There was a time. A time before SportsNet LA and the Guggenheim Partners. A time when the New York Yankees reigned supreme as the undisputed kings of the offseason. It seemed whenever the Yankees wanted a free agent, they got that free agent. They paid any price and outbid any team, willing to go to any length to ensure they put the best possible team on the field that money could buy.
With the rise of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Yankees’ luxury tax-motivated desire to bring their spending down, it seemed this era had come to an abrupt end. But in 2014, the Yankees proved that was not the case. They had a hole at catcher, so they signed 5-time all-star Brian McCann to a 5 year, $85 million deal. They padded their outfield by adding the consensus best outfielder on the market in Jacoby Ellsbury, giving him the second-largest contract ever handed out to a free agent outfielder. They signed aging (but still performing) Hall of Fame candidate Carlos Beltran to a 3 year, $45 million deal. They added complimentary pieces like Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and Matt Thornton. And today, they wrapped up their offseason by committing $175 million to 25-year old Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. This is what it all adds up to:
491 million dollars. Half a billion dollars. That’s more than the GDP of the Kingdom of Tonga. And these moves were clearly not made with the future in mind. Ellsbury and McCann are 30 years old. Beltran is 37. Recently re-signed starter Hiroki Kuroda is almost 39 (Tanaka, peculiar free agent that he is, is just 25, but already has 1300 professional innings on his arm). The Yankees didn’t sign these players with the aim of having them contribute to a contender in 2020. They want a team that can make the playoffs in 2014. So what did their money buy them?
First, we must look at the base level of talent the Yankees possessed before they made their big offseason splashes. Even in a disappointing season, the Yankees managed to win 85 games, six games out of a playoff spot. But they were outscored on the season by 21 runs, and actually played like a 79-83 team. In addition, they lost a player in Robinson Cano who was far and away their best, and contributed 7.6 bWAR. So the Yankees had a baseline talent level of around 71 wins. Say it takes 90 wins to make the playoffs (in the AL this year, it actually took 92). Will the Yankees find 19 games of improvement?
McCann should provide a good deal of improvement from behind the plate, as he replaces Chris Stewart, who managed a triple slash of .211/.293/.272 in 2013. McCann hit slightly under his career averages last year, but his pull swing should play well in the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium, and it seems likely the Yankees will improve by 3 wins from the upgrade at catcher alone.
Ellsbury, if healthy, is among the most valuable players in baseball thanks to an above average bat at a position of scarcity and his strong defensive play. He remained healthy for most of last year, playing in 134 games, and posted 5.8 bWAR. Beltran, despite dealing with nagging hamstring injuries through most of the second half of the season, managed another healthy, productive season, putting up a 128 OPS+ in 145 games, and was good for 2.4 bWAR (his defense, worse than in years past and likely hampered by the hamstring issues, limited his value). If the two can repeat their respective performances, that’s another 8 wins coming from the outfield.
No one has any idea what Tanaka will produce in the major leagues next year, which is what makes his 7 year, $155 million deal so incredible; it’s based entirely on scouting and speculation. But if we use his NPB stats (24-0 record, 1.27 ERA, 0.943 WHIP, 5.72 K/BB ratio in 2013) as any indication, Tanaka’s transition to the United States will be a smooth one. In his first year in the MLB, Yu Darvish, who similarly dominated the NPB (though to a lesser extent) posted 3.9 bWAR. Let’s say Tanaka does something similar, posting a 4 WAR season. That gives the Yankees 15 added wins on the offseason.
So where will the other 4 wins come from? Well, among the Yankees’ incumbent personnel, there is plenty of room for improvement. CC Sabathia experienced struggles unlike he ever had in 2013; his 85 ERA+ was far and away the worst in his career. Now looking svelte, Sabathia is a good bet to regain at least some of his old form. Mark Teixiera managed only 15 games in 2013 after suffering a wrist injury while preparing for the World Baseball Classic. The wrist has been surgically repaired, and if healthy, Teixiera will be leagues better than what the Yankees trotted out last year in his stead (though this report stating that Teixiera is expected to miss the first week of Spring Training with stiffness in his wrist isn’t promising). And then of course, there’s Derek Jeter. Yankee shortstops hit .226/.286/.312 last year; even in his age-40 season, Jeter should be able to improve on that line, if he’s healthy. Of course, that’s a big if, but as of now, Jeter is progressing well, having conducted successful on-field workouts this week in preparation for Spring Training.
So might the Yankees’ big offseason pay dividends on the field this year? It certainly could. But it’s far from a sure thing. The Yankees, as of now, are projected to field a lineup in which every position player is above the age of thirty; according to Baseball Nation’s Grant Brisbee, only two teams in baseball history had eight such players qualify for the batting title. Injuries, setbacks and regression are a given with any team, but especially for an older team, and the 2014 Yankees could be among the oldest teams in major league history. They need everything to break just right to succeed this year. They absolutely can do it. But whether or not they will is a far shakier proposition.