Yankees going with youth in all the right places in 2015

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

The Yankees needed to get younger this offseason. Or, rather, they needed to get better, and the easiest way to do that was to get younger. The club had been stuck relying on old past-prime players and needed to change direction. Old players can still be really useful in moderation. But a roster full of ‘em? Not the way to go.

After the end of the 2014 season, several key Yankees’ folks said the team intended to get younger in 2015. Joe Girardi said “at times we ran out four guys, five guys over 35 years old. I don’t think that will happen next year,” at his end-of-season press conference. Hal Steinbrenner said young players are “going to play a big part” for the team going forward during a radio interview in early-October. They talked the talk, for sure.

Teams say that sort of stuff every offseason — we want to get younger, more athletic, more well-rounded, etc. — and usually it’s just lip service. The intention is there but they never really follow through. That hasn’t been the case for the Yankees this winter. Girardi and Steinbrenner said they expected the club to get younger this winter and they have. Derek Jeter was replaced with Didi Gregorius*, Martin Prado with Jose Pirela/Rob Refsnyder, Hiroki Kuroda with Nathan Eovaldi, and Francisco Cervelli with John Ryan Murphy. They also have plenty of young relievers ready to replace Shawn Kelley and David Huff.

* Jeter was he oldest regular shortstop in the league last year, so the Yankees were going to get younger by default. They got way younger though. They didn’t replace Jeter with, say, soon-to-be 32-year-old Stephen Drew.

The Yankees didn’t just get younger, however. They got younger at key positions — the middle infield, behind the plate, and on the pitching staff. Only two teams since 2009 have had two middle infielders age 25 or younger qualify for the batting title in the same season — the 2011 Cubs (Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney) and the 2011 Nationals (Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa) — and the Yankees could very well do that in 2015 with Gregorius and either Pirela or (most likely) Refsnyder. Going young on both sides of second base is risky, but the Yankees seem willing to do it.

Catcher is a weird position because teams want either a young starter and a veteran backup to mentor him, or a veteran starter and a young backup he can mentor. With Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate, the Yankees have to go the veteran starter/young backup route next season, and John Ryan Murphy will presumably serve as McCann’s backup following the Cervelli trade. Down the road two or three years, perhaps Murphy will take over as the starter with McCann serving as the veteran backup as he ages and sees more time at DH.

(Marc Serota/Getty)
(Marc Serota/Getty)

Heading into next season, the only positions where the Yankees will have legitimately old and clearly past their prime players are first base (Mark Teixeira), right field (Carlos Beltran), and DH (Alex Rodriguez). I guess you could argue McCann belongs in that group as well, though I’m optimistic about his chances of rebounding next year, maybe foolishly. Otherwise the Yankees have prime age starters at catcher, third base, left field, and center field plus the kids at second base and shortstop.

As for the pitching staff, there are five rotation spots to fill, and the Yankees are planning to have 26-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, 26-year-old Michael Pineda, and 25-year-old Eovaldi occupy three of them in 2015. Ivan Nova, who turns 28 in two weeks, will return from elbow reconstruction at midseason to join them. The other rotation spots are slated to go to 34-year-old CC Sabathia and 36-year-old Chris Capuano. The team is locked into Sabathia because of his contract, which is in the back end portion of the “we want the elite years up front and will live with the ugliness on the back end” model, but Capuano is a depth arm on a low-cost one-year contract. In-house replacement starter options include 20-somethings Bryan Mitchell and Jose DePaula.

The Yankees currently have 20 pitchers on the 40-man roster and only four are age 28 or older: Sabathia, Capuano, Andrew Miller, and Esmil Rogers. (Nova’s two weeks from joining them.) Of those four, only Miller is expected to be a significant factor next year. Sabathia’s a wait-and-see guy after knee surgery while Rogers is another low-cost depth pitcher like Capuano. After Miller and Rogers, the oldest pitchers in the projected bullpen are 27-year-olds Adam Warren and Justin Wilson, who were born a week apart. Given Sabathia’s health and Capuano’s disposability, there might actually be a point next summer when the only pitcher on the active roster not in his 20s is Miller, who turns 30 in May. Wouldn’t that be something?

Now, here’s where it gets tricky: getting younger doesn’t automatically mean getting better. It’s quite risky, actually. We have very little idea of what Gregorius can contribute across a full season and even less about what Pirela and Refsnyder can provide. Kuroda had his worst season as a Yankee in 2014, but if Eovaldi were to match his 3.71 ERA (3.60 FIP) in 199 innings next year, I feel like it would be considered a positive. Murphy as the young backup catcher is great … unless he plays like the 2012 version of Austin Romine, the team’s last young backup backstop. Young players and productive young players are two different animals.

