This MLB offseason has been defined by a monumental surge of transactions, and a lockout that shut that surge down in an instant. Of course, if you’re a Yankee fan, you’d be forgiven for feeling excluded from that initial rush, left to meander through a sleepy offseason devoid of activity.
The Yankees have nary made a major move, happy to sit out the historic November shopping frenzy in favor of rejiggering their coaching staff and signing the occasional minor league deal. The club’s silence is at odds with their stated intentions prior to the offseason, and has left many of us confused as to why Brian Cashman and Co. suddenly froze when the rest of the sport sprang into action.
With the release of the Yankees 2022 ZiPS projections, courtesy of Dan Szymborksi and FanGraphs, which Joe carefully summarized last week, we have part of our answer. Sure, some of the Yankees’ reticence to act could plausibly be explained by a desire to see how the new CBA will affect the economic structure of the sport before taking action. One could also point to ownership’s desire to keep payroll down and profits up. But as the projections for next season roll out, it’s clear that much of the Yankees’ hesitance stems from the fact that they may still believe that “good enough” is good enough.
Scan through those forecasts. All the weaknesses that we’ve harped on ad nauseum remain. The Yankees don’t have a true shortstop, Aaron Hicks is a question mark in center, and a pitching staff that was admittedly strong last season could use reinforcement, particularly behind Gerrit Cole in the rotation.
Yet many of the strengths that kept the Yankees in contention the past few seasons even as things have gone sideways also remain. In Cole and Aaron Judge, the Yankees have a pair of the best players in baseball; the two of them alone can propel an otherwise average supporting cast to a Wild Card. As ever, the bullpen projects as one of the most dominant and deepest in the league. Eight hitters project for an OPS+ better than league average, with Gary Sánchez two points away from making it an even nine.
Sure, some of ZiPS’ calls look a tad optimistic. ZiPS sees the Yankees’ infield, left untouched from 2021, as modestly above average on the whole. Hicks projects as at least passable in center after a completely lost season. Luis Severino and Jameson Taillon combine for over 200 projected innings, a useful amount given that Taillon likely won’t return from ankle surgery until at least May, and that Severino has missed almost three consecutive campaigns.
But some of the forecasts seem equally pessimistic. Nestor Cortés Jr. looks no better than a sixth starter, despite befuddling big league hitters with a revamped approach last year. ZiPS forecasts tiny bounce backs from DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, leaving them both still far short of their previously established levels of play. All of Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo project to miss more time in 2022 than in 2021. Just as the Yankees could undershoot some of ZiPS baselines, they could as easily surpass them.
Add up the WARs, and in aggregate, these projections put the Yankees as something like a 95-win team. This matches up with the other publicly available set of projections we have access to, Steamer, which rates the current Yankee roster as just as good or as all of their top AL rivals. There’s no telling exactly what the Yankees’ internal numbers say about their roster or any other roster across the league, but the smart money says that in totality, the Yankees’ propriety projections come out pretty close to what the public ones posit.
This must help explain why the Yankees were so content to sit on their hands while so many other clubs aggressively reloaded. Just as they have for several seasons now, the projections make it clear that the Yankees are “good enough”. With money flying around like crazy, but an expiring CBA bringing a cloud of uncertainty, Cashman and Steinbrenner saw that their roster still looked solid enough to compete, and decided stay on the sidelines.
This isn’t to say that the Yankees won’t still upgrade their roster once the lockout lifts, and certainly not to say that they shouldn't. It’s just that, in retrospect, it’s almost unsurprising that the Yankees stayed as quiet as they did. Of course, when faced with a winter of uncertainty and a roster that still projects for 95ish wins, did Steinbrenner opt against spending any of his massive fortune.
Now, I probably don’t need to spell out for you the dangers of a team like the Yankees settling for good enough. The Yankees projected as a mid-to-high 90-win team in each of the past three seasons, and in each of those seasons they demonstrated how things can go haywire. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the Yankees saw their best-laid plans go to hell, with myriad injuries, and eventually COVID infections, wreaking havoc on their roster. In 2019, despite the injury avalanche, the team managed to win 103 games. The 2020 outfit failed to weather the storm, and scuffled to a 33-27 record. The 2021 club came out in the middle of the previous two, overcoming a season of incredible adversity to post a still-disappointing 92-win mark.
Those three years show just how wide the range of outcomes is, even when you’re good enough. Those years should motivate Steinbrenner to make this team great. Adding a stud shortstop, adding another strong arm, those are the kinds of moves that take a roster that’s good enough to win and push it closer to becoming too good to lose.
We don’t know if the Yankees will ultimately make the moves that push them beyond just good enough. We don’t even know when the lockout will lift and allow us to find out. For the time being, though, we have an answer to our questions about the Yankees’ silence. Presented with opportunities to make a potentially great team, the Yankees decided good enough was good enough for now.