For the first time in two years, the Yankees will head into the winter trying to make it back to the postseason. Though losing the wild card game doesn’t really feel like making the playoffs, technically that’s considered making it these days. The Yankees Pythagorean winning percentage (.541 %) was the club’s best mark since the last time New York made the playoffs in 2012 (.584 %). Despite only winning a few more games than the 2013 and ’14 versions, the 2015 Yankees were clearly the best team the Bronx has seen since ’12. Perhaps that would’ve shown up a little more in the actual standings had the Yankees stayed healthy through the season as injuries to Mark Teixeira, Nathan Eovaldi, Masahiro Tanaka, and Brett Gardner took a toll down the stretch.
Some years it can be easy to tell by the makeup of the roster if Yankees fans can look forward to an exciting or fascinating offseason. After 2008, the Yankees had plenty of money coming off the books and after missing the playoffs ownership had the incentive to spend on the free agent market. It was easy to envision New York pursuing Teixeira and CC Sabathia. They also signed A.J. Burnett just because they could.
It’s harder to see what the Yankees are going to do this winter. They don’t have the flexibility of big money contracts coming off the books, though it’s nice to wave goodbye to dead weight such as Garrett Jones, Stephen Drew, and Chris Capuano. That financial relief will come next year when Teixeira ($23.125 million) and Carlos Beltran ($15 million) become free agents. In fact, every Yankees regular position player, starting pitcher, and key bullpen guy is under team control for 2016 except for Drew (and Chris Young, who I don’t consider a regular).
BP Bronx’ own Nick Stellini recently wrote about the different possibilities of what the Yankees might do at second base next year. The club has Rob Refsnyder and Dustin Ackley under control for next year, so they could opt to platoon the pair if they offer Ackely arbitration, but that could also end up being a disaster of Drew-like proportions. The Yankees don’t seem sold on either Refsnyder or Ackley’s defense at the keystone—which would be one detriment to signing Daniel Murphy—and counting on each of them to duplicate their offensive production in a small sample down the stretch over a full season is risky. It would also leave the Yankees with no alternative option (Brendan Ryan?) so I expect them to address second base by going outside the organization and keep Ackley around as a utility man. His projected arbitration salary is cheaper than Jones’ $5 million salary was this year and Ackley can play all three outfield positions as well as first base and second base (and he should learn third base).
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees 2015 payroll was $217 million and New York already has almost $184 million committed to 11 guys (one of whom is Brendan Ryan!?) for 2016. Using MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections, the 2016 payroll will sit at $206.4 million for 18 players if everyone except Sergio Santos and Andrew Bailey are offered arbitration. If Ivan Nova isn’t offered arbitration, it goes down to $202 million.
I just went through the payroll math to show the Yankees lack of flexibility this offseason. While it’s technically possible for them to increase the payroll next year, it’s unlikely. The larger point may even be that unless the Yankees make a trade, the club doesn’t seem to have available playing time for an offensive player outside of second base. After the season ended, Brian Cashman discussed the trade deadline saying Ben Zobrist was the only position player the Yankees pursued. “I didn’t have any place to put anybody,” he said. Not much has changed.
This is a fairly large contrast from last off-season when the Yankees had the entire left side of the infield vacant after Derek Jeter retired and Chase Headley hit free agency, though he was ultimately re-signed. Second base has been a problem for the Yankees since Robinson Cano left for Seattle and it became an open spot when Martin Prado, who the Yankees are still paying $3 million, was moved in the trade for Eovaldi.
While Eovaldi proved worthwhile in the second half, the moves to both acquire Headley for Yangervis Solarte and then sign him to a four-year contract haven’t worked out. Neither player has been exceptional since the trade midway through 2014, but considering the production has been similar—Solarte has a slight lead in Fangraphs WAR and Headley has a slight lead in BWARP—the Yankees would be in better shape if they weren’t tied to the one that’s four years older and makes $13 million annually.
At the time, perhaps the Yankees thought that going with the veteran would be assuming less risk as they try to get back to the playoffs and that there was a chance for Headley to regain his power stroke in the Bronx.
The Yankees perhaps don’t have that same sense of urgency now, though fans would certainly appreciate if they did. There isn’t a two-year playoff drought to break this offseason, technically, though there is a three-year drought on winning a playoff game. With so much of the team potentially already in place and not much in the way of payroll flexibility it’s hard to see a very busy off-season on the horizon.
Ben Diamond of BP Bronx has already written about what the Yankees might do with Greg Bird next year and nobody seems to have a big problem with keeping the promising young hitter in the minors unless or until either Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez have another injury.
If the front office believes that what they have in place is actually better than an 87-win team because of the injuries they suffered over the last two months of the season, they aren’t likely to do a whole lot. But second base needs to be addressed. It’s been a trouble area for New York since Cano left, there are established free agent options available besides Murphy in Ben Zobrist and Howie Kendrick, the internal options leave much to be desired, and it’s the only position where regular playing time is available.
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