Friday, January 24, 2014

Are the Yankees Back?

Tanaka is a Yankee. Should've seen it coming (SI)
David Schoenfield pointed out that the Yankees have spent almost half a billion dollars this offseason, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Not too long ago, New York was committed to getting its payroll under the 2014 luxury tax threshold of $189 million

Because of that brazen strategy the Yankees pinched pennies last year--as much as any team that spends more than $200 million in player salaries can--and it showed on the field. When injuries downed key stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter, there was nobody to replace them. New York trotted out the likes of Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, etc. and still found a way to win 85 games.

So the Yankees did what they always do when things don't go their way: spend truckloads of money for free agents. It's impossible not to draw a parallel between this offseason and the one that followed 2008--the only time between 1995 and 2012 that New York fell short of the playoffs. The Bombers dropped $423 million that winter for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, a spending spree that paid immediate dividends when they helped New York win 103 regular season games and its first World Series since 2000.

Given how much money they spent this winter, it's tempting to crown them Hot Stove champions and start printing World Series tickets. But let's not start planning any parades through the Canyon of Heroes just yet. Yes, the Yankees spent a lot of money, but that's no guarantee of anything. Just ask the Angels, who poured almost $450 million into Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton.

It's also not much of a stretch to say that New York didn't invest that money very wisely. All the players they've purchased are flawed in some way and raise several questions about how they will perform in the future:

Masahiro Tanaka for seven years, $155 million--The latest Japanese sensation is 25 and supremely talented, but who knows how he's going to fare in the major leagues? The track record of Japanese starting pitchers that transitioned to the Show is not a particularly long or distinguished one, and the Yankees have to hope he'll be better than his over-hyped predecessors Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I happen to think he'll be pretty good, but will he win the Cy Young? Probably not.

Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years, $153 million--A good but injury-prone centerfielder who runs well, plays strong defense and can hit. Reputation aside, I just don't see what makes him so much more highly regarded than a Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino or Brett Gardner. His skill set suggests that he won't age well.

Brian McCann for five years, $85 million--The seven-time All-Star is one of the top catchers in the game, averaging 21 homers and 80 RBI per season over his past eight. But he played 102 games last year--his fewest since his rookie season--and turns 30 next month. His last two seasons have been substandard for him, so it's quite possible the Yankees just signed up for the decline phase of McCann's career.

Carlos Beltran for three years, $45 million--Beltran can bat from both sides of the plate and is still a dangerous hitter, but he turns 37 early in the season and creaky knees have diminished the value he once offered in the field and on the basepaths. All of his value is tied up in his batting, so if that starts to go...

Hiroki Kuroda for one year, $16 million--Soon to be 39 and coming off a poor second half, Kuroda is a gamble.

Matt Thornton for two years, $7 million--Former All-Star is a decent lefty option out of the 'pen, but his strikeout rate has nosedived from 12.0 K/9 in 2010 to 6.2/9 last year, when his WHIP was 1.43 and opponents batted .285 off him.

Brendan Ryan for two years, $4 million--Jeter's insurance policy. Ryan's a defensive whiz but can't hit for beans, as he's batted just .196/.268/.275 in the past two seasons combined. The Yankees would be wise to invest in Stephen Drew, who can hit and field (what a concept!)

Kelly Johnson for one year, $3 million--Robinson Cano's replacement represents a huge downgrade at the keystone position. Johnson has batted .226/.307/.395 over the last three years and doesn't figure to see those numbers improve much in his age 32 season. At best, Johnson projects to be a two-win player. Cano could be worth eight.

Brian Roberts for one year, $2 million--36 years old and hasn't played more than half a season since 2009.

With more talent and better luck than last year's edition, New York figures to contend in a loaded AL East and could very well win the division. But once again, their roster is old and top-heavy, so a couple injuries could do enough damage to sink their postseason hopes. I don't think they're going to be a fourth place team, as some have projected, but they're not good enough to win 100 games either. I'm thinking around 90, maybe 92-93 if everything goes right.

Are the Yankees back? As spenders, definitely. But as for on the field, we'll have to wait and see.

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