Until three of the team’s four postseason starters got knocked out early by the eventual-champion Red Sox, the 2018 Yankees had a successful season. Giancarlo Stanton’s first season in New York may have been a disappointment relative to his MVP 2017, and the rotation required some midseason triage, but the team managed their first hundred-win season since 2009. And thankfully, they did not lose in the wild card game and thus highlight the weirdness in baseball design of combining wild cards with an unbalanced schedule.
The early part of the 2017 offseason was wrapped up in the grand hunt for Giancarlo Stanton, a player far more interesting than nearly every free agent actually available for signing. After a number of false starts and mystery teams and trade clauses not-waived, the Yankees came out on top in the race for not-Michael. And unusually when picking up a superstar, it was actually better than simply signing a comparable player in free agency, with the Yankees able to shed Starlin Castro’s salary and only lose two prospects (only one, Jorge Guzman, was a top 10 prospect for the Marlins according to our very own Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel).
The obsession with the luxury tax ensnared several of the larger-payroll teams over the 2017-2018 winter, and the Yankees were one of the chief actors in this little mini-play. We can argue endlessly about whether the current luxury tax system is well-designed (it isn’t) or whether it serves as a soft salary cap (it does), but it is the system in place and staying under the threshold for a year in order to “reset” the penalty rate provides a tremendous financial motivation to go cheap in the short-term.
The desire to reset the luxury tax penalty heading into an offseason in which Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and possibly Clayton Kershaw were set to hit free agency was strong, and both of New York’s other significant offseason trades reflected this urge. Chase Headley, a perfectly average third baseman for the Yankees, enough to make him a much better signing than rival Boston’s similar deal with Pablo Sandoval, was sent packing to San Diego in a pure salary dump; the Yankees gave the Padres Bryan Mitchell as compensation for taking Headley’s contract. Any notion that this wasn’t a move designed to trim payroll, that the Padres just really wanted Headley, is undermined by the fact that his new-old team gave him nine starts before sending him to the unemployment line, where Headley spent the rest of 2019.
A three-way trade with the Diamondbacks and Rays netted the Yankees Brandon Drury, who was basically brought in to fill the Headley role of a stopgap until Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar; he was made as expendable as a secondary henchman objecting to the antagonist’s devious plot in a James Bond film by the second week of the season.
The Yankees spent all of $14 million on one-year contracts for CC Sabathia and Neil Walker, a far cry from a decade prior, when they guaranteed more than $800 million in contracts after the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Only 2015-2016, when the team’s biggest signing was Chris Denorfia, was quieter.
The ZiPS projection system pegged the Yankees as two games better than the Red Sox, with just under a 60% chance of winning the division. ZiPS expected the AL East division title to essentially be yet another Yankees-Red Sox battle, with only a 4% chance of one of The Others of surprising enough to take the division. ZiPS was confident about the Yankees’ offense, seeing most of the unknown as a matter how quickly Andujar and Torres would have full-time jobs and how effectively the Yankees would continue to yank Jacoby Ellsbury’s playing time. The bullpen was projected to be the best bullpen that ZiPS ever projected. The computer’s main worry was the back of the rotation, which the computer did not see as very deep should something happened to one of Sabathia, Sonny Gray, or Jordan Montgomery.
Oddly enough for a team that won 100 games, it felt like the Yankees had more than their fair share of disappointments. Some of the fears about the rotation came to pass; Gray’s command was a tire fire in the first half and Montgomery’s season — and most, if not all, of 2019 — ended in June with Tommy John surgery. Neither Domingo German or Luis Cessa proved to be ready for a rotation spot on a win-now team, and the surprising Jonathan Loaisiga was yanked from the rotation with shoulder pain, leaving the team with obvious back-rotation holes going into the trade deadline.
Unlike a team like the Giants, who could never have made a significant midseason addition without going over the luxury tax threshold (they only had a $300,000 cushion at one point), the Yankees left themselves some space to make move that would require them taking on salary. It was enough space that the team was able to add Lance Lynn and J.A. Happ for the stretch run, and pick up Zach Britton from the Orioles to make a deep bullpen even deeper. None of these moves ended up changing the team’s postseason fate, as New York fell short in the contest for the division, but they might have if the team had gone deeper into the playoffs than they actually did.
