The New York Yankees entered the 2013 Winter Meetings and the second week of December after already having made several huge signings, but they still find themselves with prominent holes at second base, third base and in the starting rotation.
Re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and picking up Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran—along with insurance options like Brendan Ryan and Kelly Johnson—is just the first step in trying to right the ship of the past four seasons.
After their 27th World Series title in 2009, the Yankees exited from the ALCS as the wild-card team in 2010, were eliminated in the ALDS as the AL East division champions in 2011, were swept in the ALCS as the AL East division champions in 2012, and, for the first time since 2008, the team failed to reach the postseason in 2013.
That pesky $189 million luxury-tax threshold has now transitioned from once being debated as an ideal goal or definitive spending maximum to now seemingly becoming a joke of the past.
It appears the Yanks will exceed the threshold, even if Alex Rodriguez's contract is wiped away. The team also seems much more concerned with replacing the production lost from the respective departures of Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson by bringing in one or two more quality arms and sorting through the array of platoon infielders and outfielders left on the free-agent market.
So with the stress and agitation around the Evil Empire reaching a level nearly as high and large as the 2014 team's age and health issues, let's run through a few predictions for the next three years of Yankees baseball.
Though they will attempt to patch together numerous lineups and short-term solutions, they will repeatedly come up short because of a continued lack of depth where they most need it and a deficiency in role players required to truly contend—that is, unless they somehow make all the right moves between now and 2016.
Ace of the staff after the next three seasons? Close, but not quite for Ivan Nova.
Let's start with a positive prediction, albeit a slightly qualified one. Nova, the currently projected third man in the starting rotation, will achieve the No. 2 spot by 2015, his fifth full season in pinstripes.
The goods news with this prediction? The Yankees don't have to trade him for an aging star. The 26-year-old will develop more maturity, increase his durability and blossom into their most reliable and prominent homegrown talent as he enters his prime.
In 2013, Nova saw his lowest ERA (3.10), walks per nine innings (2.84), home runs per nine innings (0.58) and FIP (3.47), while also putting up the best WAR of his three full seasons (2.5). Standing at 6'4", his fastball velocity has increased slightly since 2010, with a 2013 average of 93.2 mph (career best) and a maximum of 97.1 mph. His two-seamer reached speeds of 96.8 mph with an average of 92.7 mph, and he backed his heaters up with an 87-mph slider, 85-mph changeup and 80-mph curve.
The Yanks may have lost both Cano's and Granderson's bats, but with the (healthy) additions of McCann, Ellsbury and Beltran, Nova should now see fairly consistent run support in his starts compared with what he received from the assembly of "major leaguers" in 2013. Here's a look at the run support he received over the last three season: 6.0 runs per game (2011); 5.0 runs per game (2012); 4.2 runs per game (2013).
CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, the team's No. 1 and 2 starters, should see a decline in production and/or exit from the Bronx during the next two years.
Sabathia's next two seasons are his age-34 and age-35 seasons, and he has already seen a steady three-year decline in the velocity of his fastball along with a steady rise in his FIP and a steady downward trend in his WAR. He also battled health issues last season and, though he will have a one-year option, he can become a free agent after the 2016 season.
Kuroda already appeared to be on the fence about returning or retiring this offseason. He will pitch his age-39 season on a one-year contract, and despite being incredibly solid in the rotation in 2013 (3.31 ERA, 6.7 K/9 IP, .282 BABIP, 3.8 WAR), don't count on him to remain as durable (201.1 IP) going forward.
Nova's rise to success is mitigated by the likelihood that the Yanks will pick up a starting arm prior to 2014, as Cashman continues to emphasize his search for 400 innings. Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka may be posted by week's end, and the Yanks may not necessarily go after him. But assuming New York trades for a starter (i.e. Homer Bailey and Jeff Samardzija) or goes after a free agent (i.e. Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana), you'd have to figure on Nova being at least the team's No. 4 starter to start the upcoming season.
Either way, Nova will begin 2014 a few spots back in the rotation, but he will lock down the second starter role by 2015 and come up just short of being the Yanks' future No. 1 arm thereafter.
