yanks will essentially just return the job to Headley while awaiting the mid-season arrival of its youngsters (Torres, in particular) and utilize the existing financial resources to address other areas of need. How do you see things playing out? (Link for app users.)