Right now, the Yankees are looking for productive young players. They hope Gregorius and Refsnyder and Eovaldi can be those guys. Maybe they can be, maybe they can’t. The only way to find out is to let them play. The Yankees are still going to be an older team in general next year, but the little bit of youth they do have is in the right spots. They are young at important up the middle positions and on the pitching staff. That’s where you want to have young players whose best years are still ahead of them. The Yankees are never going to tear it all down and rebuild. That’s not in their DNA. Instead, they’ve retooled this offseason by acquiring young players at key positions to carry them in 2015 and beyond.

Kelley trade means more moves are in the works, because more moves are always in the works

NYY - Kelley = Scherzer? Eh. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Yankees – Kelley = Scherzer? (Leon Halip/Getty)

Earlier this week, the Yankees shipped Shawn Kelley to the Padres for a Double-A reliever in a trade that sure looks like a pure salary dump. Kelley is projected to earn $2.5M through arbitration in 2015, so the team isn’t saving a ton of money, but they are saving money nonetheless. They also saved money in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade, in the Francisco Cervelli/Justin Wilson trade, and by replacing David Robertson with Andrew Miller.

I wrote about this at CBS the other day — the Yankees have been saving small amounts of money in almost all of their transactions over the last few months. Every team looks to be more cost efficient, so this isn’t some wild idea, but it’s rare to see the Yankees making moves like this. They usually take on salary, not shed it. Naturally, as soon as Kelley was dealt, more than a few people assumed the Yankees were clearing money to make another move. Kelley himself added fuel to the fire by telling Dan Barbarisi this after the trade:

“[Brian Cashman] said he hated to see me go, but they have some things they’re doing, some things they’re working on, and it was part of new plan,” Kelley said.

“They have some things they’re doing, some things they’re working on” is a fun quote! You can really let your imagination run wild with that one. Is all this saved money, the $1M or $2M at a time, going to eventually add up to Max Scherzer? James Shields? Yoan Moncada? Something else no one expects? The Yankees have a way of keeping things totally off the radar, you know.

And yet, Kelley’s quote really means nothing at all. It’s the “it’s not you, it’s me” of baseball breakups. Of course the Yankees are working on some things. They’re always working on things. Every team has an entire staff of people just working on things all the time. The real question is whether the savings from the Kelley trade — and the savings from the Cervelli trade, the Prado trade, letting Matt Thornton go on trade waivers in August, etc. — is earmarked for a specific move, or simply being set aside for future flexibility should something pop up.

Personally, I think the money is being set aside for later and not a specific move. The Yankees insist they are not in on Scherzer and while I do think they are sincere, I also understand Hal Steinbrenner & Co. could change their minds at a moment’s notice. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. I’m sure of it. I don’t believe saving a couple million 2015 dollars equals being more open to a massive six or seven-year contract, however. I think they’re more likely to make one or two small moves before Spring Training or save the money for a bigger midseason trade addition. That’s just me.

Shedding relatively small amounts of money through trades doesn’t have to be a precursor to anything. Dealing Kelley one year before free agency when you have a small army of MLB ready-ish relievers in Triple-A makes perfect sense. Unloading the injury prone Cervelli when you have John Ryan Murphy waiting for an opportunity? Totally sensible. Replacing Robertson with Miller and getting a draft pick in the process is a smart baseball move. Maybe an unpopular one, I love Robertson and I know a lot of you do too, but we’re all smart enough to get it. Trading Prado both added a hard-throwing starter and opened a spot for Rob Refsnyder. Two birds, one stone.

Saving money seems like a secondary concern to opening a roster spot for a young player with these moves, if you ask me. (With Miller/Robertson they’re adding a young player via the draft rather than opening a roster spot, but you catch my drift.) The Yankees have clearly focused on getting younger this offseason and these moves all help accomplish that. Freeing up money comes with the territory. Young players are cheap. That’s why everyone wants ‘em. Shedding salary by trading Kelley and whoever else doesn’t necessarily to mean something else is about to happen. It just means the Yankees are going in a different direction with their roster. A younger direction.

Thoughts following the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

The Yankees made perhaps their most significant move of the offseason yesterday, at least the most significant in terms of the number of players involved. I think you could argue the Didi Gregorius trade was their most significant move of the winter because getting a new young starting shortstop is kind of a big deal. Anyway, I have some thoughts about the big Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi (plus other stuff) trade, so let’s get to it.

