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On free agency and the Yankees’ roster flexibility

Signing a big-name shortstop gives the club the kind of contingency they need.

MLB: World Series-Atlanta Braves at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

One of the prevailing arguments against signing players like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager this offseason is the need for the Yankees to preserve flexibility, both in terms of payroll and roster spots. It’s a bad idea to sign Carlos Seager since the Yankees’ two best prospects are shortstops! Ten year contracts are always a bad idea!

Aside from my general disagreement that long term deals are a bad idea — if anything, teams are giving stars longer and longer deals all the time — I’m not sure the Yankees have a flexible roster at this time, so there’s not much to preserve. Only four players on the projected 26-man roster will have minor league options in 2022, and only Lucas Luetge is still a pre-arb player.

What this means is, it’s already really hard to make any moves on the major league side, and it’s a big part of the reason why players like Luke Voit, Miguel Andújar and Clint Frazier are likely ticketed for a role off the roster. All-Star caliber players, playing like All-Stars and being paid as such, don’t present as much of an obstacle to roster creation as fans think, it’s the players providing zero value regardless of their salary that blocks moves. That above trio is only due about $10 million in arbitration estimates, but the complete lack of on-field value makes each of them more of a roadblock on the roster than Giancarlo Stanton or Gerrit Cole’s contracts.

As for the prospect situation, I’m inclined to believe that signing a superstar shortstop gives the Yankees more options, and more contingencies, than the sometimes-proposed stopgap type of signing. First, even though both Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza are top-50 prospects, assuming either becomes a major league impact player carries error bars. Both Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres were top-20 prospects, and Miguel Andújar was the Rookie of the Year runner-up — he and Torres breaking into the majors was a big part of the argument against signing Manny Machado as a free agent. Now there are serious question marks around all three players, and even if they all play for the Yankees in 2022, their expected output is going to be far below what a player like Machado’s will be, so even though the Yankees had supposed in-house options to defer to instead of Manny, they’re probably worse off.

Then there’s the actual value of having great prospects in the first place. Yes, they can be projected to provide above-average on-field production at league minimum salaries, and that is a huge source of their value. However, the other thing that makes prospects valuable is the ability to convert their future wins into present wins through trades.

Again, if we revisit players like Andújar and Frazier, who were rumored to be part of the ask for Gerrit Cole before he was traded to the Astros, a trade would have been transferring the expected wins those two position players would have accrued from 2018-2024 into the eight or so wins you would have expected Cole to provide in 2018-2019 — indeed, Cole put up way more value than that in Houston.

There are still holes on this Yankee roster even with the shortstop slot filled. First base, center field, the second spot in the rotation, catcher ... locking down shortstop, and adding a plus plus bat to the lineup means that the risk of “losing” a trade involving those prospects is lower, and you have more flexibility in negotiating a trade deal to fill that other big hole on your roster.

We’re used to seeing big contracts as somehow blocking the development of the “next generation” of stars. Aside from ignoring the very real possibility that the next generation never arrives, the combination of high floor production with MVP-caliber upside that signing a Carlos Correa or Corey Seager gives lends the organization more choice in how to manage their prospects, while still transferring current wins to the MLB club.