Perhaps you might have heard: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are free agents. The two generational talents sit at the head of this year’s eagerly-anticipated class.
Which player is number one depends mostly on who you ask and what criteria they use. Both entered the league in 2012. Harper has played in 927 career games and compiled 27.4 WAR, while Machado has appeared in one fewer game and produced 33.8 WAR. Suffice to say, anyone who considers the pair co-heads of the 2019 free agent class wouldn’t be wrong.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has denied having any interest in Harper, citing a crowded outfield. The Yankees do have an undeniable need for Machado, however, with starting shortstop Didi Gregorius expected to miss at least half of the 2019 season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Machado visited the Yankees two weeks ago, amidst a three-team tour that also included the Phillies and White Sox. Although Machado reportedly prefers to sign with the Yankees, Cashman has been mum on whether he actually presented the star with an offer or not.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have been linked to a number of far less attractive infield options. Before the Rangers traded him to the Athletics on December 21st, the Yankees were interested in Jurickson Profar, who compiled only 2.1 WAR and 87 OPS+ across 352 career MLB games. They also have been connected to 31-year-old free agent Josh Harrison, who produced 4.4 Wins Above Average in eight big league seasons, and were among at least 11 teams to attend a workout held by the oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki earlier this month.
With news breaking late last night that the Yankees had indeed signed Tulowitzki, urgent questions immediately arose. Does Tulowitzki’s signing mean that the Yankees are now out of the running for Machado? Let’s hope not.
We’ve seen a version of that movie before. Following the 2013 season, when homegrown talent Robinson Cano reached free agency, the Yankees made him an offer far below what he was predicted to earn, and then reportedly refused to negotiate. Cano even gave the Yankees an opportunity to at least match Seattle’s $240 million offer before signing, but Cashman didn’t budge from his $175 million figure.
New York’s failure to retain that year’s top free agent set off a chain of events that still haunt the club to this day. First, in what appeared at the time to be a panic move, Cashman signed Jacoby Ellsbury to an eight-year, $153 million deal. Over the first five years of the contract. Ellsbury has produced 2.3 WAA. The Yankees are still on the hook for two more years at more than $21 million per, plus a $5 million buyout is owed for 2021.
Next, the Yankees ran out a string of poor stand-ins to man the keystone in place of Cano. Beginning with Brian Roberts, and continuing on with the likes of Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan, and Stephen Drew, Yankees second basemen produced a .693 OPS in 2014, good for seventh-best in the American League. Not surprisingly, the Mariners boasted the most productive keystone in the league, as Cano slashed .314/.382/.454 and finished fifth in the MVP Award voting.
The Yankees managed to turn a position of great strength into one of great need by refusing to retain Cano. Halfway through his 10-year contract, they still haven’t replaced him.
Gleyber Torres did a bang-up job last year, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year Award voting, but only producing 2.9 WAR. Cano’s worst year in Seattle was 2018, when he produced 3.2 WAR – despite missing half the season due to suspension. He compiled 23.6 WAR over five years, which averages out to 4.7 per season. To put this in further perspective, Gleyber in 2018 was the only Yankees second baseman to produce more than 2.0 WAR in a season over that same five-year period.
The Yankees now have a rare chance to sign two generational talents in a single offseason. It would behoove them not to play possum like they did in 2014. They have the money, and they have the opportunity to lock down two positions with high-end impact players for the next decade. Now’s not the time to let yet another opportunity pass them by, while settling for league-average or replacement-level players to fill the void again. We’ll see if the Yankees learn from their recent past mistakes. Let’s hope they do.