It would be a nice story for the Yankees to hold onto Brett Gardner, their former draft pick and college walk-on, but he will likely be exiting New York quite soon.
Gardner, who has already been considered a decent trade chip during the 2013 offseason, suddenly has become much more expendable. In fact, he is now the team's greatest trade asset since the Ellsbury and Beltran signings.
Brian Cashman will likely get no sleep in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. this week because the names currently comprising his Opening Day lineup and back end of the rotation won't stop echoing in his head—Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson, David Phelps, Michael Pineda.
Cashman and the Yanks will not forego filling two infield holes and potentially two starting rotation slots in order to keep a few extra outfielders to play around with. Gardner may be the current starting left fielder and an ideal backup to Ellsbury, but Cashman's winter is far from over.
At first, there wasn't much to complain about, as Gardner, Ellsbury and Beltran were expected to dot the Yankee Stadium outfield and bat ninth, leadoff and third/cleanup, respectively. But then the obvious logjam became apparent. "I think Gardner and him are very similar players," Cashman admitted to Dan Martin of The New York Post on Sunday, referring to Ellsbury.
And to compare them statistically bears out an obvious fact: the Yankees just made a sizable upgrade in center field.
Let's start with some offensive numbers from 2013:
Gardner: .273/.344/.416, 147 hits, 24 stolen bases, .335 wOBA, 108 wRC+, 3.2 WAR
Ellsbury: .298/.355/.426, 172 hits, 52 stolen bases, .343 wOBA, 113 wRC+, 5.8 WAR
And now, defensively:
Gardner: minus-0.5 UZR, six DRS
Ellsbury: plus-10.0 UZR, 13 DRS
The enhancement should outweigh any need to hang onto Gardner if they can figure a way to manage the definitely old, maybe healthy, likely competitors for DH whom they call outfielders. And more importantly, if they can use Garnder as bait to bring in a more-necessary pitcher, they will.
They are currently saturated with six outfielders on the 40-man roster: Gardner, Ellsbury, Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki. And no MLB organization wants to take those last two off New York's hand.
The most recent word from Cashman, as of Saturday: "I'm not looking to move him...But when asked, have people called, absolutely they've called," he told Chad Jennings of USA Today.
Gardner will no longer be a Yankee in due time, and it may be a fate realized as soon as the end of the week. So file this one under "educated guess," but expect this departure to be realized, as the Yanks and Cashman will be feeling the heat in Lake Buena Vista this week.
Carlos Beltran, by the end of the 2016 season, will prove to be the best pickup from the current spending spree (over McCann and Ellsbury)—of course, that's barring the signing of a significant starting pitcher in the coming weeks.
But remember: we are looking at the next three years, which will likely be the Swan song for Beltran, who is still looking for his first ring.
The Yanks, in a typical move for them, payed $45 million (not the worst part) to keep a physically diminished corner outfielder through his age-39 season (yep, that's it).
This prediction is contingent upon Beltran's body and numbers holding up through 2016, after playing only 81 games in 2009 and 64 in 2010, as his career was interrupted by knee issues.
But recall that Beltran experienced a rebirth over the last three seasons (ages 34-36), playing in 142, 151 and 145 games, respectively, with the New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. During this time, he also compiled an average line of .288/.356/.503 and averaged 26 home runs, 88 RBI, 136 wRC+ and 3.2 WAR per season.
If it didn't jump out at you at first, note that those numbers were largely accrued in three of the least hitter-friendly confines in MLB.
At Yankee Stadium, Beltran should continue his rise from the ashes—at least through the 2015 season—and he rides off into the sunset with stellar career-ending numbers in the Bronx. He will likely bat third in 2014 (at least against right-handers), being set up by Derek Jeter and protected by Mark Teixeira.
Augmenting those 26 homers isn't a guarantee, but wouldn't you be a little surprised if he didn't attain 30 round-trippers in two out of the next three seasons when 81 games are played at Yankee Stadium?
Here's another fun scenario to picture with Beltran in at least one of the next three seasons: the Yankees earn one of the wild-card spots, their play-in game is tied entering the seventh inning and Beltran has two at-bats remaining.
