The World Series ended weeks ago, and the hot stove is still simmering. Teams have mostly gotten their affairs in order, re-signing the players they intend to keep, and shifting their gazes toward external means of improvement. The Yankees brought back Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia, and now will spend the winter turning over every stone in an effort to put together a championship roster in 2019.
Essentially, the table is set. Teams have their rosters in order, and are ready to add, subtract, and just generally move around. Big dominoes like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will fall eventually, and trade targets, like James Paxton and Sonny Gray, are liable to move in any direction at any moment.
As the offseason begins in earnest, I thought it worth asking: where exactly do the Yankees stand? As the league’s rosters are currently constructed, how do the Yankees stack up against the rest of their peers?
Intuitively, you might think that the Yankees have fallen slightly behind the leaders as the winter starts, through no real fault of their own. It’s simply the state of things that the Yankees have plenty of free agents that may leave in the coming weeks, among them David Robertson, Zach Britton, J.A. Happ, Lance Lynn, and Neil Walker. Not only that, the Yankees have taken surprising hits on the injury front, with Didi Gregorius undergoing Tommy John surgery that will sideline him deep into next season, and Gary Sanchez requiring shoulder surgery, one that shouldn’t cause him miss to time.
Has the Yankees’ sizable group of free agents, plus their unforeseen injury troubles, caused them to lag behind the league’s elite rosters as the offseason begins? To get a concrete answer, I consulted FanGraphs’ early 2019 projections. FanGraphs has already released preliminary Steamer projections for next season, and while they certainly should not be treated as gospel, they are a useful shorthand for how teams compare to each other as hot stove season begins.
If the projections are to be believed, the Yankees might be in a better position than you would have expected based on the number of players that they stand to see depart. Despite being at risk of losing a huge chunk of their pitching staff, as well as their star shortstop, FanGraphs projects the Yankees’ current roster as the league’s fourth best at the moment, behind only the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Astros. By means of projected WAR, the Yankees, those three aforementioned clubs, and Cleveland combine to form a clear top tier that has separated from the rest of the pack.
Here’s how the current top ten splits out between projected hitting and pitching WAR:
FanGraphs 2019 MLB WAR Projections
Perhaps most encouragingly, the Yankees rank fourth in projected WAR on the pitching side even in spite of the innings they stand to lose. That’s likely thanks to a bullpen that’s still the league’s best with headliners Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Chad Green, and a pair of high-caliber starters fronting the rotation in Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka.
To me, the main takeaway from this exercise is not that the Yankees should feel comfortable. They shouldn’t look at the fact that their roster still ranks among the league’s best in the face of injury and free agent losses as a reason to be complacent. As Brian Cashman indicated earlier this week, the Yankees should see their roster’s current strength as another reason to be “big-game hunters” this winter.
A targeted spending spree that filled out the starting rotation and brought in an elite position player talent would vault the Yankees’ roster from “among the best,” as it currently ranks, to “clearly the best.” It’s obvious looking at the projections that the Yankees have an opportunity to build a truly formidable team, one that outstrips every challenger in terms of true talent.
This opportunity stems from the fact that despite Cashman’s stated desire to limit the amount the team “lines the pockets of opponents” by handing out luxury tax payments, the Yankees have a crazy amount of payroll room. Over at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards tried to pin down just how much payroll room each team has to spend. When Edwards used 2017 payroll as a baseline (a more useful baseline than 2018 payroll, given 2017 was prior to the Yankees’ effort to duck under the luxury tax), the Yankees projected to have over $100 million in 2019 payroll room.
If the Yankees simply spent as much as they indicated they were willing to spend literally one season ago, they could add nine figures worth of annual salary to a team that already ranks among MLB’s best. This is a wonderful chance to do something special. Cashman knows he has a great team at this very moment, one that could easily become the best team with reasonable investment.
The Red Sox showed just days ago that investing big money and prospects in great players is a fantastic strategy. The Yankees have an incredible chance to do the same here. They stand in a strong position, projecting as a good team even with a fistful of losses. It shouldn’t be too difficult to vault this already strong roster over the top.