It might be hard to believe, seeing as the Yankees had the second-highest payroll in the league in 2021, but there are a lot of fans out there — myself included — who think this team needs to be spending more. Whenever I see the topic of free agency floating around the site or on social media, there’s a fairly consistent chorus of fans who seem to think that the contracts of Giancarlo Stanton, Luis Severino, and Aaron Hicks somehow excuse the Yankees’ refusal to spend more on big-ticket free agents.
I’m taking it upon myself to potentially bear the wrath of some furious fans by arguing that not only were these deals the right call at the time, but also that they should not be used to defend or excuse this team’s recent refusal to sign big-ticket free agents (Gerrit Cole notwithstanding) or extend Aaron Judge.
Let’s start with the oldest of the three. Christmas came early in 2017 when the Yankees traded for Stanton on December 11th of that offseason. In exchange for the superstar slugger and $30 million, Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzmán, and José Devers were sent to the Miami Marlins. Since coming to the Yankees, Stanton has done nothing but mash. In 338 games, he’s slashed .269/.353/.510 with 80 home runs, 221 RBI, and a 133 wRC+.
The downside is, of course, that Stanton has only played in 338 games since 2018, as he was limited to just 18 games out of 162 in 2019 and 23 of 60 in 2020. It should be noted, however, that despite missing two-thirds of the 2020 season, he returned for the postseason and set the world on fire (not to mention his healthy and productive 2021).
Whenever you have the opportunity to get a reigning MVP for a sub-average infielder and prospects that most people haven’t heard of before — and you can get the other team to eat some of their contract to boot — you take it. I don’t know if I can put it anymore bluntly than that. Pairing Stanton with Judge made the tandem probably the most feared 1-2 punch in the league, and for good reason.
Onto the next one.
Coming off two straight top-10 Cy Young finishes in his age 23 and 24 seasons, Brian Cashman inked Luis Severino to a four-year, $40 million contract extension with a $12.5 million option for a fifth year on February 15, 2019.
To put this into perspective, here are Severino’s combined numbers from the two years that preceded his extension: 384.2 innings pitched, 3.18 ERA, 3.01 FIP (3.07 xFIP), 28.8-percent strikeout rate, 6.2-percent walk rate, 11.0 fWAR. For all intents and purposes, Severino was Gerrit Cole before the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole. He was a legitimate ace, and the Yankees were able to lock him up for just $10 million per season. What a steal that would have been.
We all know how things have gone for Severino since then, so I don’t think I need to rehash his injury history here that started right after his contract extension. Doing so would be nothing more than beating a dead horse at this point. However, despite the fact that he’s missed a lot of time since signing the extension, it is literally impossible to argue that, at the time of signing, this was a bad deal for the Yankees. My colleague, Kevin, has made this point before as well: They locked up a young ace through the start of his prime for next to nothing. It’s not Cashman’s fault he got hurt.
And, finally, enter Aaron Hicks.
Just 10 days after Severino got his extension, Cashman signed Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million contract. After coming to New York in 2016, Hicks revitalized his career in 2017 and 2018, but it was likely the latter season that led to the extension. In 137 games, he hit 27 home runs, 79 RBI, stole 11 bases, had a 15.5-percent walk rate, 19.1-percent strikeout rate, 129 wRC+, and 5.0 fWAR. In short, he was very, very good.
Hicks was quite good in the COVID-shortened 2020 season (124 wRC+), but injuries have slowed him down in the field and he missed significant time in both 2019 and 2021. However, getting an above-average center fielder for — stop me if you’ve heard this before — $10 million per season is a good deal. I will concede that his injury history did make the extension more of a risk than Severino’s, but, given the rate of production that preceded his extension, it was a risk worth taking.
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. But hindsight without context is as useless as a car without an engine.
Does it suck that injuries have limited all three of these talented players to less time on the field than we would have liked to have seen from them? Absolutely. Does Hicks’ contract length suck? Yeah, probably. But all three of these deals were no-brainers at the time they were made. Sure, they might not have panned out the way we wanted, but they were the right deals to make.
And, beyond just being the right deals to make, they are not the albatrosses some fans make them out to be. Stanton, Severino, and Hicks combined to make just $42 million last season, over 50 percent of which was earned by Stanton. (It should be noted that Stanton technically made $29 million last year, but only $22 million of that counted reportedly towards the tax.) That total accounted for just 20 percent of the payroll, or 9.7 percent with Stanton’s salary removed. In the grand scheme of things, that is not a lot of money.
For all three of Stanton, Hicks, and Severino, I can understand why those deals were made. They just so happened to not work out. Chalk it up to bad luck.
You know what I can’t understand, though? The $30 million that was tied up in Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton last season. As this team has demonstrated, good bullpens can be built on the fly. You have to think that money could have been spent wiser, especially when you lump in the $11 million that Corey Kluber made last year.
So, to summarize because I’m running out of space here, when you’re wondering why the front office starts pinching pennies when free agency starts up again, don’t look at the contracts of Stanton, Hicks, and Severino. Instead, ask why the team thought it was a good idea to tie up north of $30 million for two aging relievers who max out at 60 innings pitched per season. Individual deals are not hampering the Yankees’ spending habits. Their own mismanagement is the true culprit.