In order to understand the Yankees’ present and future, one must first turn to the past.
On August 20th, 2013, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner sat down with his front office staff to order a massive farm system overhaul. Rampant injuries inspired this decision, as Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, and Jayson Nix topped the depth charts. In a way, the Yankees were hanging over a precipice not seen since 1988. Without an infusion of young talent to supplement their usual financial muscle, they would merely be... mediocre, floating above terrible, but never truly great.
This meeting was also spurred by the desire to clear the ever-elusive $189 million luxury tax threshold. An insider source told the Daily News that they would need “...a third baseman, a first baseman, at least one power-hitting outfielder, two frontline starting pitchers and possibly even a shortstop if Derek Jeter is not able to come back from his multiple injuries.”
In the immediate aftermath, these changes would only prove half-measures. The tables, however, were set. One frontline starter would come in the form of Masahiro Tanaka, ace of the Rakuten Golden Eagles and the best active pitcher in Japan. Scouted by the Yankees since 2007, Tanaka’s $155 million price tag was worth it for a 25 year-old. It also modeled what the team’s spending would look like in the future: Robinson Cano style deals were unacceptable, but they would pay for youth in cash.
Another starter would emerge out of nowhere, straight from the same international pipeline that made the last dynasty successful. Signed for $225,000 in 2011, Luis Severino would become the first homegrown Yankees ace in a generation. His 2017 ERA was the lowest since Andy Pettitte and David Cone in 1997.
First base would be handed to Greg Bird, a relatively unknown prospect out of Colorado, but cut from the same fabric as Yankees of old. A smooth, easy swing with power to the short porch was the vision. Despite the fact there were fits and starts—including a hot streak in 2015, but a 2016 and 2017 season plagued with injury—it culminated in the game-winning home run against Andrew Miller in Game Three of the 2017 ALDS.
Shortstop proved the hardest nut to crack, and it was clear that at the time of the meeting, the loss of Jeter occupied the front office’s mind. Eduardo Nunez wasn’t working, so the Yankees instead eyed Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorius, whom they finally acquired in December of 2014 for Shane Greene. Showing off his 70-grade arm and dynamic range, Gregorius jumped to another level with his embrace of the forthcoming fly ball revolution. That resulted in 45 home runs over his last two seasons, and a Wild Card Game three-run homer that thrust the Bombers back into the playoff spotlight.
Third base would give way to their now-famous Aroldis Chapman trade. The Yankees acquired Gleyber Torres, Adam Warren, Billy McKinney, and Rashad Crawford from the Cubs in July 2016 in exchange for the hard-throwing closer. Torres, after having Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing arm last season, will likely step up to the plate as the prospective second or third baseman.
The other factor is Miguel Andujar, already in the system at the time of that August 2013 meeting, and who now sits as the 14th best prospect in baseball by FanGraphs. Their road may well be slowed by the recent acquisition of Neil Walker, the longtime Pirate and victim of the stunted baseball market, signed for a measly $4 million plus incentives. Yet if the Yankees’ internal reports on Andujar and Torres are true, then they get a two-fold benefit: a major league ready regular for a small price, and the option for Andujar and Torres in 2019 or earlier if they prove themselves.
It’s not like there weren’t flops along this seemingly neat road to rebuild, but in even the failed deals, the pattern and process was the same. Whether it was acquiring Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, or Starlin Castro, for example, all of these moves showed an eye towards analytics. They targeted players that could be pruned to perfection, giving the Yankees both the youth and the flexibility to spend later.
All of these paths led to the cherry on top of the rebuild: the trade for Giancarlo Stanton. In the live-ball era, there have only been six seasons where the top-two players in Isolated Power wore the same uniform: Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick in 2008; Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in 1965; Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961; and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931, 1927, and 1926. When assessing the New York Yankees’ long-term outlook, it’s best to look through this lens, because the two best sluggers in Isolated Power in 2017 were none other than Stanton and Aaron Judge.
The day to spend once again has come, and their final goal will be achieved in the 2018 season by sliding beneath the luxury-tax threshold. Under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there are draft pick implications for going over the limit, and surtaxes get progressively steeper for each offending year.
This is something the Steinbrenners can likely afford—their estimated revenue is likely close to $500 million. It comes at a time, however, when the tenuous free agent market will likely give way to some of the best players in baseball next season, all available just for cash. That’s something the Yankees should have in great supply after this luxury tax maneuver, and a 2017 season where the team came just one game away from the Fall Classic.
Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, and Josh Donaldson are all likely to be in the mix. Harper is the leading talent of the crop, and other than the case where the Yankees move Stanton, fitting him in a crowded corner outfield situation would be difficult. Donaldson’s age and profile are essentially the antithesis of their previously outlined strategy. And Kershaw, while enticing to think about in a possible super rotation, will probably remain in a Dodgers uniform.
More likely, though, is the Machado sweepstakes. He has already expressed interest in playing in the Bronx, much to the chagrin of Orioles owner Peter Angelos. While Andujar and Torres could make their marks, they are far from sure things. Machado, just 26 years old at his free agency, would fit squarely into the Yankees’ desire to spend on youth. He is also just as historically ranked as Harper, and his WAR through age-24 almost exclusively sits him near Hall of Famers.
These tremendous advantages, in both finances and organizational talent, will all need to be coalesced by Aaron Boone, the team’s new manager. Boone, star of the best moment of the last dynasty’s dying gasp, could very well steer a new one. That said, we have no idea what his strategic decisions may look like in the wake of the very-steady Joe Girardi.
Boone, at the very least, appears more relaxed than Girardi’s fiery intensity. He hopes to break free of a fraught 2017 managerial relationship that saw the catcher being trashed in the press and disastrous strategic moves in Game Two of the ALDS. The Yankees have had managerial consistency unlike anything ever seen in baseball — this is just their third skipper since Buck Showalter in 1994. While the organization can be confident in so many ways, one facet of their team hangs in relative uncertainty. Considering the overplayed aspect of a manager’s role, this may well be window dressing.
In the short-term, the Yankees are back to being the elite squad we remember it as from a decade ago. Their strengths mean that the club could become a force to be reckoned with, a team that very well could be one of the best of the decade. Considering their 100 Pythagorean wins last season, that super team may have already existed underneath the surface.
In the long-term, we are likely peering over the horizon towards at least a half-decade of Bronx Bomber dominance, a phrase so nauseating to many baseball fans out there that they may vomit before this period. Yet as much as they are despised — and I know this comes from the most biased source imaginable — baseball is at its best when the Yankees do well.
In a financial sense that means ratings. Other than the Cubs’ historic run, the highest-rated World Series of the past decade was the 2009 edition. In a metaphysical sense, it means that the order of good versus evil has been restored, and the Yankees have embraced the latter. They are a foil to most, if not all, teams — evoking a hatred so strong that it often dove-tails neatly with many fans’ existing, positive fandoms.
In a historical sense, the Yankees are and will continue to be woven within the fabric of the very sport itself. With 40 pennants and 53 playoff appearances, baseball and Yankees history overlap in many ways; the 20th century can very well be considered a Yankees century. Despite all of the measures put in place in that span—the modern draft, international signing limits, and the soft salary cap—the Yankees have been and will likely always be a parasite to parity that the league will never truly shake. It’s starting to seem like the 21st century may hold much of the same.