All offseason rumors point to a Yankee reload. You know by now: they’ve been connected to Beltran, Tanaka, etc, while also potentially resigning one or all of Cano, Granderson, and Kuroda.
I get it. They’re the Yankees! The solution to every poor-ish season they’ve had since 2001 was the same: go out and buy the best available free agents. And for the most part, it worked. The Yankees won the 2009 World Series on the backs of Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett, and won a whole lot of games in the 2000s thanks to Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and others.
But I think this is based on a giant misconception. In those seasons, the Yankees paid big money to supplement a very strong base. Forever, that base consisted of a group of Hall of Famers that miraculously stayed healthy and elite deep into their careers. Status Quo + Additions – Subtractions = Wins. The problem? Additions via free agency are super expensive. And even with the amount of money available to the Yankees, it is going to be very difficult to make up the ground.
The Yankees had a Pythagorean record of 79-83 this season. That means they need to add 13 wins to the roster in order to reach 92 wins, which is where the wild card teams were this season. Subtract 3.2 WAR from Andy Pettitte, 1.5 from Mariano Rivera, and 1.3 from Phil Hughes, and all of the sudden you need to make up 19 wins. If Kuroda and Granderson do not re-sign, that becomes 24 wins.
Let’s be optimistic: Mark Teixeira returns to be worth 3 wins. Derek Jeter somehow is worth 1 win. Some random reliever has a great season to replace Mariano Rivera’s 1.5 wins. Adam Warren moves into the rotation and is worth 2 wins. CC Sabathia rebounds by a full win. A full season of Alfonso Soriano adds another 1.2 wins. We now need to buy 13.3 wins off the free agent market.
Brian McCann has averaged 2.76 wins over the last 3 years, and isn’t getting any younger. Carlos Beltran is even older, and has averaged 3.2 (on a steep downward slope, btw). Even if he blows by expectations, Tanaka is a what, 3.5 win pitcher? Those three guys still get you 4.46 wins short in the most optimistic scenario. You could resign Granderson and Kuroda and cross your fingers, but then you start betting on some pretty old a busted players to not decline. But that could give you, just barely, something close to a playoff team.
Maybe this plan brings the Yankees back to a wild card playoff spot in 2014. Maybe the Yankees win the crapshoot wild card game. Maybe they go on from there and start a playoff run. But what happens after that? Can a team with so many mid-30s players on huge contracts keep contending? The Yankees trade away Gary Sanchez, Slade Heathcott, and Eric Jagielo for some 29 year old random outfielder?
Here’s the alternative scenario: The Yankees re-sign Robinson Cano. They bid for and acquire Tanaka. They may even fill some of their holes with free agents. But they let Kuroda and Granderson go. They do not let their 18th overall draft pick be lost to a qualified free agent. And that’s it. It won’t be a pretty season, but at the end of it the Yankees will have some pretty great payroll flexibility (Goodbye Ichiro! Light at the end of the Teixeira/Arod tunnels. No more crazy Jeter salary), and a bunch more solid draft picks added to the system. In the middle of the season, you might even be able to trade an Alfonso Soriano or someone else for prospects.
The prospects would have another year to develop. A few might even secure major league spots by the end of the season. The goal should be simple: take a breather and start to develop a new core group of young players. The math exercise above should make it clear: there is no long term future for the Yankees without a rebuilt core of young, good, players. The Yankees were successful for so long because they got to play Derek Jeter and company for 15 years. They added free agents periodically, but they always had a solid 15-18 win base to work off. Besides Robinson Cano (and he’s not getting younger), the Yankees don’t have anyone on the roster who can be that kind of foundation.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. The Yankees have the money to go out and sign a bunch of good free agents. They don’t have the money to do it two years in a row. Doing that big free agent binge right now means dooming the 2015-2017 Yankees to a zombie roster of declining, high-paid players. Waiting even just one season can make a huge difference.