Last week on this site, Ben Diamond wrote that the Yankees might be approaching a brief drop in the standings as they prepare for the massive off-season in 2018 that could feature Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and eleventy-seven other All-Stars.
A year ago I would have wholeheartedly agreed with Ben’s assessment. In fact, last September as a second straight non-playoff season wound to its end, I wrote that the Yankees were “destined for a down period, the type every other team goes through every few years, and this time there’s not much they can do about it.”
But the Yankees defied my expectations and reached the playoffs in 2015 thanks to surprising contributions from some players — notably Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran — that I had assumed to be dead money.
Still, three months ago I still assumed a short rebuild period was on the way. The Yankees’ 87 wins in 2015 didn’t seem repeatable with the team’s core aging and its depth chart stuck with some hard-to-fill holes. Brian Cashman’s commitment to youth meant the Yankees’ wouldn’t sacrifice prospects to restock the current team, which meant they would stumble through the next three years making due with what they had.
Then, Cashman went out and traded for Aaron Hicks, Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman and parted with only a backup catcher, middle reliever and four largely insignificant prospects. Suddenly the 2016 Yankees appear better on paper than last year’s team, and 85 wins looks like the floor for the upcoming season.
After all that’s happened in the last calendar year, from a surprise playoff berth to an impressive off-season, I’ve come to believe the Yankees can in fact have it all. Cashman is walking a tightrope, trying to contend while counting down the years until Teixeira, Rodrguez, Beltran and CC Sabathia come off the books and a crop of superstars becomes available. He’s not only kept from falling during this high-wire act, he seems to have kept himself impeccably balanced.
Despite his pessimistic view of the short-term future, Ben concedes the Yankees will probably compete for a playoff spot in 2016. This will be a team without stars, but thanks to Cashman, one without serious holes, especially if a mid-rotation starting pitcher arrives before Opening Day.
Let’s fast-forward to 2017. Teixeira and Beltran will be off the books, and Greg Bird and Aaron Judge will likely inherit playing time with their departures. The Yankees will likely still have to pay Chase Headley, Brian McCann, A-Rod and Jacoby Ellsbury more money than they’re worth, but a young position-player core will be in place, and by that time the Tanaka-Severino-Pineda-Eovaldi starting rotation will have hit its prime.
There’s little sense in predicting as far into the future as 2018, but it seems reasonable to assume much of the emerging group of 20-somethings will remain assembled, with other additions to prop them up. Cashman has shown in recent years an impressive ability to acquire real big-league value without sacrificing much of consequence. Eovaldi cost David Phelps. Didi Gregorius cost Shane Greene. Starlin Castro cost Adam Warren. No general manager wins every trade, but Cashman seems to be coming close. If there’s any executive in baseball I trust to make the kinds of incremental improvements that boost a team from 80 wins to 85, or from 85 to 90, it’s the guy running the Yankees.
Ben’s forecast for a Yankee decline rests on the idea that though the 2015 core was overpaid, it provided value that will likely dwindle over the next few years. And while this is true, it doesn’t take into account the group whose value will presumably increase between now and 2018. The progression of Gregorius, Eovaldi, Severino, Pineda, Castro, Bird and Judge, plus any additions Cashman makes over the next few off-seasons, should counteract some of the graying and keep the Yankees above water. Like the 2013-15 Yankees, the 2016-18 squads will feature several high-mileage players trending downward. But unlike recent teams, these next few will also include a promising group of youngsters.
The Yankees are rebuilding, but so far they’ve managed to prepare for the future without totally sacrificing the past. It’s a tough act to pull off, but right now it appears to be working.
They likely won’t be great team at any point during the next three years, but the Yankees might very well be better from 2016-18 than they were from 2013-15. At the very least it remains quite possible they remain above .500 and in playoff contention each season until the 2018 cavalry comes to join the prospects and restore the Yankees to glory.
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