After a tedious month filled with plenty of patience and very little news, Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka finally broke the freeze, signing a 7 year/$155 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees. If you’ve been paying any attention at all this offseason, the Tanaka signing should come as no surprise. That much discussed luxury tax number, $189 million, they Yankees were hoping avoid was always a pipe dream and after the big money signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran, New York almost had to sign Tanaka to upgrade what appeared to be a league average pitching staff.
Mo Money, Mo Problems
Now, the easy thing to do is to immediately write off these high dollar moves for aging players as foolish. With the way baseball (and most other sports) are continuously trending toward younger athletes, signing a pile of veterans to long-term deals seems counterproductive to winning games. But in this particular case, I don’t think the Yankees really had any other option.
Their minor league system, as everyone found out a season ago, is almost completely bereft of even moderate contributors at nearly all of the non-bullpen positions. And while that may signal a bigger problem within the organization, that’s not a problem that can even be approached in one offseason. Drafting and nurturing players into competitive big leaguers takes time, and time is something that never comes up for sale. So instead, the Yankees did the only other thing they could think of, they went out and spent $438 million to bring in 4 All-Star caliber players.
Now, to be fair, this plan is almost guaranteed to backfire at some point within the next 3-4 seasons, barring a talent upgrade in New York’s minor league system. The Yankees already have an astronomic $142 million committed to just 7 players for 2016 and most of those ball players are going to be closer to 40 years old than 30 by that point. That’s a scary proposition for a team with very little bankable talent currently under the age of 28. That’s also going to be a major problem over the next few years for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, Brian Cashman’s pipe dream of falling underneath the $189 million dollar luxury tax threshold is now dead and buried. That means New York will have to pay a 50% tax on every dollar over $189 million, which could majorly limit how Cashman and company round out the roster the next few years. The Yankees are more than likely looking at luxury tax costs swelling up near $100 million total for the next 3 seasons, which puts the onus on this current roster to win now and win often.
It also leaves the team competing with a thin roster that may not be able to withstand more than an injury or two. And thanks to their gratuitous spending, New York has also forfeited its 1st round draft pick this season, which further handicaps the draft and development process. The Yankees have basically caught themselves in a vicious cycle of spending with no way out.
But what about 2014?
That doesn’t mean its all doom and gloom however. The 2014 roster looks to be one of the better collections of talent in the Major Leagues. The infield will probably be a work in progress for a majority of the season, but the outfield is star-studded and the pitching staff has more than enough talent to get the job done. Tanaka will slide in nicely between CC Sabathia and fellow countryman Hiroki Kuroda to form a deep rotation that could easily end 2014 as one of the best in baseball. The newly acquired Tanaka was 24-0 in the Nippon Pro League a year ago, throwing 212 innings while striking out nearly 6 batters per every walk. Tanaka’s sinker heavy arsenal and biting slider should be more than enough for him to have success in the big leagues. With Ivan Nova slotted in the #4 spot and David Phelps and Michael Pineda (remember him?) fighting for the last spot, the Yankees have more than enough pitching.
The real concern should come with the bats, because outside of the recently departed Robinson Cano, this unit was a black hole a year ago. New York frequently gave at-bats to some of the very worst hitters in baseball which resulted in bottom of the league production at multiple key positions. The Yankees received bottom of the league production in left and right field while also managing to put together the worst collection of designated “hitters” in team history.
Those “hitters” managed to put up an egregious .189/.276/.307 triple slash that would make even a poor Double-A batter blush. That definitely shouldn’t be a problem this season because manager Joe Girardi has plenty of options the come with All-Star pedigrees, which should make for some fun combinations. If he’s worried about having the speed to cover a spacious outfield like the ones in Detroit or Oakland he can turn to the Ellsbury-Brett Gardner-Ichiro combo, while playing Beltran at DH. If he wants to try to play for piles of runs he might go with Ellsbury-Gardner-Beltran with the powerful Alfonso Soriano hitting DH. He can pencil this group in any way he wants, no matter what it’s a huge upgrade from 2013.
A few of New York’s other problems can be alleviated through better health as well. Mark Teixeira, even at his very worst, has never been within a hundred points of the pitiful .690 OPS the Yankees received from the likes of Lyle Overbay and others a year ago. It’s hard to imagine Derek Jeter doing much worse than the pitiful Eduardo Nunez, who might double as the only player whom the aging Jeter can still out-defend, which is saying something. The bottom of the rotation should look a bit better too, especially if Michael Pineda can make his way back. The big right-hander is still just 25 and in his only big league season he managed to make the All-Star team thanks to an overpowering fastball that racked up an impressive 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio.
But this roster still has problems despite all the money dumped into it. New York is asking some combination of Kelly Johnson, the oft-injured Brian Roberts, and Eduardo Nunez, to replace one of the 3 or 4 best players in baseball at 2nd base. Johnson is the best of the trio and he has some pop in his bat, having topped 15 homers six separate times in his career. And while his lefty swing should play nicely with the short porch, he’s leagues away from being the defender Cano is.
Nunez is even farther down that totem pole, rating as the worst defensive shortstop since the dawn of defensive metrics a decade ago. He was estimated to have cost the Yankees nearly 19 runs with his glove last year in just 75 games, which would rank as the worst season in the past decade if he had the number of innings to qualify. Oh, and Brian Roberts? Well, your best guess is as good as mine when it comes to what his production in 2014 will look like. He hasn’t even managed to crack the 80 game mark since 2009.
Even with all this spending the Yankees still aren’t exactly done with their roster. Girardi and Cashman also have to figure out what they want to do at 3rd base, which at this point, is starting to look like an unmitigated disaster. Alex Rodriguez (thankfully) won’t play an inning this year and while the Yankees’ best option might be moving Derek Jeter over, that probably won’t happen. None of the infield candidates mentioned above really have the chops to man the position, which could and probably will lead to a midseason trade.
No matter how you slice it, 2014 is going to be a massively important year in the Bronx. The Yankees roster, as currently constructed, has to compete, not only for the AL East title, but for the World Series title as well. Unless ownership wants to take the payroll to previously unheard of levels in professional sports, the Yankees are pretty much set with what they have for the next 3 seasons, which means if they don’t win, they won’t win anytime soon. If CC Sabathia, Tanaka, and others struggle in the rotation, reinforcements aren’t coming. If somebody from the infield doesn’t step up there isn’t a ready-made alternative available. The Yankees have given up all of their flexibility through poor drafting, tough luck in development and ill-advised, big money contracts. We’ll find out soon enough whether or not the Yankees have deep enough pockets to spend their way out of it.