1. Eovaldi will be a nice little project for pitching coach Larry Rothschild and pitching coordinator Gil Patterson. He’s got a big arm — he had the fourth fastest average fastball among qualified starters this past season at 95.5 mph — but so far the results haven’t matched the stuff. Both his fastball and slider generate only an average number of swings and misses and a slightly better than average number of grounders. Eovaldi’s curveball is the same way but he throws it less than 10% of the time. His changeup flat out stinks — opponents have a .200+ ISO against the pitch in his career — so much so that the best might simply be shelving the pitch entirely and emphasizing the curveball more. That can work — as Eno Sarris explained, Garrett Richards had a similar profile and he became an ace partly because he stopped throwing his worst pitch (the changeup) — as long as the fastball, slider, and curveball show some improvement, especially when it comes to missing bats. Perhaps Rothschild and Patterson will help him Eovaldi develop a cutter and that can serve as his fourth pitch, but, until then, getting better results from his already very good stuff will be the priority. How can they do that? Beats me. That’s why they’re the coaches and I’m the dumb blogger.

2. Eovaldi’s struggles against left-handed batters are very real and they make me nervous with his move into Yankee Stadium. Lefties hit .293/.330/.438 (.336 wOBA) against him last season and .288/.350/.421 (.338 wOBA) against him in his career. (Brett Gardner led Yankees’ regulars with a .331 wOBA in 2014, by the way. /sobs) Yankee Stadium is a great place to hit if you’re a left-handed hitter and unless Eovaldi can figure out a better way to attack them — cutter? more curveballs? somehow improving the changeup? — he could wind up a 30+ homer starter in the Bronx. Yes, his career homer rate is very good (0.65 HR/9 and 6.9 HR/FB%), though he’s spent his career in two big pitcher’s parks in the non-DH league. I think there’s some Phil Hughes-level gopher ball-itis potential here if Eovaldi can’t figure out a way to handle batters of the opposite hand, in which case his FIP (3.37 in 2014) will begin to approach his ERA (4.37) rather than the other way around. Rothschild and Patterson have their work cut out for them. The Marlins are legitimate excellent at developing pitchers. There might be a reason they were so willing to trade Eovaldi, and it could be his inability to consistently retire lefties.

3. On the bright side, Eovaldi is really young. He’ll turn 25 in February. He’s a year younger than Shane Greene. We’re not talking about a 27 or 28-year-old guy who needs to improve to reach his potential. Eovaldi’s still a kid and theoretically on the upswing of his career. The Yankees don’t have many guys like that on the roster. He’s already shown he’s a capable Major League starter and that’s (more than?) half the battle. Now he has to learn the nuances of pitching through experience and coaching. That’s something veterans like CC Sabathia and Chris Capuano can help with as well. Just look through Eovaldi’s video archive and you can see the potential. It’s exciting. The kid’s got a great arm and learning how to get more swings and misses — something Rothschild has a history of doing with his pitchers, mostly by emphasizing breaking balls — and combat lefties is a lot easier to do when you sit 95+ with a big breaking slider.

4. The Yankees traded reliability for upside with this deal. We know what Prado and David Phelps are at this point of their careers, and that’s a slightly better than average infielder and a swingman. I still think calling Phelps a back-of-the-rotation starter is pretty generous because he’s made only 40 starts across three MLB seasons and has had elbow problems in each of the last two second halves. That’s not to say Phelps is bad, he’s certainly a useful pitcher, but he’s three years older than Eovaldi and can be easily replaced. Bryan Mitchell, Jose DePaula, or even Manny Banuelos could fill his role next season. The Yankees shouldn’t and probably didn’t think twice about trading a guy like Phelps, especially now that he’s getting expensive through arbitration as a Super Two. This trade is all about upside for New York, both with Eovaldi and righty Domingo German. German’s essentially this trade’s Jose Campos, the Single-A guy with a big arm and promise. He’s a lottery ticket, Brian Cashman said as much in yesterday’s conference call, and the Yankees could use a lottery ticket arm like this in their position player-heavy farm system. Cashman traded the reliability of Prado and Phelps for the pure upside and impact potential of Eovaldi and German. It’s risky, but boy is it fun.