As projected by ZiPS, the team set a new all-time record for team home runs in a season with 267, though to be honest, that result wasn’t particularly surprising. But even the second-ranked scoring offense in the AL has some plans go awry. Gary Sanchez, who had established himself as a star-level catcher in his first 1 1/2 seasons in the majors, lost a hundred points of batting average, finishing at .186/.291/.406 (he was Rob Deer-like in that he still was worth 1.4 WAR in 89 games). Further marring his season was the charge that he lacked hustle, which, combined with a groin injury, led to weeks of conspiracy theory about his health status.
Stanton also has to be considered at least a mild disappointment, dropping to 38 home runs and a 127 wRC+ from 59 and 159 his final year with the Marlins. Now, it would be greedy to focus too much on this dip — complaining about a 4.2 WAR player is a high class problem to have — but the fact remains that the Yankees did not get as much from their newly acquired star as they would have liked to see. Greg Bird managed to stay healthy for the second-half of the year, but also managed to stay around replacement level, resulting in him mostly losing his job to Luke Voit.
Those disappointments, even when combined with the Brett Gardner starting to show his age, turned out not to really matter. Aaron Hicks can rightly be described as a legitimate All-Star, which still seems a little strange to 2016 Dan, but that’s the world we’re in now. Andujar and Torres finished second and third in the Rookie of the Year voting (I would have flipped them given Andujar’s poor defense). Aaron Judge’s regression toward the mean indicated his mean was pretty damn high.
One interesting note is that ZiPS never actually knocked the Yankees down behind the Red Sox in projections. Even with the eight-game cushion at the end of the season, ZiPS still saw the Yankees as a sliver better than the Red Sox, though you wouldn’t have known it from their four-game playoff series.
What Comes Next?
In the early offseason, the Yankees have played the “Golly gee, I don’t know, the root cellar needs a’fixin’ and I’m not sure we have the money for those big city fancies with grandpa’s water on the knee” card publicly when it comes to the cream of this year’s free agent crop. This is hardly unusual this winter; most of the big spending teams, including the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs, have all been mumbling this storyline with only a few variations on the theme. Only the Phillies, with their talk of “stupid money” have really broken ranks.
That’s not to say the team has done nothing, but the moves they’ve made have largely been keeping the band together. Gardner and Sabathia, two primary remaining holdovers from the team’s prior core, will return in 2019 on one-year deals. Happ, who stabilized the back of the rotation in late summer, returns in that role for two more years.
The team also made one of the bigger trades this winter, picking up James Paxton from the rebuilding Seattle Mariners for a package led by Justus Sheffield. With a rotation that now looks like Luis Severino–Masahiro Tanaka-Paxton-Happ-Sabathia in 2019, I think at least when it comes to the pitching, the Yankees will have a quiet rest of their offseason.
Otherwise, I’m not so sure that the impression the team has given of only dipping their toes into free agency is just posturing. Ten years ago, I’d have cried total bull, but with even large-market teams seeming generally less interested in splashing cash than they have been at any point I can remember as a baseball fan (I’m 40), I’m not really sure right now. Bryce Harper or Manny Machado ought to be a fit, as would someone like Brian Dozier to fill-in at second with Torres presumably at short while Didi Gregorius recovers from surgery, but I just don’t know if the team’s hinted lack of interest is genuine or not.
There’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma going on with the Red Sox and Yankees, both teams that ought to be in the top three in MLB in 2019, in that both of them spending $200 million might not advantage either over a scenario in which both spend very little. What actually happens is one of the most interesting questions remaining this winter. The Yankees will be a very good team in 2019, but I’m quite unsure how much they’ll open up their ceiling this offseason.
ZiPS Projection – Giancarlo Stanton
How much will Stanton bounce-back from a weak-ish 2019? How beneficial would it be for him to opt out after 2020? How high can he get in the all-time home run rankings? These are questions, naturally, for the ZiPS-o-matic 5000.
No, I’m not actually calling it that.
ZiPS is more negative on Stanton than I had expected. It isn’t thrilled by his step backwards in plate discipline from 2017, now seeing Stanton with a higher chance at going down that “old player skills” career path than establishing a high-enough level for a more graceful decline phase. A lot of players who didn’t age particularly well have crept up in his similarity group, with names like Rudy York, Jack Clark, Jay Buhner, Richie Sexson, and Boog Powell all in the top ten. That gets Stanton up to 637 home runs, but like Pujols, has him petering out before he seriously gets into the Ruth/Aaron/Bonds battle.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.