After the 2013 season, the Yankees spoke openly about their desire to cut payroll and duck under the $189 million luxury tax threshold. That didn’t happen, as the Yankees memorably invested nearly half a billion dollars in the free agent market that offseason. The team indicated a desire to be frugal, but in the end, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka, and Carlos Beltran all signed lucrative free agent contracts with New York.
Those players have had their ups and downs so far as Yankees, but 2016 marks the very first season in which all four have essentially met expectations. That is, of course, a good thing. However, that the Yankees have only fielded a mediocre team despite receiving adequate compensation for their free agent spending spree illustrates just how ill-fated that spending spree was in the first place.
This is the first year in which that quartet of free agent signings has played well at the same time. McCann, after struggling at the plate during his first year in New York, has settled in as an average hitter with a good glove behind the plate. His slash line of .231/.329/.410 is nothing spectacular, but he is well acquitted by the framing metrics at both Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner. McCann is a competent, above average catcher.
Beltran also struggled mightily during his debut season with the Yankees, but he finished his time with the team in style. This season, he posted an excellent .304/.344/.546 line, good for a 134 wRC+. He was unquestionably the best hitter on the team before being traded to the Rangers. His contract looked dubious after his first year, but he redeemed himself as the best offensive performer on the Yankees.
Ellsbury’s time with New York has been more inconsistent. He has somewhat rebounded from a lost 2015 season, though his .272/.336/.372 line is underwhelming. Still, he plays a fine center field and profiles as slightly above average player, for now.
Tanaka is the only player from the 2014 free agent splurge to consistently play at a very high level each of the past three years. He has a great 125 ERA+ as a Yankee, and has ranked as the Yankees’ most valuable player this year by both fWAR and rWAR. His status as an ace has been questioned, but those questions have mostly been frivolous.
The Ellsbury and McCann contracts look a little rich going forward (more so in Ellsbury’s case), but both profile as fine starters right now. Guaranteeing Beltran three years beginning with his age-37 season appeared foolhardy, but he proved to be one of New York’s best hitters. Tanaka has been great from the start. In essence, the Yankees have received what they paid for.
So, the Yankees have gotten fine value for their investment thus far, though it remains to be seen how their longer term deals with Tanaka, Ellsbury, and McCann will look down the road. Yet, the fact that these players are living up to expectations demonstrates how investing in them was a bad idea.
That, admittedly, sounds counter-intuitive. Why would signing good players be a bad thing? In this case, those good players have served merely to prop up a mediocre roster. 2016 is the most stark illustration of that. This year, all four players have performed anywhere from reasonably well (McCann, Ellsbury), to extremely well (Tanaka, Beltran), and the Yankees have still not been good.
The Yankees have managed to stay afloat around .500 for awhile, but through Friday’s games they owned a 55-60 Pythagorean record, and a 53-62 BaseRuns record. The team as a whole has not played very well, despite the solid production from their past free agent spree. That is simply because the rest of the roster is not ready for contention, with the team’s youth movement not quite ready to bear fruit.
Put plainly, the Yankees were not at the optimal place on the win curve to justify big free agent spending. Coming off a 2013 season in which they over-performed (they owned a 79-83 Pythagorean record in 2013) to win 85 games, the Yankees were a middling team that wasn’t a few free agent buys from World Series contention. True talent 85-90 win teams are the clubs that are in the sweet spot for free agent investing. Those Yankees did not fit the bill.
Instead, that free agent quartet has performed admirably in an effort to lift a middling team. They have provided fine value, but the investment in them was still inefficient. There is tremendous value in signing players that put a team over the top, from, say, 86 wins to 93 wins. There is limited value in buying players that take a below average team and tether them to .500.
If the team’s ownership wants to spend lavishly to prop up average teams, that is totally fine. Going 82-80 is better than going 75-87. But the Yankees’ owners have made noise in the past about payroll already being too high. They do not sound like an ownership group that is fine with spending inefficiently for the sake of putting forth an average on-field product.
Thus, dollars that were spent fielding a middling team right now were dollars that could have been more efficiently spent fortifying the stronger future teams the Yankees are likely to field. I am loathe to tell billionaire owners to keep dollars in their pocket, but if those same owners are going to go entire offseasons without spending a single dollar on the major league roster, then it would be best if they chose the most efficient times to go on free agent splurges. The free agent class of 2014 is playing well. That their quality play has been mostly in vain demonstrates that 2014 was not the time for the Yankees to heavily invest in free agents.