The Yankees are back. After lying relatively dormant for three off seasons, the Bronx Bombers have re-opened their heavy wallets by signing two of the winter’s top free agents.
Entering the off season, the Yankees two biggest holes were behind the plate and in the outfield. In 2013, the Bronx Bombers ranked 26th in the majors with a paltry wRC+ of 61 from their catchers, while their combined outfield was next to last with a anemic rating of 89 (below even the Mets much ridiculed collection). Luckily for the Yankees, two of the top free agents on the market, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury, happened to fit each need, so $240 million later, the Bronx Bombers’ lineup looks more deserving of that moniker.
Although the McCann signing was universally viewed as a no-brainer, sentiment regarding the Ellsbury acquisition has been less than unanimous. Some are concerned about his injury history, others weary of a player who relies so much upon speed, and still others favored Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran as alternatives. In addition, the contract terms, seven years and $153 million, have led to sticker shock. However, the real question surrounding the Ellsbury acquisition is what does it mean for Robinson Cano?
Strong Up the Middle: McCann, Ellsbury and Cano vs. 2013 Peers and Placeholders
*Includes all outfielders but Alfonso Soriano and Brett Gardner.
Note: Catcher ranking based on minimum 400 PAs.
The Yankees are a much better team with Ellsbury than without. Regardless of whether they overpaid or overcommitted, the upgrade over the revolving door of outfielders from last season is substantial. The Bronx Bombers have the financial wherewithal to take on the risk of long-term deals, so it doesn’t really matter how the contract will look in five years. Of course, that assumes the team is, in fact, committed to taking advantage of this luxury.
At this point, one has to assume the Yankees’ plan to dip below the luxury threshold has been scrapped. Handing out two large free agent contracts doesn’t seem to be the circumspect approach you’d expect from a team trying to reduce payroll. That’s why the overriding concern with each transaction should be the talent of the player, not the terms of their contract. McCann and Ellsbury are both star performers at their respective positions, and that alone justifies their acquisition. The same is also true of Cano.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul is never a wise strategy, so signing McCann and Ellsbury should not preclude retaining Cano. On the contrary, those two large commitments seem to augur well for the second baseman’s return. After all, what would be the point of taking two steps forward and then one giant leap back? Obviously, there has to be a limit on how much the Yankees can offer Cano, but the similarity between their latest offer and the amount paid to Ellsbury suggests the team still has room to compromise.
If the Yankees retain Cano, they will have completed an impressive overhaul of one of the most anemic offenses in franchise history. Without him, however, the improvement won’t be enough. By making Cano the finishing the touch, the Yankees have put themselves in a position of letting a relatively nominal sum determine the outcome of their offseason. After going all in with McCann and Ellsbury, it would be foolish to fold with Cano. There’s nothing wrong with a little bluffing, but now that the team is holding a much stronger hand, it actually has a lot more to lose.