Yankee fans are accustomed to rooting for a contending team. Although they haven’t made the playoffs in two out of the last three years, and lost in the wild-card game last season, there hasn’t been a shred of doubt that the front office will attempt to assemble a contender in 2016. While some skepticism is certainly warranted with the current composition of the roster, there hasn’t been a serious movement towards a rebuild or retool. Given the massive market of New York, and its scrutinous media, conceding one season for the better of the future isn’t a realistic option that the team has entertained—at least not yet.
Yes, the Yankees are going to be in the race next year. Their off-season hasn’t quite signaled that they’re in ‘win now’ mode, but they do hope their new acquisitions will make significant contributions next year. Yet despite their intentions to win in 2016, the organization’s future plans remain unclear. What does the Yankees’ future hold after this season? No massive roster overhaul has happened yet, but some moves have the undertones of an impending retooling period.
For years, the Yankees have been considered an ‘old team.’ While their roster age technically isn’t old—2015’s team ranked 15th in the league at 27.1 years of age—their reputation holds some truth. This is because the majority of the team’s biggest contributors are veterans. Of the eighteen players with more than one win above replacement, ten of them are over 30, and nine are over 31. Even more surprisingly, just one hitter under 31—Didi Gregorious—was worth more than a win above replacement. For contrast, here is the same data for each AL East team.
|Team||Players with >1 WAR over 30||Players with >1 WAR under 30|
|New York Yankees||10||8|
|Boston Red Sox||6||8|
|Toronto Blue Jays||6||10|
|Tampa Bay Rays||0||15|
While the Yankees are perfectly average in terms of total roster age, weighing their age based on performance shows that they’re a very top-heavy team; the majority of their production comes from older players. When looking past 2016, the issue of graying players really starts to emerge. While some fans may be looking forward to the day Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Carlos Beltran are no longer on the team’s payroll, it would be foolish to push aside the value that these players bring. Grizzled veterans have long been the foundation of the Yankees, and once they’re gone, they will be sorely missed.
The sheer amount of value leaving the team in the near future is hard to comprehend, and even harder to replace. The farm system is only so deep, and the next two free agent classes are projected to be very thin. To start, Mark Teixiera will be off the roster next season. Sure, it’ll be nice to have $23 million laying around, but Teixeira was the most valuable Yankee last year in terms of WAR, earning a 3.8 mark, despite playing in just under 70% of the team’s games. Carlos Beltran and his $15 million will also be off the books after this season, and while he’s a zero in the outfield, he was the best bat in the lineup in the second half, leading the team with a 169 wRC+. Coming off the payroll after the 2017 year will be CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez. Sabathia won’t be missed, but Rodriguez was the third-best bat on the team with a 129 wRC+, and prior to his late-season collapse he was the best hitter on the club. His 144 wRC+ led the team and was the seventh-highest in the American League.
There are two important things to note here. First is the 8.7 WAR (from last year) that will be absent from the roster. That’s 49% of all of last year’s value, gone. That said, there’s also the salary relief and the extra spending money that Yankees will gain. In the short term, it will be quite hard to compete; simply building through the 2016 and 2017 free agent classes isn’t a feasible idea. Success from prospects can certainly ease the losses, but the Yankees lack impact players that are close to the majors. According to Baseball Prospectus’ top-10 Yankees prospects, just three players that are projected to be starters in their prime will be big-league ready by the 2017 season. In addition, it can sometimes take several years for prospects to adjust and reach their ceiling. The farm system has some serious talent, but much of it won’t be ready when veterans start leaving the team.
Like it or not, there’s a good chance the Yankees will use the 2016 and 2017 seasons to rebuild. On the bright side, the Yankees will shed over $41 million from their payroll next winter, and after the 2017 season, another $46 million will mercifully be gone.
It seems that the Yankees are setting up for an acquisition period in 2018. At that point, most of the Yankees’ best prospects—like Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge—will be approaching their prime, while a lot of the expensive veterans will depart. The Yankees won’t be overly young, but at the same time they won’t be too top heavy. Although some older players like Jacoby Ellsbury will likely still be around and may be overpaid, the roster will be relatively cost-effective. Analysts are already raving over what 2018’s free agent class could be—Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, A.J. Pollock, Dee Gordon, Jose Fernandez, Dallas Keuchel, Matt Harvey, Garrett Richards, Trevor Rosenthal, Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, Michael Brantley, Adam Jones, and Shelby Miller are all set to hit the market, and David Price, Jason Heyward and Clayton Kershaw would be available should they exercise their optout clauses.
This culmination of events could be the lead-up to the most legendary Yankees off-season of all-time, with a cheap roster, an open wallet, and tons of talent. It’s easy to start gushing about a free agent class that’s three years away, but at the same time, Yankee fans can’t forget about what will occur before then. Nothing’s happened yet to indicate a retool, but the Yankees did come very close to dealing Andrew Miller for prospects and, despite obvious needs, have refused to sign players long term deals in free agency. It’s not worth panicking over yet, but Yankee fans should keep in mind that this may be their last season as serious contenders until 2018.
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