This has been the most polarizing Yankees offseason in recent memory. Critics have pointed to the non-signings of top-tier free agents Patrick Corbin, Manny Machado, and (let’s face it) Bryce Harper as proof that the Yankees’ brass no longer prioritizes winning above all. Defenders of the Yankees’ offseason have pointed to the many free-agent signings that did happen, as well as the fact that the Yankees’ current payroll is over the luxury tax threshold and one of the highest in baseball, to dispel the notion that the Yankees are cheap.
There are plenty of factors in this debate, some stretching beyond the diamond, like one’s position regarding MLB’s labor relations, or the extent to which MLB franchise owe anything to their fans. For this article, though, I’d like to evaluate the Yankees’ offseason from a purely strategic point of view. Based on the following assumptions - 1. that the Yankees are working with a fixed budget right around where their payroll is now, and 2. that their objective is to field the best team possible for 2019 without jeopardizing their long-term success - did the Yankees effectively allocate their resources this offseason? In other words, was the “spread the wealth” approach they took better than signing the best free agents available?
First, let’s discuss the pros of the Yankees’ free-agent strategy. A natural result of signing many players is that they have more depth than they would have had if they had consolidated their resources into adding one or two stars. This is especially true of their pitching, as the J.A. Happ signing, along with the construction of possibly the greatest bullpen ever, goes a long way towards addressing concerns about the rotation’s health and workload. The Yankees also have two new infielders in DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki, and while the latter’s health problems and recent decline makes him less than reliable as depth, maybe the Yankees’ scouting department saw something they liked during his workout.
Adding depth instead of going for broke for stars does make some sense for a team in the Yankees’ position. After all, despite a disappointing showing in the ALDS, they did win 100 games last year despite injuries to key players. Plus, the James Paxton trade at the start of the offseason all but guaranteed that the Yankees’ rotation would be improved in 2019. Combined with the rival Red Sox’ reticence this offseason, the Yankees apparently just didn’t have that much incentive to add a mega-piece to the team. If you already have a very good squad, why not give it another spin?
Another benefit of the Yankees’ spending pattern is “long-term flexibility”. Sure, the phrase has been bandied about by the anti-long-term-contract crowd like a magic word, but it’s not entirely without credibility. Huge contracts do indeed come with the risk of them turning into borderline immovable assets. Because the Yankees are a big-budget team, they wouldn’t be hurt by albatross contracts as much as smaller-market teams would, but they would still have to face increased financial pressure in addition to constraints on roster construction.
In contrast, mid-and-low-tier contracts like the Yankees just handed out are much easier to manage. If Troy Tulowitzki fails to perform, the Yankees can just cut him. Cheap veterans like Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia can be moved to depth roles if it becomes clear they are no longer capable regulars. If the Yankees either underperform badly, or find themselves owners of a 10-game lead in the division race come July, they could flip a reliever or two to replenish the farm. And in any case, none of the free agents the Yankees signed this winter will still be with the team in 2022. It’s easier for a team to respond to changing circumstances when it has a chunk of mid-size contracts instead of a couple huge assets.
So, we’ve established that the Yankees’ approach, assuming a fixed budget, had its merits - increased depth and more long-term flexibility. Is that enough to justify signing Happ, Britton, Tulowitzki, LeMahieu and Ottavino for about the same combined AAV that Patrick Corbin and Manny Machado would have cost? No. Not nearly. Not even for a second.
First, let’s just get this out of the way; from a pure production standpoint, Corbin and Machado blow the Yankees’ offseason haul out of the water. The Yankees’ five free agent signings are projected by Steamer to produce a combined 7 WAR. Patri-nny Cor-chado are projected for something close to 9 WAR, in less than half the roster space. And that’s just for 2019. Taking into account the fact that the “spread the wealth” gang are all post-peak players, while Corbin just had his breakout and Machado is younger than Aaron Judge, the disparity in total production over the course of the two scenarios will approach biblical proportions.
Which brings me to my second point; it’s unwise to focus on the risk of big signings going wrong without paying equal attention to the risk of low-stakes investments not paying off. As we can see in the projections above, Machado and Corbin cost top dollar because their future performance is likely to be top-notch. Their huge contracts entail long-term risk, but they themselves are much more safer bets to produce at a high level than their less expensive counterparts. Viewed in this way, it’s debatable whether spreading the wealth was at all safer than the alternative.
The flexibility argument is also problematic in that it ignores the risk of future free agents becoming unavailable, leaving the Yankees’ roster riddled with holes without attractive options to fill them. Some commenters justified the Yankees passing on Machado by citing Nolan Arenado’s free agency next offseason. Well, the Rockies are reportedly working on a long-term extension with their star player, leaving the Yankees with one less option if (or when, actually) Miguel Andujar gets moved off of third base. There hasn’t been such talk surrounding Gerrit Cole (another oft-mentioned target) yet, but if that happens the Yankees will have a lot of space to fill out in the rotation following the departures of Sabathia, Happ and Tanaka. Sure, flexibility is nice, but it comes with a trade-off; you also have less certainty surrounding the roster going forward. For a team in the Yankees’ position, signing stars is the safer way to ensure a highly competitive future.
The only argument remaining for the “spread the wealth” approach is depth. Sure, having more warm bodies is nice. But does that outweigh the importance of present and future production and securing roster certainty? Framed in this way, it’s very, very difficult to justify the course of action that the Yankees’ brass took this offseason.
I do not believe that the Yankees are an inept organization. If they were, the team wouldn’t look nearly as good as it is now. Brian Cashman continues to perform excellently on the trade market, as he has shown with the James Paxton and Sonny Gray trades. And what happened in the free agent market wasn’t entirely under the Yankees’ control. A likely explanation is that, because Harper and Machado (and their respective agents) were prepared to drag the signing process as late into the offseason as possible in order to get the deals they wanted, the Yankees preferred to make lesser upgrades to the team earlier on rather than stay in the Machado/Harper sweepstakes and end up with few options remaining in February in case they missed out. I guess I can’t completely be frustrated at them for behaving that way.
However, purely from the standpoint of roster construction and overall production, there is no argument whatsoever that would justify passing on this year’s top free agents for what the Yankees just acquired for roughly the same yearly price. If the Yankees have convinced themselves that, given the two options, their “spread the wealth” offseason was better, then there is a serious deficiency in how they approach baseball operations. Cashman might have been a tad too prescient when describing the Yankees as a fully operational Death Star. All it took was the complacency of Imperial leadership, and a well-placed torpedo into a thermal exhaust port, to send it all crashing down.