On December 12, 2013, the Yankees franchise changed. After maintaining a tradition that homegrown stars would always remain in the Bronx, Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners allowed Robinson Cano to explore his options in free agency without a competitive offer. On that day, he signed a ten-year, $240 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.
In one way, it was an excellent decision. The Yankees emphasized their new-look philosophy that they wouldn’t get burned by long term deals a la Alex Rodriguez, so they passed and bet on Jacoby Ellsbury (who ended up getting an even worse deal, ironically), Brian McCann (no longer on the team), and Carlos Beltran, who turned out to be the most valuable of the three between his on-field performance and trade returns.
I’m digressing because the main implication of the Cano deal was that the Yankees had a glaring hole at second base. They did not fill it in 2014 or 2015, instead trying a lightning-in-a-bottle approach with Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew—they combined for -0.8 fWAR in 931 total plate appearances, compared to Cano’s 7.3.
Last year, the front office actually did something to try to address this issue, trading for Starlin Castro in a deal that sent Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan to the Chicago Cubs. Warren eventually returned to the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman trade, and Ryan played just 17 games in 2016, so one could not argue in good faith that this was not a good return for the Yankees. At the bare minimum, the Yankees got a starting second baseman in exchange for merely taking on his salary, which now stands at $30 million for three years, with an option for 2020.
If you examine just the player alone, and the options that were also available at the time, it’s also hard to say that this was a success. First, consider that there were free agents available. Asdrubal Cabrera was coming off a league-average season with the Rays in 2015, and he signed for two years and $18.5 million (with a team option); he put up a 119 wRC+ and 3.0 fWAR last year at shortstop. I’m not saying they should have seen it coming, but he was a credible alternative.
Ben Zobrist, another—albeit more expensive—alternative, signed for four years and $56 million with the Cubs. He hit at a 124 wRC+ clip and put up 4.0 fWAR. Once again, I’m not saying that they should have seen that coming, because I understand not wanting to dole out years to an older player, but he’s also under contract for the same duration as Castro.
Then, there was the option of Castro himself, and what kind of player he would be. The debate was whether he would be more like his 2014 self (117 wRC+ and 2.8 fWAR), or like his 2015 self (80 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR). While he wasn’t as bad as 2015, he was pretty close to that player in 2016.
He did hit nearly double the amount of home runs, but he also accepted more strikeouts as a result by expanding the zone. We saw plenty of that in 2016, as despite crushing 21 bombs, he walked just 24 times, leading to a .270/.300/.433 triple slash and a 94 wRC+. There are pluses, of course: he plays nearly every day, plays adequate defense, and isn’t a total zero at the plate. Considering 2014 and 2015, that’s about as low as you can make the expectations.
If one thing is clear, that hole starting in December of 2013 is still there. If projections are to believed, and we buy that Castro is like his 2015/2016 self, then he is worth about a win and a half and is a 90 wRC+ true talent hitter. That just isn’t sustainable.
The hope is that someone like Gleyber Torres or Jorge Mateo can come in and fill that spot, but until then, the Yankees are relatively stuck. I certainly applaud the Yankees for at least trying to improve the team through a trade where the team acquires a young and cheap player, but this just isn’t panning out. I can only hope Castro turns it around in 2017, or else second base play from 2013-2016 will become the norm for the near future.