As the calendar approaches February, most of the teams around the majors are finalizing their roster for the start of spring training, and the Yankees are no different. Most of the quality free agent options have already been removed from the market.
Hence, barring a late-developing trade or minor free agent signing, the Yankees’ moves are done for this offseason. But should they be?
Unfortunately, PECOTA, and therefore Baseball Prospectus’ projected standings, have not been released yet for 2017. Likewise, it’s too early in the year for many of the other projection systems to boast updated projected standings. However, we have one set of projected standings from a major projection system in Steamer, who has the Yankees set for 82 wins and two games out of the second wild card spot.
An 82-win projection is kind of a bad spot to be. It’s far enough removed from the elites of the league to truly be a realistic pennant contender, but it’s close enough to a playoff spot that it’s tough to afford playing time to youngsters for development (see Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, and Greg Bird).
So is there anything left to do to improve that win total?
As I mentioned before, all of the major free agents are already signed with other teams. But whether because of fear of long-term commitments at this stage of the team’s development curve, fear of playing time leeching from youngsters for a proven veteran, or fear of the luxury tax, the Yankees never seemed keen on landing a big fish via free agency this winter anyways.
Looking at the Yankees’ depth chart, there aren’t many obvious spots for upgrade, and that’s kind of the problem. They essentially have roughly average production coming from every position, and they’re projected for an average win total as a team. Now, building a team this way is an excellent way to minimize risk during the season, whether through injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, but it also makes it much more difficult to make meaningful upgrades.
While catcher and the bullpen appear to be the only spots where the Yankees project as comfortably above average (shortstop and center field also have a chance), the only places that they project to be below average are at first base, second base, right field, and at the back of the rotation, but with all of them above replacement level.
I already talked about Starlin Castro and second base earlier this month. As for first base, I’m rather bullish on Greg Bird; besides, both Bird and Aaron Judge fall under the category of young potential future core pieces that need playing time over prioritizing a foolish gamble at the playoffs this season.
The rotation consists of two pitchers who should definitely start (Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda), one who can eat innings without hurting the team (CC Sabathia), and one who fits into the Bird/Judge category (Luis Severino, as it sounds like he will indeed get another chance to start).
If Severino does earn a rotation gig, then that leaves only one other spot. Our own Jesse Lippin-Foster recently discussed Chad Green’s candidacy, and while he isn’t the safest option, there just aren’t many alternatives out there. Looking at the remaining free agent pool, most of the starting pitchers are mediocre at best, with Jason Hammel and Henderson Alvarez the only two with even a reasonable chance to provide more than a negligible upgrade over the in-house options.
Barring a trade for a major young starting pitcher with ample team control (Chris Archer, Jose Quintana, Sonny Gray, Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, etc.), the 2017 rotation looks to be as is, with Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams close enough to the majors should a need arise mid-season.
Despite the bullpen already representing a strength for the team, the bullpen is the one place that always has room for upgrades. Thankfully, it’s also the one place in the free agent market that still contains quality options in potential bargain signings. From the right side, Joe Blanton, David Hernandez, Luke Hochevar, Tommy Hunter, Jonathan Papelbon, Sergio Romo, and Joe Smith are all interesting hurlers, while Jerry Blevins, Charlie Furbush, Boone Logan, and Travis Wood provide potential help from the left side.
As a team in the developmental stage of the Yankees, signing one to two free agent relievers like this makes perfect sense. They represent a low-cost risk, both financially and in terms of wins on the win curve, should the reliever not work out. However, should they succeed, they can either be used to help a potential wild card push or be dealt at the deadline for more long-term assets.
On a final note, the Yankees should strongly consider handing one of their relief vacancies to promising minor leaguer Jonathan Holder, who is currently without a projected major league bullpen spot.
In conclusion, the Yankees will probably not win the division, and that’s OK. They may win a wild card spot, but they may also not, and that’s OK. They don’t have an obvious solution to improve upon their current 25-man talent, and that’s OK too.
The 2017 Yankees are right where they need to be. They have a promising young core that looks to establish itself in the majors this season, and they have a strong enough surrounding talent base with a strong farm system that has the resources to upgrade at the deadline should the young core prove itself ahead of schedule.