Last offseason, the Yankees made headlines by not making headlines. After years and years of making big free agent splashes, New York demonstrated a level of frugality not common to the Bronx, as they lasted the winter without signing a major-league free agent. The most significant signings they made were minor-league additions along the lines of Chris Parmelee, Anthony Swarzak, and the like.
A good chunk of the Yankees’ reticence to make a major cash outlay can be assigned to Hal Steinbrenner and the rest of ownership simply not wanting to spend more money. Given that the Yankees are their team, not spending too far over $200 million is certainly their prerogative (and it is certainly ours to note how ridiculous that seems).
However, part of the Yankees’ reluctance to make big moves might have also stemmed from the shape of their roster. While there were definitely players to spend money on, the team didn’t really have any glaring weaknesses that needed to be addressed, not after Starlin Castro filled the Stephen Drew shaped hole at second base.
That dynamic may come into play again this offseason. Even after the biggest New York firesale in years, the Yankees’ roster still lacks clear holes that would make for an easy upgrade during hot stove season. While that doesn’t excuse Hal and company’s frugality, it will make it more difficult for Brian Cashman to significantly improve the roster.
Looking up and down the current projected lineup for 2017, there is little in the way of potential starpower (other than Gary Sanchez). Rather, the Yankees’ collection of position players is defined by quiet competence. That competence makes for a team with a high floor, as evidenced by their decent records even while reloading, but it doesn’t make for seamless improvement.
In Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees have declining but still useful outfielders. Chase Headley might be generally unexciting, but his on-base and defensive skills makes him a worthwhile contributor. Starlin Castro has his warts but is still far from replacement level, while double play partner Didi Gregorius has more than established himself as a capable starting shortstop.
The Yankees might look shakier at positions where they are slated to start youngsters, but even those positions don’t profile as weaknesses. In right field, Aaron Judge struggled as a rookie but is still laden with potential, and at the moment projects as a roughly average hitter according to FanGraphs. At first base, Greg Bird might be a question mark coming off injury, but he did post a sterling 137 wRC+ in the majors as a 22-year-old, and has already returned in the AFL.
Even the pitching staff looks solid, as FanGraphs’ (very early) projections have the Yankees’ hurlers ranked fourth in the American League by projected fWAR. There just isn’t a clear place the Yankees can easily get better. Any outside contributor that is brought in would, in all likelihood, be tasked with replacing a player that profiles as close to average.
For comparison, look at New York’s competitors in the AL East. With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency, the Blue Jays have obvious weaknesses in the corner outfield spots and at first base/DH. Similarly, with the expiration of Mark Trumbo’s contract, the Orioles have issues in the corner outfield and DH (not to mention glaring holes in the starting rotation).
Even AL contenders outside the division have easier paths to improvement. The AL pennant winning Indians have been starting a replacement level Rajai Davis in the outfield. In Houston, the Astros probably need a first baseman and a couple of outfielders.
The only other AL team that seems to have at least serviceable players across the diamond is, unfortunately, the Red Sox. Boston does have a need in the back of its rotation, but the top of Boston’s staff, their bullpen, and their lineup all are devoid of clear weaknesses (though unlike the Yankees, Boston’s lineup also features numerous strengths).
So while it might be frustrating if Steinbrenner refuses to spend again, any spending that he could undertake likely wouldn’t even bring in a huge upgrade. There just aren’t big holes on the roster, and a mostly barren upcoming free agent landscape will ensure that it is even more challenging to make improvements.
That doesn’t mean ownership should be absolved of the Yankees’ sudden aversion to spending. They absolutely should have their feet held to the fire when they spout nonsense about not being able add payroll, despite owning the most lucrative team in the industry. Nonetheless, making additions this offseason will be hard. Cashman and the front office will be forced to be creative in order to upgrade an unspectacular but balanced roster.