Welcome to the second edition of Alfy’s Armchair GM column. Last week I discussed the need to keep Gregory Bird in the lineup everyday next season. This week I want to get to another issue Brian Cashman is sure to be thinking about daily – when to spend on off-season free agency. The short answer is this winter for a variety of reasons.
The Yankees have been trying to get under the luxury tax for years. Currently at $189 million, the Yankees haven’t been close to that figure. In 2014 the 25 man roster was $197,230,609 but began 2015 with a payroll of $217,758,571.
We all know big money will be coming off the books after the 2016 season. Between CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Brett Gardner’s front loaded contract becoming a little less expensive, the Yankees will have $64,125,000 free. After the 2017 season Alex Rodriguez comes off the books and Gardner’s contract continues to become less expensive, the Yankees will have an additional $22,000,000 free. Combined, the Yankees have $86,125,000 coming off the books in the next two years.
Almost as important as the money coming off the books, the Major League Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires December 1st, 2016. While there are a ton of moving pieces to worry about in the CBA, one element is nearly certain. The Luxury tax threshold will be high than it is right now. The threshold was $178 million in 2012 and 2013 and rose to its current $189 million for the 2014-2016 seasons. With teams securing mega contracts from TV network contracts, higher revenues from gate concessions, and the MLBPA being one of the strongest unions in the world, contracts will continue to rise in the immediate future requiring a higher luxury tax threshold.
I have mentioned in recent years that the Yankees goal for being under the luxury tax should be going into the 2018 season. Any time beforehand would risk the competitiveness of the team. Knowing that money is coming off the books and the Yankees have inexpensive pieces to replace those massive expiring contracts should cause Cashman to spend this off-season.
As Armchair GM, I am looking not only at the 2016 free agents, but the 2017 free agents. In short, the 2017 off-season free agent list is extremely uninspiring. For example, free agent second basemen are Aaron Hill, Chase Utley, Neil Walker, and Josh Wilson. Free Agent shortstops will be Erik Aybar, Clint Barmes, Andres Blanco, Alcides Escobar (if he doesn’t take his option) and Brendan Ryan. Of course these are only two positions, but it is pretty representative of what will be available in 2017.
There are pieces the Yankees could snag in the 2016 free agent class that will help the team immediately. If the choices were up to me, I would make a full out blitz attack for outfielder Jason Heyward, starting pitchers David Price and Jordan Zimmermann, and second baseman Daniel Murphy.
Compared to the 2017 class, 2016 actually offers a lot of options. These aren’t the only players the Yankees should go after, but these would be my top choices to really go after. I do not consider these players simply the top choices of the class, in fact I want Zimmermann and Murphy because they will be more affordable.
Jason Heyward is very young to be a free agent. He just turned 26 in August. While he hasn’t come close to his 27 home run year in 2012, he is a very well rounded player. He is coming off his second season in a row with an OBP above .350 and has the highest batting average of his career at .292 entering play today. He has a career high with 33 doubles. In fact, he has a higher oWAR in 2015 than he did in 2012. All this doesn’t even mention that at 26 he is already a 2 time Gold Glove winner.
You may be saying, “but Alfy, the Yankees already have three outfielders under contract next season with Aaron Judge coming soon. Where are you going to put him?” This is a fair question. My answer for you is unfortunate, but necessary for this move to happen. After this post-season, say goodbye to Brett Gardner as a New York Yankee. By signing a relatively team friendly deal that gets cheaper each year, Gardner has one of the only contracts on the team that is tradable. Gardner is owed $37,500,000 in the next three seasons. For his production level and age, there are a number of teams willing to take him on. That leaves the Yankees with the untradable Jacoby Ellsbury in Center and Carlos Beltran for one more year in a corner. I expect Judge to make his first appearance in the Bronx in 2016 to get ready for the full-time show in 2017 when Beltran is gone. Brett Gardner is best in the first half of the season as evidenced by his last two years in the Bronx. Upgrading from Gardner to Heyward would be huge for the team. Additionally, when considering what Gardner would be making in 2016 and taking it off the top of Heyward’s contract (probably 18-24M per year), it makes Heyward feel like a relative steal.
David Price is the best pitcher on the market and everyone will be going after him. He makes sense for the Yankees because he has spent nearly his entire career in the AL East and he is a lefty. He has a career 3.09 ERA made better with a 2.45 ERA in 2015 with a ton of strikeouts and innings year in and year out. Price turned 30 in the end of August and would likely get a contract similar to Max Scherzer’s 7 year 210M contract. If that is the figure it takes for him not to be on the Red Sox or Blue Jays for the next 6 or 7 years, show me where to sign. Imagine a rotation featuring Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, and Michael Pineda. This contract wouldn’t only be to keep him away from the AL East. This contract would be to have three potential aces in our 5 man rotation. By the time Severino starts to see his arbitration years Sabathia will be off the books. The Yankees need a lefty ace and Price is the very definition of what the team should be looking for. One note, if the Yankees give him a contract with an opt-out clause – let him walk if he opts out. Resigning after opt outs has hurt the team multiple times. The same should be assumed for a 33-35 year old David Price.
Jordan Zimmermann was my pick for the NL Cy Young award in 2015 before the season started. Of course, he is nowhere close to the award, but I still like him for a subdued contract compared to Price’s. Zimmermann will enter the 2016 season still 29 years old with some great success in recent history. He has started at least 32 games every year since 2012 and has a 3.13 ERA in that time. While he is in the NL and has been fortunate enough to pitch against the NL East every year, I think he translates into a pitcher that the Yankees can depend on for next four years. Because of his age he is obviously going to want a contract in the six year range, but he may settle for a five year deal. I wouldn’t give Zimmermann $20M a year, but if the Yankees can’t get Price, Zimmermann could be a great backup that may not get a lot of attention with his “down” year.
The Yankees are in an interesting position when it comes to second base. Personally, I am ready to fully move forward with Robert Refsnyder. His defense is improving and his bat has always been his strong suit. He may not hit 30 home runs, but you don’t need that at second base. As long as he can hit for average and be a doubles machine, he is an improvement on the current Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan combination. Aside from pure baseball, he is also much cheaper. As a rookie Refsnyder would make just north of $450,000 next season.
The Yankees may end up trading Refsnyder this off-season. I don’t want it, but I am ready for it to happen. If so, the Yankees need a real second baseman and that is where Daniel Murphy comes in. The lifelong Met knows what it takes to play in New York. He is a career .289 hitter with a .332 OBP to go with it. He’s not an offensive juggernaut, but he gets on base and he scores runs on a team that cannot score runs. His contract will be the most manageable of anyone on the list, probably in the 4 year $45-$60 million dollar range. Even that may be higher than what he ends up with. Again, Refsnyder should be the Yankees second baseman moving forward for both his play and his ability to help the team get under the luxury cap. However, if he gets traded Murphy should step in.
The Yankees have a few years before they have a chance of getting under the luxury tax. When the team parts ways with Sabathia, Teixeira, Rodriguez, and Beltran they will have a legitimate chance, especially when the new CBA moves the luxury tax threshold up to possibly north of $200 million. The lack of free agents in 2017 means the team needs to be proactive this year and understand that 2016 will have a very expensive team salary before dropping off in 2017 and even more in 2018. This is the only way to keep the team competitive while they prepare for salary shedding and more youth.