New York Yankees' 4 Biggest Missed Opportunities of the Offseason
To many, the New York Yankees completed a successful winter. They entered the mix with many questions, the biggest of which pertained to adding starting pitching and replacing Robinson Cano's production and everyday glove.
But only a few short months of Major League Baseball's offseason have been needed to update, renew and improve the face of a team that failed in the previous season and position it for the following few years.
The Yanks seized a number of excellent offseason opportunities, acquiring some of the most coveted, upper-echelon free agents on the market—Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran—and, as a result, have set themselves up for a potential 2014 postseason berth.
The ship appears to have largely righted itself from 2013. By way of spending on the robust free-agent market, the 2014 Yankees are a far better team on paper than last year's iteration. They've emerged from the winter months in Tampa with a slate of roster members and invitees well-positioned to trim down to an imposing Opening Day 25-man force.
The organization wiped away any remaining whisper of worry about losing two productive bats—Cano's and Curtis Granderson's—by signing three additional ones. It saw the swift exits of two starting pitchers—Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes—and, just as abruptly, kick-started the American career of the most prized free-agent hurler.
Ultimately, what could be called the Yankee way or, as Brian Cashman put it at Tanaka's press conference, going "Steinbrenner big," is best put this way: No luxury tax is a large enough deterrent to acquiring luxury.
Just like Joe Girardi's four-year-old No. 28 jersey, Yanks brass aren't nearly as prophetic as they are economically prosperous. After predicting 2014 the year they would limbo beneath the $189 million luxury tax threshold, they obliterated their self-restrictive goal with nearly $500 million in contracts for what resembles a winning product.
But beneath the acquisitions, the Yankees have let a few opportunities slip through their fingertips this offseason.
As the following four examples show, it wasn't just better measures to shore up the on-field product for 2014 that they let slide by.
Considering the newest Yankee was showered with an introductory broadcast while the most cherished, longtime Yankee broke his own news on Facebook, there are clearly team issues that extend to the public image and culture as well.
Thus, these problems take into account the atmosphere of the clubhouse, the confidence and character of the team and holes in the personnel in order to rank them from the smallest to the most serious missed opportunity.
Whether they are stronger pieces that should have been added, malignant parts that should have been chopped off or more pragmatic decisions that should have been made by management, they all concern vital opportunities to have bolstered both the 2014 roster and the identity of the franchise as it transitions to the upcoming era of Yankee baseball.
Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees. You can follow him on Twitter: Follow @Peter_F_Richman
No. 4: Releasing A-Rod
Alex Rodriguez is the malignant piece and the Yankees should have severed him from the rest of the organization as soon as he accepted his 162-game suspension.
That they haven't already done so doesn't mean they're not contemplating it and it doesn't mean they won't eventually.
If we're talking financially, the same team that just shelled out close to half a billion dollars in contracts this offseason can also spit out A-Rod by eating just over $60 million in remaining salary, per Spotrac.com.
This isn't my $63 million, and I admittedly can't speak for the ease with which one pays that amount to rid themselves of a bad decision that is worsening and won't go away.
But what is that figure, really, if seen as the cost to cut an extremely negative, infected, aged parasite in light of the money already spent on free agents this winter and compared to the 10 years and $275 million they initially guaranteed Mr. Rodriguez?
We can cut the cliche of George Steinbrenner rolling in his grave and skip to this question: How would anyone, living or deceased, feel about a 39-year-old Rodriguez rolling around and stretching on Steinbrenner Field during spring training in 2015?
Should the Yankees allow him to return, he'd come into camp set to make $22 million and turn 40 in July of 2015. He'd also be able to take his zero total failed drugs tests to his own grave as he lives out the delusional fantasy that he did no wrong.
In other words, beyond the issue of money, this is the sociopathic face of a public relations nightmare and a possible clubhouse fracture.
This is the same guy who repeatedly attempted to throw everyone and anyone—including the Yankees—under the bus this offseason. The same player who, by default and by way of his own legal transgressions, has made the organization look bad. The embarrassment whose odd emails and texts with team president Randy Levine were unearthed this winter.
