By Mike Lalor, Contributing Writer
Major League Baseball will hold its 114th annual Winter Meetings from December 6th through the 10th in Nashville, Tennessee. For baseball fans around the world and those within the industry, the annual Winter Meetings are an exciting time where many teams shape their rosters for the coming season through trades and free agent signings. In anticipation of the closely-watched player movement, let’s take a look at the two local teams and gauge what their interests, needs, and targets may be as they head down to the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in the Music City.
New York Yankees
2015 finish: 87-75, 2nd American League East
- Lost AL Wild Card Game to Houston Astros, 3-0
Free Agents: LHP Chris Capuano, SS/2B Stephen Drew, OF Chris Young (signed w/Red Sox on 12/1/15 for 2 years, $13M), RHP Andrew Bailey
When we last saw them: The Yankees struggled to score runs down the stretch from mid-August onward, and showed their age – DH Alex Rodriguez’s bat slowed, 1B Mark Teixeira first slumped, and then was lost for the season (broken leg), OFs Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury did not hit in the second half, and C Brian McCann hit under .200 in September. By the time the team reached the playoffs, their best hitters were RF Carlos Beltran, SS Didi Gregorius, and rookie 1B Greg Bird. The Yankees lost 6 of their last 7 regular season games, finishing 87-75. They received help from Arizona (who beat the Astros) on the last day of the regular season, in order to host the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium. During the AL Wild Card matchup with Houston, the Yankees could not find any answers for Astros’ LHP Dallas Keuchel, who won all 3 of his starts in ’15 vs. the Yanks…allowing 0 ERs in 22 innings of work.
- Starting pitching depth
- Right-handed hitting
- Second Base help
- Youth, speed, and energy
Starting pitching. The Yankees are taking a deep look at their staff for ’16, and how it sets up contractually in 2017 and beyond. Let’s take a brief look at the starting staff in the aggregate – with their ’15 stats, and their contractual status long term; the number in parentheses is the pitchers’ age at the start of the 2016 season:
- Masahiro Tanaka, RHP (27): 24 starts…12-7, 3.51 ERA in ’15…signed through 2020, with an opt-out clause after 2017
- Michael Pineda, RHP (27): 27 starts…12-10, 4.37 ERA in ‘15…free agent after 2017
- Nathan Eovaldi, RHP (26): 27 starts…14-3, 4.20 ERA in ’15…free agent after 2017
- CC Sabathia, LHP (35): 29 starts…6-10, 4.73 ERA in ’15, staff leader in IP with 167 1/3…signed through ’17, with a potential $5M buyout after ’16; 2017 vesting option*
- Luis Severino, RHP (22): 11 starts…5-3, 2.89 ERA in ’15…under team control through 2021; arbitration eligible starting in ‘19
- Ivan Nova, RHP (29): 17 starts…6-11, 5.07 ERA in ’15…free agent after 2016
- Adam Warren, RHP (28): 17 starts…7-7, 3.29 ERA in ’15…free agent after 2018
*CC Sabathia’s contract in 2017 vests if he is: on the active roster and not on the DL after ’16, and he does not spend 45 or more days on the DL due to his left shoulder, nor makes 6 or more relief appearances due to his shoulder.
Starting pitching analysis. The Yankees have decent arms in the rotation, and, if they can stay relatively healthy in ’16, have good depth with those 8 starters – like most teams, they’ll need that many to get through a season. However, this staff is not durable…other than Severino and Warren, all the pitchers have had recent surgery or arm ailments that required extended time on the Disabled List. As noted, Sabathia led the team in Innings Pitched with 167 1/3. After 2017, only Severino and Warren remain under the team’s control. The Yankees would like to keep getting younger and – similar to last year – would be open to making a deal for a younger pitcher with upside, under team control. RHP James Kaprielian – the Yankees #1 draft pick in 2015 (#16 overall out of UCLA) – pitched well at Class A Staten Island in 2015, and projects as a middle of the rotation arm in either 2017 or 2018; he could debut sometime toward the end of the ’16 season.
Right-handed hitting. GM Brian Cashman struck quickly during the General Managers meeting in November to obtain switch-hitting OF Aaron Hicks from Minnesota in exchange for C John Ryan Murphy. Hicks, age 26, provides a young, athletic defender with upside, in an effort to combat a glaring Yankee weakness vs. left-handed starting pitchers. But, he is only part of the equation. Cashman will keep his options open for a righty-hitting, impact bat. Class AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre (SWB) OF Aaron Judge is on the horizon, and is likely to make his first appearance in the Bronx in ’16. Class AAA SWB C Gary Sanchez will compete to back-up C Brian McCann in spring training, and is also a right handed hitter; he debuted with the Yankees at the end of ’15, and will get a longer run in the Bronx at some point in ‘16.
Second Base help. Heading into ’16, the Yankees are currently looking at a potential platoon with veteran 2B/OF Dustin Ackley and rookie 2B Rob Refsnyder. Ackley was Cashman’s only acquisition at the ’15 trade deadline, and he proved valuable in September. Refsnyder came up briefly in June during a series at Fenway, and then again in September, showing promise with his lively, line-drive-type bat. Right now, Ackley is the better defender. The Yankees may be comfortable with this arrangement, but scouts and those in the know say they are open to an upgrade.
Youth, speed, and energy. The Yankees will look for ways to infuse these elements into the team more in ’16 and beyond. As we stated earlier, this is an older team, and its age showed itself more and more as the year progressed. Last year’s off-season trades for SS Didi Gregorius and starting RHP Nathan Eovaldi truly helped in this regard, and GM Brian Cashman is committed toward this direction. The Yankee everyday lineup is very station-to-station on the basepaths, and it inhibits Manager Joe Girardi’s options to generate offense when the team does not hit.
