The Yankees have had a busy winter. Juxtaposed with the glacial pace of the overall MLB offseason, they may have even appeared positively crazed over the past few months. They’ve made several signings and trades throughout the offseason, whether they’ve been re-signing veteran stalwarts, dredging the bottom of the free agent market for reclamation projects, or targeting upside via the trade market.
What this relative flurry of activity might obscure, though, is the extent to which the Yankees are simply running it back this year. Faced with the opportunity to go above and beyond this winter in order to give themselves a clear leg up on the competition, the Yankees have essentially decided to just assemble a team extremely similar to last season’s iteration.
To start the offseason, the Yankees re-signed Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia to reprise their roles as rock-solid veterans. Last year, neither was tasked with being much more than a slightly better than average player who could provide a valuable locker-room presence, and in 2019, they will be asked to do the same.
Also reprising his part as a lefty relief ace attempting to recapture his former glory is Zach Britton. The Yankees made a bet on Britton at last year’s trade deadline, wagering that the rusty Britton of early-2018 would eventually give way to the dominant Britton of old. Britton flashed both rust and brilliance in New York last year, and the team was willing to make the same bet again, this time in the form of a three-year free-agent contract.
Not all of the Yankees’ offseason moves have involved simply re-signing players to do just what they did in 2018, however. Elsewhere, where the team has let players go, they’ve signed almost like-for-like replacements in order to fill the vacancies.
In Sonny Gray’s place, James Paxton will step in as the resident talented trade acquisition. The Yankees traded for Gray midway through 2017 with the idea that he could provide borderline ace-caliber production in the rotation. Paxton, with a track record similar to Gray’s at the time of his respective trade, will instead provide the rotation with upside, as a pitcher with obvious potential that hasn’t always been fulfilled.
Stepping in for Neil Walker, DJ LeMahieu profiles as the team’s new utilityman. Walker played four different positions at least 15 times in 2018, and LeMahieu has been told to bring plenty of different gloves to spring training this year. Also, much like the Yankees couldn’t pass up Walker when his price fell to one year at $4 million, the team likely saw LeMahieu at $12 million per season as a steal.
With David Robertson skipping town for the Phillies, the role of overqualified veteran right-handed middle reliever was left gaping. Enter Adam Ottavino, stage left. Over the past three seasons, Robertson posted a 152 ERA+ with an 11.9 K/9 rate. Ottavino ran a 144 ERA+ with a 12.0 K/9 rate over that span.
And finally, with the role of starting shortstop vacant for the first few months of the season, the Yankees scooped up Troy Tulowitzki on a league-minimum deal. Tulowitzki may not profile as particularly similar to Didi Gregorius, but he will at least play Gregorius’ part for some time while Gregorius heals.
Every role that was left unoccupied at the outset of free agency has either been filled by the exact player that filled it last year, or a nearly identical replacement. For all intents and purposes, the Yankees are just a hit Broadway production, keeping some actors on for their next run of shows, while finding apt substitutions for the players that step away.
Running it back doesn’t exactly have to be bad. The Yankees are bringing back an excellent team. They were one of the best teams in all of baseball last season, and project as one of the best teams yet again. It’s not as if the organization has chosen to do it all again with a bunch of stiffs.
What is disappointing is the context within which they are running it all back. The team and league is setting records in terms of revenue. Two generational free agents still sit unsigned on the market in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. This offseason long represented a chance for teams like the Yankees to take an obvious competitive shortcut, to bypass the typical means of acquiring young star talent by simply spending to money to land a superstar.
Instead, the team has been constructed largely in the same fashion as last year, if with a few new faces in familiar roles. There are worse fates than watching a great team return, with the promise of another potential 100-win season on the horizon. There are also better ways to capitalize on rare offseasons that feature multiple dazzling stars. Time will tell if what the Yankees have done this winter will be enough.