In exactly five weeks pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa to begin the new season. Doesn’t seem so far away, does it? The Yankees may be done with their offseason shopping. It’s possible. Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and several quality relievers are still sitting in free agency, sure, but it is entirely possible the 2019 Yankees are already in place. We’ll see. Here are some scattered thoughts.
1. The Yankees signed Troy Tulowitzki — and 15 other teams tried to sign Tulowitzki, reportedly — because he represents the one thing teams love more than anything: Something for nothing. Machado is in his own little world, but why spend money on Jed Lowrie or DJ LeMahieu when you could give Tulowitzki the league minimum and still claim to be trying to win? He is the perfect addition for the austerity era Yankees. He’s dirt cheap, he has name value, and he’s an excuse to pass on more expensive players. It’s not fair to single out the Yankees here because this applies to every team. If the report is true and 15 teams in addition to the Yankees pursued Tulowitzki, it means more teams were in on him than are reportedly in on Machado and Harper combined. Teams love something for nothing. They’d rather pay nothing for potential production than pay a lot for guaranteed production. Baseball is beyond screwed up when more teams are pursuing late career Tulowitzki than peak Machado and Harper. The Yankees should not let Tulowitzki stand in the way of other infield additions, even someone like Freddy Galvis or Josh Harrison, but it seems they will. They’ve made it pretty clear they view him as their starting shortstop and I don’t think Tulowitzki would’ve picked the Yankees without some promise of playing time. The Yankees won the “something for nothing” lottery with Tulowitzki. Now the question is will he give them something, or nothing?
2. On that note, the Yankees seem very well set up to wait out the free agent market and score a bargain in February or even March. Tulowitzki addresses the infield and Zach Britton gives them added bullpen depth. There is less urgency to get things done now, so the Yankees can remain patient, and see who’s still available in a few weeks. Perhaps someone like Cody Allen, Adam Warren, or Justin Wilson will still be sitting out there on the eve of Spring Training. I doubt it — relievers are pretty much the only free agents getting signed these days — but hey, you never know, and the Yankees are in position to wait and find out. They don’t absolutely need another infielder and they don’t absolutely need another reliever. I mean, they should go get another good reliever, but it’s less of a priority now than it was before the Britton deal. Remember, the Yankees opened Spring Training last year with Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar penciled in at second and third bases. The Brandon Drury trade happened a few days into camp and the Neil Walker signing happened in March. Drury and Walker didn’t really work out as hoped, but the strategy was sound. The Yankees waited out the market — they were connected to Drury as far back as the Winter Meetings, remember — and some things fell into their laps. The players did not work out. The strategy did. It would not surprise me at all to see them do it again, especially with the second bullpen piece they’re said to be seeking.
3. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this over the last two years but gosh, it sure would be cool if Greg Bird had a big season this year. Stay healthy and rake, that sorta thing. Luke Voit is cool and I am genuinely curious to see what he could do with an extended opportunity. Maybe he really is the next Nelson Cruz or Jesus Aguilar. Who knows? I think Bird has the higher long-term upside (and lower probability) though, and, frankly, it would be nice to find one more left-handed batter for the lineup. With Tulowitzki set to play shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns, the only lefties in the lineup will be Brett Gardner and switch-hitting Aaron Hicks, and Gardner’s not really an offensive threat. Give me a good righty bat in an imbalanced lineup over an okay lefty bat in a balanced lineup. I’m just saying that, all things being equal, I’d like another lefty bat in the lineup this year. Bird is the obvious (only) in-house candidate to fill that left-handed void. He has to stay healthy and actually hit though, and, as I’ve been saying the last few weeks, the Yankees should send Bird to Triple-A until he shows he’s a threat at the plate and no longer swinging through 90 mph middle-middle fastballs. Can’t guarantee him anything. Not after the last two seasons. Bird has to earn his big league lineup spot and I hope he does, because he’d complement the offense nicely.
4. Yet another bad contract for bad contract proposal featuring Jacoby Ellsbury: Ellsbury, $15M, and a prospect for Yasmany Tomas. From 2015-17, Tomas put up a .268/.307/.462 (98 wRC+) batting line and -0.4 WAR in 305 games and 1,169 plate appearances for the Diamondbacks. Last season they buried him in the minors and he hit .262/.280/.465 (86 wRC+) with 14 homers in 371 Triple-A plate appearances, and, earlier this offseason, Tomas did not exercise the opt-out clause in his contract. I mean, duh. Why would he? He’s owed $15.5M in 2019 and $17M in 2020, so it’s $32.5M total the next two years. Now, here’s the key: Arizona outrighted Tomas off their 40-man roster last April. Because he’s not on the 40-man roster, his contract does not count toward the luxury tax payroll at all. (Ellsbury has too much service time to be outrighted.) That doesn’t matter to the D’Backs because they’re nowhere near the $206M luxury tax threshold. It would matter a lot to the Yankees though. Ellsbury is owed $47.5M the next two years, so sending Ellsbury and $15M to Arizona — the $15M is to cover the difference in salaries — frees up $14.4M in luxury tax payroll space in 2019 and again in 2020. The trade is cash neutral. The D’Backs take on no additional salary and the Yankees don’t save any actual cash. They do save luxury tax space though and that’s the goal. Clear luxury tax payroll space. What happens with Tomas? Who cares. Send him to Triple-A Scranton or release him. It doesn’t matter. For the D’Backs, they get to replace a player they do not believe can help them — the outright is a pretty good indication they’ve given up on Tomas at the MLB level — with a player who might be able to help them at no added salary, plus they get a prospect. I wouldn’t give them a top prospect like Estevan Florial or Jonathan Loaisiga to make this work, but one of those lower level arms the Yankees have stashed away? Sure. Also, Ellsbury lives in Arizona, so he might waive his no-trade clause to go to the D’Backs. Bottom line is, even if Ellsbury doesn’t work out for the D’Backs, they still get a prospect out of it, which is more than they’d get for Tomas on his own. Ultimately, this is a pointless exercise because the Yankees aren’t trading Ellsbury. At least not until they recoup every dollar possible through insurance while he’s recovering from hip surgery, so maybe file this away for the trade deadline or whenever he gets healthy.
