clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Could the Yankees’ rebuild have started three years earlier?

The rebuild probably could’ve started earlier, but chances are not much would be different.

New York Yankees v Houston Astros
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve read this before: the future is bright for the Yankees. Since Brian Cashman turned the Yankees’ farm system around last summer, countless outlets have talked about how promising the future looks for the Yankees. After convincing Hal Steinbrenner to let him rebuild the team, Brian Cashman did a wonderful job of filling a barren farm system and getting good value in exchange for the veteran players on the team. However, could the rebuild have come a few years earlier?

A few days ago, FanGraphs published an article outlining how Cashman was able to convince Hal Steinbrenner to rebuild the team. I’ll let that article do most of the talking on that subject, but basically it comes down to Cashman having to do a lot of work because Steinbrenner thinks Yankee fans are dumb enough to fall for his “championship caliber team” nonsense. What’s interesting though, is that Cashman tried approaching ownership on this strategy before, potentially as early as 2013*.

Before last year, Cashman had seen the writing on the wall. The Yankees were approaching the end of some of their larger commitments and didn’t have much waiting in the wings from the farm system. Free agency isn’t even an option like it used to be. Partially because less and less players are hitting free agency in their primes, and partially because Yankee ownership has refused to open their wallets. So what’s the best option for a sinking ship? Trading the established veteran players who have value to get future value, aka prospects.

“Turning the clock back with Robby Cano, it looked like he was going to stay with us. We pursued an extension with him, and it wasn’t even close with what he wanted,” Cashman said. “He was, to me, someone we ultimately should have moved at the deadline but didn’t. So he left us as a free agent.”

It’s pretty well known that 2013 was a very interesting year in Yankee history. This would be a good time to go play the 2013 roster Sporcle quiz and see how well you do. Yeah, it was that weird. Cashman apparently knew then that the year of mediocrity wasn’t just a one-year fluke. The Yankees needed to do something.

Cashman mentions that the Yankees did approach Robinson Cano with an extension, but the two sides could not come to an agreement. Cashman was aware of what Cano’s camp was looking for, and he was also aware of how far ownership was willing to go to retain Cano. Cashman probably knew then that ownership wouldn’t even be willing to negotiate with Cano, and he wanted to trade him to at least get some value rather than letting him go for nothing. Alas, that’s what happened.

There’s nothing wrong with Cano leaving for more money. As much as I love Cano, I’m not 100% convinced that the Yankees should have matched that offer. What is frustrating about the whole ordeal is that the Yankees weren’t even willing to negotiate. That was probably true even when they offered the extension, it was “take the offer or leave it.” Which is probably why Cashman said they should have traded him away then. Which also begs the question: who else would Cashman have tried to trade at the time?

Looking back at the roster, the first thing I did was notice the tears rolling down my face. The next thing I did was scan the roster for anyone who was good. This did not take long.

  1. Robinson Cano
  2. Mariano Rivera
  3. David Robertson
  4. Brett Gardner

End list.

It becomes an even shorter list when factoring in that no matter what happened, there was literally no chance that Rivera was ever going anywhere. He had already announced that 2013 would be his final season, and the Yankees were not going to let him finish his historic career anywhere else. Forget the reasons why (and there were plenty), this just was not going to happen.

We know Cashman would’ve put Cano on the market, but who else? Robertson and Gardner are the only two other viable candidates. Would they have even been available? Obviously there’s a case for both of them to have been traded, but there’s also a case against.

Sure, Robertson established himself as an elite reliever in 2011 and teams are always looking for bullpen help at the deadline. Look at what Cashman got for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller last year. There is reason to believe that Robertson, with a year and a half left until free agency at the time, would’ve netted a similar return. However, the Yankees were also about to lose Rivera to retirement and Dellin Betances was far from a relief ace at that point. Rivera’s shoes are impossible to fill, but David Robertson was as worthy a candidate to take over the ninth as anyone, so maybe they would’ve held on to him.

Then there’s Gardner. Before signing a contract extension that offseason, Gardner was slated to be a free agent following the 2014 season. At the time, he was at a point before his decline began, so he surely would’ve netted the Yankees decent value. That doesn’t mean they would’ve pulled the trigger though. The Yankees obviously liked Gardner enough to think he’d be worth keeping when they weren’t rebuilding, so they could’ve at least kept him another year regardless if they were rebuilding or not.

While the Yankees could’ve started stockpiling talent earlier, the full rebuild mode that team committed to last year still wouldn’t have been possible, however. The biggest difference is that there was clear talent already waiting in the wings last year and the Yankees were able to make room for them. They really had no one knocking on the doors of Triple-A back in 2013, and even so, the team wouldn’t have shed themselves of Alex Rodriguez’s or Mark Teixeira’s contracts that early.

So while trading Cano back in 2013 would’ve been the smart move to get the process started, the team would probably still be where they are today. Some of the prospects in the farm system would probably look slightly different, but outside of that, there’s not much the Yankees could’ve done to start the process earlier.

*The FanGraphs article actually says “as early as the summer of 2014” but 2014 was the first year Cano was in Seattle.

**Season statistics provided by Baseball Reference.