After an early departure from the 2018 playoffs, many expected the Yankees to run wild on the offseason. After all, the team finally reset its luxury tax rate, and two prime-aged superstars sat atop the free agent class. Instead, the team pursued an alternate route. “We’re very active,” Brian Cashman told Newsday during the Winter Meetings. “But at the same time, disciplined about what we’re willing to do and what we’re not willing to do.”
The disciplined approach closed the door on top free agent pitcher Patrick Corbin, and most likely has the Yankees out on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Instead, the Bombers did spend a significant amount of money on the open market, signing the likes of Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ, Troy Tulowitzki, Zach Britton, and DJ LeMahieu. Rather than paying up for one major outlay, the team spread the wealth among several lesser free agents.
Does this sound familiar? It should. This is the same strategy the Red Sox employed during the 2012-2013 offseason. Obviously that plan paid off big time, as Boston stormed through the American League and won the World Series.
This approach, however, may not be the best one to follow. At the very least, it’s not a great fit for the Yankees in 2019. Why? Three reasons quickly come to mind.
1. Nearly every free agent the Red Sox signed hit their peak outcome
Prior to the 2013 season, Boston brought in eight major league free agents. That group featured Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, David Ross, Koji Uehara, and Shane Victorino. Somehow, every single one of these signings reached their best-possible outcomes.
Consider what ZiPS pegged for each of the free agents:
Dempster: 4.47 ERA, 4.30 FIP, 104 ERA- (2.4 WAR)
Drew: .250/.322/.396, .311 wOBA (1.7 WAR)
Gomes: .240/.332/.423, .328 wOBA (0.3 WAR)
Napoli: .248/.347/.488, .356 wOBA (1.8 WAR)
Ortiz: .294/.388/.558, .385 wOBA (3.4 WAR)
Ross: .241/.315/.414, .317 wOBA (0.8 WAR)
Uehara: 2.72 ERA, 2.80 FIP, 63 ERA- (1.1 WAR)
Victorino: .267/.330/.425, .329 wOBA (2.9 WAR)
Now compare that to what actually happened in 2013:
Dempster: 4.57 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 109 ERA- (0.5 WAR)
Drew: .253/.333/.443, .337 wOBA (3.6 WAR)
Gomes: .247/.344/.426, .338 wOBA (1.5 WAR)_
Napoli: .259/.360/.482, .367 wOBA (3.4 WAR)
Ortiz: .309/.395/.564, .400 wOBA (3.4 WAR)
Ross: .216/.298/.382, .304 wOBA (0.8 WAR)
Uehara: 1.09 ERA, 1.61 FIP, 26 ERA- (3.1 WAR)
Victorino: .294/.351/.451, .353 wOBA (4.7 WAR)
The Red Sox hit the jackpot on six of their eight free agent signings. Only Dempster underperformed his projection, and Ross held steady. Everyone else had near-career years.
The Yankees may luck out with a few of their signings. Maybe Tulowitzki discovers the fountain of youth, Britton reestablishes himself as a top reliever, and LeMahieu’s exit velocity translates into results. Everything broke right for Boston in 2013, so it’s possible. It’s just hard to bet on that repeating.
2. The Red Sox needed to raise their floor in 2013
The 2012 Red Sox were not very good. In fact, they were comically bad. The club finished last in the AL East, posted a 69-93 record, and endured the misadventures of Bobby Valentine. Perhaps the most notable part of their season came in August, when a blockbuster trade shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers.
Boston’s roster had a number of holes heading into 2013, and they badly needed to raise their floor. Ben Cherington went to work to address the team’s needs through free agency, to make the team competitive and avoid repeating the disastrous 2012 campaign. Did anyone actually expect a worst-to-first story to unfold?
The Yankees, meanwhile, find themselves in an entirely different position in 2019. They’re fresh off a 100-win campaign. They have a young core that rivals any other in baseball. Their floor looks pretty stable. Instead of bringing in second-tier free agents, the Yankees should target elite talent. This offseason could have transformed them from one of the best teams in the league to the single-most fearsome club in baseball.
3. The 2012-2013 free agent class wasn’t exactly star-studded
This year’s free agent class stands out as the best one in recent history. Harper and Machado may be the most talented players to hit the open market since Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Corbin also profiled as an ace-caliber pitcher. What an impressive top three they make.
The best players the 2012-2013 class to had offer, however, were Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton. Greinke had a Cy Young to his name, and pitched pretty well leading up to his free agency. Hamilton had a ton of talent and won the 2010 MVP, but his performance since then led to inconsistent results. Both Hamilton and Greinke made for fine players, but their free agencies get dwarfed in comparison to this year’s targets.
Six years ago, it made a little more sense to pursue the second-tier free agents. The headliners of the class were pretty darn good — if not great — but they weren’t can’t-miss. And crucially, they weren’t in the middle of their primes like Harper and Machado. This year, the Yankees could reel in two of the best young players in baseball. To date, they have declined to flex their financial muscle and add impact talent to the roster.
As things stand, the Yankees have decided to spread the wealth in regards to their free agent strategy. That strategy is inherently flawed — there exists a finite number of roster spaces, so one superstar is naturally more valuable than two lesser players — and doesn’t exactly smack of the modus operandi of a World Series-caliber team. It worked for the Red Sox in 2013, but it’s tough to envision lightning striking twice.