The dust has barely settled on a successful if unsatisfactory Yankees season. If you stay very still, you might even hear a lingering curse meant for an umpire, or A-Rod creeping away in the distance. Technically the Yankees made the playoffs. After all, they were the first wild card, and they would have earned a full series before the second wild card became a thing. But the play-in playoff is a thing, and the Yankees lost.
Still, by all accounts, save for those written by fans conditioned by years of success to expect to the best and nothing else, this season was a success. So why does it feel so empty? While there was a lot of attention paid to Alex Rodriguez's return, the Yankees didn't receive a lot of pre-season love. Perhaps this unshakeable residue of discontent is because the horizon looks as gray as it does grim.
The Yankees already have $183.7 million on the books for next season and that's before factoring in arbitration raises for Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, and Nate Eovaldi among others. $184 million doesn't buy a pennant, or even contention the way it used to. But the Yankees can add to that—their payroll this year was just under $218 million. It won't be like the days of George Steinbrenner, but it doesn't need to be: push 90+ wins, not 100+. Then again, even if they could afford that kind of talent, where will they add it?
The roster is largely locked into place. Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Alex, Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia are vestiges of spending sprees past. That's five of nine batting spots and forty percent of the starting rotation that are reasonably not going anywhere. Add in Chase Headley and Brett Gardner as relatively inexpensive starting options, as well as the aforementioned Nova, Eovaldi, Pineda trio and you're left with shortstop, second base, starting pitching depth, and middle relief to spend on.
The good news is that the Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius trade hasn't left the Yankees in a position to justify the trade by guaranteeing Gregorious more playing time than he deserves. He's superlative defensively, and his 90 OPS+ is fine for the position, but his offensive shortcomings are only magnified by a Yankee lineup that is prone to cold streaks. Still, the only viable offensive upgrade on the market is Ian Desmond, who just suffered through his worst offensive season since 2011. If a looming free agency unnerved him, one might have concern over the mental demands of justifying a large contract in the New York market. Beyond that, the pickings are slimmer than Desmond's glove in April.
The options at second base are more varied. There's the pliable-but-aging Ben Zobrist, who the Bombers opted not to acquire at the trade deadline, the steady Howard Kendrick, and the versatile but mediocre Daniel Murphy.
It seems safe to say the the Yankees will invest in at least one of the above options, with Zobrist or Kendrick seemingly the favorites as the biggest overall upgrades, thanks to the presence of Robert Refsnyder, already at least a poor man's Murphy.
But if we look back at the Yankees season, does adding one or two of the aforementioned names really make a difference going forward? Do any of those guys contribute to the thing the Yankees already lead the league in (age)? Their contributions would only move towards offsetting the inevitable fall to earth after remarkable seasons turned in by Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
The rotation is similarly uninspiring yet similarly full. We've listed five options, and that's before mentioning Adam Warren and Luis Severino. Tanaka and Severino provide a fun if unstable one-two punch, and Nova and Pineda are serviceable guys with upside, when healthy. The fifth spot can reasonably be cycled through by the likes of Eovaldi, Warren, and Sabathia. So while the free agent market features an abundance of starting pitching options, the Yankees don't necessarily have room to go out and sign a David Price—not that they couldn't make room.
But old and stiff as the Yankees are, let's not forget that the many of these players have superstar talents within them. That's what enabled Rodriguez and Teixeira to put together the seasons they did, and what allows Beltran to remain productive at age 38. Also realize that while these Yankees are old, they're not the Yankees of old. This is a team that has invested, with varying levels of success, in the farm system and in youth. Greg Bird dipped his toe in the water and found it quite suitable. The same goes for Severino, Refsnyder, Mason Williams, etc. So while the team is pushed to capacity in roster space, their shortcomings are manageable. It will just take some creativity.
Vast improvements via the free agent market are going to necessarily include trades as well. The Yankees will have to get creative like the Dodgers did last winter, shuffling guys out from the overcrowded portions of the roster and attacking free agency as a two-pronged approach to revamping team. The good news? They have a competent enough front office to do it. Brian Cashman and company have shown their flexibility via three-team trades in the past, and they've done it via roster manipulation at present.
Maybe they'll even take a page out of the Dodgers playbook and unload a controversial veteran for an underperforming younger talent. Imagine the possibilities. A-Rod in Miami. Roster flexibility and depth in the Bronx.
Or, you know. maybe they sign David Price for $300 million.