In 51 postseason games (180 at-bats) Beltran boasts a .333/.445/.683 line with a 1.128 OPS. In 10 postseason series, he has compiled 60 hits, 40 RBI and 16 homers. In the last two playoff runs with St. Louis, he hit .299/.385/.528, and he already had 12 RBI this past postseason prior to the World Series.
He may not be able to reach second base on a ground-rule double in two years—and we will ignore his diminishing value defensively—but he'll still bring an enormous bat to the lineup and, perhaps, a much-needed timely one.
There is a viable chance that solutions to the Yankees infield in 2014 will resemble putting tape over holes in a damaged ship at sea.
There is also a large possibility that the problem only becomes solved through free agency in the next two offseasons.
We know the Evil Empire has expunged the word "rebuild" from its vocabulary. Sure, there's the luxury tax, but there's also expensive seats that need butts in them and a television network owned by the Steinbrenners that needs a successful on-field product. This is also known as the "win now" mentality, and it will translate into the team acquiring a big-time free-agent infielder down the road, once the 2014 attempts come up short.
Let's imagine Derek Jeter beginning the season near full health. Does he play in 150 games? Does he play shortstop in 100 of those? How about if his ankle injuries linger, and how about if they worsen?
At that point, the Yankees would have an infield of Mark Teixeira, Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez.
No, I'm not forgetting about Alex Rodriquez; I'm just hoping, like the Yankees, that he will just go away. But let's go with the most neutral scenario: he is suspended for 2014 and returns for the 2015 season, during which he will turn 40 and no longer be an everyday player.
Current free-agent second baseman Omar Infante may turn out to be a perfect addition to the infield and, since he will be 32 years old by Opening Day, the Yankees could get some nice value out of signing him (you know, if they keep it under eight years).
He also has split time at second (707 career starts), third (63) and short (178), so he'd come with more versatility, if not he is not used as an everyday starter. In the past three seasons, he started 145, 141 and 116 games at second, respectively.
But the other free agents whom the Yanks are still interested in will not get the infield through 2016, as they mostly represent short-term fixes, health risks or unlikely acquisitions.
The 37-year-old Michael Young, whom the team has a high interest in, according to Erik Boland and Steve Marcus of Newsday, is one name on the list.
Mark Reynolds talks don't seem urgent, according to Daniel Barbarisi of The Wall Street Journal.
Eric Chavez (per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports) and Brian Roberts (per Roch Kubatko of MASN Sports) are two other names. And former Yankee Kevin Youkilis wants to play closer to home in California, according to Jack Curry of the YES Network.
So, ultimately, the Yankees find themselves removed from this year's free-agent infielder market and looking to spend big on a marquee infielder in one or both of the next two winters, which appear much more attractive at this point.
Hanley Ramirez is a big-time name in the 2015 free-agent class, and he is far and away the best infielder in the group. He has been in talks with the Dodgers on a contract extension (h/t Bill Baer of HardballTalk), but the latest word as of Saturday is that the extension may not be too imminent after all, according to Ken Gurnick of Dodgers.com.
Other notable infielders who are free agents a year from now include Asdrubal Cabrera (SS), Pedro Alvarez (3B), Pablo Sandoval (3B) and J.J. Hardy (SS).
And in the 2015 offseason, Miguel Cabrera and Howie Kendrick are just two more high-profile names who may become readily available.
This is a potentially bolder prediction than it may seem, since the 2014 season is already presenting itself as a large question mark for Derek Jeter.
But he will finish the homestretch giving sarcastic—bordering on abrasive—postgame responses that don't truthfully shed light on his plans for 2015.
If Mariano Rivera became irritable responding to questions of reconsidering his retirement, can you imagine Jeter answering whether he has considered it at all?
He will sign a final one-year deal after this season, during which he will fight off as many questions as possible, and after which, he will hold an emotional retirement press conference. (Secondary prediction: this will take place either behind home plate or in the dugout, and he will wear his uniform, much in the way Chipper Jones made his announcement).
The Captain is coming off the first lost year of his remarkable career, and as Jeter goes, so do the Yankees.
