Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the New York Yankees.
84–78 (.519), fourth place in the American League East
IF/OF Dustin Ackley, RHP Nathan Eovaldi, RHP Nick Goody, C Brian McCann, RHP Blake Parker, LHP James Pazos, 1B Mark Teixeira
RHP Albert Abreu, LHP Aroldis Chapman, RHP Jorge Guzman, DH/OF Matt Holliday, SS Ruben Tejada
Off-season in Review
In the winter of 2015–16, the Yankees were the only team in baseball not to sign a major league free agent, marking the first time in the four decades of the open market system that they had shown such restraint. Things weren't much busier this off-season, but both of New York's major roster additions were notable. The first came on Dec. 7, when New York agreed to a one-year, $13 million deal with Holliday, a six-time All-Star. He turned 37 this month and was limited to 110 games with the Cardinals last year but still managed to hit 20 home runs for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. Holliday's age and poor defense will likely lock him in as the regular designated hitter, and he could be flipped at the trade deadline if his bat remains potent and the Yankees are ready to promote more of their prized minor league prospects.
One day after signing Holliday, the Yankees made an even splashier move, reuniting with Chapman via a five-year, $86 million contract, the richest deal ever given to a closer. Chapman, whom New York traded to the Cubs last July, finished 2016 with a 1.55 ERA, 14.0 strikeouts per nine and 36 saves in 39 chances, but his real value to the Yankees may not have been evident until he was gone. With him and Andrew Miller anchoring the back of the club's bullpen for the first half of the season, New York's relievers posted a 3.37 ERA, third-best in the AL. But after those two were traded in separate deals in the last days before the trade deadline, the Yankees' bullpen produced a 4.07 ERA, the AL's second-worst. Miller, the postseason's breakout star for the Indians, won't be pitching in pinstripes anytime soon, but having Chapman back allows manager Joe Girardi to have a dynamic one-two punch with three-time All-Star Dellin Betances back in his more familiar role as setup man.
The team's only noteworthy trade came in mid-November, when New York shipped McCann—who lost his job as the starting catcher to rookie sensation Gary Sanchez in the second half—to the Astros for a pair of righthanded pitching prospects in Abreu and Guzman. McCann averaged 23 home runs in three seasons for the Yankees, but his 99 OPS+ was almost exactly league-average, and his .235 average hardly resembled the production he showed while making seven All-Star teams with the Braves. New York also saved $23 million of the $34 million remaining on the two guaranteed years of McCann's deal. Abreu is a more promising prospect than Guzman, but he is 21 and has not pitched above Class A, and his 3.16 ERA to date hardly suggests he's a piece the Yankees should count on to carry them back to October glory.
The rest of general manager Brian Cashman's moves were low-impact ones. Ackley, who missed the last four months of the season with a shoulder injury and hit just .148 with zero home runs, was understandably released. The club also parted ways with Eovaldi, who could never harness his 100-mph fastball to produce even a league-average ERA+ in two years in the Bronx and will spend the entire 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The trio of relievers let go—Goody, Parker and Pazos—won't be missed; they combined for a 5.36 ERA in fewer than 50 innings pitched, most of them by Goody.
Unfinished Business: Keep trading
Cashman got well-deserved credit for his mid-season trades last year that sent Chapman to the Cubs, veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran to the Rangers and Miller to the Indians and brought back a slew of highly-regarded minor leaguers. Those trades, plus the subsequent retirements of Alex Rodriguez and Teixeira, made clear that the Yankees are in the midst of a youth movement that could start to bear fruit as soon as this season. Some players—like Sanchez, outfielder Aaron Judge and first basemen Tyler Austin and Greg Bird—have already started to make their marks in the majors. Others—outfielder Clint Frazier (acquired from Cleveland), shortstop Gleyber Torres (from Chicago) and righthander Dillon Tate (from Texas)—won't be far behind.
Cashman would surely love to keep dealing, and if at all possible, he should find a taker for Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Brett Gardner. The two players are virtually identical—lefty-hitting, lefty-throwing 33-year-olds with decent speed and gloves but diminishing offensive production—and put up appropriately similar stat lines in 2016 (seven homers, 16 steals and a .713 OPS in 148 games for Gardner; nine homers, 20 steals and a .703 OPS in 148 games for Ellsbury). But while Gardner is a fan favorite as the last remaining position player from the team's most recent World Series winner with a reasonable two years and $23 million left on his contact, Ellsbury has an unreasonable four years and $84 million remaining on his deal. Ellsbury has accumulated just 8.0 Wins Above Replacement in three years with the Yankees, and his value—and the chance he'll ever become the player he (temporarily) was in Boston—declines with each passing day.
It's worth noting that the departure of all those bold-faced names came with a cost, most notably power production. Beltran, McCann, Rodriguez and Teixeira combined to hit 65 of New York's 183 home runs in 2016, a total that ranked 11th in the AL. The return of Bird from a shoulder injury that cost him all of last year should help, as should a full season of Sanchez, but these are still the Bronx Bombers in name only. Cashman resisted any temptation to add a slugger, such as Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo, and unless Sanchez and Judge deliver on their power potential, the Yankees may struggle to score runs in 2017.
Preliminary Grade: C
Chapman remains as good a reliever as there is in baseball, but even putting his troublesome personal issues aside, it's hard to see the wisdom in giving any closer a deal like the one he got. Could he be traded again? It's doubtful, as very few teams would be comfortable paying that much money to a pitcher who will only give them the 61 innings a year that Chapman has averaged in his six full seasons. Holliday is a one-year rental who at best will mimic McCann's production, and while Teixiera's defense could still be valuable, his .204 average was not. And the starting rotation, which was a notable weak spot aside from ace Masahiro Tanaka, was not improved upon at all.
The Yankees' current roster appears to be even further from title contention than the five games that separated them from the AL wild card last season would suggest. But further trades, especially if they are as smart as the ones from last year, could change that in a hurry and accelerate New York's return to the postseason.