This year, the New York Mets temporarily captivated “The Big Apple” throughout their Pennant winning run. Meanwhile, the Yankees suffered an early playoff exit to an up and coming Houston Astros squad that has the foundation to compete for the foreseeable future. Here is a checklist of five priorities General Manager Brian Cashman should consider to bring the “Bronx Bombers” back into the Fall Classic.
1. Avoid the Surplus of Elite Aces
This winter, pitching is the subject of conversation among baseball writers and fans alike. Several of baseball’s best pitchers, including 2015 Cy Young Award candidates David Price and Zack Greinke, enter free agency with the hopes of earning a contract comparable to the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer. Scherzer was awarded a seven year, $210 million dollar deal to be at the forefront of what (on paper) looked to be the best rotation in the game.
While Price, Greinke, and the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals’ Johnny Cueto may appear tempting for any club to take the next step, age needs to be of concern. All three pitchers are already over 30 years old and have thrown over 1400 innings. This should be a red flag especially to a Yankees team enduring the final, ugly years of its C.C. Sabathia contract. Sabathia helped New York win in his first year, but Scherzer was meant to do the same in Washington and the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs. One pitcher can help a team contend, but it is no guarantee. With the amount of time and money dedicated taken into consideration, Cashman should steer clear.
This, however, does not mean they should go without at least considering some of the more affordable assets they could potentially obtain. Their current rotation for 2016 already features at least seven different arms within their organization, but it’s often said that “you can never have enough pitching.” They have been linked to free agent right hander Jeff Samardzija, who, after the worst year of his career; could be had for cheap. Mike Leake could be a possible match as well, and could serve in the lower half of the rotation. An extra pitcher could wind up being a smart investment considering the injury potential of Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, and Ivan Nova, and the off field issues surrounding Sabathia.
2. Sign Ben Zobrist
The Yankees have burdened themselves with an overwhelming number of unwanted long term contracts ever since George Steinbrenner revolutionized the free agent market in the 1970’s. They have never seemed to learn their lesson and only reward players who are capable of performing well throughout a majority of the deal, beyond just the first few years. Prior to 2014, they spent about a half billion dollars allocated between Tanaka, catcher Brian McCann, and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. All four players have been productive in their time, but it can be argued that none of them were really worth their contract.
The only player of that quartet whose salary was a fair estimate of his projected value was Beltran, who was only signed for a three year contract. The goal of his deal was to provide a switch hitting savvy veteran who could bridge the gap for prospect outfielder Aaron Judge. With Beltran coming off the books following the 2016 season, it may be smart to reach out to Ben Zobrist for a similar offer.
Zobrist will turn 35 next year, and his offensive production has declined. However, he is relatively durable and quite possibly the best utility player of this generation. He can play every position but pitcher and catcher, with his strengths coming at second base and in the outfield. Acquiring him will give the Yankees flexibility, which is desperately needed with as many aging, injury prone position players as they have. For much of 2015, they had the third worst offensive production at second base (according to River Ave. Blues). Stephen Drew was released this past week, and they are left with Dustin Ackley and unproven prospect Rob Refsnyder to fill the void. Having the option of starting Zobrist over either of those two, or in order to give others needed days off, would be welcoming.
3. Relieve the Bullpen
One of the biggest positives the Yankees benefitted from in 2015 was the strength of their bullpen. Closer Andrew Miller joined the fold after receiving a 4 year, $36 million dollar deal, and he went on to win the AL Reliever of the Year. Dellin Betances continued his recent stretch of dominance, finishing the year with a 6-4 record, a 1.50 ERA, and 131 strikeouts. He has thrown more innings than any other reliever over the past two years, and the end of last year showed that he was human after all. Fatigue may have been a factor in Betances’ late season regression, and it was certainly warranted.
Manager Joe Girardi has always placed an emphasis on his bullpens. He is typically pleased with his starters exiting the game in the 5th or 6th inning, which has often been a topic of debate among Yankees fans. His expectations make it so the bullpen is counted on to hold the game for at least three innings on most nights, and often this means some combination of Betances and/or Miller are needed to keep the score in tact.
It would be smart for Cashman to look to add one or two more established right handed bullpen options, either by trade or through free agency. Ryan Madson and Darren O’Day are free agents and it appears as though a majority of the game's top closers are on the trade market. More relievers will allow for Betances, Miller, breakout left hander Justin Wilson, and Adam Warren to breathe between appearances and potentially make them even more effective.
4. Flip an Outfielder to Sign Jason Heyward
It may not appear so concerning at the moment, but the Yankees are set up for some serious decline at the top of their lineup. Brett Gardner and Ellsbury showed their capabilities and chemistry batting leadoff and second in the order in April and May, but injuries hampered their hot starts.
