By their own standards, the Yankees’ offseason has been strangely quiet. Has the team’s offseason to date flown under the radar? They’re simultaneously busy and quiet, signing two reasonably high-profile free agents and engineering two trades for everyday players. They’re both smart, eminently defensible trades, but they don’t quite qualify as Yankee-scale blockbusters.
The team improved, but as it stands, New York trails the Blue Jays and Red Sox in terms of talent. Steamer Projections ranks the Rays and Yankees as equals, forecasting an offense that marginally outscores the runs their defense and pitching allow. The offseason is far from over, but the Yankees are clearly taking their club into another direction.
The Yankees, against all odds, are getting younger. In doing so, they’re adding an element unseen in the Bronx for many years: uncertainty.
For years, fans of rival AL East teams waited on the mighty Yankees to age, decline and finally collapse like an Old Vegas hotel rigged with dynamite. For the most part, those fans never got their wish. The Yankees had some down years, but they always had the resources to paper over their mistakes, to throw good money after bad and put together a competitive team. The second wild card spot kept the 2013 and 2014 Yankees within shouting distance of the playoffs when the talent on hand suggested they didn’t belong.
But the one thing the Yankees and their core of established talents always have is known commodities. With all their money and ability to spot a salvage job worth undertaking, the Yankees always manage a reasonably high floor for their talent. They traffic in big leaguers with little mystery. The opposite of the 2015 Chicago Cubs, in other words.
The recent veteran-laden Yankees teams came with long resumes and a whole lot of plate appearances to look back on when looking to their future. Especially over the past few seasons, the Yankees bent but never broke. They won 85 and then 84 games in the past two seasons, unable or unwilling to blow up their roster. It was never stars and scrubs as much as stars and plugs — upmarket scrubs preventing the Yankees from wallowing in rebuild seasons and netting higher draft picks.
The Yankees’ roster overall in 2015 could be a reversal of this trend. When we look at projection systems, the numbers commonly used are the 50% percentile results. Projection systems simulate thousands of seasons using complex equations and algorithms. The projection numbers listed on a given player’s page represent the middle ground of a lot of math.
It’s an attempt to take a snapshot of a player’s true talent based on his age and track record, using the vast history of baseball as a road map for the path of similarly skilled players. The more information on a player, the more “accurate” the projection.
A Yankees club with Didi Gregorious and Robert Refsnyder penciled in as its double-play combo faces more uncertainty and less reliability than teams laden with True Yankees. It cuts both ways, as each player could easily surpass his modest projections. Refsnyder’s projected line of .262/.328/.390 is actually around league-average, while Gregorius’ big league exposure informs a below-average projection for the shortstop.
The revamped starting rotation has its own uncertainty, as young Nathan Eovaldi tries to align his peripheral stats and his on-field results in a new league and cozier ballpark. Even Masahiro Tanaka is an unknown because of health concerns. With just 136 big-league innings to his name, nobody can be quite sure of his ability to replicate his sparkling 2014.
There is no greater wild card in the Yankees mix than Alex Rodriguez. The presumptive Yankees DH and backup third baseman has just 181 plate appearances over the past two years thanks to injuries and, of course, his suspension. Now 39 years old, A-Rod could return and swing the bat as he always has: one of the greatest players in the game’s history who exhausted any good will to be fairly considered in this company.
Or he could be old, broken-down and rusty, an unwanted distraction and pariah without equal. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman publicly stated that Rodriguez must win a job during spring training. He rightly described the situation, and the Yankees’ unwillingness to commit to Rodriguez and his playing time sight unseen, as "a fair assessment of the unknown."
Which sounds a lot like the Yankees as a whole. They have talent, but not so much that they can really be considered playoff contenders. In their rotation, health is the question mark. Around the diamond, they face legit questions about the offensive capabilities at nearly every position, with only Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury looking like “sure things” in their lineup.
For the first time in a long time, there is a list of Yankees players who could surprise. Refsynder and Gregorious aren’t the sexiest prospects, but they — along with Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, Tanaka and CC Sabathia in the rotation — come with huge “error bars” headed into the year. Right now the team looks like a .500-level also-ran, but these huge swings could produce a surprise contender … or a last-place failure with a $210 million price tag.
The last of their dominant core walked away from the game at the end of 2014 in storybook fashion. Try as they might to get younger, to add depth and to fortify their team against the arduous marathon that is a 162-game season, the Yankees’ roster features a great many question marks.
But these swings can go both ways. The Yankees might end up as a surprise team in the AL East. You need not squint too tightly to see big years from Tanaka, Eovaldi, Pineda and their revamped bullpen while Joe Girardi juggles his expensive bench for maximum yield. Some well-timed “dead cat bounces” from Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and A-Rod, and suddenly you have a very competitive bunch. If only “very competitive” were good enough for the Yankees and their fans.