This is the latest post of MLBTR’s annual Offseason in Review series, in which we take stock of every team’s winter dealings.
The Yankees won the American League Wild Card game for a second consecutive season in 2018 but were bounced from the playoffs at the hands of their biggest rivals, setting up an active offseason for general manager Brian Cashman and his staff.
Major League Signings
- Zack Britton, LHP: Three years, $39MM (includes $14MM option for 2022 season that must be exercised after 2020 season; if Yankees do not exercise option, a player opt-out is triggered)
- J.A. Happ, LHP: Two years, $34MM (plus $17MM vesting/club option for 2021 season)
- Adam Ottavino, RHP: Three years, $27MM
- DJ LeMahieu, INF: Two years, $24MM
- CC Sabathia, LHP: One year, $8MM
- Brett Gardner, OF: One year, $7.5MM
- Troy Tulowitzki, SS: One year, $555K
- Total spend: $140.055MM
Trades and Waiver Claims
- Acquired LHP James Paxton from the Mariners in exchange for LHP Justus Sheffield, RHP Erik Swanson and OF Dom Thompson-Williams
- Acquired 2B Shed Long, LHP Reiver Sanmartin and a Competitive Balance Draft Pick from the Reds in exchange for RHP Sonny Gray
- Acquired OF Josh Stowers from the Mariners in exchange for 2B Shed Long
- Acquired RHP Jefry Valdez from the Rockies in exchange for RHP Jordan Foley
- Acquired INF/OF Tim Locastro from the Dodgers in exchange for RHP Drew Finley
- Acquired LHP Ronald Roman from the Diamondbacks in exchange for INF/OF Tim Locastro
- Acquired OF Mike Tauchman from the Rockies in exchange for LHP Phillip Diehl
- Traded INF Ronald Torreyes to the Cubs in exchange for a player to be named later
Notable Minor League Signings
- Gio Gonzalez, Danny Coulombe, Ryan Lavarnway, Rex Brothers, Billy Burns, Drew Hutchison, Danny Farquhar
Bolstering a rotation that was rife with uncertainty following an up-and-down 2018 season was the Yankees’ top priority in the 2018-19 offseason. GM Brian Cashman acted quickly and decisively in the early-going, bringing back CC Sabathia for what will be the likely Hall of Famer’s final season and acquiring one of the best available starters on the trade market in the form of James Paxton. New York parted ways with vaunted prospect Justus Sheffield and another potential big league starter, Erik Swanson, in order to acquire the final two seasons of control over Paxton. While that move could ultimately prove beneficial to the Mariners, the Yankees have more immediate postseason aspirations and needed more certainty than the pair of promising young hurlers could provide. Paxton’s acquisition looks all the more critical now that it seems as though Luis Severino will be sidelined into the summer.
With Paxton and Sabathia secured, the Yankees sought to lock up one of their more successful midseason acquisitions in recent memory and managed to accomplish that goal at a lower rate — or, at least, on a shorter term — than many expected. J.A. Happ’s two-year, $34MM contract looks eminently reasonable for a pitcher who thrived to the tune of a 3.48 ERA over his past 690 MLB innings. Happ didn’t truly break out until his age-32 season, but he’s turned in four consecutive seasons of at least 25 starts with a 3.65 ERA or better in each of those years.
Outside of the rotation, the top need on a stacked Yankees roster was to round out the infield in the wake of Didi Gregorius’ Tommy John surgery. Gleyber Torres’ ability to play either middle-infield slot meant the Yankees didn’t need to limit themselves to solely exploring true shortstops. New York was frequently connected to Manny Machado and even took him to dinner in Manhattan to talk shop, but the team’s interest always seemed to be less serious than that of the Phillies or White Sox. By the time the Padres emerged as a late, serious bidder in the Machado auction, the Yankees were a distant memory. The team undoubtedly had a price at which it’d have jumped into the bidding, but that clearly was nowhere near the Padres’ $300MM mark and may not have even been especially close to the White Sox’ distant second-place bid of a reported $250MM.
Rather than pursue Machado, the Yankees rolled the dice on a player who was at one point as highly regarded as Machado is now. Troy Tulowitzki didn’t play a game in 2018 and hasn’t been a high-quality regular in nearly a half decade, but when the Blue Jays ate the remainder of his contract, the Yankees felt comfortable in taking a league-minimum gamble on the five-time All-Star. Tulowitzki’s addition was supplemented by a two-year deal with one of his former teammates, DJ LeMahieu, whose presence deepened an impressive collection of infield talent.
Around the time of the 2018 trade deadline, first base looked like it’d be an area of focus for the Yankees in the offseason, but Cashman and his lieutenants made a savvy bargain pickup of Luke Voit. While the Yankees surely liked Voit at the time of his acquisition — in a trade that sent since-DFA’ed lefty Chasen Shreve and Triple-A righty Giovanny Gallegos to St. Louis — no one could have foreseen Voit’s Ruthian surge down the stretch. The burly slugger captured the hearts of Yankees fans with a preposterous .322/.398/.671 slash and 15 home runs in just 161 plate appearances as a Yankee following the trade (and kicked off the 2019 season with a three-run round-tripper as well). Between Voit and the talented but fragile Greg Bird, the Yankees suddenly had a pair of useful and inexpensive options. LeMahieu, too, is expected to log some time at first base in 2019.