Ellsbury was placed on the disabled list in May after spraining his knee, and batted .220 following the All Star break. Newly hired hitting coach Alan Cockrell revealed that Gardner also played through a wrist injury during most of the second half, ultimately causing him to bat just .206 in that same timeframe. Their lingering pain affected the lineup’s explosiveness, and Girardi wound up having to bench Ellsbury for Chris Young in the Wild Card Game.
Gardner is currently signed through 2018 with a team option for 2019, and is owed $37.5 million guaranteed. Meanwhile, Ellsbury is owed $105.7 million through 2020 with a team option in 2021. Both players offer similar value, despite the enormous difference in their average annual value. Gardner was drafted by the Yankees in 2005 and has played his entire career in New York, whereas Ellsbury came up through the Red Sox system and played his best years there.
Because Gardner’s contract is considerably more affordable than Ellsbury’s, he is widely regarded as their best trade chip. Yankee fans may prefer to see Ellsbury moved than the fan favorite, but Brian Cashman may not have a choice. Moving one of the contracts would help not only add additional value elsewhere on the team (perhaps in the bullpen, such as elite closer Craig Kimbrel of the Padres), but would open up another spot in the outfield.
Much has been made about the 2016 Free Agent pool containing the most value until 2019, when Bryce Harper is projected to become a free agent. The Yankees have been linked to Harper since he was a prospect, but there are no guarantees that he will wind up in New York. Rather than waiting, it may be wise to use some of the approximate $62 million that will come off the books soon from Beltran, Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira’s expiring contracts towards a long term outfield mainstay. That player is Jason Heyward.
Heyward was a mega prospect when he arrived in Atlanta in 2010. In his first game for the Braves, after Hank Aaron tossed out the ceremonial first pitch and passed the baton, Heyward hit a home run in his first career at bat. He drew comparisons to Willie Mays, and was even nicknamed “The J-Hey Kid” in his honor. He placed second in NL Rookie of the Year voting that year and made the All Star team after batting .277 with 18 home runs.
Since then, he hasn’t quite tapped into the power potential he once offered. He only hit over 20 long balls once, in 2012. He does offer value in other facets of the game, collecting a career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value of 31.1. He has been touted as the best defensive right fielder in the game, and was given the 2014 Wilson MLB Defensive Player of the Year award in recognition.
After being dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals last offseason for pitcher Shelby Miller, Heyward enjoyed his best year to date, batting .293 and helping the Cardinals to the best regular season record in baseball. He batted .357 in 14 at bats against the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS as well.
Oh yeah: and he’s still only 26 years old.
Signing Heyward will not be easy, as he makes for the most interesting free agent storyline of the offseason due to his relative youth compared to other outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Justin Upton. Technically, a player doesn’t typically begin their “prime” seasons until around the age of 27, so there is a chance he could still increase his home run output. Even if he doesn’t, he is a fantastic athlete with no history of off field issues and would be a key component of the lineup for years to come.
St. Louis grew attached to Heyward in their lone year together, and is likely to offer him a significant contract to stick around. But if Cashman were wise, and is able to move either Gardner or Ellsbury; he is worth a second look. Harper may be available eventually, but if the Yankees plan on winning now, Heyward would increase their chances.
5. Keep Core Prospects Together
In spite of all the free agent speculation I have discussed thus far, I do love what the management has done in recent years to improve their farm system and youth as a collective. Didi Gregorius stepped into Derek Jeter’s shoes and evolved into one of the better shortstops in the American League by the end of 2015. Nathan Eovaldi performed well in the rotation, using his high velocity to collect 14 wins. And Yankee fans were entertained with the debuts of top prospects Luis Severino and Greg Bird; who were all able to contribute significantly when called upon.
When the Yankees won four World Series titles in five years during the late 1990’s dynasty, their roster was composed of a mix of excellent young players such as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera, and veteran leaders like Paul O’Neill and David Cone. Youthful teams today such as the Cubs and Mets were able to use a similar formula to make deep postseason runs.
This Yankees team can do the same with the few maneuvers suggested above and a continuation of the good things they managed to do in 2015. But the core needs to stay together, which means Brian Cashman needs to find ways to improve the team without trading Severino, Bird, Gregorius, or Judge. The team needs to establish chemistry in order to win (see: Royals), and years of experience playing together will do just that.
There may be bumps and bruises along the way, but this strategy gives them the best chance of hoisting the World Series trophy by the end of next October. That, everyone; is Yankees baseball at its finest.