5. Random free agent worth a blurb: Nate Karns. Two reasons for this. One, he has had success in the AL East. Karns threw 147 innings with a 3.67 ERA (4.09 FIP) for the Rays in 2015. Injuries have slowed him since, including Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery last season, but Karns turned only 31 in November, so he’s not so old that expecting a bounceback with good health is unreasonable. And two, he has an option remaining. At least I believe he does. According to his MLB.com page, Karns was added to the 40-man roster in November 2012, and he was optioned down in 2013 and 2014, and that’s it. He should still have an option remaining, and, since he has less than five full years of service time (four years and 33 days), he can’t refuse a demotion to Triple-A. So Karns is the rare free agent who can be optioned to the minors. A worthwhile depth pickup? Yes, as long as he’s healthy and you think he can regain something close to his 2015 form. Luis Cessa is out of options and Steamer projects him for 4.51 ERA (4.57 FIP) in 2019. Karns apparently has an option and Steamer projects him for a 4.31 ERA (4.21 FIP). The downside here is Karns has to want to come to the Yankees. Yankee Stadium is not a good place for a pitcher to rebuild value, and he’s no idiot, he can look at the depth chart and see he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A. Other clubs figure to offer him an easier path to MLB playing time. This is just a thought. Swapping out Cessa for Karns would be a worthwhile move to upgrade the margins of the roster, as long as Karns is healthy.
6. I’ve seen a lot of chatter recently about setting transaction deadlines in the offseason. A trade deadline and/or a free agent deadline, I guess at some point in mid-December, then reopening the markets in Spring Training. I could not be more against offseason deadlines. For starters, baseball has become a 24/7/365 sport. It is in the news all the time and it should be in the news all the time. Cut off transactions at some arbitrary offseason date and you’re giving fans a reason to forget about baseball in the following weeks because they know nothing will happen. That’s bad for the sport. Secondly, offseason deadlines won’t help the players any. I think that’s especially true for a free agent signing deadline. With a free agent deadline, teams will just continue to wait and wait, and push players to the deadline. If they sign, great. If not, oh well. There is mounting evidence teams don’t prioritize winning. Thanks to the second Wild Card spot, never before in baseball history has it been as easy to qualify for the postseason as it is right now, yet roughly one-third of the league will go into this new season with no real intention of being competitive. Teams will use the deadline to squeeze players into team friendly contracts, and, if they don’t get them, they’ll walk away. If anything, the deadline will push free agents to sign even team friendlier contracts because they know they’d have to wait until Spring Training to sign otherwise. I appreciate folks trying to come up with ways to spur the market. I just don’t think this is it. Offseason transaction deadlines would give teams another mechanism to use against players but not vice versa.
7. With each passing week it feels the likelihood of a work stoppage (a players’ strike, specifically) increases. I wouldn’t call a work stoppage inevitable but things are moving in that direction. Free agency is the same as it was last year — I’d argue it’s worse than last year because two 26-year-old mega-talents like Harper and Machado aren’t getting blown away with offers — which means players aren’t getting paid as well and more revenue is being funneled to the owners. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December 2021 so we have three seasons and two offseasons to go before a potential work stoppage. A lot can change between now and then. I hope things improve between now and then because gosh, a strike would be awful. And, if there is a work stoppage, I wonder what role the television networks will play. MLB and the 30 teams make so much of their money nowadays through television deals, both local and national. Never before has league revenue been less driven by attendance, which is part of the problem. Bad attendance doesn’t hurt the bottom line as much. Who cares about attendance when those television contracts are locked in at guaranteed dollars for the next 15 or 20 or 25 years? Easy for an owner to sit through a multi-year rebuild when he knows he’s getting paid no matter what. What happens if there’s a strike though? Do the networks push MLB to get a deal done because they don’t want to pay them all that money to broadcast zero games? Or do the broadcast deals stop paying out because there are no games to televise? That sure would push the owners to get a deal done. I have no idea what’ll happen but it could be the MLBPA will have allies in the networks. They are a major revenue stream for the league and I don’t believe they would be silent during the CBA negotiating process.