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Could the Yankees still build a great team through free agency?

Is it really that you can't structure a great team around free agents, or have the Yankees just been doing it wrong?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

A common narrative that's emerged in baseball over the past few years is that it's no longer possible to build a championship caliber team primarily through free agency. It's an idea that I've bought into willingly because the logic behind it makes plenty of sense. MLB's economic landscape has changed drastically under the current collective bargaining agreement, signed by the players and owners back in 2011. Teams who were traditionally grovelers at the Yankees' and Red Sox's feast are now flush with cash from revenue sharing and lucrative television deals and they've used their new found riches to re-sign top homegrown players during their arbitration years and sometimes even before. As a result, free agent classes are now older and less potent, leaving teams like the Yankees bereft of much of that young talent signed to team-friendly deals, looking for answers.

The Yankees' last few forays into big name free agency have yielded somewhat mixed results. The spending spree that spanned 2008 and 2009, which inked Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, among others, brought a World Series ring and a four-year run of success, but those are deals the team sorely laments these days. A year ago, another $458 million frenzy notched Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, but the team failed to make the playoffs in 2014, and have an 81.5 over/under wins number for the coming season. Still there's nothing wrong with many of the players still hitting the open market. This past winter's group included three front-end starting pitchers, including a Cy Young winner and several notable position players, two of whom the Red Sox are betting will turn their team around. Next year's class looks even better for now - top notch starters like David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija should be available alongside outfielders Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon and shortstop Ian Desmond. Is it really that you can't structure a great team around free agents, or have the Yankees just been doing it wrong?

I took a look at the average top-ten MLB free agent over a ten-year period stretching from the 2006-07 off-season through next year's 2015-16 class and his cumulative fWAR over the three seasons prior to reaching the open market. For 2006 through 2014, the top ten rank is based on the total contract eventually committed to each player, and for next year it's according to MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes' power rankings. The three-year fWAR profile for the last group includes STEAMER projections for 2015.

Year Age fWAR - Prior 3 Seasons
2006-2007 30.0 9.14
2007-2008 32.2 10.28
2008-2009 30.8 9.72
2009-2010 31.8 8.96
2010-2011 32.8 10.60
2011-2012 31.2 9.52
2012-2013 30.3 11.23
2013-2014 31.1 10.59
2014-2015 31.5 10.70
2015-2016 29.4 10.89

Outside of an unusually bad class in 2009-10, when middling reliever Brandon Lyon's three-year, $15 million deal somehow cracked the top ten, there's been no steady downslide in age or production for the typical top tier free agent. A long can change in a year - players sign extensions, get hurt, underachieve - but if next year's group stays mostly intact, it'll be the youngest and second most well stocked of the past decade. Playing at Petco Park won't do Upton any favors, but at 28 on Opening Day, 2016, he seems like a good bet, even on a lengthy deal, as does Heyward, who'll be just 26. Desmond is arguably the best shortstop in baseball not named Tulowitzki while Price, Zimmermann, Samardzija and Cueto will all be 30 or under when they sign their next contract. Their self-imposed budget constraints may prevent it, but if the Yankees grab any duo or trio from that list, they'll be an instant contender in 2016 and perhaps even a favorite.

That whole budget thing is important though, as another key aspect of the "free agency=bad" credo is that baseball's ever-growing fiscal success and bidding from more potential suitors has made open market contracts longer and larger. While seven-year deals were once reserved for the elite, that mark is attainable for second tier free agents now, while the real game-changers get eight, nine and ten year pacts, at least if they're position players. Here's how the past ten years' top ten have fared on average in terms of the years and dollars they've snagged from the teams who signed them.

Year Contract Length (Years) Total Contract Value
2006-2007 5.3 $74,500,000
2007-2008 4.3 $72,610,000
2008-2009 4.2 $71,500,000
2009-2010 3.6 $41,375,000
2010-2011 4.4 $74,350,000
2011-2012 5.0 $88,800,000
2012-2013 4.2 $68,825,000
2013-2014 5.2 $91,300,000
2014-2015 4.7 $93,700,000
2015-2016 ??? ???

The average contract length of 4.7 years for 2014-15, when the Yankees' largest new contract commitment to Chase Headley ranked tenth in baseball,  is just about in line with the overall mean of 4.54 years since 2006, and it's shorter than the 5.3-year average that 2006-07's top free agents managed to achieve. Total value has gone up consistently. This winter's average of $93.7 million is 26 percent more than 06-07's $74.5 million, but that's merely a reflection on MLB's overall revenue, which eclipsed $9 billion in 2014, according to Forbes, showing an 18 percent spike in one year alone. Teixeira, Sabathia and A-Rod have left Yankee fans nervous about watching more players in their late 30's earn big salaries and struggle in several years, but if current trends continue, $25 mil in 2020 or 2021 won't mean anything close to what it does today. The Yankees' problem isn't that their 2008 and 2009 signees are still on the books - it's that not enough has been accomplished since then in grooming the next wave of talent, either through in-house development or subsequent free agent moves.

None of this wipes out the dark side of free agency. To get the best talent, you almost always have to accept back-end decline years and injuries and other unforeseen events can bring those years about much sooner than expected. And free agents are expensive. The Yankees can't afford to get involved in next year's loaded market unless Hal Steinbrenner raises payroll to a point where he hasn't gone before. But there are pitfalls in any method of team construction, which is why few teams have been successful using one approach alone. The Yankees should make every effort to build a core from within, and once those players prove themselves they should sign them early. But after missing opportunities in free agency this year, it would be sorely disappointing to see them do it again.