A Year Without the Yankees

The Yankees were trying last year, as silly as that may have been. They lacked the rotation muscle or offensive firepower to truly compete, but damn if they didn’t have a bullpen. That bullpen, combined with a largely mediocre roster, kept them just within spitting distance of relevancy until the very end. Even after trading Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Ivan Nova, the Yankees still managed to hang around and win 84 games.

They didn’t make the playoffs, of course. They did make Gary Sanchez into a national sensation, and they did bring Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren back into the fold for this year’s bullpen. Chapman came back, and then they signed two sluggers (Chris Carter and Matt Holliday) to extremely tradable one-year deals. The Yankees are the Yankees, so they brought back their well-known closer and his 100 mph fastball. They need to have star power at all times and must, at least, give the appearance of trying to compete. Those are the expectations that come with being the Yankees and having an owner named Steinbrenner. According to reports, they came very close to buying instead of selling last year.

An inspection of the team’s roster tells a different story. Last year’s team was brimming with veterans. It was a poor man’s win-now team built around the bullpen, Masahiro Tanaka, and hope. This year, it’s built around a weaker bullpen, Masahiro Tanaka, whatever’s left in Holliday’s bat, and hope that Sanchez can continue to terrorize opposing pitchers while Greg Bird immediately rebounds to 2015 form. That’s all while having an even weaker rotation than last year.

It’s probably not going to happen. Our projections have the Yankees finishing at .500 and tied for last place, and PECOTA foresees an ever-so-slightly better 82-80 finish. Basically, the Yankees appear to be the very definition of mediocre right now. They can try to sell fans on the idea that they’re going to be competitive, and in a way that’s sort of true. The team probably won’t be a total pushover, and if a few things here and there fall the right way, maybe they’re once again on the precipice of being interesting at midsummer’s time. New York would need their many young and relatively untested players all to hit the ground running if they really want to make the playoffs, and they’ll likely need a firecracker of a debut from Clint Frazier, too.

What may be the more likely scenario, though, is them trading Carter and Holliday to teams in need of power, Brett Gardner finally donning a new uniform, and multiple clubs calling on Dellin Betances to see if the bad blood between him and the team persists. There may even be talk of Tanaka appearing on the market if he has a strong season, given that he can opt out of his contract and test free agency at season’s end.

For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, this could be a year without a Yankees contention threat. Even in 2013, when they opened the season with Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells on the roster, it took them until September 25th to get mathematically eliminated from contention. Depending on how liberal they are with trades, that final labored gasp of breath could come much earlier.

And indeed, this probably isn’t a bad thing for the Yankees in the long run. They’re no match for the behemoth of a team in Boston right now and can’t possibly hope to stand up to the might of Cleveland and Houston. There are other teams in the AL with similar win projections right now. The Angels Tigers, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, and Rays are all bunched together in the 81-83 win projection group. Why not write them off, too?

Well, let’s start with the Rays. Tampa is in their usual spot of selling while still trying to remain relevant on a tight budget. They still, however, have Chris Archer, Kevin Kiermaier, and Evan Longoria, and that counts for something. They don’t feel like your typical win-now club, but if they find themselves in a position to buy, they have incentive to capitalize on it before their rotation gets too expensive and they have to start selling off arms again. Baltimore, Detroit, Seattle, and Texas are all either built around aging cores or (in the case of the Orioles) trying to win before Manny Machado wanders off into free agency. They’re firmly in win-now mode and it’s hard to see them opting to sell if they’re on the bubble.

Then there’s the Angels, who have spent the winter putting competent players around Mike Trout, which is a noble cause. Given the relative parity in the middle of the AL West, they could end up going either way. That being said, there isn’t exactly an army on the way to help Trout get his ring in future years, and if Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs can outpace their projections even a little bit, they’re off to the races. All of these teams have pressure on them to succeed now and not later.

With the exception of the typical demands associated with their market, there’s no such rush for the Yankees. Any playoff push from the Yankees would involve trading off minor-league pieces for rental players who would probably only serve to make the team acceptable but not legitimately threatening. We’ve seen that before — in 2013 with the trade for Alfonso Soriano, and in 2014 with Chase Headley. There’s no sense in forfeiting prospects and moving lower in the draft for a foolhardy tilt at the postseason windmill.

This should be a year for the Yankees to take stock of what they have. It’s a full year for Bird, Sanchez, Aaron Judge and others to deal with big-league pitching, and to see what Frazier does when he sets foot in Yankee Stadium. It’s another year to try to make sense of Luis Severino and to see what exactly they have in Chad Green. It’s an opportunity to add even more firepower to the farm system by cashing in their Carter and Holliday chips.

Hoarding prospects at the cost of legitimate a shot at a World Series title isn’t generally advisable, given the truth of the old adage about flags flying forever. Prospects are no sure thing. They get hurt and fail to realize their potential, and that fate has a habit of making itself known once you’ve failed to trade them for established talents who could’ve brought in a championship. Yet the Yankees aren’t quite ready to go all-in yet. They don’t have the depth or established talent, only a patchwork roster of the old and the new.

Fear not. Or rather: do indeed fear. The Evil Empire shall rise once more, with new champions leading the charge into battle. For now, though, it lays in wait, like a foreboding antagonist in a Tolkien novel. In the meantime, this will be a year without the Yankees. The majority of baseball fans will probably be happy about this. It’s taught from a very early age that the Yankees are the enemies to be reviled and scorned. They’re the monsters in the ghost stories. They’ll be back before you know it.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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7 years ago

“Yet the Yankees aren’t quite ready to go all-in yet.”

Correct. That will be 2019, when they have $900-ish million worth of Bryce Harper & Manny Machado.

7 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

As a Red Sox fan, that offseason is already giving me heartburn.

7 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

As an Orioles fan, it just makes me sad.

7 years ago
Reply to  eastman

Because your team won’t get to spend all the MASN revenue Harper generates anymore?

tramps like us
7 years ago
Reply to  eastman

Eastman-as a baseball fan, me too.

7 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

Red Sox might have some money to spend after 2018 as well with Hanley, Kimbrell, Pablo, Sale, Porcello off the books by 2018-2019. Might have to take a LT hit in 2019 though which Henry is OK with. Not predicting they go there though. I think the real prize is Trout

Aaron Judge's Gavel
7 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Yep, FG can probably re-run largely the same article next year too since they should be trying to reset their luxury tax. 2019 will be when the fun starts and expectations will be back to “World Series or bust.” Some of the prospects will have emerged by then, they’ll still have Betances/Chapman in the pen, and they’re likely to get one of those big FAs.

7 years ago
Reply to  Sleepy

Thanks for that. Now all I am thinking about is how insufferable my friends are going to be… *sigh*