If he isn't cut, the Yankees likely see him rejoining the team under some false notion of atonement or a deflective narrative of being "solely focused of baseball."
Baseball which, by the way, Rodriguez will not have played productively since 2012, outstandingly since 2010 and perhaps ever as a Yankee without performance-enhancing drugs. He'll also be coming off of hip surgery and an entirely missed 2014 season.
From 2010 to 2013 his strikeout rates have increasingly worsened: 16.5, 18.7, 21.9 and 23.8.
For the past two years, his defense has been much more of a liability than a strength to the infield: negative-2 and negative-3 DRS, and negative-9.5 and 0.3 UZR/150.
His WAR has continued its decline since 2011: 4.0, 1.9, 0.5. And the outlook doesn't plausibly or statistically seem as though he'll suddenly bounce back by 2015 and remain resilient through 2018.
His future value and production is compounded further with his five-year Oliver projections, per FanGraphs: From 2014, his wRC+ projects below 90 and trends as low as 71 by 2018, and his WAR begins around zero and trends negatively. As a comparison, Eduardo Nunez compiled 93 and 83 wRC+ in the past two respective seasons.
Releasing A-Rod is only the fourth-biggest missed opportunity because it plays less of a role in immediately affecting the Yankees in 2014—he'll be absent from the picture, after all.
But I'm neither fond of, nor buying, this odd symbolism where the Yanks leave his empty locker vacant in Tampa, as though they are patiently and somberly waiting, while they throw Tanaka right into Rivera's old spot.
Hal Steinbrenner has only offered that it isn't in "good form" to discuss A-Rod, and added, "I haven’t thought about it. I’m not getting into it because we’re not here today to talk about it," per the The New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand. And Girardi was just as avoidant, saying, per Feinsand, "We’ll focus on this year and we’ll deal with next year next year.”
The Yankees still have time to make this decision, to seize this opportunity before next year. It's not a top priority—thanks to a new free-agent market of corner infielders next winter—but the Yanks have already missed the most opportune time to wipe away the smear of A-Rod and begin to turn the page on his mess.
If it is ultimately missed altogether, A-Rod will still be a Yankee by next season.
And there's just a slim shot at that point that he'll be a productive hitter. The greater likelihood is that he becomes a nuisance and a hindrance for this franchise as it looks to transition positively into a post-Jeter future.
No. 3: Stronger Vote of Confidence for Robertson
Rivera has continued to poke Robertson about stepping into his role, even after remaining firmly in support of his successor, per the The New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand: "When the pair saw each other at last month's BBWAA awards dinner in New York, a smiling Rivera greeted Robertson by asking, 'You nervous?'"
And it's playful how the Alabama native recently explained the ribbing, per Feinsand: "Basically he just made fun of me the whole time, like he always does. Other than that I'm sure that he'll have plenty of advice for me after I blow [a save], then he'll be all over my case about it. He'll probably show up in the clubhouse."
But all this feels more like a "joking, but not really" type of moment. For Robertson, truly earning the Yankees' vote of confidence this offseason has been like pulling teeth.
By the time they break camp, they may love his demeanor and his stuff and he likely will have locked down his ninth-inning role with ease.
But what do we make of Robertson's own confidence and the clubhouse's trust in him? The Yankees have missed a prime opportunity to more forcefully endorse their new closer and to demonstrate their faith in him with more conviction.
In November, Cashman didn't believe Robertson represented enough "cream" in the "cream of the crop" scheme of things to prevent the Yanks from window-shopping, per The New York Daily News' Anthony McCarron: "We’re going to look at everybody and anything and see where the winter takes us. The bottom line is, we have to get a collection of talent to bring to spring training. The cream rises to the top, and we have to find as much cream as possible.”
It wasn't until after they mined the dearth of realistic free-agent closers this winter that their sense of reluctance finally turned to near-urgency to back Robertson.
