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Why a shortened season shouldn’t impact the Yankees’ free agent plans

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The Yankees know what they have in these guys, and shouldn’t let a small sample change things.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With talk increasing that the 2020 MLB season may begin this summer, it’s only natural to think about the schedule. Most projections feature a season of anywhere between 80-100 games, which is certainly better than nothing. Such a short season opens up the vacuum for stats influenced by what we call “Small Sample Sizes.” In a shortened season, one otherwise-normal hot or cold streak could be the difference between the numbers we expect and some statistical abnormalities. Because there’s less time for performance to even out over time, some players’ final stats may look a little different than we expect.

This is of critical importance when looking at the Yankees’ crop of impending free agents, which includes DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, likely J.A. Happ and possibly Brett Gardner. That’s a large haul, and includes a few impact players. However, the Yankees have been planning for this offseason for years, and an abnormal performance in a shortened season should not have too much impact in how they attack such a critical offseason.

When making decisions on such key players, the Yankees should trust the full-season data they have acquired over these players’ entire careers, rather than whatever occurs in 2020. After all, the club will be paying with the expectation that future seasons will be back to normal. With that in mind, it stands to reason that with a full offseason of preparation and a full season’s amount of games, the players’ future performance will skew towards their career norms.

Barring something extreme, like LeMahieu hitting below .200 and being a butcher in the field, or Paxton and Tanaka losing velocity or suffering major arm injuries, the Yankees shouldn’t get too caught up in these players’ results of the 2020 season. As long as they play within some semblance of normal, it shouldn’t change the team’s opinion on whether or not to bring these players back.

This brings us to the question: can the Yankees bring these players back? That depends on how comfortable the Yankees are with a payroll north of $230 million, like the one they are going to run out this season. The team likely won’t be adding much more salary in future years, but still projects over the luxury tax for several years. Everyone has their limits, so figuring out what the Yankees’ limit is is imperative in determining if these players can return.

Tanaka, Paxton, LeMahieu and Happ are currently costing the Yankees $64.5 million annually in payroll – this will obviously leave the books after the season. Also leaving the books are two expensive pieces – Jacoby Ellsbury’s $26.1 million retained salary and Alex Rodriguez’s $5 million deferred salary. These sunken costs account for over $30 million in dead money on the Yankees’ payroll this year, but they will not have those expenses in 2021, giving ownership plenty of money to spend.

The Yankees are running back a roster in 2021 with $135 million of guaranteed money. They will have a large and expensive class of arbitration-eligible players, so let’s cautiously project that arbitration spending will cost similar to the $35 million it cost this year. That brings the team’s 2021 payroll to $170 million, and that’s with two holes in the rotation and no second baseman.

However, the Yankees still have enough to afford their big three free agents if they’re comfortable operating at a $230-plus million payroll. Tanaka, Paxton, LeMahieu and Happ combined to cost $64.5 million this year, but Happ will almost certainly be let go. Based on market comps, it stands to reason that Paxton could earn around $21 million annually on his next deal (similar to Patrick Corbin and Zack Wheeler), Tanaka could earn around $18 million in AAV (the Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Charlie Morton range), and LeMahieu could earn around $18 million yearly (more than all second basemen but Jose Altuve and Robinson Cano).

Again, those are just guesses, but that imputes an annual cost of $57 million for the Yankees to retain these players. Adding that onto the roughly $170 million in existing payroll results in a 2021 payroll figure of approximately $227 million. That’s less than they’re spending this year, and only a little bit more than what they paid in 2019 ($223 million). That’s a lot of money, but it’s completely realistic for the Yankees.

Seeing it mapped out this way also makes it easier to swallow the decisions to let Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances walk. The money that would have been spent retaining them was spent in large part on Gerrit Cole, and if they had signed them and Cole, it may have meant the end for two of Tanaka, Paxton and LeMahieu.

Not only do the Yankees have the funds to bring these players back, it looks like they have been planning for years to do so. As a result, getting too caught up in a small sample size could seriously affect the team’s future. The Yankees likely budgeted to bring Tanaka, Paxton and LeMahieu back in 2021 all along. Barring a complete disaster in 2020, that should still be the plan.

*This post would not have been possible without the assistance of the resources at Spotrac*