Despite a virtually unprecedented sell-off at the non-waiver trade deadline, the Yankees were in the thick of the Wild Card race through late September thanks to some significant strides from their young talent. With the path to playing time for a number of upstart players beginning to clear, they’ll look to supplement their increasingly youthful core in an effort to return to postseason play next year.
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Few would’ve pegged the Yankees as likely contenders after dealing Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman and Carlos Beltran prior to the non-waiver trade deadline, but the team hung around in the Wild Card race, buoyed largely by the superhuman performance of rookie Gary Sanchez and late flourishes from arms like CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka — each of whom was excellent in September.
However, while Sabathia, Pineda and Tanaka each finished strong, that performance is potentially misleading. Each member of that trio entered the 2016 campaign with significant health questions — Sabathia’s knee, Pineda’s shoulder, Tanaka’s elbow — and it’d be unwise to expect that group to combine for 30 starts apiece once again in 2017. With the loss of Nathan Eovaldi to Tommy John/flexor repair surgery, the Yankees’ pitching depth took a further hit, leaving it unclear as to exactly who can shoulder the load for the rotation next season.
Certainly, Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia are penciled into the mix, but the two additional spots beyond that group of veterans is up for grabs. Chad Green, Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are all candidates, and Adam Warren has done his share of starting for the Yankees in the past as well. But it’s not entirely clear that Severino’s future is in the rotation after a ghastly 8.50 ERA as a starter (47 2/3 innings) against a ridiculous 0.39 ERA as a reliever (23 1/3 innings). Obviously, those are small samples, but questions about Severino’s long-term ability to start date back to his days as a prospect, and the 2016 season certainly lends some credence to those who advocate for him to join Dellin Betances as a rotation prospect that instead thrives as a power arm in the bullpen. The 52 strikeouts that Green piled up in just 45 2/3 innings make him the next-most intriguing name of the bunch, but he finished the season on the shelf due to a flexor strain of his own, so there’s little certainty with regard to the 25-year-old.
The free-agent market is notoriously thin this offseason, though if GM Brian Cashman wants to utilize the financial flexibility he gained via the retirement of Mark Teixeira and the shedding of the Beltran, Chapman and Miller contracts to chase upside, the Yankees can certainly afford to beat the market for Rich Hill. The 36-year-old’s renaissance has been one of the most remarkable storylines of the past season, and Hill is unquestionably the only thing resembling a top-of-the-rotation pitcher on the free-agent market. He’d add his own laundry list of injury question marks to the Yankees’ ledger, of course, but Hill’s 2.21 ERA and 178-to-39 K/BB ratio across his past 146 1/3 big league innings (postseason included) are difficult to ignore.
The other top names on the market include Jeremy Hellickson, who figures to reject a qualifying offer (which curbed the Yankees’ free-agent pursuits last winter in an offseason in which they remarkably elected not to sign a single MLB free agent), and former Yankee Ivan Nova. Bounceback arms will be plentiful, with the likes of Charlie Morton, Brett Anderson, Bud Norris, Jake Peavy and Henderson Alvarez all available if they’re comfortable trying to reestablish themselves in the tight confines of Yankee Stadium.
The trade market represents Cashman’s other primary avenue to a big league rotation piece, but the GM has indicated that he doesn’t think he’s at the point where he’s ready to offload a newly acquired plethora of high-end minor league talent in order to procure a front-line starter. That could be a smokescreen and could change as opportunities arise throughout the offseason, but for now it sounds like Yankees fans should think more along the lines of Ervin Santana than Chris Sale or Chris Archer when it comes to trade targets. The subtraction of a number of a number of expensive commitments — Teixeira is already off the payroll, and both Alex Rodriguez and Sabathia will be next offseason — also allows Cashman to consider the possibility of taking on a burdensome contract from another club that would be more manageable for the Yankes. Whether it’s achieved through free agency or trades, adding an arm that’s controllable beyond the 2017 campaign seems imperative, as the Yanks could see Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia all depart next offseason.
Turning from the rotation to the bullpen, Cashman and his staff have room to add at least one arm and could possibly pick up multiple relievers this winter. Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard and Tommy Layne, who inked a big league deal with the Yankees following his release from the Red Sox, all figure to be locks for next year’s relief corps. Warren, too, will be in this mix unless spring injuries push him into the rotation. If the determination is made that the bullpen is the best spot for Severino, he’ll break camp in the big league ’pen as well. That leaves at least two spots somewhat unsettled.
The Yanks have internal options, of course. Jonathan Holder’s ludicrous minor league numbers earned him a late call-up and will place him in the mix for a spot next spring, and one of Green, Cessa or Mitchell could certainly end up in the ’pen as well if they’re not in the rotation. Beyond that, the Yankees have Chasen Shreve, Nick Goody, Ben Heller, James Pazos and Richard Bleier, giving them plenty of in-house means to fill out the bullpen.
That said, the one place that the free-agent market is stacked with high-end talent this winter is relief pitching, and the Yankees can certainly afford to play at the top of the market. There’s already been plenty of speculation about the Yankees making a run at a reunion with Chapman, and it won’t be a surprise if the Yanks are linked to other premium relievers like Kenley Jansen and former Yankees draftee/farmhand Mark Melancon. The Yankees’ front office saw first-hand how powerful a trio of lights-out relievers can be early this season when deploying the popular “No Runs DMC” group of Chapman, Miller and Betances. While Miller won’t be back in 2017, the Yankees could at least pair Betances with another dominant bullpen arm, and it’s possible of course that Severino emerges as a shutdown weapon to join them.
