Looking Ahead...The Day Before Opening Day!

The Yankees offseason has not been bad as they have added a couple of pitchers, Adam Ottavino and James Paxton, who will likely be very helpful in 2019. They have also added some depth in the infield with the signings of DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki. The offseason has also not been as exciting as some fans hoped. The Yankees made only a cursory attempt to sign superstar free agent Manny Machado and even less of an effort to acquire the other big free agent, Bryce Harper. On balance, the offseason has not so much been good or bad, but simply puzzling. 

The Yankees offseason strategy seems to have been that the Red Sox won the division by eight games last years, but it is very unlikely so many things will go well again for Boston. There is a possibility they are right about that, but that can hardly be called a strategy in any meaningful sense. When the Yankees were eliminated by the Red Sox in the ALDS last fall, they had some clear weaknesses that needed to be addressed. Their starting pitching was not strong enough; defense at third base was a problem; first base was at best a big question mark; and the injury suffered by shortstop Didi Gregorius created a hole at that position. 

The Yankees made one major move that sought to directly address these problems, trading prospect Justus Sheffield to Seattle for Paxton helped the starting pitching, but that was never going to be enough. CC Sabathia’s offseason surgery may not have been easily anticipated, but expecting a full healthy and productive season from the 38 year old southpaw would not have been realistic. The Yankees chose to ignore Luis Severino’s shaky, to use a charitable term, second half of 2018 and slotted him in as their ace. That decision looks pretty foolish now as Severino is facing injury problems that probably go back to last year and may be serious.

At first base, the Yankees seem to be hoping that Greg Bird will finally become a legitimate big league hitter or that Luke Voit’s second half of 2018 was not a fluke. While the latter is probably a better bet, going into the season first base remains at least a mid-level problem. The Yankees upgraded their defense at third base by acquiring a slick fielding second baseman. Again, it is possible that Miguel Andujar will find his sea legs at the hot corner, but it is equally possible that by mid-season, Andujar will spending his time as the DH with the Yankees patching together a solution at third base that revolves primarily around a player, LeMahieu, learning a new position in the middle of a pennant race.

The injury to Didi Gregorius was a bad break for the Yankees as a young and usually healthy star will now be out for much of the season. The Yankees addressed this not by signing Machado, who would have been a very good fill in at shortstop for half a season before sliding over to third base where he would have been a huge defensive upgrade from Andujar. Instead they have taken a flyer on Tulowitzki and presumably are prepared to move Torres back to shortstop and have LeMahieu play second full time if that does not work out. That is a reasonable, if unexciting option, but is not an upgrade from their 2018 middle infield.

The problem the Yankees face is that after thinking about the future for so long, the window is upon them. Few players, other than perhaps Torres and Andujar can be expected to be better in say 2021 than in 2019 and there are no players in the farm system poised to have an impact on the big league squad. Moreover, with two other extremely strong teams in their league, the Astros and the Red Sox, the Yankees need to do everything right to win now.

A key component of the Yankee offseason is that like most teams, the Yankees have sought to convince their fan base that their hands are tied with regards to payroll, but this is not true. While there are penalties associated with the luxury tax, the Yankees can afford those penalties. No fan of the Yankees, or any other team, ever said “my team won the World Series, but I’m not all that happy because they had to pay a luxury tax to do it.” Similarly, Yankee haters will not change their minds about the team if they continue to come up against, but do not exceed, the luxury tax threshold.

This flawed approach has led the Yankees to shy away from the big moves they need to put a team together that can beat Houston and Boston in the playoffs. The most recent, and most telling example, of this is that after the unsurprising news of Severino’s injury broke, the team did not acquire Dallas Keuchel, a potential ace, but signed Gio Gonzalez to an admittedly very reasonable contract. Gonzalez is a good ballplayer, but if he gets a start in the postseason it will not be a good sign. That decision is one that reflects a stronger desire to find excuses, such as the injury to Severino, than to build a championship team. 

This Yankee team is very good, but has most of the same big holes it had last year. It is a few breaks away from winning the World Series even with the roster as it is currently assembled, but an offseason that was a bit bolder would have put them in a much stronger position. Happy Opening Day.

Photo: cc/Keith Allison