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Where the Justin Wilson signing leaves the Yankees

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Another free agent reliever has brought the Yankees near the limit of their self-constrained budget, and to the max of their 40-man roster.

New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images

We’re days away from pitchers and catchers reporting, but it looks like the Yankees will be reshaping their roster right down to the wire. After an oddly prolonged courtship, the Yankees finally signed Justin Wilson last night, putting the finishing touches on their late-inning relief corps.

The move leaves the team in an interesting state. Their 40-man roster is again stocked to the brim. We don’t yet have all the contract details for Wilson, but his salary will surely bring the team within a few million of their own ever-so-strict budget limits. With Brett Gardner still out on the market, the Yankees’ winter doesn’t feel finished, but each move they make without bringing back the veteran pushes the two sides further apart.

Indeed, how this impacts the Yankees’ half-hearted pursuit of their longest-tenured player is one of the more prominent offshoots of the Wilson signing. The specifics of the contract have yet to be announced, but SNY’s Andy Martino indicated that Wilson’s salary should come in around $4 million, while ESPN’s Buster Olney noted that options are likely involved that will put the AAV around $2-$3 million. Assuming a $3 million AAV hit, that would put the Yankees about $6 million below the CBT threshold.

With every bit the Yankees add to their payroll, they’ll presumably squeeze Gardner harder and harder in negotiations. Any deal for Gardner that keeps the team under the luxury tax would leave him pretty well underpaid. FanGraphs predicted he’d make $8 million in 2021, and both his 2020 performance and 2021 projections* warrant a salary in excess of a paltry $3 or $4 million. (The Yankees will surely keep at least a few million open for in-season roster flexibility.)

*ZiPS forecasts 1.8 fWAR in 440 plate appearances

The Yankees must also trim their 40-man roster yet again — a task they’ve come back to over and over this offseason. The Corey Kluber and DJ LeMahieu signings required a pair of spots on the 40-man, which were cleared through the Jameson Taillon trade. Ben Heller was vacated to make room for Darren O’Day. Luis Severino has yet to placed on the 60-day injured list, so that could be the play for Wilson, assuming that the Yankees can make the move on the day that pitchers and catchers report (as the Phillies did last year with the recovering David Robertson). If the Yankees elect not to do that just yet though, someone like Albert Abreu could be on the chopping block.

Although Abreu hasn’t impressed in recent years and his prospect shine has worn thin, cutting a talented player like him would sting a bit, and a Gardner signing would require yet another 40-man maneuver. If the Yankees brought Gardner back, the best-case scenario would probably involve another trade, in which they could swap a couple of their younger 40-man members for prospects, rather than just having to cut players expected to contribute in 2021.

It’s a tricky dance, one necessitated by a deep Yankees farm system that includes a number of prospects worth protecting on the 40-man. At this point, it forces one to wonder whether a Gardner reunion, thought to be fait accompli for most of the winter, is really in the cards. The recent Jay Bruce signing gave the Yankees veteran outfield insurance beyond just Mike Tauchman and Greg Allen (who might also not have a secure roster spot). Now, they’re fresh out of roster spots and running out of money that they’re actually willing to spend. A Gardner return might now be something like a coin flip proposition.

Even if the roster machinations are getting clunky, in the grand scheme of this offseason, bringing back Wilson fits. The team has raised the ceiling on its bullpen without really spending anything in terms of money or prospects. They’ve made another move that stays within their own budgetary parameters, and in doing so have acquired a player with a strange amount of upside for a 33-year-old journeyman reliever. Wilson has hopped around the league almost in spite of himself, holding a career 3.27 ERA, and running a 132 ERA+ while striking out over 11 batters per nine across the last four seasons combined.

This is what the Yankees have prioritized this offseason, right? They’ve targeted players with the potential to perform at a very high level, but with enough flaws that their price is relatively low. With Taillon and Kluber, those flaws came in the form of injury questions. With Wilson, as well as O’Day, it’s the relative unease that accompanies any aging, sub-elite reliever these days. Regardless, the Yankees continue to try to have their cake and eat it too, slashing payroll while still maintaining a deep roster with a high ceiling.

In any event, it does seem like the Yankees might manage the trick. Their insistence on maximizing profits will certainly frustrate me to no end, but the Yankees roster will at least enter the 2021 campaign in excellent shape, and with this move, they have by a large margin the highest bullpen WAR projection, for what that’s worth. Whether bringing in Wilson puts a capper on the winter remains to be seen, but for now, the Yankees are better than they were yesterday.