Winter Report Card: New York Yankees
With less than a month before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
New York Yankees
2014 Results: 84-78 (.516), second place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key Departures: C Francisco Cervelli, RHP Preston Claiborne, RHP Shane Greene, LHP Rich Hill, LHP David Huff, SS Derek Jeter, RHP Shawn Kelley, RHP Hiroki Kuroda, RHP Brandon McCarthy, RHP David Phelps, UT Martin Prado, RHP David Robertson, OF Ichiro Suzuki
Last winter, after missing the postseason for just the second time in 19 seasons, the Yankees committed more than $400 million to outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann and starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. But after falling short of the postseason again — the first time the team has done so in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93 — New York avoided the temptation of another huge shopping spree. Instead, general manager Brian Cashman has revamped his roster via five significant trades and re-signed four affordable players whom he had acquired late last season to shore up his rickety roster in its ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of a playoff berth.
The Yankees' biggest expenditure this winter is the four-year, $52 million deal to which they re-signed third baseman Chase Headley — a financial commitment that's less than half the average of last year’s quartet and also a reported $13 million less than Headley was offered elsewhere. Though he hit just .243/.328/.372 with 13 homers split between San Diego and New York, Headley was 13 runs above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved, and he has averaged 4.0 WAR over the past five seasons, with 3.4 last year. It's a relatively inexpensive move to secure a lineup staple, and it will apparently push Alex Rodriguez — who missed all of 2014 due to his Biogenesis suspension — into a DH/reserve role. While A-Rod is still owed $61 million over the next three years, there's little reason to invest much hope in a 39-year-old coming off two hip surgeries, a full year’s absence and an average of 88 games played over his previous three seasons (2011-13).
Also returning is Stephen Drew, who turns 32 on March 16, via a one-year, $5 million deal that gives him a mulligan on a season in which he hit just .162/.237/.299 in 300 plate appearances split between the Red Sox and Yankees. With the benefit of his first full spring training since 2011, he'll likely be the regular second baseman, though he could shunt into a utility role if Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela (both rookies) impress enough to swipe the job.
The bigger news in the infield, of course, is who will replace the retired Derek Jeter, who had held the starting job since 1996. In early December, Cashman traded for Didi Gregorius, a going-on-25-year-old who hit just .226/.290/.363 in 299 PA for the Diamondbacks. Adjusted for ballpark and league, his 81 OPS+ still beats the 76 of Jeter’s final season (on his superficially more respectable .256/.304/.313 line), and the kid's a better defender to boot; via DRS, his +2 runs trumps the retired captain's -12 runs. Even if Gregorius never becomes a plus hitter, he can help the team defensively. To get him, New York made a three-way deal with Arizona and Detroit, sending away 26-year-old righthander Shane Greene, who came out of nowhere to make a solid showing with the big club via a 3.78 ERA, 3.73 FIP and an impressive 9.3 strikeouts per nine in 78 1/3 innings.
The biggest trade Cashman pulled off was the Dec. 19 deal with the Marlins that sent out another mid-season acquisition, infielder Martin Prado, as well as swingman David Phelps, while bringing back the going-on-25-year-old pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, 33-year-old first baseman Garrett Jones and 22-year-old A-ball pitching prospect Domingo German. Though blessed with a fastball that averaged 97 mph, Eovaldi whiffed just 6.4 per nine in 199 2/3 innings last year while getting roughed up for a 4.37 ERA, but as his 3.37 FIP and .327 batting average on balls in play suggest, some of that was bad luck, and he still offers upside. What he brings to the Yankees — beyond low cost ($3.3 million) and club control through 2017 — is the likelihood of a 200-inning season in a rotation where Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia are coming off injury-marked campaigns that limited them to a combined 41 starts and 258 2/3 innings. Whether it's the addition of a pitch or merely a mechanical tweak, New York is betting that it can help him eo-volve (sorry) from thrower to pitcher. As for the 33-year-old Jones, who hit .246/.309/.411 with 15 homers in 547 PA, he won't be nearly so exposed in 2015 unless something goes very wrong. A career .267/.333/.479 hitter against righties, he makes sense as a platoon DH and a more suitable backup first baseman to Mark Teixeira than the likes of Lyle Overbay and Kelly Johnson, respectively, from the past two seasons.
The most notable free agent signing Cashman has made to date is a four-year, $36 million deal for 29-year-old Andrew Miller. The sixth overall pick of the 2006 draft, Miller didn't carve out a spot in the majors until shifting to the bullpen, but over the last three years, he's emerged as an increasingly dominant force, posting a 2.57 ERA and 2.37 FIP with 13.6 strikeouts per nine. Pitching for the Red Sox and Orioles in 2014, he set career highs for appearances (73) and relief innings (62 1/3), whiffing 14.9 while holding both lefties and righties to an OPS below .500. It remains to be seen whether he or righty Dellin Betances (who put up a 1.40 ERA with 13.5 strikeouts per nine in 90 innings as a rookie) becomes the primary closer, but the tandem gives manager Joe Girardi options in terms of matchups and the ability of each to get more than three outs.
It's questionable as to why the Yankees preferred Miller to David Robertson, who saved 39 games in filling Mariano Rivera's shoes in 2014 and who has spent the past six years as a dominant reliever (2.67 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 12.1 K/9). Still, in his four-year deal with the White Sox, Robertson wound up receiving $10 million more than Miller, and his departure netted New York a compensatory draft pick as well.
