This article is going to involve a lot of projections, please don’t yell at me about projections, you can put your faith in them, or not, but we’re gonna use ‘em today. The Yankees are currently projected to be tied for the second best record in baseball, at 92 wins, although once Matt Chapman’s projections are wrapped in I imagine the Jays will be slightly better than them.
They’re also projected to have an Opening Day payroll of $251.5 million, past both the first and second CBT thresholds, making it hard to imagine any trade deadline moves without clever accounting like in 2021. So we have a team that is spending quite a bit of money, and probably going to be at least respectable, record-wise.
But delving a little farther into each of those figures shows us more about the strategies employed by this ball club. First, yes, the Yankees are spending money this year, but they have guaranteed money tied up in just six players next season, and just four after that. After the 2023 season, the team has just $86 million in guaranteed money on the books.
This is highlighted in the two big moves of the offseason, where Josh Donaldson was acquired from the Twins and Anthony Rizzo signed as a free agent. That’s $82 million committed over the next two seasons, that’s real money being put into the roster, albeit slightly offset by sending about $15 million to the Twins in the form of major-league regulars rather than prospects.
Yet still, that commitment is just over the next two years, and comes at a time when a bunch of money is being shed at the end of this season — Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, even the $12 million committed to a trio of mid relievers — that mitigates the risk of carrying forward the money Donaldson and Rizzo are due.
And that’s really what the Yankees are about in 2022. They’re certainly not tanking, but they’re unwilling to move beyond a certain risk threshold no matter what the upside. They’re going to be competitive in the AL East — I think the Jays are better and the projections are underrating the Rays, but it’s not like the Yankees are a fifth place team — but they’re not the favorites, and its unclear that they want to be.
This was echoed in Hal Steinbrenner’s press availability yesterday, where he talked about competing for a championship, but also bemoaned the various pitfalls of owning one of professional sports’ most valuable, recognized and — regardless of how he tries to spin it — cash intensive brands. It is good enough to be good enough, at the expense of the added risk that comes with upside.
That’s really the difference between Josh Donaldson and, say, Corey Seager. I really like Donaldson, and he’s projected to be worth three and a half wins, maybe a hair over. The upside on that, if he really really hits well and fields better than he did last year and avoids an IL stint and too much DH time, is, what, an extra win and a half? Around a five-win player? A five-win player at $23 million (his $21 million salary + the $2 million trade bonus the Yankees paid) is a pretty good deal.
Corey Seager, meanwhile, his projection slides in right at five wins. He’ll take home $9.5 million more than Donaldson will this year, and of course is under contract for eight years longer than Donaldson. There’s serious risk in the term of that deal, but I would argue less risk in any one individual season. Seager’s a better player, his median output is expected to be as good or better than the best we can expect of Donaldson, which means, even if he falls short of that projection, he’s still likely to be better.
That’s what you get when you pay the premium that the best talent demands. Not only are you getting a six, seven or more win ceiling, but it’s pretty unlikely that, barring a broken bone from a hit by pitch, Seager puts up less than four wins either. You’re accepting risk on the term, but each season, you’re going to have more output than the safe, one season option.
But that’s really what the Yankees modus operandi is. They’re not opposed to spending, and they’re not tanking. They’re uncomfortable absorbing term risk, even when it comes with upside in the performance. They’re comfortable competing for a championship, but uncomfortable doing what’s necessary to be the expectant champions.
And maybe that’s why the Yankees have felt so ... fine, the last couple of seasons. I’m not unexcited for Opening Day and I’m not predicting them to be out of the race by Labor Day. But I have friends who are fans of the Mets and the Blue Jays and the Dodgers and the Mariners, teams that have absorbed a little more risk, been a little less safe, and they’re much more excited about their teams than I am.