(Scott Cunningham/Getty)
(Scott Cunningham/Getty)

5. Garrett Jones is more or less a throw-in in my opinion. He’s a nice bench piece who fits the roster very well — he plays first base (Mark Teixeira is always hurt), right field (Carlos Beltran is always hurt), and can also slot in at DH (Alex Rodriguez is always hurt). I don’t consider him any kind of difference maker or core piece though. Eovaldi and German are the centerpieces, Jones the throw-in. Hopefully he hits a bunch of dingers over the short porch and does for the Yankees what Mike Carp did for the 2013 Red Sox, specifically mash in a limited role. The Yankees have been trying to get Jones for years — they first asked about him in A.J. Burnett trade talks with the Pirates four offseason ago — so I’m not surprised he was included in the trade. He’s a nice fit for the roster and bench. No need to make it anything more than that.

6. Aside from a potential reunion with Hiroki Kuroda and miscellaneous depth additions, I think the Yankees are done with their pitching this offseason. In fact, they could probably use another bat right now more than anything. Rob Refsnyder‘s really great, though as I said after the Chase Headley re-signing, I hate handing jobs to non-elite prospects. Prado was a great fit because he’s a solid right-handed hitter and versatile, so there were a ton of ways to keep him in the lineup. I don’t think the Yankees will pursue someone like Asdrubal Cabrera or Stephen Drew to play second, but, if they do, that same kind of flexibility isn’t there. I have no doubt Refsnyder will get a chance at some point next season. I just really hope the Yankees aren’t planning to hand him the second base job unchallenged in Spring Training. A Gregorius-Refsnyder double play combination makes me really nervous.

7. I mentioned this in my last thoughts post, but boy there have been a lot of big leaguer for big leaguer trades lately. The Yankees made one earlier this offseason with the Gregorius-Greene swap, and the Prado/Eovaldi trade is another one. The Yankees got younger with both trades and filled some rather critical areas of need. They also managed to save some money too. I do believe the Yankees got better with the two trades with the caveat that we have to see how they plan to proceed at second base. Prado isn’t a franchise savior or anything like that, but he’s a solid player who was slated to fill an important position. This is more or less the Yankees’ version of rebuilding — they’re never going to tear it all down and frankly I’m very happy that’s the case. I am very much anti-sucking on purpose. Rather than tear it down, they’re making smaller moves to get younger and specific spots. Last offseason the rebuilding piece was 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka, and this year it’s Gregorius, Eovaldi, and replacing Frankie Cervelli with presumably John Ryan Murphy behind the plate. Soon it’ll be time for Refsnyder, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and other homegrown guys to be phased onto the roster.

Headley’s signing is good for Refsnyder and Pirela

Jose Pirela
(AP Photo)

All Rob Refsnyder has done is hit. After starting slowly following the 2012 draft, he’s put up monster numbers at every level of the minors in the last two seasons, ending 2014 in AAA with a .300/.389/.456 (137 wRC+) line. It seems, or at least seemed, that his time in the Bronx is near.

Then the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, which pushes Refsnyder out of immediate consideration for a starting spot.

It might appear as though the Yankees crowded Refsnyder out of a spot, but by re-signing Headley they might have made his transition to the big leagues easier. The same is true for Jose Pirela, and other candidate for an infield position before Headley signed.

It’s all about versatility

The trade for Martin Prado last July gives the Yankees flexibility. They took advantage right away, starting Prado multiple times at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. It appears that he’ll start the season as the everyday second baseman, but that could change at any time — not because of Prado’s performance, but because others are stepping up.

Instead of starting Refsnyder at second out of the gate, they’ll have him continue what he started at Scranton Wilkes-Barre. If he continues pummeling the ball as he did in 2014, he can force his way into a call-up even if Prado is performing to expectations.

As of today, Alex Rodriguez is the Yankees’ primary DH. That could change between now and Opening Day, but let’s assume it’s true. In that case, who are the Yankees two biggest on-field risks? Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Should anything happen to either, Prado can move to the outfield and Refsnyder can take over at second base.

(Refsnyder did play nine games in the outfield last year, and another 42 in 2012. He was an outfielder in college. But it appears that the Yankees want him to stay at second base. There’s a better chance that they move Prado to the OF rather than Refsnyder.)

Pirela is a man of many positions, having started multiple games at every spot except catcher in 2014. He also continued hitting well, a 117 wRC+ in 581 PA at AAA, which followed a 118 wRC+ in 530 PA at AA in 2013. Basically, ever since he reached AA he’s started to hit. Given his versatility, the Yankees can easily find a spot for him whenever a need arises.

