From overachieving last year to underachieving considerably this October, the Yankees find themselves at a crossroads. They have not won the AL East since 2012 and are in jeopardy of not winning the World Series this decade, which would be a first since the 1980s.
Back in 2008, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. During the ensuing offseason, Brian Cashman lived up to his last name and his team’s reputation by signing C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira for a combined $423.5 million, and Cashman also facilitated a trade for Nick Swisher.
That year, the Yankees had a payroll of $220,024,917, which (as per usual with the Yankees) blatantly exceeded the luxury tax threshold of $162 million.
This year, the Yankees had a payroll of about $191.25 million, which was below this year’s threshold of $197 million. Yes, for the first time since the implementation of the luxury tax threshold in 2003, the Yankees will not be penalized, and their tax rate will reset.
Will they be like the Yankees of old and open up their bottomless wallets?
Brett Gardner has a club option on the final year of his deal for $12.5 million, and a buyout for $2 million. Sabathia, Happ, Lynn, McCutchen, Walker, Robertson, Britton, and Hechavarria will all be free agents, meaning that Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are the only sure bets to return in the rotation next year.
The Yankees will likely not exercise their option on Gardner, who had his worst season since his rookie year in 2008. Perhaps they could sign him to a cheap one-year deal, or they will move on, as Clint Frazier is waiting in the wings along with Estevan Florial. Or, they could pursue Bryce Harper in free agency, though that option remains unlikely given the presence of the former two.
There is also a hole to be filled at first base. Greg Bird is likely standing on his last legs in pinstripes, and Luke Voit was nothing short of brilliant this season as a Yankee, but his sample size remains very small.
Given all of those things, what should the Yankees do?
First and foremost, the rotation must be the utmost priority. J.A. Happ was terrific as a Yankee and can be brought back on a cheap one-year deal, much like Sabathia this year. Patrick Corbin, who has left no uncertainty about being a Yankee, is a free agent and is an ideal mid-rotation man.
Corbin also fits the mold as a southpaw, which the Yankees currently do not have in their rotation with C.C. and Happ being free agents, and with Jordan Montgomery likely missing most if not all of next year.
Other notable free agent starting pitchers include Dallas Keuchel, Gio Gonzalez, Charlie Morton, Garrett Richards, and former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi.
Of course, Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Matt Sauer, Clarke Schmidt, and Albert Abreu are all top pitching prospects for the Yankees who could play roles next year, too.
Then there’s the Bryce Harper and Manny Machado equation. Both can easily command long-term contracts north of $25 million annually, and the former has been constantly linked to the Cubs, while Machado’s name has often been mentioned with the Phillies.
Some feel that Harper can be Brett Gardner’s successor in left field, and also point to his left-handed bat and his pull-hitting (career 38.9 pull percentage) being perfect for Yankee Stadium.
As for Machado, proponents of his presence in the Bronx mention his all-time great defensive prowess being a vast improvement over Miguel Andujar. Machado also possesses the power and extra-base hitting skills that could propel Andujar to a Rookie of the Year award, and Machado also has better plate discipline.
Whether either of those two ends up wearing pinstripes remains to be seen, and though that remains unlikely, can we really ever count the Yankees out of any signing scenario?
Last but certainly not least is the bullpen. David Robertson (Houdini is more fitting) has been among the best relievers in baseball for a long time, and the Yankees should bring him back. Britton was shaky at times, though he still remains an elite setup man and/or closer.
Cody Allen is coming off of by far the worst season of his great career, Craig Kimbrel is an elite closer but has proven to be susceptible to melting down in big situations at times, and other notable free agent relievers include former Yankee and elite but injury-prone Andrew Miller and Kelvin Herrera.
In the end, the Yankees will almost certainly bolster their rotation via free agency. They chose to remain below the luxury tax threshold for the first time ever for a reason, and that is the primary concern for this team.
Outside of left field and potentially first base, the lineup remains a strength, but adding some speed would not hurt. Even without Robertson and Britton, the Yankees still have arguably the best bullpen in baseball with Green, Betances, Chapman, Holder, and Kahnle (when healthy), but adding a lefty reliever would help.
The objective this offseason remains: bring in Patrick Corbin, and potentially Dallas Keuchel, bring back J.A. Happ and David Robertson, find a solution in left field and at first base, and do everything possible to usurp Boston.