Creating a Contending 2014 Yankees Team for Under $189 Million Tax Threshold

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterOctober 24, 2013

If the Yankees are going to contend again in 2014 and beyond, bringing back Robinson Cano would be a good place to start.
If the Yankees are going to contend again in 2014 and beyond, bringing back Robinson Cano would be a good place to start.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

For the first time in as long as just about anyone can remember, the New York Yankees enter an offseason with more questions than answers.

Between retirements (so long, Mo and Andy), potential free-agent departures (will you stay or go, Robinson, Curtis and Hiroki?), injury recoveries (how's the foot, Derek?), aging former superstars (gettin' up there, CC and Mark) and whatever the heck is going to happen with Alex Rodriguez's suspension appeal, this is a team rife with problems, holes and unknowns.

To top all of that off, the Yankees are coming off only their second postseason-less campaign since 1995.

The good news is at least one other potential pitfall already has been addressed with the return of manager Joe Girardi.

But there's plenty more work to be done if the Yankees are going to regain their contender status by next season. And let's face it: That's what everyone from the front office to the coaching staff to the players to the fans in New York are expecting. 

GM Brian Cashman—and his phone—will get a workout this winter.
GM Brian Cashman—and his phone—will get a workout this winter./Getty Images
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That in mind, let's try to plot out a path for general manager Brian Cashman to follow this winter as he attempts to return the Yankees to the postseason, while also minding the Steinbrenner ownership's edict to keep the 2014 payroll capped at $189 million in order to avoid the luxury tax.

There have been all sorts of reports recently about the Yankees' plans and a potential spending spree, but that doesn't mean we can't take an in-depth, all-encompassing stab of our own.

Roster and Payroll

To start this exercise off, here's a look at what the Yankees are working with as far as positions filled and salaries due in 2014, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts via Baseball Prospectus. While the entire 40-man roster counts toward the payroll, the 15 players not on the 25-man roster likely would earn the minimum (about $7-8 million total), so what follows will focus on the 25-man only.

Yankees' 2014 Position Players and Payroll Commitments
CATCHERChris Stewart$1.0 million*
FIRST BASEMark Teixeira$22.5 million
SECOND BASEEduardo Nunez$0.5 million
THIRD BASEAlex Rodriguez$25.0 million
SHORTSTOPDerek Jeter$8.0 million
CENTERFIELDBrett Gardner$4.0 million*
LEFT FIELDAlfonso Soriano$5.0 million
RIGHT FIELDIchiro Suzuki$6.5 million
DESIGNATED HITTERVernon Wells$2.4 million
BENCHJayson Nix$1.4 million
BENCHFrancisco Cervelli$1.0 million*
BENCHZoilo Almonte$0.5 million
BENCHDavid Adams$0.5 million
TOTAL$78 million
Cot's Contracts
Yankees' 2014 Pitching Staff and Payroll Commitments
STARTERCC Sabathia$23.0 million
STARTERIvan Nova$2.8 million*
STARTERDavid Phelps$0.5 million
STARTERMichael Pineda$0.5 million
STARTERAdam Warren$0.5 million
RELIEVERDavid Robertson$5.5 million*
RELIEVERShawn Kelley$1.5 million*
RELIEVERPreston Claiborne$0.5 million
RELIEVERDavid Huff$0.5 million
RELIEVERVidal Nuno$0.5 million
RELIEVERCesar Cabral$0.5 million
RELIEVERDellin Betances$0.5 million
TOTAL$37 million
Cot's Contracts

Note: The asterisks indicate estimated salary based on arbitration, according to Matt Swartz's work at MLB Trade Rumors.

So what's the damage? The arbitration raises and MLB minimums (approximately slightly above $500,000) are tricky to calculate exactly right, but give or take a few mill, that adds up to a total cost of about $115 million for 25 players who are expected to be under contract and on the Yankees' roster in 2014.

Of course, the elephant in the room—and in the payroll equation—is Rodriguez, who may well wind up being suspended for most or all of next season (which is why he's highlighted in the first table above). To move things along, let's plan on a full-year ban for the 38-year-old third baseman, which means his $25 million salary comes off the books and grants Cashman quite a bit more freedom to spend. Hey, more money, more fun for us, right?