Pirela can slide in for anyone who gets hurt, other than Brian McCann. The Yankees can work in Refsnyder in the event that anyone other than Didi Gregorius gets hurt, moving Prado to whatever position and inserting Refsnyder at 2B.

By fielding a team of veteran major leaguers, the Yankees can let Pirela and Refsnyder signal when they’re ready. With their flexibility, they can probably work in one of those guys at almost any time. Additionally, they provide depth in case of injury. If any of the seven non-mask-wearing fielders gets hurt, the Yankees have an easy way to fill the void.

When the Yankees signed Chase Headley they didn’t block two young players. They merely changed the way they’ll fit into the 2015 plans. It might be for the better, for all parties.

Thoughts after Yankees re-sign Chase Headley

I'm a sucker for Gatorade shower photos. (Elsa/Getty)
I’m a sucker for a good Gatorade shower photo. (Elsa/Getty)

I was originally planning to post a post-Winter Meetings thoughts post, but then the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley yesterday morning, so I changed gears. Instead of a post-Winter Meetings thoughts post, here’s a post with some post-Headley deal and post-Winter Meetings thoughts combined into one post. To the post:

1. So that reported four-year, $65M offer Headley had from an unknown team had to be made up, right? It had to be his agent trying to drive up the price. As cool as it would be to say Headley turned down substantially more money to return to New York because the Yankees are totally awesome and everyone else sucks, I have a hard time thinking a rational human being would pass up that much extra money just because he liked playing somewhere. Take $1M less per year like Andrew Miller? Sure. I can buy that. But $3.25M per year like Headley? That’s a lot of money for the kids — Headley’s wife just had a baby, Joe Girardi said at the Winter Meetings — and the kids’ kids and the kids’ kids’ kids to leave on the table. Maybe it’s true and Headley really did value playing in New York so much that he turned down an extra $13M or so. That would be cool. I just have a hard time believing it. That reported $65M offer seems like a classic “agent trying to drive up the price” move. (For what it’s worth, Headley told Jack Curry yesterday he did turn down more money to return to the Yankees without giving specifics.)

2. With Headley back, the 13 position player slots on the roster heading into next season are just about set. We know who the nine starters will be — assuming Alex Rodriguez is the regular DH — and the bench will have Brendan Ryan, Chris Young, either John Ryan Murphy or Austin Romine as the backup catcher, and probably Jose Pirela in the last spot. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to bring in potential bench piece or two as a non-roster invitee to push Pirela (and Ryan?) in camp, maybe someone like Adam Rosales or, day I say, Jayson Nix, but that’s not a pressing issue right now. Either way, Headley will join Didi Gregorius, Martin Prado, and Mark Teixeira as the regular infielders. The Opening Day infield last year was Teixeira, Brian Roberts, fading Derek Jeter, and Kelly Johnson. The year before it was Kevin Youkilis at first, Robinson Cano, Eduardo Nunez, and Nix. Even though it lacks a bonafide superstar like Cano, the projected 2015 infield looks so much better than what they ran out there from 2013-14. Million times better. They actually have a bonafide Major League caliber player at all four positions. That wasn’t the case the last two years.

3. The Headley signing presumably pushes Rob Refsnyder back to Triple-A Scranton to start next season — I suppose he could beat out Pirela for the last bench job, but I’m not expecting that to happen — and I do think that’s the best thing for his development, especially defensively. Learning on the fly in the big leagues is not easy. I’ve said this a million times already: when someone inevitably gets hurt next summer, the Yankees can move Prado to whatever position to fill in for the injury, then call up Refsnyder to play second. I am not at all a fan of handing a non-elite prospect a job out of Spring Training and prefer Refsnyder to get his opportunity as an injury replacement at midseason. I’m pretty sure I’ve written this before, but I think the best case scenario for his MLB arrival is the Brett Gardner path — up and down the first year, part-time role the second year, then full-time role the third year. The adjustment from Triple-A to MLB is more difficult now than ever before — Brian MacPherson recently spoke to a bunch of executives about this — and anything the Yankees can do to ease Refsnyder’s transition is a positive in my eyes. And, of course, re-signing Headley presumably makes Refsnyder (and Eric Jagielo?) more available in a trade, especially if they’re confident in Pirela going forward. If Refsnyder (or Jagielo!) can help land a pitcher with a few years of control left, it’s definitely something the Yankees should explore.