But by the end of January, Cashman only went as far as to call Robertson the "odds-on favorite" and to add that they hadn't yet ruled out their search for a spring competitor.
This was all extremely tempered support for a pitcher so accustomed to missing bats.
Since his first year in the bigs, in 2008, through this past season, Robertson has tossed 329 innings. Amongst all other relievers to throw 300 innings over that time, only one pitcher has a better K/9 than Robertson's 11.7.
In addition, only two pitchers have a lower FIP over that time, and only one pitcher, Rivera, has a lower xFIP.
Over that span he has the fifth best WAR (7.6), just trailing Joe Nathan and ahead of Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano, Jim Johnson and others.
Even after Hal "officially" declared Robertson the closer, it's peculiar that the hard-throwing right-hander still currently feels that he has to earn and win the job.
"That's great, but it's still not mine yet," he said of Steinbrenner's backing, per Newsday's Bryan Burns. "It's still a lot of time between now and the season. I try not to look into it too much."
It's a humble way of going about his business, but you worry about humility's translation to a lack of poise and certainty in his role—perhaps the two most important qualities of a closer besides power and command—as he begins in Tampa.
The missed opportunity to stand more strongly behind D-Rob is only the third-biggest of the offseason because, regardless, he'll be trotting out of the bullpen and into the ninth. The Yanks also still have between now and Opening Day to make more of a statement on his behalf.
But it's not a good sign that they've seemed overly worried about somehow offending Rivera or stepping on his exit by emphatically backing his replacement. It doesn't help that they were preoccupied with finding Robertson's "competition" despite his dominant track record.
Because the next Yankees closer is much more assumed than he is definitively labelled, he remains more tentative and respectful of Mo than he does resolute and assured of replacing him.
As more time passes and his first save opportunity of 2014 nears, the space for his bravado to develop as the Bombers closer may continue to shrink as well.
No. 2: Insurance for Teixeira at 1st Base
Who is Mark Teixeira's backup for 2014?
I'm labeling the answer to that question the second-biggest missed opportunity of the offseason. It may prove to be the most costly, however, should he re-injure his wrist, spend a chunk of time on the disabled list or even just need a fair amount of days off.
In the midst of ongoing complaints and fears about the lack of middle infield depth and the unresolved back-end starter, you wouldn't know the difference between the Yankees missing a chance to sign a trustworthy backup first baseman and flat-out forgetting to do so.
There had been early rumors in November, per CBS Sports' John Heyman, that the Yankees were interested in switch-hitting, free-agent first baseman Kendrys Morales. But, as the The New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand had confirmed shortly thereafter, the Yanks had been faced with too many prominent question marks at the time to spend big-time money on a first baseman.
Now in February and having answered most of those questions, they still find themselves without a viable first-base backup—whether it was through a move to acquire a less-expensive option or not.
Teixeira's season ended in June after just 15 games because he tore a sheath tendon in his right wrist and needed to undergo surgery.
There's a lot of good news with Tex on schedule to return fully healthy. He recently told Matt Ehalt of ESPN New York that he's confident he'll come back as the same player her was prior to the injury. And, on Sunday, Girardi told The Star-Ledger's Jorge Castillo that "I really don’t see a lot of limitations on him and I expect him to be an everyday player for us."
Teixeira left no holds barred when he told The Star-Ledger's Jorge Castillo, "I expect to be in the middle of the order and hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs."
In case he's not an everyday player, or not playing at all, the Yankees are currently left with backups Kelly Johnson and Russ Canzler.
Teixeira may remain on schedule, and he can continue to effusively declare his optimism until Opening Day. But while a goal is one thing, a realistic expectation is another and a sudden, unexpected injury is a plausibility that should have projected itself onto a better contingency plan.
What if that wrist stiffness, as he described it, per Newsday's Erik Boland, gets worse? Tex says it's a sensation that will at least linger for the next few months, as originally predicted by his surgeon.
If they need to break the glass in case of emergency—or simply for a day off—there's Johnson, who has played a grand total of three games and just 18 innings at first base with only two of them as starts.
