Flags fly forever, and nowhere have more championship banners been hoisted than at Yankee Stadium. This year, however, the flag flying in the Bronx is a white one. With the Yankees fresh off their first in-season surrender in nearly a quarter-century, there has been a lot of focus on how well Brian Cashman performed at the deadline, but what the Yankees do from this point forward will have more to say about how quickly they re-emerge as an elite team than the trades they made last month.
Before looking ahead, it’s worth debunking a popular narrative about what brought the Bronx Bombers to the point of surrender. The argument being advanced by the organization and parroted in the media is the bill had finally come due on the Yankees’ long run of success. According to this logic, the Bronx Bombers’ recent dominance had been built on an unstainable level of spending that was further complicated by rule changes designed to foster competitive balance. So, after four years of valiantly trying to compete amidst inevitable decline, the Yankees finally swallowed their pride and acquiesced to a rebuild. It’s a compelling story…if only it were true.
The Yankees were not forced into the role of sellers because of the excesses of the past. On the contrary, cutbacks in the relative level of player investment is why the team has gone from chasing pennants to waving the white flag. Had the Yankees made the right free agent acquisitions over the past few years, the team could have tacked on several more seasons to its run without exceeding the investment levels of the recent past. Instead, the front office promoted profit over performance, and mediocrity became the middle ground. That strategy failed, and the end result wasn’t a contender, but an organization pretending to be one.
The purpose of re-litigating the past isn’t to say “I told you so”, but point out that the Yankees’ in-season capitulation doesn’t have to happen again anytime soon, including in 2017. As long as the team is willing to use its resources, which now include not only more money than any other club, but more prospects as well, the Bronx Bombers can hasten their transition and even compete for a championship while the course is being corrected.
Where do the Yankees go from here? Before the Yankees can look ahead to next year, they need to take stock of the roster, at both the major and minor league levels, and decide which players are part of the long-term future. That includes taking a look at prospects like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Tyler Austin, but also seeing if Alex Rodriguez has anything left in the tank. Although the idea of simply releasing Arod has started to gain steam, the fact remains that his contract will represent an adjusted average value (AAV) of $27.5 million in 2017. Clearly, if Rodriguez has anything left, the Yankees have millions of reasons to find out.
Arod and the kids will be the focus of the last two months, but the Yankees also need to determine the long-term plan for some of their more entrenched veterans. Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract is unmovable, but there may be wiggle room with Starlin Castro, Brian McCann, and Brett Gardner, all of whom are signed through at least 2018. With Sanchez on the rise, and Judge and Clint Frazier close to cracking the outfield, McCann and Gardner, in particular, seem expendable. Presumably, the Yankees will spend the off season trying to move both players, and, if successful, it would better align the team’s needs with the upcoming free agent market.
It’s possible that, after this season concludes, the Yankees will determine 2017 is a lost cause. This would particularly be the case if the likes of Judge and Sanchez appear not quite ready. If so, then any additions in the winter should be purely cosmetic (and, more importantly, inexpensive and short term). However, if the front office believes there is a reasonable basis for optimism next season, it shouldn’t be afraid to use its resources. Whether that’s a trade for a top starter and/or a free agent acquisition, the right combination of moves could set the Yankees up for a quick rebound without sacrificing their financial and roster flexibility for the much coveted 2018-19 free agent class.
In the graphic above, the listing on the left represents a likely Yankees’ roster based on the team’s current personnel. Under this framework, Sanchez would be given an opportunity to wrest playing time from McCann and Arod, while Frazier might eventually be promoted to siphon at bats from Gardner and Ellsbury. Otherwise, the team would be relatively set, and, unfortunately, unlikely to seriously contend.
Although the Yankees don’t have the pieces in place to re-emerge as a threat in the AL East, some re-shuffling and creativity could solve the problem. On the pitching side, the linchpin would be the acquisition of an ace level starter via trade. This would require depletion of the Yankees’ prospect stockpile, but if the return is someone like Chris Sale or Chris Archer, the cost would be justified. By adding an ace, the Yankees rotation would lengthen considerably, especially if Luis Severino continues to show that his 2016 struggles are behind him. At that point, the Yankees could then consider re-constructing their shutdown bullpen by either re-acquiring Aroldis Chapman or making a run at Kenley Jansen (who, unlike Chapman, would likely cost the team a draft pick). With those two moves, the Yankees would have a pitching staff worthy of a pennant contender.
Retooling the offense won’t be as simple, but, if the Yankees can deal McCann and Gardner, it would create the flexibility needed to supplement the team’s young position players with veterans that better suit the Bronx Bombers’ current make-up. The two best hitters in the upcoming free agent class, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, are both Blue Jays, so signing one would have the added benefit of weakening a division rival. Although a case could be made for Bautista, Encarnacion is the better fit. In addition to being younger and more durable, Encarnacion would give the Yankees insurance at 1B in case Bird isn’t fully recovered from his injury as well as provide emergency depth at third base. Otherwise, he would be the ideal DH, as the 2017 Yankees would no longer need to use the position as a rotation for resting older players.
Another good fit for next year’s lineup would be Martin Prado (whom the Yankees had been paying $3 million per year to not play for them over the past two seasons). Because of his flexibility, Prado’s initial role could be as the regular left fielder, but, should Frazier emerge for that position, he could transition to second base or third base, giving the Yankees a strong back up plan should Chase Headley or particularly Starlin Castro remain below average hitters. As the Yankees’ roster continues to transition over the next few years, Prado’s professionalism and flexibility would allow the team to pivot as needed based on the progress of their prospects and availability of impact free agents. Another alternative would be Josh Reddick, who, despite not having the same flexibility as Prado, would provide much needed lefty power in the outfield.
With free agents, the devil is in the details of their contracts, but if the Yankees can trade McCann, Gardner and either Nathan Eovaldi or Michael Pineda, they’d free up $35 million. In addition, the team will have already shed nearly $60 million from departed players, so the Yankees would not only have plenty of room to add the three contracts referenced above, but they could do so without sacrificing future opportunities (i.e., in 2019). When you consider that the luxury tax threshold is likely to rise with the new CBA, another $50 million in contracts will expire after 2018, and the relative weakness of that year’s free agent class, the impetus to splurge this off season becomes even greater, especially if the players mentioned above sign deals of four years or fewer.
Regardless of the game plan for 2017, the Yankees need to realize that although a team can win the World Series by cultivating a bevy of young talent, the only way to build an “uber team” is by supplementing that talent with veterans. Similarly, while Hal Steinbrenner can win his World Series with a payroll below $200 million, building a perennial favorite will be much more expensive. Even if they don’t have an opportunity to apply these lessons this winter, the Yankees need to eventually re-establish the buyer’s mentality that helped sustain their nearly two-decade run of preeminence. Otherwise, white flags could become more common in the Bronx than World Series pennants.