One thing Yankees fans are great at is fitting an attractive player for pinstripes before he is a free agent. We see a Joe Mauer or Cole Hamels or Felix Hernandez on the horizon, and we start dreaming up the various ways in which the player will become a Yankee. We often take it as a given that the Yankee will acquire the players they need, whether via trade or free agency. In recent seasons we have added prospect hype to the equation, assuming that the farm system will eventually produce a big bat or a top of the rotation starter who will allow the Yankees to eschew free agency. Somehow, the Yankees will end up with the great talent necessary to continue contending on a regular basis.
However, recent events have seemingly conspired to make the acquisition of top young talent more complicated for the Yankees. The new CBA will make it more difficult for the Yankees to pursue elite talents in the later rounds of the draft, as well as entirely destroy their ability to target top international free agents. They can no longer buy Austin Jackson types out of scholarships in the later rounds by going well over the recommended slot money, nor can they throw big contracts at the next Jesus Montero or Gary Sanchez. Furthermore, while the new luxury tax might actually help the Yankees in the short-term, its lack of adjusment for inflation makes it likely that it will curtail the Yankees ability to expand their budget in the middle of the decade. With a number of aging players slated to earn large paydays during that period, the Yankees might find their ability to compete on the free agent market hindered to some extent.
Finally, from a purely anecdotal perspective, it seems like more and more teams are locking up their young stars before they ever hit free agency. Contracts that buy out a few years of free agency and give the player some financial security are all the rage, and the ramifications of that trend are obvious. Most of the players who make it to free agency are of the CJ Wilson, Zack Greinke, or Francisco Liriano ilk, players with elite talent who have some questions surrounding them that make teams fearful of handing them huge contract extensions. There are fewer elite talents hitting the free agent market, and when they do make it to free agency, the competition for them is likely to be significantly stiffer.
However, with all of these factors suggesting that the Yankees will have a difficult time acquiring exciting young talent, there is one loophole that could allow the Yankees to make a splash. As Mike said in the CBA post linked to above:
Players under 23 years old and with less than years of professional baseball experience will be considered amateurs and count against the spending cap. That means guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Japanese veterans will be treated as a true free agents. Japanese players run through the posting system will not count against the cap.
Cespedes is something of a wild card whose price seems to be rocketing out of control, and I simply do not know enough about him to advocate that the Yankees throw a ton of cash at him. Yu Darvish, however, is an exciting 25 year old Japanese pitching prospect who is likely to be posted this offseason. Unlike Cespedes, Darvish fits an obvious need for the Yankees, as they have a hole near the front of their rotation that Darvish should be able to fill even if he is only 75% as good as he was in Japan. Furthermore, while his total cost will be prohibitive (likely in excess of 100 million dollars), a large chunk of that money (the posting fee) will not be counted against the luxury tax. That makes Darvish a cheaper long-term option than a guy like CJ Wilson.
There are obvious risks associated with a large outlay for Darvish. Japanese pitchers have not exhibited sustained success in the majors, and some have suggested that the routine for pitchers differs enough between NPB and MLB to make the transition a difficult one. Furthermore, any large amount of money spent on a pitcher who has never thrown a major league pitch represents a major gamble, particularly when reliable veterans such as Mark Buehrle and Roy Oswalt can be had at a significantly cheaper rate.
Despite the risks, the changing nature of the game makes taking a chance on Darvish the right play for the Yankees. They will have a more difficult time acquiring top draft and IFA prospects, making the development of elite talent significantly more complicated. Throw in the fact that the alternative is the shrinking free agent pool, and taking a risk on a 25-year old with Darvish’s stuff is something the financially powerful Yankees should strongly consider. This is one area where the club can still throw around their dollars to grab a young player, and it would behoove them to jump at the opportunity.