Soon after the 2018 season ended in a division series loss to the rival Boston Red Sox, the Yankees front office devised an offseason strategy. Upgrading the rotation, maintaining a dominant bullpen, and finding a replacement for injured shortstop Didi Gregorius were identified as priorities by General Manager Brian Cashman.
Although the overwhelming majority of Yankees fans hoped and expected the team to seriously pursue top free agents Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Patrick Corbin, that turned out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Yankees brass showed only tepid interest in Machado and Corbin, while refusing to engage with Harper at all. Much has been written about that already, so rather than re-litigate those issues here, I’m going to focus on the moves that the Yankees did make this winter.
The starting rotation
Cashman took an unusual step by announcing early in the offseason his intention to trade embattled starter Sonny Gray. Although it took awhile for the GM to find a deal to his liking, he eventually pulled the trigger. Meanwhile, he re-signed veteran left-handers CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ, and also acquired James Paxton, another southpaw, via trade from the Seattle Mariners. On the surface, this looks like little more than swapping Gray for Paxton, but the Yankees hope the positive impact on the rotation is much greater than simply that.
Paxton’s talent is highly regarded by scouts. His fastball lives in the upper nineties, and sometimes brushes 100 mph. Now entering his age-30 season, Paxton was somewhat of a late bloomer, and has also struggled to stay healthy. He threw a career-high 160.1 innings over 28 starts last season, and showed us his high ceiling by tossing a no-hitter. Most impressive is that he ended his gem by throwing his three fastest pitches of the night.
Paxton produced a career-high 3.8 WAR in 2017, and then regressed to 2.9 WAR last season — despite hurling 24 more innings. The Yankees hope that Paxton can step up and challenge Luis Severino for status as staff ace. If that happens, the pair will make quite an intimidating lefty/righty duo at the top of the rotation.
The club also hopes that Happ can outperform Sabathia’s 2.3 WAR as fourth starter. Happ compiled 3.3 total WAR pitching for the Blue Jays and Yankees last year, and he was New York’s most effective starter after donning the pinstripes at the end of July. If both Paxton and Happ step up, plus Masahiro Tanaka (2.9 WAR in 2018) and Sabathia merely maintain their steadiness, then Cashman will have succeeded in his quest to upgrade the rotation overall.
Last year, the Yankees already possessed a potentially historic bullpen before their mid-season acquisition of Zach Britton (0.7 WAR in 2018). This winter, Cashman decided to re-sign the once-dominant lefty. He also lured free agent Adam Ottavino (2.6 WAR) away from the Rockies, while letting David Robertson (1.0) depart for Philadelphia.
Ottavino is coming off a career year, after producing an uninspiring 0.3 WAR in 53.1 innings in 2017. Whether Cashman’s hot stove approach to the bullpen proves successful largely depends on whether Ottavino can maintain his dominance, and if Britton can regain his. Britton produced a spectacular 2016, when he notched a 0.54 ERA and 0.84 WHIP over 67 innings. Injuries limited him to 37.1 frames in 2017, and he was still on the mend last season, although he managed to log 41 innings in stints with the Orioles and Yankees.
With a key contributor like Gregorius sidelined until at least mid-season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow, it was essential that Cashman make some kind of move to fill the void. Since Didi’s timetable for return is far from certain, whoever was tapped to substitute might ultimately wind up playing the whole year.
With this in mind, Cashman signed oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki after the former superstar was cut by the Blue Jays. Before missing the entire 2018 campaign due to injury, Tulo’s production had already fallen to near-league average. Over 325 games from 2015-17, Tulowitzki compiled just 6.3 WAR, which is just 1.7 Wins Above Average.
Cash also signed glove-first veteran second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a two-year contract. He is widely expected to assume the utility infielder role (since Ronald Torreyes was jettisoned), even though LeMahieu has scant big-league experience playing anywhere but the keystone. If Tulowitzki doesn’t produce, then Boone could opt to move Gleyber Torres over to shortstop and start LeMahieu at second. This course of action carries it’s own set of concerns, though. Although LeMahieu won the National League batting title with a .348 average in 2016, he owns a .673 lifetime OPS away from Coors Field.
Somewhat surprisingly, Cashman’s first offseason move was to re-sign veteran outfielder Brett Gardner. Although Gardner is the longest-tenured Yankee and a well-liked and respected team leader, his production had fallen off in recent years. Manager Aaron Boone even opted to start Andrew McCutchen over him in September as the Yankees were trying to stay in the AL East race and clinch home-field advantage for the AL Wild Card Game.
Gardner slashed an uninspiring .236/.322/.368 over 609 plate appearances last season. His .690 OPS was dead-last in MLB among left fielders who logged 500 plate appearances or more. Gardner could split time with Clint Frazier (who possesses a .724 career OPS), but depending on how that situation plays out, the lack of attention paid to left field could prove problematic.
The Yankees also parted ways with McCutchen (2.8 total WAR in 2018), Adeiny Hechavarria, Neil Walker, Shane Robinson, A.J. Cole, Justus Sheffield, and Lance Lynn since the 2018 season. After considering all of the comings and goings, it’s difficult to emphatically proclaim that the Yankees improved this winter. So based on player movement, I’d have to grade the offseason moves a flat “C.”
However, the contract extensions handed out to Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks stand out. The Yankees under Cashman have been historically hesitant to offer contract extensions, so the one tendered to Gardner four years ago was a pleasant surprise. It worked out well for the team, so I was delighted to see Cash strike deals with Sevy and Hicks, two very important players for the Bombers.
Severino’s deal covers his arbitration years, plus gives the club an option on what is slated to be his first year in free agency. That option could prove huge just a few years from now, particularly if Severino keeps pitching the way he has. Likewise, extending Hicks through his age-36 season is also big. As I wrote previously, only Mike Trout and Lorenzo Cain have outperformed Hicks in center field in recent years.
To me, these contract extensions prop up an otherwise middling offseason for the Yankees, elevating my grade to a solid “B.” Word that the club may strike deals with both Gregorius and Dellin Betances before the pair hit free agency following the 2019 campaign represents even more good news. I sincerely hope that both deals happen, sooner than later.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.