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Winter Report Card: No free agents, no problem for Yankees' off-season

Despite the team not signing a single free agent this off-season, the Yankees' winter was still a success thanks to some savvy if somewhat risky trades.

With less than three weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the New York Yankees. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.

2015 Results

87–75 (.537), second place in American League East (Hot Stove Preview)

Key Departures

RHP Chris Capuano, IF Stephen Drew, C John Ryan Murphy, SS Brendan Ryan, RHP Adam Warren, LHP Justin Wilson, OF Chris Young

Key Arrivals

2B Starlin Castro, RHP Aroldis Chapman, OF Aaron Hicks

Off-season In Review

The Yankees entered February as the only team in baseball that has not signed a free agent to a major league contract. If nothing changes, this will mark the first off-season since the advent of free agency (after the 1976 season) that New York did not ink a player to a major league deal.

That’s remarkable, but it’s not indicative of the Yankees' winter, nor is it terribly unexpected. I wrote in November that New York seemed “likely to be more active in trades than with free agents,” and the team did just that, adding two former All-Stars and a former top-100 prospect via a trio of deals.

Winter Report Card: Astros improve but need more to stay contenders

The most significant of those trades saw the Yankees acquire shortstop-turned-second baseman Starlin Castro from the Cubs for righthanded swing man Adam Warren and veteran good-field/no-hit shortstop Brendan Ryan, the latter of whom was released by Chicago six days after joining the team. Warren, who is entering his age-28 season and has three years of team control remaining, is a valuable young arm with a 116 ERA+ in 20 starts and 127 relief appearances in the majors and was likely a better rotation option for New York than any of CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova or Nathan Eovaldi. Nonetheless, Warren is likely to be on the outside looking in with the Cubs’ starting five as well.

Meanwhile, in Castro, the Yankees get a 26-year-old–three-time All-Star who is under contract for four more seasons at just $38 million, plus a $16 million option for 2020. Castro has been famously erratic in his young career, but he thrived after being benched and then moved to second base in late August last year: He hit .309/.336/.532 in 147 plate appearances from Aug. 26 through the postseason and made a smooth transition in the field. Castro will remain at second base for New York, and with his peak-age seasons still ahead of him, he could yet fulfill his potential and prove to be a steal. At the very least, he is a gamble they can afford to take.

Winter Report Card: Giants do solid work in addressing rotation holes

The Yankees arguably took a larger risk in trading for Reds closer Aroldis Chapman in late December. Chapman is undeniably one of the best closers in the game, but he is heading into his walk year, will likely make more than $10 million via arbitration (New York filed a $9 million offer, Chapman filed at $13.1 million) and is the subject of an ongoing MLB investigation stemming from an alleged domestic violence incident in October. Chapman will not face legal charges over the incident, but under MLB’s new domestic violence policy, commissioner Rob Manfred still has the ability to suspend him. Given that Manfred has yet to act on any pending cases, there is no indication of what kind of discipline, if any, Chapman is likely to receive, but the fact that his situation will set a precedent for the new policy will probably impact that decision. It is possible that a lengthy suspension could actually delay Chapman’s free agency: He would not accrue service time during a suspension, and any ban of 46 days or longer would leave him short of a full six years of service time at season’s end. Such an outcome seems highly unlikely, however.

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If Chapman is not suspended, he inarguably upgrades the team's bullpen, giving the Yankees a devastating Big Three with him at closer and lefty Andrew Miller and righty Dellin Betances as the setup men. The team’s middle relief remains underwhelming, however, as general manager Brian Cashman flipped Justin Wilson, last year’s primary setup lefty, to the Tigers for a pair of rotation prospects in righties Luis Cessa and Chad Green. In isolation, trading a 28-year-old LOOGY who is already in his arbitration years for a pair of rotation prospects who have already reached Double A is a smart deal, even if neither of those prospects is elite (which is the case here). But for the perpetually win-now Yankees, it leaves their bullpen understaffed, as we'll explain in a moment.

