I’ve been thinking about the big picture of the Yankee future for some time now. We’ve had a lot of recent developments over the last couple of months that seriously impact how the Yankees are going to compete and try to win for the next 3-6 years. The new CBA, and the $189 million payroll plateau that the Yankees have very strong financial incentives to get under, really is a game-changer for the team. They will need a completely new player development strategy, and can no longer afford to make bone-headed roster decisions like the Rafael Soriano or Alex Rodriguez (or for that matter, Derek Jeter) contracts. The hitting roster is very much locked in for some time now – the Yankees largely are going to go forward with a very similar-looking group to what they currently put on the field for at least through 2014, and possibly longer.
The starting rotation, on the other hand, is in as fluid a state as it gets. C.C. Sabathia is about as close to a constant as it comes in the major leagues, and will be under contract for five years. Eventually, he is going to start to show some age, but for now there is no reason to believe he will. But the rest of the rotation? Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda have to follow up on strong rookie seasons. We’ll see if Nova’s debut was a fluke, or if he really can be that good. For Pineda, the question is really about how close he can be to a legitimate, #1 ace behind Sabathia, or if his true talent level is closer to what he did in 2011.
Down farther, the Yankees have plenty of pitching prospect at Triple-A who are close to major league ready. We’ll know a lot by the end of the season about whether or not Manuel Banuelos or Dellin Betances will evolve into above average (or better) starting pitchers, capable of posting sub-4.00 ERAs and providing presences in the middle of the rotation. And even farther down, we’ll learn about who, if any, of Adam Warren, David Phelps and D.J. Mitchell will hold down the 5th spot for years to come.
I can’t remember a year with so many questions about to be answered. By the end of 2012, the Yankees will know a lot more about the answers to important questions: What will their rotation look like for the next 5 years? How much will it cost? Do they need to go out and sign someone like Cole Hamels, Shaun Marcum, or Zach Greinke to improve it and stay in contention?
In a lot of ways, the answers to these questions are going to start coming in at the perfect time for the team. If the Yankees view $189 million after 2014 as a hard cap, which I think they may, they don’t have a ton of wiggle room to get there. The contracts given out to Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira are quite prohibitive in this regard. They have money to spend, but also have a large number of players to spend it on. Potential new contracts to Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano could be very expensive. But if the Yankees can emerge from 2012 with reasonable confidence that C.C. Sabathia and a bunch of young pitchers earning near the MLB minimum wage (or at least, arbitration-level wages) can hold down the rotation, the Yankees can be more aggressive in resigning their soon-to-be-FA stars. If the Yankees aren’t so confident, they can go out into the richest free agent class of pitching in some time and sign a pitcher to fill that hole, even if it means cutting some costs on other parts of the roster.
Collectively, this puts the post-2012 Yankees is a pretty enviable position. They have will have both the information to make good decisions about their the long-term future of their roster and the opportunities to shape it based on that information. If the Yankees are going to remain perpetually competitive over the long term, they are going to have to be much more careful with roster construction. Rafael Soriano-type deals just can’t happen, and they need to be wary of the potential dead weight that Teixeira and Arod deals bring. I regard roster flexibility as one of the most important priorities for Brian Cashman to think about. This is the biggest thing that the Michael Pineda deal brings to the table. I love Jesus Montero, but he’s a DH who can play the occasional game at catcher. He doesn’t open up the possibilities for roster construction that a successful Pineda does. Even if both are equally successful, that’s where the true value lies for the Yankees, I think.