Potential Targets: It is well known within the industry that the Yankees are open for business, especially via trades. GM Brian Cashman will look for creative ways to address the team’s needs, but has only so much flexibility with long-terms contract payments still owed to DH Alex Rodriguez, C Brian McCann, OF Jacoby Ellsbury, and 3B Chase Headley, among others.
OF Brett Gardner is signed for three more seasons – through ’18 – for $37.5M (the team has a $12.5M option for ’19). Gardner, who has worn down in the second half during the last two seasons, is one of the few trading commodities Brian Cashman has to offer. But, looking closer, there are others. RF Carlos Beltran has only 2016 remaining on his deal, and is owed $15M for the upcoming season. 1B Mark Teixeira enters the final season of his eight-year deal, and is owed $23M+. It is not inconceivable that Cashman may be able to move Beltran or Teixeira to a team open to a veteran player for one year, especially if the Yanks are amenable to paying a portion of the contract. Closer Andrew Miller was mentioned in rumors as a potential mover earlier in the offseason, and while his remaining contract – 3 years/$36M – may be reasonable for potential suitors, it is unlikely the Yankees will unhinge the strength of their team. It was, however, an illustration that Brian Cashman is looking at creative solutions and not closing the door on unexpected opportunities.
Like most of MLB, the Yankees are interested in switch-hitting IN/OF Ben Zobrist, who could also fill their right-bat and 2B requirements. He would be a bridge until reinforcements arrive over the next few years from the farm system, and as the larger contracts expire. If Zobrist becomes unattainable, the Yankees could explore the idea of 2015 NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy moving crosstown; Murphy’s bat would play at the Stadium, and while he’s defensively challenged, he’s also versatile enough to play 2B, 3B, and backup 1B. It’s all probably unlikely, but long-term, Murphy is most viable as an American League player, where the option exists to employ him as a DH.
Earlier in November, it appeared that the Yankees and Cleveland Indians had at least discussed trade proposals that included Brett Gardner moving to Cleveland, with either RHP Carlos Carrasco or RHP Danny Salazar moving to Yankees. Those hard throwers both had excellent seasons in ’15, with Salazar partially answering questions about his durability. It is unlikely the Yankees could obtain Carrasco or Salazar without including Judge, or 20-year old Class A Tampa SS Jorge Mateo, in a deal with Gardner. The Yankees have also been rumored to be interested in young, 25-year old, Cuban-born, Cincinnati RHP Rafael Iglesias, who made 16 starts as a rookie in ‘15, going 3-7, with a 4.15 ERA. Iglesias struck out 104 hitters in 95 1/3 innings, allowing only 81 hits. Iglesias, Carrasco, Salazar or even San Diego RHP Tyson Ross are the kind of young pitchers the Yankees are interested in.
In terms of Free Agents, owner Hal Steinbrenner and Cashman were never in the market for the now-signed LHP David Price (Red Sox), RHP Zack Greinke (Diamondbacks), RHP Jordan Zimmerman (Tigers) – or still available Johnny Cueto. The Yankees were rumored to be interested in RHP Jeff Samardzija, but he’s now signed with San Francisco. RHP Mike Leake (Giants) and LHP Wei-Yin Chen (Orioles) are still out there on the Free Agent market, but these pitchers are seemingly older than the Yankees are searching for.
OF Jason Heyward (Cardinals) is a unique Free Agent. With revenue flush throughout MLB, it is unusual to see a 26-year old OF with six years of major league experience even reach free agency. Heyward has not materialized into the offensive force he was projected to be when he reached the majors with Atlanta in 2010, but he still has a host of tools and many good years in front of him. Heyward is a tremendous RF with a strong throwing arm; he’s won three Gold Gloves, most recently in 2015. He’s a patient hitter who takes his walks and gets on-base at a .353 clip for his career; Heyward’s best slotted in the #2 hole with that skill set, coupled with his ability to run well and steal bases (23 in ’15). He’s hit over 20 HRs only one time in his career, 27 with the ’12 Braves. Heyward was born in Ridgewood, and his mother is from New York City. The money Heyward will command on the market may not be compatible with the Yankees’ more recent cost-conscious approach. But, he’s athletic and 26 – and it bears watching as the GMs close in on Nashville.
Way Ahead: Here’s the bottom line — the Yankees exceeded expectations in ’15, made the playoffs (albeit a quick entry and exit), without mortgaging any of their future in RHP Luis Severino, 1B Greg Bird, 2B Rob Refsnyder, or OF Aaron Judge. In the Wild Card game, Manager Joe Girardi started a 22-year old in Bird, the 24-year old Refsnyder, and a 25-year old SS in Didi Gregorius. Definitely, 2015 was a sea change for the Yankees in their full employment of their 40-man roster and the farm system to effectively navigate the long season. The Yankees will continue to stay patient, look to get creatively younger through trades, and await the expiration of long-term Free Agent contracts.
It feels now like the Yankees and the ancient rivals, the Red Sox have switched places. New President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski has arrived in Boston in win-now mode, and the signing of David Price and trade for closer Craig Kimbrel reflect that reality. The Yankees are now the team working to stay away from long-term free agent deals, bring the payroll down, and utilize their farm system to reinforce needs at the major league level.
The Yankees will still start 2016 with American League’s highest payroll; in terms of commitments, the payroll is already at $183M – and this is prior to agreeing on contract with their arbitration-eligible players and club renewals. But, that will change over the next two seasons, and the Yankees will look to build a winner while moving under MLB’s luxury tax threshold. Fans in the Bronx can get excited about the arrival of more young players…and in a strange role-reversal, may need to be the more patient fan base in both New York City and the Northeast I-95 corridor.