Nightmare fuel. (@TomLeyden)
Nightmare fuel. (@TomLeyden)

4. I do believe the Yankees are sincere when they say they will pass on handing a huge money long-term deal to Max Scherzer. He’s an excellent pitcher and would obviously be a huge help. That’s not really up for debate. The question is whether Scherzer and a bunch of scrap heap arms are better for the club than spreading the money around and signing two or three pitchers for similar 2015 money. Say Hiroki Kuroda, Edinson Volquez, and Chad Billingsley. Or Volquez, Brandon Morrow, and Chris Capuano. (Not endorsing either set of pitchers, just throwing names out there.) The Yankees need multiple starters right now and chances are they’ll have to dip into the scrap heap at some point this summer anyway, so maybe it’s better to get two solid pitchers rather than one great one. As good as Scherzer is, he does only take the ball once every fifth day. As Joe detailed last week, the Yankees have almost no money coming off the books next offseason (Shawn Kelley, Young, maybe Ryan, that’s all), so signing Scherzer probably means they have to sit out free agency (the big names, anyway) next winter barring a payroll increase. One year deal guys like Kuroda, Billingsley, Morrow, and/or Capuano would both help the 2015 rotation and leave some financial flexibility for next winter, when three legit aces (David Price, Jordan Zimmerman, Johnny Cueto) and several other solid starters (Doug Fister, Ian Kennedy, Andrew Cashner, Mat Latos) are scheduled to hit the market. Some will sign extensions, sure, but some will inevitably hit the market. There’s too many for that not to happen. At that point the Yankees will be a year away from shedding Teixeira’s and Carlos Beltran‘s contracts (maybe CC Sabathia‘s as well), making a another big money deal a little easier to swallow. I’m in favor of skipping Scherzer, signing a few cheaper starters, then revisiting the pitching market next offseason.

5. Over the last year or so, there has been an uptick in the number of MLB player for MLB player trades going down around the league. At the Winter Meetings last week there was the Matt Kemp/Yasmani Grandal trade, the Jeff Samardzija/Marcus Semien trade, and the Rick Porcello/Yoenis Cespedes trade. At the trade deadline we had the Jon Lester/Cespedes swap, the John Lackey/Allen Craig deal, and the David Price/Austin Jackson/Drew Smyly three-team trade, among others. There are still plenty of MLB player for prospect deals (the first Samardzija trade, the Dee Gordon/Andrew Heaney deal, etc.), but the MLB player for MLB player trades are happening more often nowadays. I find these trades more fun and interesting, and I’m pretty sure they’re due to the second wildcard. It’s easier to get into the postseason than ever before, and there are many more buyers than sellers. Teams don’t want to take risky prospects in return for their established big leaguers because those prospects can’t help them win right now, so they’re focused on getting other established big leaguers back in return. The Yankees made four trades before the deadline this summer and three of the four were big leaguer for big leaguer. The only exception was the Prado/Peter O’Brien swap. Contrary to what many seem to think, the Yankees do have some tradeable assets on their MLB roster. Will they use any of them to get help elsewhere on the roster at the trade deadline? Intrigue!

6. We all know the Yankees have a lot of injury risk in the rotation heading into next year, and also some on the position player side, and that’s really scary. So I’m going to close with this as a change of pace: what if everything goes right? What if Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow holds up and Michael Pineda makes 30+ starts? And that CC Sabathia’s surgically rebuilt knee gives him a more stable landing and better effectiveness? What if A-Rod returns from his year away with a fully healthy body and rakes in his new role as the DH? What if the bone spur was the only reason Beltran didn’t hit in the second half in 2014? What if Teixeira starts mashin’ taters now that he’s more than a full year removed from wrist surgery? Just humor me for a second. What if all that stuff we’re all expecting to go wrong instead goes right? How amazing would that be? I think the Yankees would win the AL East in a landslide in that case, and then they’d go into the postseason with two aces, a dominant bullpen, and a deep lineup. Realistic? Nah. Fun as hell think about? You bet.

Front office perception and the Yankees

They ate how much money and traded him for what? (Harry How/Getty)
They ate how much money and traded him for what? (Harry How/Getty)

The 2014 Winter Meetings came and went last week, and although the Yankees didn’t make any moves, it was the busiest Winter Meetings I can remember. The 2008 Winter Meetings were pretty hectic — the Yankees signed both CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett that week — but nothing compared to this year. There were a ton of high profile signings and trades in San Diego last week, and yet there are still more on the way. Max Scherzer and James Shields are unsigned and Justin Upton is still on the trade block.

