This off-season, the AL East has been busy. The Red Sox reloaded by signing the two of the top hitters on the market in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, the Blue Jays revived their win-now hopes by nabbing Josh Donaldson from the Athletics, Michael Saunders from the Mariners and by signing the top catcher on the market in Russell Martin. And there is the Yankees.
New York has been extremely active this off-season, but the script is not the one we have come to expect from Cashman and the Steinbrenners. In many ways the Yankees have flown under the radar, at least to the extent that the most storied franchise in sports, playing in the country's biggest market can do so. The Yankees have attacked past off-seasons much like a chopper squad under the command of that iconic Bobby Duval character, riding in when no one expects them and blowing the competition away to the sound of Wagner's Valkyries. That was the M.O. when they signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka last winter. It was the game plan that got them Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia. If you want to keep going back, the list goes on. The Yankees have let other teams set the market, then swooped in to take it over with the superior fire power of their massive payroll. It just takes one quick look at the deals the Yankees have made this year to tell you that no one in the front office is humming "kill the wabbit" as they go about their work this off-season, at least not yet.
To date the major transactions the Yankees have completed this winter have been:
What world is this? Orange is the new black, Taylor Swift is the new Jay-Z ,one-year, $5 million is the new seven-years, $100 million-plus, cats and dogs are living together, it's mass hysteria...
It is hard to look at these transactions and not conclude that something new is happening in the Bronx. They made a trade simply for a prospect, for crying out loud! Naysayers of the Yankees current plans could call these moves a series of minor bandages meant to address the bullet wounds that are their aging roster and its bloated salary. On the other hand, if this was the Rays or the Athletics, writers out there might be composing sonnets about such deals. It's true that there isn't really an obvious impact player in the bunch, but consider what the Yankees have given up here:
- Two back-of-the-rotation arms (Phelps and Greene)
- An average-ish hitter with terrible plate discipline, showing signs of decline (Prado)
- a fly ball-heavy righty reliever with some upside (Kelley)
- a wild, left-handed pitching prospect whose status has been in sharp decline since Tommy John surgery (Banuelos)
- $84 million in new commitments over the next four years and another $10 million committed only to 2015
Now, contrast that with what they have gotten back
- A starting shortstop with a solid glove who is still pre-arbitration (Gregorius)
- A LHH second baseman and backup shortstop who addresses Gregorius's platoon issues (Drew)
- A 24-year-old flamethrower in his first arbitration year (Eovaldi)
- A backup plan for the increasingly fragile Mark Teixeira (Jones)
- A third baseman with impact potential at a discounted cost (Headley)
- Possibly the best left-handed reliever in the game today (Miller)
- A right-handed, late-inning option in his first arbitration year (Carpenter)
- A second lefty for the bullpen, pre-arbitration (Shreve)
- Rotation depth (Capuano)
- AND two quality pitching prospects!
That last point really earns its exclamation point. These deals are not just a new approach for the Yankees because they lack headline-making stars or nine-figure salaries. Over the last few years the Yankees have played their usual game of buying big on the free agent market, making splashy trades for star players and paying a big price in prospects and they have gotten increasingly disappointing results. I have argued before that their strategy of continually waiting for the best players to reach free agency and outbidding the competition for them was no longer effective with teams buying out prime years so readily these days. Looking at these transactions, the Yankees seem to be coming around to that view. They bargain-hunted by choosing Headley over Sandoval. They let David Robertson walk to sign Andrew Miller at a lower price and netted a draft pick in the process, move that would fit perfectly in the Red Sox or Athletics playbook. They made unexpected, unflashy trades, got younger and got the kind of currency that can actually buy them an ace or premium bat under the age of 30. The biggest addition they have made this winter is not Gregorius or Headley or Miller, it's the flexibility to do the things they have not been able to in recent years. As Ken Rosenthal pointed out recently, they can now be players for Cole Hamels or another top trade target. Previously, even with all their financial muscle, they might have had to resign themselves to losing out on a deal for someone like that because teams like the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Cubs or Cardinals could easily outbid them in prospects. Now they can play that game too and thanks to their financial advantages, they can play it with the best of them even when drafts and international signings don't pan out. If you don't believe that is an effective way to build a team, just take a look at the Padres off-season.Now add the roughly $100 million extra a year the Yankees have to fix anything that goes wrong on the trade market. Buying big hasn't been the problem in itself, it is having few other options that has made it a problem. Now they have all the options they could want. They have fixed holes and gotten better for 2015 and they have done so by adding players they can also deal for even bigger upgrades if they so choose. That's winning the off-season in my mind.
Even if this off-season ends with the Yankees jumping back in their Blackhawks and swooping down to take Max Scherzer or James Shields away from someone else, that probably won't mean a return to business as usual for New York. Outpsending everyone can't be their only strategy in this current market. The Yankees have always had the ability to continually grab players with a few pricey years left on their deals and flip them for young players, eating some salary or taking a slightly diminished return to stockpile talent and now they seem to be doing just that. They can then deal either their veterans or the new prospects for players who are just about to get expensive (like Eovaldi) or who find themselves on a team that is no longer competitive (like Hamels). Alternately, they can bring the kids up, see what they have and keep any stars they find, dealing away the merely average talents for even more trade currency, as they did with Phelps and Greene. Their deep pockets mean that they can replace such average talents with other mid-priced free agents without a care in the world, rinse and repeat. This way, even if the top of the free agent market is no longer what it once was, the Yankees can extend their buying power into the trade market, essentially buying the farm system they have failed to build in recent years. This doesn't mean they won't buy top free agents or that they shouldn't do so, just that they have found a way around the problems that increased revenues, rising parity and an emphasis on youth around the league have created for them. Moving away from relying solely on the "Ride of the Valkyries" approach to this more patient and more subtle one can still have the same devastating effect on the competition. Now, their next move will not be limited by a weak farm system or contracts that cannot be moved, so it could be an absolute blockbuster, even one that may have seemed completely out their reach when the off-season began.
For fans of the Yankees, this new development should be a source of excitement and relief. Even if you don't see these early results as favorably as I have painted them, they could bring about the headline-grabbing deals, now or in the near future thanks to the groundwork laid out this winter. This way of working makes them more capable of landing top players even if they never reach free agency and it does nothing to diminish the inherent power they gain from being the wealthiest team in the game. For fans of every other team, these moves might as well be the first faint sounds of helicopters and Wagner. They may not be upon us just yet, but the Yankees are on their way.