CASHMAN SAYS, “AND THAT’S A WRAP”
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has said that it’s “99.9 percent sure the Yankees are set” for the winter. In related news, it’s 99.9 percent sure the Yankees won’t be winning the World Series this year.
Now, we shouldn’t take what Cashman said too seriously. First, this was the man who famously said during the winter preceding the 2006 season that Bubba Crosby would be the team’s center fielder going forward, cross his heart. The Yankees than signed Johnny Damon.
Since this year’s more trivial emulation of Chief Joseph (“I will trade no more forever”) came with a comment that the White Sox’ asking price for Jose Quintana is too high, we should probably read Cashman as negotiating through the media rather than truly resigning himself to playing the hand he’s holding.
In fairness to Cashman, this has been a winter in which too many teams have taken that route without it being anything like a bluff. Some of that has been the weak free-agent market, some of it is a financial conservatism that seems like the game adjusting itself to create an even greater separation between your truly tip-top players, your Clayton Kershaws, and everybody else. Two- and three-win players are going to have to accept less money and fewer years than they have heretofore received. Either that, or the owners are holding some really dire thoughts about where the overall economy is headed in coming summers.
As a result of that adjustment, which we can only pray the 30 clubs arrived at individually and not in concert (that would be collusion, after all), there are going to be some relative bargains available as we head to spring training; that, or some useful position players just aren’t going to play. That list would include Matt Wieters, Chris Carter, Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, Luis Valbuena (.253/.344/.473 versus right-handed pitchers over the last three years), Brandon Moss, and Pedro Alvarez.
Given that, the Yankees committing five years to Aroldis Chapman at an average of $17.2 million a pop, not to mention $13 million to Kindly Old Matt Holliday, seem even greater misallocations than they did before.
It’s not safe to assume Edwin Encarnacion would have been available to the Yankees at the same price he was Cleveland, but had he been, the Yankees could have signed him instead of those two and been up $9.8 million this year (don’t spend it all in one place, or, given that this is baseball, maybe you should). They’d be down $5.6 million over the next two years, but they’d have gotten that back and more in years four and five, with Encarnacion back on the market. Net savings in those last two years: $28.8 million, which would presumably still buy you quite a bit of ballplayer, even in the post-lapsarian world (by which I mean after this January 20) of 2020.
Alternatively, you could have had four years of Josh Reddick for $52 million (his price to join the Astros), and a left-handed bat with some oomph in it is something the Yankees sorely need—this was the team that batted Didi Gregorius third and fourth at times. You’d still have over $50 million that is presently committed to Chapman left to sign, oh, Brad Ziegler (a total of $16 million over the next two years with the Marlins), Holliday again if you were so inclined ($13 million for one), and send perhaps 1,000 deserving individuals on an around-the-world cruise for a year. And if that last sounds too frivolous, Jake Arrieta will be on the market next year. So too, most likely, will Masahiro Tanaka, who can opt out of his present contract. There will be places to spend the money.
That’s the future, though. The point is that there were other places to spend the money this year, and places to spend it next year if they had chosen to keep it in the bank. Given finite resources, you have to decide where to place your chips. The Yankees are limited. That’s what Cashman is confessing to, in a manner of speaking, and we know that the Yankees are constrained by the game’s tax system if nothing else. Thus he, like the 29 other GMs this winter, had to wrestle with this question: When you’re confronted by the possibility of a free-agent market low on stars and a limited budget, do you push your pile in on one player, or spread it around?
This is a similar position to that of an NFL team with a first-overall draft pick. That team has a choice between spending that pick on one guy, whoever the biggest college talent is that year, or they can trade down, pick up a bunch more picks, and try to remake their entire team by singing a few good ones instead of one great one. There is no right answer. (The only absolutely wrong answer is to do what Mike Ditka did back in 1999 as the coach of the New Orleans Saints and trade your entire draft for one player.)
However, there’s a strong argument to be made that in the case of the Yankees, who were an 84-78 team with not a lot of starting pitching then or now, a team that on a “runs scored and allowed” basis deserved to be under .500, spreading it around would have been the wiser course. Eschew the closer, skip the 37-year-old designated hitter, and go for some lower-priced items. Not to harp on Reddick, who wouldn’t necessarily have been a fit, but on an annual basis he got exactly what Holliday did.
We could also do this on a WAR basis. Assuming consistency, Chapman is good for 2.5 WAR per year. He’s a pitcher and that assumption is dangerous, but for our purposes he has received the unearned blessings of the archangel Cy Young and will continue to have good health. You can’t assume health for Reddick either; he’s missed major parts of three out of the last five seasons. Even so, he’s averaged 3.4 WAR per season. Annnnnd we’re done. We’re up money, we’re up value, we’re up years. Again, Reddick is just one possible example and not necessarily the best one, but you can see there was more than one way to go about rebuilding the Yankees.
To put this another way, if you knew you were going to have an unaccomplished winter; if you knew there was a possibility that you were going into the 2017 season with a rotation not unlike the one that finished 2016; if you knew three of the five starters were going to be free agents after the season (Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia are the other pitchers whose contracts will end in October); if you knew that you had overachieved; if you knew you were in the same division as the Boston Red Sox, would you gamble on a wild card entry to the playoffs or hang fire, work on turning your kid hitters and pitchers into major leaguers, and pass on the Cadillac closer for now? There is always going to be another closer.
It feels like we’ve wandered into territory I’ve covered in previous columns on the Chapman signing (linked above), but it’s not my intention to relitigate his value at this time. The bigger issue is what a strange non-winter it has been for the Yankees. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are still in place, not that there was much hope of anyone wanting to take any piece of Ellsbury’s contract. The rotation is unimproved. If Holliday was signed to give a young team, which is still not young, the leadership example derived from 72 career postseason games, fair enough. But to say, “Okay, I’m through” in the second week of January when there was so much that could still be done and so much that should have been done is a weirdly defeated posture for a general manager to take.
Or maybe it’s just a Bubba Crosby thing, who knows.
ONE MORE REDDICK NOTE
Reddick doesn’t look like the most valuable player because, though he fights the label, he’s a platoon guy (.218/.280/.360 career versus left-handers) who gets hurt a lot, and he slumped badly upon being acquired by the Dodgers. That last is a momentary thing, however, and over the longer haul he’s hit the guys he’s supposed to (.270/.330/.457 career) and played strong defense.
He’s been a terrible hitter in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, but there’s no reason to think that’s anything more than a fluke. Minute Maid favors left-handed power, unlike Reddick’s former home, the Oakland Coliseum, which suppresses it. During Reddick’s five years in Oakland, he hit .253/.325/.423 with a home run every 29 at-bats in his home park, .260/.318/.456 with a home run every 22 at-bats on the road. Per 500 at-bats, that’s the difference between hitting 17 and 23 home runs a year. That’s still not MVP territory, but it’s something, particularly if the defense holds up.