While there are questions throughout the pitching staff, the other side of the roster is more settled. If anything, the Yankees’ contingent of position players comes with the opposite problem; the team has more veterans and MLB-ready young players than spots to play them. The emergence of Sanchez behind the plate calls Brian McCann’s future with the team into question and makes him a strong candidate to be dealt this winter. There have already been rumblings connecting him to his former organization, the Braves, and other teams certainly figure to at the very least kick the tires — especially now that one of the top catching targets in free agency, Wilson Ramos, comes with an uncertain future due to a torn ACL.
McCann is owed $17MM in each of the next two seasons which is probably too steep, but if the Yankees are willing to include some cash to ease the financial burden for an acquiring team, they should find a taker. And considering the fact that McCann still hit 20 homers and turned in a league-average batting line (per park-adjusted metrics like OPS+ and wRC+), the Yankees can reasonably ask for some minor league talent in return. McCann won’t net premium prospects, but there’s still some positive trade value if the Yankees are picking up part of the tab. If no viable trade option emerges, rotating him between DH, catcher and first base is something the Yanks can afford as well, of course.
The Yankees also have enough depth in the outfield to consider moving a veteran. The nearly $90MM remaining on Jacoby Ellsbury’s deal and his full no-trade clause make trading him exceptionally difficult, but Brett Gardner’s remaining $25MM is downright reasonable. The sturdy veteran hit .261/.351/.362 with seven homers and 16 stolen bases this season while playing excellent defense in left field. And while Gardner hasn’t played center field regularly since 2013, he’s still capable at the position and could be an option for teams that consider the free-agent options too expensive and/or too risky.
Dealing Gardner, presumably to improve the rotation, would allow the Yankees to pursue a younger free agent or trade target. Alternatively, the team could stick with internal options like Mason Williams, Aaron Hicks and perhaps Tyler Austin (who saw a bit of time in the outfield last season) to complement Ellsbury while waiting for top prospect Clint Frazier (acquired in the Miller blockbuster) to force his way onto the Major League roster. Frazier only recently turned 22 and hit just .230/.271/.385 in his first taste of Triple-A this past season, so he looks like a player who needs some more reps in the upper minors, but he could be in the team’s plans next summer if he performs well.
On the infield dirt, the Yankees have more certainty. Didi Gregorius has emerged as a strong all-around shortstop, and Cashman spoke of second baseman Starlin Castro like someone he still believes can grow, telling FOX’s Ken Rosenthal in September that Castro still has “untapped potential” and may not be done developing just yet. Said Cashman: “He’s 26, but it feels like he’s 22 or 23. He can be a great player.”
Looking to the corners, the Yankees have Chase Headley installed at third base for another two seasons. While he was one of the most criticized players in the league due to a poor April, Headley quietly turned in solid production over the season’s final five months, hitting .265/.338/.418 with 14 homers and strong defense at the hot corner. He’s not the 30-homer monster that he looked to be back with the 2012 Padres, but Headley has 15-homer pop, good plate discipline (9.6 percent walk rate) and saved seven runs with his glove in 2016 by measure of both DRS and UZR. He’s a useful and reasonably paid option at third, and while some may be receptive to the idea of moving him to make a run at an elite option like free agent Justin Turner, that would add another long-term contract to the ledger which would begin with Turner’s age-32 campaign. For a Yankees team that has prioritized getting younger, that might not be in the cards.
Across the diamond, Greg Bird is expected to be back up to full strength after missing the season due to shoulder surgery. He’ll compete with Austin for the right to fill the spot that was vacated when Teixeira retired, and it’s conceivable that both could make the roster and split time between first base, DH and (in Austin’s case) left field. The Yankees, though, also seem like a reasonable fit to target a veteran bat at first base/DH in the event that the combination of Bird and Austin doesn’t provide the necessary offensive output to man those two positions. That’s especially true if Cashman finds a trade partner for McCann, who functioned as the primary designated hitter down the stretch in September.
Edwin Encarnacion is the top name on the market in that regard, but it’s certainly possible that the Yankees don’t want to tack on a long-term commitment to a player entering his age-34 season just as their commitments to Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez drop off the ledger. If that’s the case, Cashman could wait out the market and see if a bargain emerges. After all, there are more first base/DH types available in free agency than there are teams with a need and a starting spot open. One of Brandon Moss, Pedro Alvarez, Steve Pearce, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison or Adam Lind could ultimately fall through the cracks and be had on a cheap short-term deal that will allow the Yankees to maintain long-term financial/roster flexibility.
The coming offseason figures to once again be an active one for the Yankees on the trade market, and it’s highly unlikely that Cashman will maintain last winter’s dormant state on the free-agent market. With a clear need in the rotation and some room for creativity both in the bullpen and the outfield, it’s not unreasonable to expect a fair number of new faces on next year’s roster. But the Yankees demonstrated in 2016 that they’re within arm’s reach of contending, and it’s easy to envision them back in the thick of the AL East race next year without a massive overhaul of the roster.