By Chris Melore
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The 2018 season was a roller coaster of emotions for the New York Yankees and their fans. Led by breakout stars like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, the Bombers won 100 games.
But it was soon forgotten. Though they made the playoffs, the Yanks weren’t there for long, losing in the worst possible way — to the hated Boston Red Sox in the Division Series.
The 2019 season had been repeatedly billed as the year New York would again make its presence felt in free agency. The combination of resetting their luxury tax penalty and the availability of game-changing talent like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made a Yankees spending spree appear inevitable.
Owner Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman apparently have other plans for their payroll as the Yankees avoided the big-ticket stars and long deals that they’ve done in the past. The moves they did make left some fans scratching their heads.
With the gates to spring training in Tampa officially opening last week, let’s look back at how this year’s edition of the Yankees was assembled.
CASHMAN BUILDS AN OLD & FRAGILE ROTATION
The Yankees had several holes in the starting rotation this winter, but they chose to fill them with a 30-year-old who’s never made 30 starts due to injury, a 36-year-old journeyman, and a 38-year-old with knee and heart conditions.
For a team that’s publicly embraced youth and analytics, that’s a lot of age and injury risk added to one pitching staff.
The big splash of the offseason came in mid-November when the club shipped a package, including top prospect Justus Sheffield, to Seattle for lefty James Paxton. The 6-foot-4 southpaw has a wealth of talent, a powerful fastball, and a no-hitter on his resume, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his six-year career.
The thought process that brought Paxton to the Bronx should worry Yankee fans, as well. The trade is almost a mirror image of the deal that brought Sonny Gray to New York in 2017 — and that’s not a compliment.
- Both pitchers had two years of team control left
- Both pitchers had never made over $5 million in a season
- Both pitchers showed tremendous upside (Gray was even an All-Star in 2015)
- Both pitchers already had multiple seasons cut short due to injury
- Both pitchers cost Cashman big-name pitching prospects to get a deal done
J.A. Happ was traded to the Bronx last year and immediately impressed, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA. The last time fans saw him, however, he was walking off the mound in Boston after being shelled in Game 1 of the ALDS.
Happ was never Cashman’s “Plan A” this winter; that was reserved for free agent starter Patrick Corbin. After being badly outbid for MLB’s top free agent pitcher, Cashman quickly circled back to re-sign Happ. His two-year, $34 million contract includes a vesting option for a third season, which would pay Happ $17 million at age 38.
CC Sabathia was re-signed for $8 million in what he’s announced will be his final season. To his great credit, the big lefty made at least 27 starts over the last three years and pitched to a 3.76 ERA. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental about keeping Sabathia in pinstripes, but counting on a guy nearing 40 who had heart surgery in December to take the ball every fifth day is a bad bet.
With the number of starting pitchers still available in free agency, it’s baffling the Yankees haven’t brought in a quality arm to be an insurance policy for their extremely fragile rotation.
The club’s entire offseason strategy was built around revamping the starting rotation, but in the end the only change from 2018 turned out to be replacing Gray with Paxton. This should not thrill fans, not when names like Corbin and Dallas Keuchel were free agents and the Cleveland Indians were actively shopping Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer.
The Yankees came away with an average haul, but they had the means, motive, and opportunity to do so much more this winter. Starting Rotation: C+
A LOADED LINEUP GETS EVEN DEEPER
The 2018 Yankees had one fatal flaw on offense: they struck out way, way… way too much.
Contact-hitter DJ LeMahieu brings a new look to an all-or-nothing lineup that couldn’t advance runners in big spots last season. The 30-year-old signed a two-deal, $24 million deal last month and is also bringing three Gold Gloves awards with him to the Bronx. Although he’s an All-Star second baseman, LeMahieu may reportedly see time at third base in the event Andujar hasn’t improved his fielding.
The 2016 NL batting champion (LeMahieu hit .348 that year) is joining a former teammate in New York, Troy Tulowitzki.
“Tulo” signed a one-year deal after the Blue Jays released the 34-year-old and ate $38 million that was still owed to the five-time All-Star. The Yankees will only have to pay Tulowitzki $555,000 in 2019, an absolute steal if the slugging superstar can stay healthy.
The team is hoping Tulo will fill the void at shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns from Tommy John surgery. If he can’t, the Yankees still have infielders Torres, Andujar and LeMahieu — one of the most talented young trios in baseball. New York had nothing to lose and everything to gain by picking up Tulowitzki, so this move was a home run.
Cashman only made one move in the outfield and that was re-signing fan favorite Brett Gardner.
Like Sabathia, this was another sentimental decision by the Yankees. The problem with Gardner’s one-year, $7.5 million deal isn’t the money, it’s the logjam he creates in the outfield.
The 35-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career, posting a slash line of .236/.322/.368. Gardner’s play dropped off so much, he lost his starting job to Andrew McCutchen in September. Bringing back the aging veteran might please some fans, but it’s wasting the talent of youngsters like Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial, who deserve a shot in the big leagues this year.
Now that Manny Machado is heading to San Diego, Cashman also earns points for not trading Andujar, New York’s most consistent hitter in 2018. Offense: B+
LEAGUE’S MOST FEARED BULLPEN GETS RESTOCKED
The Yankees bullpen can be described with one word: unfair.
Since acquiring (and then re-signing) Aroldis Chapman in 2016, New York has boasted the game’s most feared lineup of relievers. It took a hit this winter when it lost trusted right-hander David Robertson to the Philadelphia Phillies, but Cashman quickly found a replacement in Adam Ottavino.
The native new Yorker inked a three-year, $27 million deal on Jan. 24. Armed with a blazing fastball and medieval slider, Ottavino is coming off the best season of his career, striking out 112 in just 77 2/3 innings. The 33-year-old has a spotty injury history, however, as Tommy John surgery limited the righty to just 37 innings for the Colorado Rockies from 2015-16 and shoulder inflammation cost him more time in 2017.
Free agent Zack Britton re-signed after a strong half season in the Bronx. Baltimore’s former closer agreed to a three-year deal worth $39 million in early January. The 31-year-old lefty struggled to regain his form in 2018 while working his way back from Achilles’ tendon surgery, but still managed a 2.88 ERA and three saves after being traded to the Yankees in July.
The club is banking heavily on Britton returning to the dominant reliever he was in 2016 (a stunning 0.54 ERA with 47 saves) and Ottavino staying healthy. If they can do that, then adding the duo to a bullpen that already had Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder looks like money well spent. Bullpen: A-
Many fans will complain the Yankees haven’t spent enough this winter. The real problem isn’t how much money they’ve spent, it’s who they’ve spent the money on.
Cashman should be credited for reloading baseball’s best bullpen and adding experienced depth to a young and talented infield. He also also avoided dishing out a $300 million contract to Machado or Harper — something the Yankees didn’t need with Giancarlo Stanton already on the payroll.
Despite the positives, the offseason went wrong when the team passed on so many opportunities to drastically improve itself in troubling areas from last year. Those Yankees won 100 games, but still finished eight games behind Boston and were embarrassed in the Division Series. Fair or not, that’s the measuring stick for success in 2019.
The game-changing talent was available to push the Yankees’ rotation past the Red Sox, but they chose not to make a blockbuster trade or break the bank in free agency. Boston’s trio of Chris Sale, David Price, and Nathan Eovaldi — not to mention Rick Porcello and youngster Eduardo Rodriguez — is younger and simply better than Severino, Paxton, Happ, Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia.
And starting pitching, as we all know, is still the name of the game.
Barring a major trade deadline deal, the Yankees’ World Series hopes are still resting on a fragile starting five, and that’s simply not good enough. Overall Offseason: B-