In case you haven't heard, the Yankees have not signed a major league free agent this winter. Despite a brief dalliance with Tommy Hunter, New York has remained the only team in baseball to refrain from spending a single dollar on the open market to upgrade the big league roster. Should you be new around here, you may even think this thriftiness to be the status quo. In truth, there used to be a time when the Yankees would flex their financial might at will. Let's look back on those sunnier, less frugal times.
In the offseason preceding the 2009 campaign, the Yankees undertook something of a legendary spending spree. Coming off the first season in which they missed the playoffs since 1993, New York responded forcefully, signing the top three free agents in the class. Before long, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, were all inked to contracts that guaranteed nearly half a billion dollars in total. Yankee fans celebrated, while fans elsewhere cursed the evil empire.
The contracts may not look particularly pretty now, but that free agent splurge truly represents the model spending plunge. A near perfect storm led the Yankees to that spending spree. The 2008 Yankees were a flawed, but still quite good team, with some clear replacement-level holes that needed to be filled. The market obliged, as the free agent landscape was filled with precisely the type of elite, young players that fit the Yankees' needs.
While the Yankees can spend whenever they want, in order to maximize the value of each win added on the free agent market, the team that is improving should, ideally, already be in the sweet-spot of the win curve. Those Yankees fit the bill perfectly. In 2008, New York missed the postseason, but still posted an 89-73 record. Their Pythagorean record was 87-75, and according to Baseball Reference, the Yankees were the sixth best team in baseball by their Simple Rating System (essentially, strength-of-schedule adjusted run differential).
In essence, the Yankees were an already quality team that, with the added strength of a few free agent upgrades, could quickly turn into a World Series contender. The 2008 team was littered with talent: Alex Rodriguez was turning in MVP-caliber performances, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon were All-Star level players, and Robinson Cano, while coming off a down year, still looked like a potential star.
After Andy Pettitte and a now-injured Chien-Ming Wang, the rotation had plenty of holes after allowing the immortal trio of Darrell Rasner, Carl Pavano, and Sidney Ponson to start 42 games for them in 2008. Fortunately, the market fit the Yankees needs perfectly, as the top two pitchers, Sabathia and Burnett, were coming off seasons in which they posted over seven and five fWAR, respectively.
The lineup also had a glaring weakness at first base now that Jason Giambi was gone. Teixeira, coming off a season in which he hit .308/.410/.552, addressed that need quite appropriately. All told, the Yankees' three big free agent signings totaled over 15 WAR in 2009 by Baseball Reference. For those of you with sharp memories, you may recall that this iteration of the team won the World Series.
More recently, the Yankees made a huge free agent splash during the offseason preceding 2014. Despite much consternation over trying to stay under the $189 million luxury tax threshold, New York once again made their presence known on the free agent market. The signings of Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran represented another staggering, near half a billion dollar investment. In contrast with the 2009 free agent spree, this 2014 splurge was far from ideal.
This isn't lazy, post-hoc analysis (The 2009 spree was great because they won the World Series! The 2014 spree was ill-advised because they missed the playoffs!). No, the two free agent splurges differed from the start. The 2013 Yankees were a far-cry from a playoff contender. Their 85-77 record masked a team that had no business contending. Not only that, but the players the front office invested in were older than the ones that were acquired in 2009, and did not adequately address the team's weaknesses.
The 2013 Yankees were a below-average team masquerading as a fringe wild card contender (a rather strange thing to masquerade as, if you ask me). That team gave over 1000 plate appearances to players like Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds. The pitching staff was more fortunate, but with Sabathia declining, Pettitte and Mariano Rivera retiring, and Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes as free agents, the entire rotation was a question mark.
While the 2014 spending splurge certainly improved the Yankees, it didn't actually provide the team with players it needed. Ellbsury and Beltran were added to an outfield that was, relatively, one of the strongest areas of the team with Brett Gardner already set to take over center field. Outside of McCann (who did address a need), the infield was neglected. Robinson Cano left for the Mariners, Rodriguez was suspended, and Jeter and Teixeira had just missed large ortions of the 2013 season, leaving the infield a disaster. Tanaka certainly filled a need in the rotation, but the staff was still riddled with holes, and the Yankees had to gamble (albeit successfully) on uncertain talents like Michael Pineda and Shane Greene.
Of course, we cannot be too critical of the decision to spend heavily in 2014. For one, the players acquired that offseason were essentially the best that a changing free agent landscape had to offer. With more and more teams inking their younger stars to extensions prior to free agency, the market is left with fewer slam dunk options. Truly elite players under the age of 30, like Sabathia and Teixeira, rarely are allowed to reach free agency (though that might change in 2018). And, in truth, if the front office was willing to spend millions upgrading a below-average roster into a middling one, who are we to complain? More wins are more wins.
Still, the impact of the 2014 splurge pales in comparison to that of the 2009 spree. Given the variables at play, the 2009 spending spree will likely go down as one of the most impactful in the team's history. The 2014 investments are still affecting the team today, but given the roster's construction prior to those investments, the value derived from them simply has not been as great. Regardless, I must admit; both of those offseasons were a bit more exciting than the one we had to sit through this winter.