New York has essentially been in a spiral ever since Jeter broke his ankle in the 2012 ALCS. Just as he hasn't yet recovered but has also not retired, the Yankees have been flailing but not drowning without his everyday presence.
Even prior to the ankle break, Jeter was becoming a defensive liability. Fangraphs describes a zero UZR as "average" and minus-10 as "poor." The site also describes zero DRS as "average," minus-five as "below average," minus-10 as "poor" and minus-15 as "awful."
Check out his UZR and DRS figures from his last three full seasons: minus-4.4 UZR and minus-nine DRS (2010); minus-6.7 UZR and minus-15 DRS (2011); minus-14.0 UZR and minus-18 DRS (2012).
These are not good trends for a soon-to-be 40-year-old who may or may not still have screws and metal plates in his ankle by the spring.
The Yankees may not sell many "DH DJ" t-shirts the way they did those "DJ3K" ones, but it won't matter to the captain.
The last season when he can realistically play any time at shortstop will be 2014, and he won't go away quietly without attempting a 2015 season of primarily designated hitting.
The Yankees definitely don't possess one of the deeper farm systems in the league, and we only have sparingly seen their own talent be granted the opportunity to gradually rise through the ranks and remain with the team long enough to make an impact (thanks to premature trades of prospects like Austin Jackson, Jesus Montero, Tyler Clippard, Jose Tabata, etc.).
Baseball America recently released its 2014 Top 10 Prospects lists along with Top 15 Under 25 Rankings for each MLB team. Here are three names from the Yankees current prospect pool who could remain in the organization and make some noise during the next three years:
Gary Sanchez, C
Baseball America Yankees Ranking 2014: No. 1
Baseball America Superlatives 2014: "Best Power Hitter"
Baseball America Overall Pre-2013: No. 57
MLB.com Overall Pre-2013: No. 36
Highest Level: Double-A Trenton
Gary Sanchez, the Yanks' top prospect, will be called up to the big leagues before 2016 and will make a notable splash. In 2013 High-A ball in Tampa, he compiled a .254/.313/.420 line in 94 games. At Double-A Trenton, he posted a .250/.364/.380 line in 23 games.
Brian McCann is signed for the next five years, but that doesn't preclude Sanchez from taking his first MLB at-bats within the next three years. He could quickly prove to be the next-in-line to McCann, as his competition consists of Francisco Cervelli (career .271/.343/.367), Austin Romine (.201/.248/.279) and J.R. Murphy.
Mason Williams, OF
Baseball America Yankees Ranking 2014: No. 3
Baseball America Superlatives 2014: "Fastest Baserunner," "Best Athlete," "Best Defensive Outfielder"
Baseball America Overall Pre-2013: No. 32
MLB.com Overall Pre-2013: No. 41
Highest Level: Double-A Trenton
During the next three seasons, Mason Williams, a Florida native, could definitely jump into the mix and emerge on the big stage given the age and range of the current Yankees outfield.
Soriano is a free agent after the 2014 season, and Ichiro and Wells will slowly fade out of the picture around the same time. Furthermore, as the years go on, Beltran will be seeing increasingly less time in right field, and Zoilo Almonte is the only other current player on the 40-man who saw MLB time in 2013.
Williams' superlatives certainly are attractive, too. You have to like the "Fastest Baserunner" and "Best Athlete" honors for a September call-up role, and it wouldn't hurt to give the system's "Best Defensive Outfielder" a few starts, either.
Manny Banuelos, LHP
Notable Injury: Tommy John surgery Oct. 2012
Baseball America Overall Pre-2012: No. 29
MLB.com Overall Pre-2012: No. 13
Baseball America Yankees Ranking 2014: No. 11
Highest Level: Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
The chances of a successful recovery from Tommy John shift this prediction to the "bolder" variety. Banuelos was the No. 13 overall prospect in the game prior to the 2012 season, as rated by MLB.com, but he sat out the entirety of 2013 as a result of the surgery.
The Yanks have been ultra-conservative with getting the Mexican left-hander back, but prior to his surgery, he was a hot topic and the most touted prospect in the organization, with an arsenal that included a fastball reaching the mid-90s.
