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What was supposed to be a transitional year for the Yankees instead nearly resulted in a World Series berth, as breakouts from Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino (among others) propelled the club to a 91-71 record. With an excellent young core and a still-stacked farm system, the Yankees look like a powerhouse for years to come.
- Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $68.4MM through 2020 (full no-trade clause)
- Masahiro Tanaka, SP: $67MM through 2020
- Aroldis Chapman, RP: $65MM through 2021 (may opt out after 2019, full no-trade protection through ’19)
- Starlin Castro, 2B; $22MM through 2019
- Chase Headley, 3B/1B: $13MM through 2018
- Brett Gardner, OF: $13MM through 2018 (includes $2MM buyout of $12.5MM club option for 2019)
- David Robertson, RP: $13MM through 2018
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Adam Warren (5.036) – $3.1MM
- Didi Gregorius (4.159) – $9.0MM
- Dellin Betances (4.078) – $4.4MM
- Sonny Gray (4.061) – $6.6MM
- Austin Romine (4.045) – $1.2MM
- Aaron Hicks (4.041) – $2.9MM
- Tommy Kahnle (3.015) – $1.3MM
- Chasen Shreve (2.155) – $900K
- Non-tender candidate: Romine
The Yankees traded their top two relievers and their designated hitter in July 2016 and played the uncharacteristic part of a deadline seller. Despite ponying up to pay Aroldis Chapman on a record-setting five-year contract, they weren’t viewed as a major threat in the AL East. Aaron Judge didn’t even enter Spring Training with a surefire spot on the big league roster — and certainly no one forecast an 8-WAR, MVP-caliber season from him — while their rotation came with injury question marks and inexperience. Could CC Sabathia endure another full, healthy season at age 37? Would Luis Severino bounce back after posting a 5.83 ERA and losing his rotation spot in 2016? Could Jordan Montgomery serve as a viable rotation member at age 24 with just 37 Triple-A innings under his belt? The answer, across the board, proved to be a resounding yes.
The Yankees’ first-half results were impressive enough that GM Brian Cashman elected to begin a good portion of his offseason shopping back in July. Even with the success in their rotation, the Yankees were cognizant of the fact that Sabathia’s contract was expiring, as was that of Michael Pineda (who had already undergone Tommy John surgery). Acquiring Sonny Gray gave the Yanks two and a half years of control over an arm that can slot comfortably into the second or third slot in their rotation. Picking up David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle (along with rental piece Todd Frazier) in a massive trade with the White Sox ensured a deep and talented bullpen and left the club with little need to pay top-of-the-market prices for additional relief help this winter.
While some of their needs are already filled, the Yankees have one gaping hole in the organization that few would’ve predicted: manager. After a decade-long run at the helm of the Yankees, Joe Girardi was informed by the team that his contract would not be renewed. Reports since his fairly stunning dismissal have suggested that the Yankees want more of a “player’s” manager and that Girardi’s relationship with Cashman wasn’t particularly strong toward the end of his tenure.
Whoever succeeds Girardi will be inheriting an enviable roster that is backed by a deep farm system. However, he’ll also have to contend with the largest and one of the most critical media markets in the country and extremely high expectations from a fanbase that is now dreaming of a World Series run. To date, Eric Wedge is the only reported candidate with prior experience as a big league manager. If the Yankees do go with a rookie skipper, it will be baptism by fire in every sense of the cliche.
Looking to the Yankees’ roster, there aren’t many glaring deficiencies — as one would expect from a team that won 91 games. Greg Bird has yet to prove himself over the life of a full season at first base, but Cashman has stated on-record that he expects Bird to be their first baseman next year as the team looks to drop under the luxury tax barrier. Despite plenty of speculation over the summer, there won’t be a pursuit of Eric Hosmer.
Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner and Judge are all but assured of regular playing time. Chase Headley once again rebounded from a slow start to finish with decent numbers, though he’ll be pushed by prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar at some point in 2018. Gary Sanchez will hold down regular catching duties, though the team could certainly stand to explore the possibility of adding a better backup — potentially allowing Sanchez to spend some more time at DH.
Austin Romine’s batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all fell shy of the .300 mark, and he threw out just 3 of 29 potential base thieves. Alex Avila would make for a nice left-handed complement to Sanchez (not that he needs platooning) and could also handle some first base if needed. Chris Iannetta would be another affordable veteran coming off a nice year in Arizona.
Plenty of Yankees fans have speculated about the possibility of a Starlin Castro trade on the heels of two decent but unspectacular seasons in the Bronx. The 27-year-old (28 in March) has been a roughly league-average bat with questionable second-base defense in two years with the Yankees, and he’s owed $22MM over the next two years. Trading him could allow the Yankees to play both Andujar (third base) and Torres (second base) with regularity on either side of Gregorius. However, there’s not much in the way of surplus value on Castro’s contract, and it’s a poor time to be selling a second baseman. Neil Walker stands as a quality free-agent option, and the trade market also features the likes of Ian Kinsler, Dee Gordon and Cesar Hernandez, among several others. Beyond that, there aren’t that many clubs seeking second-base upgrades in the first place. It’s certainly not impossible to envision a Castro trade, but it is difficult to imagine too much of a market for his services developing.
If there’s one contract that Yankees fans are clamoring to move, however, it’s that of Jacoby Ellsbury. The 34-year-old still has a whopping three years and $68.5MM remaining on his contract, to say nothing of a full no-trade clause. The Yankees will play Gardner in left, Hicks in center and Judge in right even with Ellsbury in the fold, but his presence makes it more difficult to carry Clint Frazier on the roster and also limits the team’s financial flexibility moving forward.