The busiest team during the Winter Meetings last week was the Dodgers, who swung three major trades and landed a notable free agent in the span of about 18 hours from Wednesday afternoon into Thursday morning. As those deals were going down, I saw nothing but approval for the job ex-Rays GM Andrew Friedman was doing. Whether it was real time reaction on Twitter or analysis posts filed later, it was nothing but love for what the Dodgers were doing. Universal praise.

And yet, of all their moves, the only one that struck me as great was the Jimmy Rollins trade. (I really like Rollins as a one year stopgap shortstop.) The Dee Gordon trade? I mean, didn’t anyone actually stop to think that maybe he’s good now? (Drew Fairservice did.) Or that the Marlins are legitimately excellent at player development, so maybe there’s a reason top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney was available? Trade four years of Gordon for six of Heaney? Brilliant! Flip six years of Heaney for one of Howie Kendrick? Somehow also brilliant! Also, isn’t it amazing how almost no one is questioning four years for Brandon McCarthy now?

Then there’s the Matt Kemp trade, in which the Dodgers ate so much money that they turned his contract into a five-year, $75M deal. Isn’t that entirely reasonable for a just turned 30-year-old who is one of only 18 players to slug .500+ over the last four years? All the Dodgers got back was a catcher who has been lauded for his pitch framing (Yasmani Grandal), a broken young pitcher (Joe Wieland), and a Single-A prospect (Zach Eflin). The ultimate win now team just traded one of their two best hitters for that package. I guess I don’t see that as deserving of the instant, unquestioned praise it received.

So anyway, those moves and the reaction to those moves got me thinking about how people perceive certain front offices. If anyone other than Friedman had made those moves, I’m pretty sure they would have been viewed differently. No doubt about it in my mind. Theo Epstein & Co. are treated the same way as Friedman. On the other side of the coin, we snicker at everything Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik or Royals GM Dayton Moore does. Or at least we did until Moore’s team went to the World Series. Giants GM Brian Sabean was the butt of many jokes until he built a dynasty.

How do people perceive the Yankees front office? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Based on what I’ve seen and read over the years, it seems like the majority of non-Yankees fans generally like the team’s moves more than Yankees fans. I’ve seen very few non-Yankees fans think the Didi Gregorius trade was a mistake, for example. Almost zero. Is that because they hadn’t seen enough of Shane Greene to fall in love with him? Or because they better understand just how hard it is to get a young shortstop because they haven’t been watching Derek Jeter for two decades? I don’t know. Could be both.

Here is a relevant tweet from a non-Yankees fan:

Patrick’s talking about handing out some market value contracts and making one big trade. The Yankees, because of their payroll, tend to buy big money free agents rather than mid-range free agents like the ChiSox, but the idea is the same. Market value signings and a big trade. When the Yankees do it, it’s bad. When the Rick Hahn does it, it’s genius. (Full disclosure: I really like what Hahn’s done this winter.)

These biases exist and that’s perfectly fine. It’s human nature. We have biases about players and that extends into the front office. The Dodgers’ moves drew praise last week because Friedman was excellent while with the Rays, consistently building a contender with a shoestring budget. He earned the benefit of the doubt. But these days it isn’t so much benefit of the doubt as it is unquestioned approval. We don’t even consider the “what if Friedman just made a big mistake?” option. Doesn’t even cross our minds. Meanwhile, it feels like “what if Cashman just made a big mistake?” is the default setting for many fans.

As someone who writes a lot about baseball, especially about the Yankees, I can’t tell you how many times a move has been made, my initial reaction is “it sucks” or “this is awesome,” and I find myself writing a post that fits my opinion. Happens way too often, especially when I’m trying to crank something out quickly. I’m not going to sit here and tell people what to think. I just think we’d all be better served if we removed our preconceived notions — that’s very difficult! — and took a second to consider the alternative. What if Friedman did make a mistake? What if this relatively quiet Yankees offseason is, in fact, the best thing for the Yankees long-term?

What to do with the fourth-best team in the AL East?

Bring me Scherzer or bring me a fourth (or fifth) place finish. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Bring me Scherzer or bring me a fourth (or fifth) place finish. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

It’s a good thing the off-season does not end today, because if it did the Yankees would find themselves the fourth-best team in the AL East. If Tampa Bay has a few things break their way, the Yanks could find themselves finishing last in the AL East for the first time since 1990 (fifth for the first time since 1991).

The calendar might suggest that there are still two months left in the off-season, but the recent flurry of transactions means fewer players are available for the Yankees. The Red Sox, for instance, brought in three pitchers in the last day or so: Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson. That’s three fewer pitchers for the Yankees to consider.