Before the season in which he was injured, an MLB executive projected him as the future No. 3 starter for the Yankees, per Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger. At age 19, Banuelos struck out 31 batters in just over 34 innings in seven Triple-A starts.
It's a long road back from Tommy John, but if Banuelos recovers well, he could makes some noise out of the bullpen in the next three seasons to begin his MLB career.
It's a ninth-inning save situation, the bullpen door opens, and "Sweet Home Alabama" blares at Yankee Stadium.
David Robertson, despite a two-man competition in spring training, will be named the Yankees closer by Opening Day in 2014. The 28-year-old reliever is neither required to replace Mariano Rivera nor expected to fill the Sandman's shoes, but he will be relied upon to be the next closer in the Bronx.
Perhaps the Yanks will bring in one of Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour or Fernando Rodney this offseason, and Girardi will let the battle play out.
Benoit, 36, earned 24 saves in 2013, a 2.01 ERA, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.7 homers per nine innings in 2013—but that was in spacious Comerica Park in Detroit.
Balfour, who turns 36 this month, recorded 38 saves, a 2.59 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.0 homers per nine innings last season—but that was in pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum in Oakland. Furthermore, the Orioles appear to be deftly pursuing him as Jim Johnson's replacement, according to Justin McGuire of The Sporting News.
Rodney, 36, compiled 37 saves, a 3.38 ERA, 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.4 homers per nine innings in 2013—but the Mariners have appeared to place him high on their list of priorities, according to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports.
The point being that if the Yankees don't bring in a prominent and proven closer, Robertson could not only be gifted all of 2014 to establish himself, but he could also prove that the brass doesn't need to go hunting next offseason.
As the setup man in 2013, Robertson put together a 2.04 ERA in 66.1 innings, 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 0.7 homers per nine innings.
In the end, the younger, in-house arm will triumph and have a successful run. If the Yankees bring in an aging arm, they will face the same outcome as they will with their other patchwork solutions at other positions.
The Yanks would surely benefit from a having a consistent, trusted presence in the bullpen for the final stages of ballgames, beginning with next season.
Robertson will nearly perfect his three-pitch arsenal of a low-90s cutter, a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a go-to, sweeping low-to-mid-80s curveball. As a result, he should compile between 35 and 40 saves per season over the next three years.
And don't worry about the several blown saves and jitters he will need to get out his system before settling into the role as "Closer of the New York Yankees."
After all, Rivera blew nine saves in his first season as closer.
Joe Girardi won't be swapping out that No. 28 jersey number until—at the very least—his current contract is up in 2017.
This isn't to rule out the Yankees piecing together multiple 90-plus-win seasons between 2014 and 2016 and scampering into the postseason as a wild card. But unless the holes of the infield, starting rotation and bullpen are solved with more than a revolving cast, New York won't win a title, let alone advance to the Fall Classic.
You have to like what they've done this offseason. If you view McCann's, Ellsbury's and Beltran's combined WAR and home run totals from the past three years (2011-13), in light of what New York lost in Cano and Granderson, they lose 29.4 WAR and 179 homers but pick up 34.4 WAR and 187 homers.
You have to feel good about a healthy Mark Teixeira, the tremendous upgrade in McCann over Chris Stewart, the insurance signings of Ryan and Johnson and the stability in the re-signing of Kuroda.
But the Yankees appear to be in a detrimental limbo because of the combination of unsettled players like Jeter and A-Rod, the surplus of outfielders and the conflicting coupling of the win-now acquisitions with the still-gaping issue known as pitching.
The 2014 campaign, and potentially the following two seasons, may become stuck in this state, in which they remain playoff contenders—even serious ones—but nothing more than World Series pretenders.
But if the team finds two or three starting arms, above-replacement-level infielders and bullpen depth, it is difficult to count out more concrete success in October. Some of the pieces are there, but right now, the outlook appears slightly more dim than it is bright.
We are only at the Winter Meetings, of course.
Current 2014 Lineup
Current 2014 Rotation
2014: Second American League Wild Card; eliminated from ALDS
2015: First American League Wild Card; eliminated from ALDS
2016: First American League Wild Card; eliminated from ALCS