The first but least eye-catching of New York's trades saw backup catcher John Ryan Murphy go to Minnesota for centerfielder Aaron Hicks. Murphy turns 25 in May and has five team-controlled seasons remaining, while Hicks is 26 and has four team-controlled years left. A former first-round pick (No. 14 in 2008) and top prospect who ranked as high as 19th on Baseball America’s top-100 list before the 2010 season, Hicks has struggled in parts of three major league campaigns. Like Castro, however, he is still shy of his peak-age seasons and could benefit from a change of scenery, as trite as that idea may seem.

Winter Report Card: Twins have quiet off-season, but with good reason

At the very least, Hicks is expected to be a sufficient replacement for departed free agent Chris Young, who was quite valuable as a righthanded-hitting fourth outfielder for the Yankees last year and down the stretch in 2014. Hicks is a switch-hitter but is better from the right side, slashing .272/.360/.447 in 261 major league plate appearances against lefthanders. A good athlete with speed and a strong throwing arm and a centerfielder by trade, he’s an ideal fourth outfielder, particularly given that New York's incumbent left and centerfielders—Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, respectively—are lefthanded hitters.

Murphy, meanwhile, won’t be missed, as top catching prospect Gary Sanchez is expected to see significant time in the major leagues this season behind Brian McCann.

Unfinished Business:Middle relief

You might think that the loss of 23-year-old first baseman Greg Bird to season-ending shoulder surgery would leave the Yankees scrambling. Bird, who initially injured his shoulder last May, played well enough after returning to action in Double A to climb all the way to the majors and hit .261/.343/.529 with 11 home runs in 178 plate appearances. In the process, he replaced Mark Teixeira at first base after the veteran suffered a season-ending shin fracture in September. Bird is expected to succeed Teixeira, who is entering his walk year, at first base in 2017 but was likely to open the '16 season in Triple A, as Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are locked in at first base and designated hitter, respectively.

The news of Bird’s injury prompted speculation that the Yankees might try to sign non-tendered Pirates slugger Pedro Alvarez, whose lefthanded power would seem to be an excellent match for Yankee Stadium’s homer-friendly rightfield. But New York still has plenty of depth and youth to cover Bird’s absence, and in the short term, utility man Dustin Ackley will be Teixeira’s backup at first base. Should either Teixeira or Rodriguez go down with an injury—a very high likelihood, given that Rodriguez is 40 and Teixeira hasn’t played more than 123 games since 2011—the Yankees can call on a trio of prospects to flesh out the lineup: Sanchez, rightfielder Aaron Judge and second baseman Rob Refsnyder.

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Sanchez, 23, was rated the 92nd-best prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus this winter. He hit .274/.330/.485 with 18 home runs in 93 games split between Double and Triple A last year before making his major league debut. He could push McCann to first base or split time with McCann at catcher and DH. Judge, who will turn 24 in April and was rated the game's No. 18 prospect by BP, hit .255/.300/.448 with 20 home runs in 124 games split between Double and Triple A last year and could force Carlos Beltran into a DH role, freeing Rodriguez up to play first base. Refsnyder, who will turn 25 in March and was rated the Yankees’ No. 6 prospect by BP in December, hit .271/.359/.402 in 117 Triple A games and .302/.348/.512 in 47 major league plate appearances last year. He could learn first base this spring now that he’s blocked at the keystone by Castro. Look for Ackley, McCann, Refsnyder and Rodriguez all to get extra exposure at first base this spring to give the Yankees that flexibility.

More pressing than a backup first baseman, then, is the need for middle relief help. Behind Chapman, Miller and Betances, New York's 40-man roster features just one reliever who was not a rookie last year or will not be one this year: waiver-wire hot potato Kirby Yates. Meanwhile, not one of the non-Big Three relievers on the team’s 40-man roster had both an ERA and walk-per-nine rate below 4.0 in the major leagues last season. As great as the Yankees' end-game may be, their rotation isn’t such a sure thing that the team can disregard those middle innings.

Preliminary Grade: B

With its developing youth movement, New York didn’t need to go big this off-season. Instead, it bought low on Chapman and made nice upside plays on Castro and Hicks and what could prove to be a heady decision to trade Wilson. You can certainly object to the Chapman trade on moral grounds, but from a baseball standpoint, the only shortcoming in the Yankees' off-season was a failure to address their middle relief. That said, those upside plays may not pan out, and Warren was more valuable, at least in the short term, than the team was willing to admit. We’ll hedge with a B, here, but overall, this was a good winter for New York.