Last season’s trade deadline presented an exhilarating and encouraging string of moves by the Yankees, with the organization finally picking a clear direction and committing to it in an emphatic way. They traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran for prospects, jumping headfirst into a full-fledged rebuild. GM Brian Cashman continued down this path at the start of this offseason, dealing Brian McCann for a pair of young arms while also dangling Brett Gardner in trades.
Then, the franchise’s future-focused path took an unexpected fork in the road by re-signing Chapman to a five-year, $85 million deal just a couple days ago. Yankees fans had every right to be infuriated by the team once again acquiring someone suspended under MLB’s domestic violence policy, but in addition, the fanbase was puzzled by this record-shattering contract for a closer on a team that doesn’t seem ready to win a championship.
There’s a reason why the Yankees’ two elite relievers were the first to go at the trade deadline, and why one rarely sees a top closer pitching for a losing club. Elite closers are considered a luxury for teams, especially those who aren’t contending; there’s no need to pay a high price for a pitcher to lock down a team’s late innings if they aren’t winning. Beyond that, signing a big-ticket free agent to massive, long-term contract is normally a move reserved for teams expecting to make the playoffs the next season, and this reality isn’t really up for debate. So, why would a team like the Yankees, who all but threw in the towel for the next several seasons at the 2016 trade deadline, be making the moves of a contending club?
The clearest answer to that question isn’t going to make people happy, but it isn’t exactly surprising, either. The Yankees staved off rebuilding for years because, to put it simply, they are the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers hold one of the largest, and notoriously impatient, fanbases in American sports, and ownership long worried that multiple losing seasons—a natural product of rebuilding—could wreak havoc on the team’s market.
While the Yankees may expect to continue losing next season, they can’t quite admit that and lose the captivity of millions of fans—hence the Aroldis Chapman signing. Owner Hal Steinbrenner wants to, well, put butts in seats, and locking up the hardest-throwing pitcher of all time is a good way to do that. Having Chapman on the team means, in theory, the Yankees intend to compete, and the Cuban Missile’s big name will draw interest even if the team can’t stay on the top of the AL East.
There’s a baseball-oriented reason that justifies the signing, as well. Perhaps Brian Cashman and the organization think they are a playoff team next season. Or, more realistically, the Yankees view themselves as true contenders in 2018. If either of these scenarios are the case, it isn’t such an outlandish move for sign Chapman. The team has a bullpen with just two guarantees for next season in Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard, and will need a strong assortment of relievers to compensate for what is expected to be a poor rotation. If Cashman thinks it’ll be hard to acquire a reliever after this season, then there’s good reason to make this signing.
The Yankees wouldn’t be wrong to be pessimistic about the market for relievers in the future, either. Next season’s free agent crop is headlined by Wade Davis, who is three years older than Chapman and has had elbow issues in the past. That’s about it. On the trade market, the Yankees may be reluctant to lose prospects, as the cost of relievers is incredibly high. With that in mind, if the Yankees hope to contend soon, signing Chapman (even if the contract could eventually get ugly) doesn’t make as little sense as one might think.
Still, this signing leaves the Yankees in an awkward spot. Barring a trade of Brett Gardner, it sounds like the team is done upgrading this offseason, and the roster won’t be all that different from the 2016 squad that missed the playoffs. New York probably won’t be contending next season, and that could make the Chapman signing look mistimed. If the team is a playoff threat in 2018 though, then acquiring Chapman isn’t all that baffling.
This move may be more than just a bid to increase fan interest, but the Yankees could have also jumped the gun, spent at the wrong time, and ended up stuck with a large contract tied up for too many non-contending years. It’ll be a couple of years before we see how this signing shakes out from a baseball perspective, so it’s not time to call this a poor baseball move on the Yankees’ end.