The biggest Yankees story this offseason was the club’s failure to sign any of the class-leading free agents, including generational talents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. A portion of the fan base applauded this approach, with a variety of reasons cited. One common argument made was that better free agents would be available in the near future, including Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado.
Unfortunately, neither of those two coveted superstars are going to hit free agency anytime soon. Both Trout and Arenado, along with a host of other stars, agreed to contract extensions with their current teams.
Six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt signed a contract extension with the Cardinals not too long after arriving in St. Louis via trade from Arizona, and will forego becoming a free agent until after he turns 37. Arenado, who turns 28 this month, will not hit free agency before his age-35 season. The Angels, meanwhile, locked up perennial MVP candidate Trout through his age-38 campaign. Goldschmidt leads all first basemen with 29.2 WAR from 2014-18. Arenado trails only Josh Donaldson among third basemen, while Trout leads all MLB players with 44.3 WAR over the same period.
Elite pitchers also cashed in on the extension frenzy, with three of the seven most productive starters over the last five years agreeing to terms with their current teams. Chris Sale re-upped with the Red Sox through his age-35 season, and the deal includes a vesting option for an additional year. The Mets’ pact with Jacob deGrom includes a team-option year that could keep the defending National League Cy Young Award winner in Flushing through his age-36 campaign. Justin Verlander won’t hit free agency until his age-39 season, thanks to his record-breaking $66 million, two-year deal with the Astros.
Some fans were happy that the Yankees decided against signing free agent left-hander Patrick Corbin this offseason, arguing that he isn’t elite enough. But more accomplished arms are quickly coming off the board. The Yankees passed on Max Scherzer four winters ago, whose 34.8 WAR leads all pitchers over the last five seasons. Three years ago, they took a pass on Zack Greinke, whose 26.0 WAR since 2014 places him fifth. And just last winter, the Bombers passed on Jake Arrieta, who ranks eighth.
Among the ten most-productive starting pitchers over the last five years, that leaves Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, and Carlos Carrasco. The Indians inked Carrasco to a three-year extension in December, with an option that could keep him in Cleveland through 2023. The Tribe also holds multiple team options on Kluber, which means he likely won’t hit free agency until 2022. Kershaw is signed through 2021, so only the 35-year-old Hamels is slated to hit free agency next winter.
Even the next wave of star pitchers is rapidly disappearing from the market. Incumbent AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell signed an extension which will keep him in Tampa Bay through 2023. Aaron Nola, who finished third in the NL Cy Young Award balloting, agreed to terms which will keep him in Philadelphia through 2023 if the Phillies exercise their option. Kyle Hendricks just inked a pact with the Cubs which includes a vesting option that could keep him on the North Side through 2024.
So why is this recent spate of superstar contract extensions bad for the Yankees? The Bombers have possessed the ability to sign any player at any price since the advent of modern free agency in the 1970s. This financial clout represents a formidable weapon and gives them a considerable advantage in the marketplace over most other teams. The Yankees haven’t always used this weapon, but it’s still a good one to have in the arsenal. All the money in the world doesn’t do much good, though, if there is a lack of top talent to spend it on.
The Yankees have enjoyed the luxury of being able to go out and grab elite talent on the free agent market every year for nearly half a century. With the best players at nearly every position locked up for the foreseeable future, the Yankees will have to go with second-tier free agents to plug holes — or they must find other ways to fill needs as they arise.
Kudos to Brian Cashman for getting ahead of the curve on this. Cash stated early in the offseason that he intended to pursue contract extensions with pending free agents Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, and Dellin Betances. The team’s general manager actually wrapped up negotiations with Luis Severino first. The Yankees ace, whose 10.1 WAR from 2017-18 represents the ninth-best mark among pitchers, agreed to a pact which grants the club an option to buy out his first year of free agency. Ten days later, Cashman extended Hicks, whose WAR total in center field over the last two years was topped only by Trout and Lorenzo Cain.
Preventing important players like Hicks and Severino from hitting free agency goes a long way to mitigating the negative effects of the rapidly shrinking market. Successfully completing contract-extension negotiations with team-leader Gregorius and four-time All-Star Betances will be also be great for the Yankees, considering what free agent relievers garnered this winter and the fact that the Red Sox finalized a six-year contract extension with shortstop Xander Bogaerts worth $132 million. Sir Didi out-produced Bogaerts by eight wins to six from 2017-18.
Cashman has many other tricks up his sleeve, should future free-agent classes prove uninspiring. He has a history of making the most out of international signings, as well as executing under-the-radar trades. Dealing John Ryan Murphy for Hicks, Chasen Shreve for Luke Voit, Shane Greene for Gregorius, and Starlin Castro for Giancarlo Stanton are four prime examples of Ninja Cash moves that also helped shape the Yankees into the title contenders they are today.
Although elite players getting locked up by their current teams before they hit free agency limits the Yankees’ future options, it doesn’t have to be catastrophic. We must trust that Cashman will find a way to keep the Yankees moving forward, despite these changes in the marketplace.
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.