Options on offense have also dwindled. Not that the Yankees have many places they can fit another hitter. Maybe they have some at-bats in the outfield, but probably not at a starter’s level. Their best option, Chase Headley, is still on the board. But will the Yankees offer the ~$45 million it takes to get him?

What it takes

Q: What would it take for the Yankees to reach the level of the Red Sox, Jays, and Orioles?

A: A $230 million payroll.

This is not unprecedented. The 2013 Yankees spent $228 million on a team that was clearly bad. They paid Vernon Wells $10 million. They paid A.J. Burnett $8 million not to pitch for them. A clearly diminished Kevin Youkilis earned $12 million. And then there are the down-roster players, like Ben Francisco and Brennan Boesch, who made far more than they were worth.

The point, apparently, was to paper over a depleted roster with the goal of lowering the 2014 payroll below the $189 million luxury tax threshold. And it failed, miserably, because when all those horrible contracts came off the books they had no one good left on the roster.

The problem this year is that the Yankees already have almost $179 million committed — to 2016’s payroll. The only players scheduled to reach free agency after 2015 are Chris Young and Shawn Kelley, and maybe Brendan Ryan.

Which is to say, if they don’t spend now, they’re going to be in the exact same spot next off-season, only with everyone a year older.

$200 million to finish 4th

According to Baseball Reference’s payroll estimates, the Yankees are currently in for just around $195 million if you estimate around $9 to $10 million for arbitration guys, plus league-minimum guys. That is, if they make no real upgrades anywhere else. If they add a mid-level starter, that bumps them over $200 mil — and failing to add another starter means Adam Warren in the rotation and pretty much no depth behind the four shaky starters.

Worse, it would almost certainly mean finishing fourth or even last. Unless the O’s, Jays, or Sox face a series of misfortunes, that’s the Yankees’ fate.

This is the crossroads at which the Yankees currently stand. They can either spend $200 million for a roster almost guaranteed to finish fourth or fifth, or they can make a splash right now. They can go out and add two players and bump up that payroll.

Yes, Max Scherzer

Scherzer is currently the only difference-maker left on the free agent market. Chances are he’d cost about $175 million over seven years. Given his performances the last three seasons, he might be worth that. And he can seriously upgrade the Yankees run prevention corps.

He can’t be the only guy they add — which probably means bumping payroll above $230 million, since adding Scherzer alone will bring them very close to that — but the alternatives are not at all compelling.

Signing another player to a huge, long-term contract might not seem palatable. But it’s a risk the Yankees can take right now.

A two-year commitment

While no one comes off the books after the 2015 season, after 2016 the Yankees get some breathing room. Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira* have expiring contracts, amounting to $38 million. That gives them some breathing room. The next CBA will also be up for discussion, which will probably change the luxury tax threshold and penalty. So the Yankees will have another opportunity to duck under.

*CC Sabathia has a 2017 option, but it becomes guaranteed as long as there’s nothing wrong with his left shoulder. To date this has not at all been a problem. Maybe he does develop left shoulder issues in the next two years, but we can’t really bank on it. So we assume he makes $25 million in 2017.

At this point the Yankees, with Scherzer, will have around $155 million committed to eight players. That’s not ideal, but it’s still better than where they’re at right now. And at that point, Brian Cashman‘s job will again be up for consideration.

In 2017 Cashman enters another contract year. With promises of building from within, by this point we should see the payoff — whether in trades or in on-field performance. So 2015 and 2016 are a two-year experiment, where the Yankees play with a huge payroll in hopes that they can contend. In 2017 they have the real test of whether they can start plugging young, cost-controlled players into the lineup and rotation.

After the 2017 the Yankees free themselves from CC Sabathia’s and Alex Rodriguez‘s contracts. Brian Cashman’s contract is up. The picture will be much clearer by that point.

Am I rationalizing?

Glad you asked: Yes, I am. There might indeed be a long-term advantage to standing pat right now and looking for bargains. But the last two seasons have been difficult to watch, and so as a fan I hope that they make a couple of moves, namely Scherzer and Headley, and give us a glimmer of hope for 2015.

At the same time, Scherzer gives the Yankees all kinds of advantages. For instance, if Tanaka is healthy he gives them the two best pitchers in the division. He also gives them a bit more certainty at the top of the rotation, given the injury situations of Tanaka, Sabathia, and Pineda.

Most importantly, he gives them the best chance to contend in 2015. Unless they don’t intend to contend. Which, for $200 million, for the third straight season, is a damn shame.