Though the bullpen was already robust even with some key names departing, the Yankees doubled down on their “too much is never enough” strategy with regards to their relief corps. Though David Robertson was allowed to depart, they re-upped
Zach Zack Britton on a three-year contract and brokered another three-year pact with Adam Ottavino on the heels of a breakout season in Colorado. Pairing that duo with incumbent options like Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Jonathan Holder creates yet another uber-pen for second-year skipper Aaron Boone.
Of course, all of this writing so far has overlooked the Yankees’ first move of the offseason — one that now looks particularly prudent. Brett Gardner might not have filled a dire need outside of deepening an already strong roster, but injuries to Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and ever-fading Jacoby Ellsbury have suddenly made the decision to retain Gardner an important one. It’s true that the organization could have found some more affordable depth late in the offseason — Adam Jones took a year and $3MM with the D-backs in March — but Gardner is a known clubhouse asset that the team trusts all over the outfield.
Certainly, the Yankees pursued other avenues to improvement this winter. They were never in on Bryce Harper despite the expected barrage of rumors connecting the two sides early in free agency. Harper said after signing in Philadelphia that he never heard from the Yankees, in fact. But the team was linked to the likes of Noah Syndergaard and Patrick Corbin (whom they also hosted for an in-person visit) as they sought to bulk up the rotation, and there was even talk of potentially shipping out Miguel Andujar for rotation help (in a scenario where they’d then sign Machado to man third base). The Yankees are always at the forefront of free-agent and high-profile trade rumblings, and this offseason, as one might expect, was no different.
Clearly, the biggest question surrounding the Yankees right now is whether they’ll be able to get their roster up to full strength. Severino signed a four-year, $40MM extension and was shut down first for a couple of weeks due to shoulder inflammation and now for six more weeks due to a lat strain. Hicks passed on free agency in favor of an extension that promised him an additional six years and $64MM on top of what he was already slated to earn in ’19. He went down with a back issue in Spring Training and has yet to play a game. Meanwhile, Stanton is out for much of April with a biceps strain and Andujar is faced with the possibility of surgery to address a labrum tear in his right shoulder.
That pileup of injuries, though, is precisely the reason that the Yankees added LeMahieu and re-signed Gardner despite lacking clear paths to regular at-bats for both players. Winning teams have placed an even greater emphasis than ever on depth in recent years (e.g. Dodgers, Brewers), even if it means that a full-strength roster would appear to have a number of logjams.
The Yankees are likely asking themselves whether they have enough depth in the rotation — particularly with Dallas Keuchel still unsigned. Paxton, Happ and Tanaka makes for a fine top three, but Sabathia’s durability isn’t what it once was and it’s hard to be confident that Severino will simply bounce back without any lingering effects or flareups once he does make it back to the mound. None of Paxton, Happ or Tanaka has a track record of 200-inning seasons, and Gonzalez will need some time to get up to speed in Triple-A. Internal alternatives like Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chance Adams have promise but also come with the potential to leave the Yankees with a weak, overexposed rotation for an unacceptable period of time in a competitive three-team race.
It’s also a bit surprising that the Yankees’ top plan at shortstop was to simply hope for the best with an injury risk as significant as Tulowitzki, who logged just 66 games in 2017-18 and was last a convincingly above-average hitter in 2014. It’s true that if Andujar were healthy, Torres could’ve slid to shortstop with LeMahieu taking over at second base in the event of a Tulo injury, but they’d have had a much more stable middle-infield setting by making that Plan A and signing a glove-first backup. There was no shortage of affordable options, with Freddy Galvis, Jose Iglesias and Adeiny Hechavarria all on the open market. I’ll buy that the Tulowitzki gambit presented the highest possible value upside, but it was a reach to pencil him in for significant playing time while Gregorius mends. If Gregorius has any setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John, it’s easy to see the Yankees looking for middle-infield help this summer.
2019 Season Outlook
Injuries will test the considerable depth cultivated by the front office this winter. The Yankees are in a three-team race with the Red Sox and Rays — a pair of teams with notable questions themselves; Boston’s bullpen is the type you’d expect to see on a rebuilding club, whereas Tampa Bay is again banking on a series of creative bullpen machinations and affordable young position players. Neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox look as imposing early on as one might’ve expected midway through the offseason, but all three of the top dogs in the AL East have viable postseason chances. The Yankees are a lock to be in the mix for the playoffs, but the rate at which their current glut of 11 injured players can mend will determine the extent to which they need to augment the roster to keep pace come June and July.
How would you grade the Yankees’ offseason? (Link to poll for Trade Rumors app users.)