Unfortunately, Ellsbury hasn’t performed anywhere near well enough to make his contract movable in its current state. It’s difficult to envision him receiving even three years and $30MM on the open market right now, and I’d wager that the Yankees would need to be open to eating as much as $40-45MM to facilitate a deal. The Mariners are an oft-speculated fit given Ellsbury’s Oregon roots, but they have a crowded payroll as it is and better options to pursue in free agency.
One completely speculative possibility would be a swap involving Ellsbury and former Yankee Ian Kennedy, who is still owed $49MM over the remainder of his own undesirable deal. The Yankees would likely need to include some decent minor league talent to pique Kansas City’s interest — there’s no reason for the Royals to simply take on Ellsbury’s larger contract, especially when they need to fill their rotation — but adding an upper-level minor league arm that could affordably replace Kennedy is an intriguing concept. The Yankees would still have an overpaid fifth starter in Kennedy, but they’d lessen their luxury tax ledger considerably and open a spot to more easily fit Frazier onto the roster. (More broadly, the Yankees will again look for ways to take advantage of their overstuffed 40-man roster while also opening room for the next wave of prospects in need of protection.)
The 2018 rotation outlook was the most significant question for the Yankees heading into the season. Back in Spring Training, I noted that with Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Pineda all potential free agents at season’s end and Severino/Montgomery both unproven, there was potential for a truly murky outlook. What a difference six months makes.
Severino looks likely to be the team’s Opening Day starter next year, and he’ll be trailed by Gray, Montgomery and Tanaka. The 29-year-old Tanaka made the rather surprising decision to remain with the Yankees rather than opting out of the final three years and $67MM on his contract. While it’s true that Tanaka’s ERA isn’t exactly sparkling, the righty was excellent from early June through season’s end, shined in the postseason, and generally delivered sensational K/BB numbers over the course of the season. Topping $67MM on the free-agent market looked like a clearly attainable goal (unless medical reports on his elbow are more troubling than we know), but Tanaka called the decision “simple” in announcing the move and voiced a love of New York City and the Yankees’ fans. The feeling should be mutual, as it’s a nice price for a quality player at a position of need.
With Severino, Gray, Tanaka and Montgomery all penciled into the rotation, there’s little cause to pursue a high-priced starter. A reunion with CC Sabathia makes some sense on a short-term deal, though Yankees fans are almost universally fixated on a deal with a pitcher that is nearly a decade and a half younger. Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani will be posted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters if the league, the players union and Nippon Professional Baseball all agree to a new posting system. It’s not yet a guarantee that’ll happen — there’s a Monday deadline to find out — but if Ohtani becomes available, the Yankees will be among the teams favored to land him.
New York can currently offer a $3.25MM bonus, though there’s still time to trade for additional international money. The Rangers ($3.535MM) can offer the most, while the Twins ($3.245MM) are right behind the Yankees. It’s early to pencil Ohtani into their starting five, but doing so would give the Yankees a powerhouse rotation on paper and could allow the club to more freely entertain the notion of including pitching prospects like Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield in trades.
Turning to the bullpen, there’s no need for a significant overhaul. The Yankees’ pen will once again be anchored by Chapman, and the setup core currently projects to include Dellin Betances, Robertson, Kahnle, Chad Green, Adam Warren and Chasen Shreve. Another lefty could be of interest for matchup purposes, especially since most of the Yankees’ upper-level arms are right-handed, but many of the Yankees’ right-handed setup options shut down lefties as well as righties last year.
Given the depth of that group, it’s worth wondering if they’ll all return. Specifically, Betances comes to mind as a particularly obvious trade chip. The bizarre manner in which Yankees president Randy Levine called out Betances after last year’s arbitration hearing drove somewhat of a wedge between the two sides, and while Betances remains a supremely talented reliever, he also battled serious control issues in 2017 (6.6 BB/9 during the regular season plus five walks in four playoff innings).
Betances has two years of arbitration remaining and has averaged better than 15 punchouts per nine innings in the past two seasons, so he’d certainly appeal to other clubs. It doesn’t seem likely that the Yankees would simply trade Betances for a prospect(s) given their desire to compete, but they could use Betances to fill another need — such as a solid left-handed setup option with more team control, perhaps from a team looking for a shorter-term upgrade at the back of its ’pen. Doing so could also spare the Yankees a slight bit of luxury tax concern, and while that wouldn’t be a main factor in a theoretical swap, it could be a bonus.
After all, both Cashman and Steinbrenner have plainly stated that their firm plan is to get under the $197MM luxury tax line. Doing so would reset the Yankees’ penalty level — tax penalization is compounded for each consecutive year that a team is over the threshold — in advance of next year’s class of free agents. At that point, both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will be available at the respective ages of 25 and 26. Clayton Kershaw, too, figures to be a free agent once he opts out of the remaining two years on his contract.
The Yankees still have some wiggle room — roughly $25MM or so in average annual value — to make some additions to next year’s roster. However, their proximity to the luxury tax line and stated desire to stay south of it makes it exceptionally unlikely that they’ll be a player for a major item such as Giancarlo Stanton. Even if the Yankees could acquire Stanton and ever-so-slightly stay under the luxury tax line, they’d be leaving themselves with little room for making in-season moves to address injuries and other unforeseen circumstances that arise over the course of a given year.
Rather than a major item like Stanton, it’s possible that the Yankees will instead look to beef up their bench with an improvement at backup catcher or utility infielder — they’re reportedly interested in Texas’ Jurickson Profar, for instance. They could also poke around the left-handed relief market and talk to names like Mike Minor, Jake McGee and Tony Watson.
Certainly, if the team could somehow find a way to jettison some of Ellsbury’s contract or move Headley, there’d be more flexibility for a big ticket item. It seems likelier, though, to expect a more reserved offseason in the Bronx prior to a more aggressive offseason approach following the 2018 campaign.