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Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman are right back in their comfort zone

What PECOTA, FanGraphs projections tell us about the team’s recent inaction.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in five days, there are no doubt scores of Yankees fans troubled by the seeming lack of urgency to address the remaining concerns with that unit, particularly the former grouping. While they certainly raised the floor of the starting staff by signing Marcus Stroman to a two-year deal, there are still question marks of varying size accompanying him and the other starters behind ace and reigning Cy Young Gerrit Cole. Yet, Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman appear more than satisfied with the roster they’ve assembled, and a look at recently released projection models offers a clue as to why.

Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA standings list the Yankees as the comfortable favorites to win the AL East with about 94 wins, more than six wins ahead of projected second place finishers Toronto and almost eight wins ahead of the Orioles even after the Corbin Burnes trade. What’s more, the Yankees are neck-and-neck with the Astros for the best team in the AL, with 0.4 wins and 0.5-percent playoff odds separating the pair, Houston leading New York in World Series odds by roughly four-and-a-half points.

FanGraphs’ playoff odds model tells a similar story, though they aren’t quite as high on the Yankees as PECOTA. Still, they favor New York to win the division with 88 wins, three ahead of the Rays and Orioles. Alongside the Astros, they are one of only two teams in the AL that won the division in roughly three out of every four simulations as well as having better than five percent odds to win the World Series.

All of this is to say that Steinbrenner and Cashman are right back in their comfort zone. One of the chief complaints from the fanbase regards the reticence to push the chips all-in on winning a championship any given season, instead preferring to field a likely playoff contender each year and let the chips fall as they may come the postseason, thus allowing them to maintain increased payroll flexibility in the future. That’s exactly the scenario we see playing out before our eyes. The projections models agree that New York more likely than not will make the playoffs and even have a fighter’s chance at a title, and that is likely good enough for the Yankees’ top brass.

I think part of the reason for the heightened angst over the lack of movement following the Stroman signing has to do with the mixed signals the front office has sent the fanbase over the course of the winter. New York ignited the hot stove by pulling off the Juan Soto blockbuster, weeks later were willing to give Yoshinobu Yamamoto a $300 million contract, and even tendered a $150 million deal to Blake Snell. All of these affairs came with sizable risk — the size of the return package for just one year of Soto, Yamamoto having zero MLB experience, Snell’s career inconsistency — and certainly felt like signals of an all-in mentality from the front office for 2024.

But then the pivot to Stroman and ensuing radio silence shifted the tenor of the offseason. While a shrewd signing, Stroman’s short-term deal felt like a return to more payroll-conscious motivations while the inaction that followed reeked of prior winters of doing just enough to make the team division favorites on paper, strong contenders to make the playoffs, and an outside shot at the World Series.

Through that lens, it’s easy to understand why the Yankees would choose the safe route to address the rotation, bringing in Stroman as well as depth signings Luke Weaver and Cody Poteet, allowing them to balk at the asking price for Snell and Jordan Montgomery in free agency and Burnes, Dylan Cease, Jesús Luzardo and Shane Bieber via trade. It’s easy to see why they opted to bolster the bullpen with a pair of trades to bring in Dodgers castoffs Caleb Ferguson and Victor González rather than higher-impact options like Jordan Hicks or Devin Williams.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all still signings that any team with title aspirations should make to shore up the margins of the roster. But it is still a far cry from going all-in on this season the way other teams have attempted to do in recent offseasons. The Dodgers just committed over a billion dollars to Shohei Ohtani and Yamamoto, and the Rangers two-thirds of a billion to Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jacob deGrom over the last two years while the Mets have handed out four nine-figure contracts — Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Edwin Díaz, and Brandon Nimmo — over the same time frame. There is still time this winter for the Yankees to follow suit, but don’t hold your breath for Steinbrenner and Cashman to change their tune.