However the ninth inning shakes out, Miller and Betances will head up a significantly revamped bullpen. Gone are Phelps (who made 15 relief appearances plus 17 starts) plus fellow righties Shawn Kelley (59 appearances, 4.53 ERA, 11.7 K/9) and Preston Claiborne (just 18 appearances due to a shoulder injury after making 44 in 2013). Lefties Rich Hill and David Huff, who combined for 44 appearances and a 1.62 ERA, have also departed. Kelly was traded to San Diego for Double A righty reliever Johnny Barbato, while Claiborne was lost to the Marlins via waivers.
In their place are righthander David Carpenter and southpaws Chasen Shreve and Justin Wilson. The 29-year-old Carpenter and 24-year-old Shreve were acquired from the Braves in a trade that sent 23-year-old pitching prospect Manny Banuelos to Atlanta. Carpenter saw his ERA nearly double from 2013 to '14 (1.78 to 3.54) despite virtually identical peripherals (2.83 and 2.94 FIP); his soaring BABIP (.263 to .335) is the primary culprit. He does boast a mid-90s fastball and an above-average slider that helps him miss plenty of bats (9.9 per nine in 2014) and should allow him to serve as a capable setup man. Shreve is a power lefty who works with a low-90s fastball/slider combo. He whiffed 12.3 per nine while walking just 1.7 in 63 2/3 innings at the Braves' top two affiliates before coming to the majors and notching 15 Ks in 12 1/3 innings. The 27-year-old Wilson was acquired from the Pirates in a trade that sent oft-injured backup catcher Francisco Cervelli (.301/.370/.432 in 162 PA in 2014) to Pittsburgh, thus clearing the way for John Ryan Murphy to back up McCann. Wilson, like Carpenter, was the victim of a BABIP spike that roughly doubled his ERA from 2013 to '14 despite similar peripherals. In Wilson's case, he went from a 2.08 ERA, 3.41 FIP and .232 BABIP to 4.20, 3.62 and .285. He could be the second or third lefty in the 'pen behind Miller.
Also possibly finding a spot in that 'pen — if not another ballpark entirely — is 36-year-old swingman Chris Capuano, who re-signed with New York via a one-year, $5 million deal. After making 28 relief appearances for the Red Sox, drawing his release and taking a detour through the Rockies' organization, he made 12 starts for the Yankees; in all, he finished the year with a 4.35 ERA in 97 1/3 innings. For the moment, he's occupying Ivan Nova's spot in the rotation; the 28-year-old righty made just four starts last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late April, and he won't be back until at least May. More on the rotation below.
Also returning after an in-season audition is outfielder Chris Young, who hit a robust .282/.354/.521 in 79 plate appearances after being released by the Mets, and .222/.299/.385 with 11 homers in 366 PA overall. He re-signed for $2.5 million to be the team's fourth outfielder, effectively replacing Ichiro Suzuki (.284/.324/.340 in 385 PA), who has taken his pursuit of 3,000 hits to the Marlins.
Unfinished business: Sign James Shields
The Yankees have spent the winter swearing that they would not get involved in the high end of the market for free agent pitching, and so far, they've stuck to that promise, sitting out the pursuits of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. Shields is still available, however, and there's a belief within the industry that his price may have fallen due to his age (33) and mileage (nearly 2,000 major league innings, including postseason).
With Hiroki Kuroda (who threw a team-high 199 1/3 innings) heading back to Japan, Brandon McCarthy (who posted a 2.89 ERA in 14 starts after being acquired from the Diamondbacks in early July) signing with the Dodgers, and Greene, Phelps and Vidal Nuno (sent to Arizona for McCarthy) all traded, the Yankees have shed pitchers who accounted for 91 of their 162 starts. By comparison, their top four returning starters combined for only 45: As mentioned above Nova made four; Tanaka was limited to 20 by a strained ulnar collateral ligament; Pineda made only 13 because of a strained teres major; and Sabathia took the ball a mere eight times due to degenerative problems in his right knee. None are anything close to locks to make 30 starts while providing better-than-average run prevention, and while Eovaldi might help offset that by eating up a lot of innings, with Capuano, Chase Whitley and perhaps Adam Warren providing depth, it will take a whole lot of good fortune for that rotation to hold together in a way that allows New York to be a postseason contender.
In Shields, the market offers a pitcher who has made 33 starts and thrown at least 200 innings for the past seven seasons, one with plenty of experience in the AL East crucible as well as in October (never mind his 5.46 postseason ERA) and one who won’t cost as much per year as Sabathia, who's owed $53 million over the next two years including a buyout of his 2017 option. Such a win-now move would come at a time when the division appears wide open for the taking, with none of the five teams looking particularly dominant. At FanGraphs, the Steamer projection system pegs the Yankees at 83 wins in a division that ranges from 79 to 88, while at Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA puts New York's expected output at 80 wins in a division that runs 78 to 86 — the tightest cluster of any division in the game. In theory, the Yankees can add extra wins at a point on the marginal win curve where improvement exponentially increases their chances at a playoff spot, and while signing Shields would cost a draft pick, that's not a huge blow given that they got one back for losing Robertson.
Preliminary grade: B-
New York has exercised atypical financial restraint this winter, yet managed to shore up trouble spots by adding younger and less expensive players. Gregorius and Headley are the two youngest in the lineup, with McCann, who turns 31 in February, the only other regular younger than Drew. Meanwhile, the influx of new pitchers over the last two years leaves Sabathia and Capuano as the only pitchers over 30. Payroll will still be well over $200 million, but Cashman has ensured the Yankees more flexibility down the road, and the farm system is much improved thanks to better drafting and a burst of international signings. Whether or not they deviate by adding Shields, it’s a coherent philosophy that better sets them up for the long haul, even if they fall short of the postseason again in 2015.