Given that the 2013 Yankees scored less runs than their opponents while looking old and feeble at the plate it is sometimes hard to imagine them returning to the playoffs without Robinson Cano. Cano certainly seems to be essential to winning next season. But is that truly the case?
For this analysis I made the following assumptions. (1) Jeter picks up his option (likely). (2) Rodriguez's suspension is upheld for at least all of 2014 or the team gives up its commitment to be under the tax (unknown, but without one or the other, winning is much harder with or without Cano). (3) The team will either not want to or not be able to trade prospects to gain major league ready talent (because their top prospects struggled so much in 2013). (4) Nor will the Yankees be willing to give up picks to sign free agents (because creating a new young core is so important).
With those constraints and assumptions, it's a tight fit, but the Yankees could create a playoff team without signing Cano. It would require a very active winter, signing Masahiro Tanaka (12mil), Juan Uribe (12mil), Jose Abreu (11mil), Omar Infante (10mil) and resigning Hiroki Kuroda (16mil), Curtis Granderson (14mil) and Brendan Ryan (3mil).I don't think any of these annual salaries are overly optimistic, although Infante and Uribe might receive a qualifying offers which would definitely complicate filling out the infield.
If they make those or similar signings and fill both catching spots (2 of Cervelli, Romine and Murphy), 2nd back up infielder (Joseph, Adams or Nunez), 5th starter (Pineda, Phelps, Nuno or Warren) and the bullpen behind Robertson and Kelley with minimum salaried players, their 25-man roster will cost around 175 million. Add in the 2.5 million of a suspended Alex Rodriguez's salary that counts against the cap and 11 million for personnel costs and the other 15 spots on the 40-man roster and one reaches a total team salary of 188.5 million. That includes tons of estimates, but seems reasonable.
The lineup might look like this: Gardner, Jeter, Teixeira, Abreu, Granderson, Soriano, Uribe, Infante, Cervelli. That lineup is solid, if not spectacular. Ichiro and Ryan would provide insurance, rest and defense. I estimated that the offense players would produce about 24 WAR, much better than 2013’s 10 WAR.
A staff of Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka, Sabathia and Pineda has question marks, but also the potential to be very good and the depth of Phelps, Nuno and Warren in AAA would make it unlikely that the team could not respond to ineffectiveness or injury. A reasonable guess for this staff is 13 WAR, just less than the 13.5 WAR produced by the starting five in 2013.
The bullpen behind Robertson would have a lot of powerful, but inexperienced arms. Girardi would probably flip without a circle of trusted arms. Still Robertson returns to anchor the staff, but expect a drop off with the loss of Mo, perhaps from the 4-4.5 produced in 2013 to about 2.75.
In total this might be a 40 WAR team, putting them at the fringe of the playoffs depending on how hits and runs are distributed. It’s also a team that with a high number of unproven players and very old vets so it’s range to either side might be larger than most teams. With a 2013-Red Sox-like season with most players producing at the higher range of their abilities, they could win 100 games and win the East. They could also flounder and be out of the race by the All-Star break.
Still, that could be said about a team led by Robinson Cano as well. Cano is the Yankees best player and the best free agent available, but 2014 still could work out well even if he’s playing elsewhere.