If that's the case, then the bare-bones 2014 payroll sits at $90 million. Let's go with that figure, which leaves the Yankees with somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million—that's a nice round number—to shell out and remain under the $189 million threshold.

Before we move on, here's a good place to mention that the Yankees' minor league system doesn't have much in the way of prospects who will be ready to make an impact in 2014, which was also the case this year. The majority of their top-tier young talent is at Double-A or below. Hence, the focus here on free-agent acquisitions.

Candidates to be Re-Signed

Before we look outside the Yankees organization, let's get to the primary free-agents-to-be who are technically still on the roster: Robinson Cano, Hiroki Kuroda and Curtis Granderson. From the Yankees' point of view, all three could come back, particularly Cano at second base and Kuroda in the rotation. It's all but guaranteed that the Yanks will present each one with a qualifying offer (at $14.1 million for one season), which the players could choose to accept or reject.

To keep us moving along, let's say Kuroda takes the offer and sticks around for one more year, while the 32-year-old Granderson rejects and signs a multi-year deal elsewhere. The Yankees have enough outfielders, anyway.

A free agent at season's end, Robinson Cano's future is up in the air.
A free agent at season's end, Robinson Cano's future is up in the air./Getty Images

The Cano conundrum is the other elephant in the room that New York will have to deal with soon. He's the No. 1 free agent this winter, and it has been reported that he's looking for a monster of a contract—perhaps even as much as $305 million over 10 years.

The Yankees (or any other team, for that matter) are unlikely to go that far, but they should consider handling this situation similarly to how they did with Jeter a few years ago (minus the public display, of course): Present Cano with a reasonable offer on their terms, and if he rejects it, wish him the best in finding a better deal elsewhere.

So what is exactly is a "reasonable" offer? Understanding that Cano may wind up with more than this, let's try to be realistic yet fair and go with $180 million over seven years, which comes out to nearly $26 in average annual value.

Now that we've brought back the second baseman and a starter, that fills two big areas of need. Let's move on to the others.

Areas of Need

As established above, the Yankees have more than just a few positions to fill. Among the remaining biggest problem spots are catcher, designated hitter, third base, utility infielder, starting pitcher (two) and relief pitcher (two or three). The next step, then, is to marry those needs with the free agents available at those positions this offseason, and there are scores of names to peruse at MLB Trade Rumors.

Guessing the free market contract values of players isn't easy (and it's far from exact), but let's pick and choose a batch of the bigger names from that list that could fit in and keep to the budget, starting with the rest of the lineup.

At catcher, Brian McCann would make sense, since he could not only start behind the plate but also get some action at DH and first base, too. Something in the range of $70-$75 million over five years ($15 million AAV) could be enough to get the 29-year-old in pinstripes.

Speaking of DH, Carlos Beltran, a rumored target, would be a nice piece to prevent New York from relying too much on Vernon Wells there. Plus, Beltran, 36, could be a part of the corner outfield rotation with Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki. A two- or three-year pact worth around $13 million a year—the same AAV he received in his two-year, $26 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals—should work for both sides.

That leaves third base as the only other starting spot left to fill in the lineup. Two players who could be appealing to the Yanks for their ability and versatility are Jhonny Peralta, 31, and Juan Uribe, 34, both of whom have experience at each position on the left side of the infield.

Jhonny Peralta's price could drop because of his 50-game suspension.
Jhonny Peralta's price could drop because of his 50-game suspension./Getty Images

Between Rodriguez's suspension situation and Jeter's injury issues, that's an important factor for the Yanks. Neither player should require more than two years and $15-$18 million for an AAV of $9 million tops.

Moving on to the pitching staff, there's actually quite a bit to choose from this winter. One of the more intriguing names that could be made available is Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who will be 25 next season and could be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles after a year in which he went 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA over 181 innings.

Landing Tanaka would be, as George King wrote for the New York Post, "A big plus for the Yankees...[because] the posting fee doesn’t count toward a team’s payroll. However, the contract does, and it could be five years for $60 million." That speculative amount from King is an AAV of $12 million.