After that, it's Canzler, who's actually racked up a ton of time playing first base, but it was over nine minor league seasons. He enters camp as a non-roster invitee on the verge of his age-28 season, having played 29 total big league games and only eight at first. He probably won't make the big league cut.
The Yanks don't appear interested in signing either of only two remaining free-agent first basemen—Morales and Casey Kotchman—let alone anyone at this point, as they appear to have closed their wallets on the 2014 winter, as noted by ESPN's Buster Olney.
Missing the chance to properly insure Teixeira wasn't the biggest missed opportunity of the offseason.
Unlike the following example, this one wasn't the permanent absence of a star everyday player for whom they needed to find a firm replacement.
But it was the missed chance, and added benefit, of finding a trustworthy backup in case of a more temporary, yet notable absence, and that's still fairly significant.
Here's to Teixeira remaining healthy.
No. 1: Securing a More Viable 2nd Baseman
When Robinson Cano spurned the Yankees in favor of the Seattle Mariners, second base immediately became the primary gaping hole in the Bronx.
The problem had largely been a two-part question: Did they trust Eduardo Nunez in an everyday role? And would they prioritize Cano's permanent absence enough to warrant a long-term second base contract in this offseason?
Nunez had become the next option in line by default, but the Yanks began to answer the first question with a resounding "no" when, in December, they signed Kelly Johnson as protective insurance to fill the hole with a one-year, $3 million deal (809 games at second, 16 at third).
Soon after, the Yanks missed on Omar Infante as they seemed inclined to answer "no" to the second question of a long-term contract. Johnson quickly slid from insurance to best option and Nunez from out of the picture to backup, sending the Yanks back on the hunt for a second baseman.
That they "missed" the Infante opportunity is a far friendlier way of saying they botched it.
The Yankees, with knowledge that the 32-year-old Infante was seeking a four-year contract, had made an offer for just three years, according to CBS Sports' John Heyman. Unsurprisingly, Infante took the extra year from the Kansas City Royals—for less money per year, mind you—and left the Yanks empty-handed.
The unwillingness to bend was especially questionable coming on the heels of the Yankees' rejecting a trade proposal from the Cincinnati Reds that would have given them Brandon Phillips in exchange for Brett Gardner, per Heyman. They didn't like Phillips' declining numbers, per ESPN, and it's common knowledge that his outspoken personality isn't the most desirable clubhouse trait.
But it was even more suspect in hindsight if you consider the decisions the Yankees made after losing Infante.
They may not have loved the idea of his fourth year—his age-36 season—or his proposed $40 million price tag. Yet the following month, the Yankees had decided their best bet was $3 million for 36-year-old Brian Roberts, who hasn't played a full season since 2009 because of a host of various injuries. And as of this week, he is still the replacement for Cano.
Maybe they were hoping he not only plays a full season in 2014, but also puts up numbers that just might come close to Cano's and be reminiscent of the time he one of the most dominant forces in the AL East while with Baltimore.
But the pipe dream that they'd sign a division rival's infielder who used to beat them up years ago will prove to be foolish.
Consider the best single-season WAR by a second baseman since 2001, Roberts' first year in the bigs, per FanGraphs: Cano had three of the top 20 single-year WAR among MLB second basemen in just the last four years and he had the fifth best in 2012 (7.7).
Roberts only had three of the top 50 since 2001 (including No. 41 and 43), and his best mark, the 14th best single-season WAR (6.6) among all second basemen, was in 2005—when he was 27 years old.
The projected Opening Day second baseman of the Yankees has played in 192 games since 2010 and has averaged a .232/.293/.324 line and struck out 117 times to 69 walks.
If you're still not convinced this is easily the biggest missed opportunity of the winter, how does it feel that Infante signed for just $8 million more than the Yankees' proposed $24 million for only one extra season than the proposed three-year deal and that it will see him through the age of 36? Instead of nabbing Infante, the Yankees will pay a combined $4 million over one season for the services of Johnson and Roberts—the latter of whom is already 36.