To fill out the rest of the rotation, which now only needs one more spot, the Yankees could determine the best value out of the Ervin Santana-Matt Garza-Ubaldo Jimenez-Ricky Nolasco tier of innings eaters with upside for the middle of the five-man. One or two of those arms might turn out to be a bit too pricey, but three or four years at about $12 million AAV should be enough to entice one of them.

There's still the bullpen to address, but frankly, there are plenty of relief options either on the open market or within the organization—remember, displaced starters like David Phelps and Adam Warren can return to that role—who can be put in the pen for cheap.

So let's redo the tables from above with the new names and additional salaries.

Your 2014 New York Yankees (or What They Might Look Like)

Projected Yankees' 2014 Position Players and Payroll Commitments
CATCHERBrian McCann$15 million
FIRST BASEMark Teixeira$22.5 million
SECOND BASERobinson Cano$26.0 million
THIRD BASEJhonny Peralta$8.0 million
SHORTSTOPDerek Jeter$8.0 million
CENTERFIELDBrett Gardner$4.0 million
LEFT FIELDAlfonso Soriano$5.0 million
RIGHT FIELDIchiro Suzuki$6.5 million
DESIGNATED HITTERCarlos Beltran$13.0 million
BENCHVernon Wells$2.4 million
BENCHJayson Nix$1.4 million
BENCHChris Stewart$1.0 million
BENCHEduardo Nunez$0.5 million
TOTAL$113 million
Cot's Contracts

The first thing that stands out is that the new players are highlighted. The second thing that should stand out is how much better the starting lineup would be in this scenario, and in turn, how much deeper the bench would become.

Chris Stewart's a fine backup catcher. Emphasis on backup.
Chris Stewart's a fine backup catcher. Emphasis on backup./Getty Images

Unlike much of 2013 when the Yankees were forced to start the likes of Lyle Overbay, Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells, among others, there are legitimate major leaguers at every position on the diamond. And while all of Stewart, Wells and Eduardo Nunez can start if needed, having them on the bench is a much more appropriate role for each.

Projected Yankees' 2014 Pitching Staff and Payroll Commitments
STARTERCC Sabathia$23.0 million
STARTERHiroki Kuroda$14.1 million
STARTERMatt Garza$12.0 million
STARTERMasahiro Tanaka$12.0 million
STARTERIvan Nova$2.8 million
RELIEVERDavid Robertson$5.5 million
RELIEVERShawn Kelley$1.5 million
RELIEVERDavid Phelps$0.5 million
RELIEVERAdam Warren$0.5 million
RELIEVERPreston Claiborne$0.5 million
RELIEVERDavid Huff$0.5 million
RELIEVERDellin Betances$0.5 million
TOTAL$73 million
Cot's Contracts

Again, new names are highlighted. And similarly, the displacement effect that comes from bringing in (or back) a few quality mid-rotation arms like Kuroda, Garza and Tanaka means that the bullpen and relief corps gets that much better as a direct result. Plus, Ivan Nova, who had a mini-breakout in 2013, could be a great fifth starter, and Michael Pineda, who needs to show he's healthy, would be a nice reinforcement to have in the minors.

So what's the damage now? It's time to high-five the calculator because the projected rosters laid out above come to—drum roll, please—$187 million. That's just about right and even leaves a leeway of a couple million to account for any adjustments here or there.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the Yankees could do exactly all of the above, something along similar lines or not a single one of the moves mentioned. This is, after all, only an attempt at playing out a scenario, and not even necessarily the ideal one. Who knows if it's wise to give many millions to aging newcomers like McCann and Beltran? Who knows if Tanaka will even be posted and available this winter?

The main point of this exercise is simply to show that, as many questions, concerns and problems as the Yankees have entering the offseason, they also have plenty of money to burn and some quality names to consider in free agency. When it comes to putting together a contender-worthy 2014 roster, Cashman and Co. will, in fact, have options, even working within the "constraints" of a $189 million budget.

The look of the Yankees is about to change, and in many ways, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

One last thing to remember: Another American League East power rebuilt on the fly after a much more disappointing season the year prior, and, hey, that's worked out pretty well for the Boston Red Sox.