For the New York Yankees, rediscovering their identity as perennial postseason contenders may come down to stripping their identity as enormous offseason spenders.
Plates have already begun shifting around Major League Baseball this week, with the general manager meetings underway through Thursday and the heated winter meetings looming just a month away.
With wounds still fresh from a wildly expensive 2014 offseason and a failed regular season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Yankees opt for a cheaper route to fill remaining holes at third base and shortstop and to find insurance for the rotation and the bullpen.
A renewed winter plan may not obsess over avoiding the luxury tax—they already have $171,267,857 committed to the 2015 payroll, per Spotrac—and it doesn't necessitate shopping at the bottom of the bargain bin.
But the Yankees could decide to skip the lucrative bidding wars on the market's top-tier free agents.
Last Monday, the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand and Bill Madden reported "the Yankees have no plans to pursue" pitchers Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields or free-agent third baseman Pablo Sandoval. They noted that general manager Brian Cashman and the Yanks brain trust prefer to re-sign their own free agents like Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley.
The New York Post's Ken Davidoff, in agreement, titled a piece Sunday night, "Yankees unlikely to open wallet again to fill needs," opining that "the Yankees begin their 2014-15 Hot Stove journey claiming to have found religion on this [mega-contract] front and seeking more conservative solutions to what ails them."
We've already seen this vision begin to materialize, with the Yankees locking up fourth outfielder Chris Young on Sunday; the contract is a reported one-year deal for $2.5 million, according to the New York Post's Dan Martin.
The Yankees could simply be interested in mid-level free agents and in avoiding the $100-plus million contracts of their past. But if they are looking to plug in much cheaper options on the market, they should keep these three "Plan B" bargain free agents on their radar as they begin negotiations.
Brett Anderson, LHP
Four of the Yankees' five Opening Day starters went down with injury in 2014, but through a combination of trades, in-house promotions and spot starts, the rotation stayed afloat and performed excellently. New York's starters compiled the fourth-highest WAR in MLB, per FanGraphs, the fourth-lowest Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) and the second-lowest walks per nine innings.
But some doubts for 2015 concern the production of a returning CC Sabathia (knee), the health of Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) and Ivan Nova (Tommy John surgery) and the durability of Michael Pineda (shoulder). The Yankees also may be without their workhorse, Hiroki Kuroda (the one starter who stayed healthy), who is still deciding between retirement, baseball in Japan or a return to MLB.
The Yankees have to love what McCarthy gave them when he came over from Arizona (7-5, 2.89 ERA with New York), and they've already made their interest clear in bringing back the 31-year-old, per Feinsand and Madden. With a history of injuries, lack of durability (2014 was the second year he surpassed 170 IP) and rising price tag expected—MLB Trade Rumors' Steve Adams predicts a three-year, $36 million contract—the Yankees could look for an alternative on the free-agent market or at least for additional, cost-effective help even if they re-sign McCarthy.
Brett Anderson is one low-risk, high-reward free agent the Yankees should keep on their radar—especially if they're interested in a cheap left-hander. In three of his first six seasons, the 26-year-old has posted a sub-3.00 ERA and has a career 1.285 WHIP and solid 2.4 BB/9.
The talented southpaw compiled 3.6 WAR during his rookie season with Oakland in 2009 that saw him total 175.1 IP with a 3.69 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and 3.56 xFIP. With several injuries, including Tommy John surgery in 2011, Anderson last logged over 100 innings in 2010 and has totaled just 123 the past three seasons. In 2014, he pitched only 43.1 innings—but finished with a 2.91 ERA.
In a rotation loaded with right-handers and questions about Sabathia, Cashman could also look into bringing back left-hander Chris Capuano on a bargain deal. Though Anderson, if he stays healthy, could be a huge bargain pickup on a one-year contract in the single digits.
ESPN Insider Jim Bowden (subscription required) predicts a one-year, $6 million contract, writing that Anderson could be this year's Comeback Player of the Year.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Capuano, Chris Young, Justin Masterson
Luke Gregerson, RP
Behind David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley, the Yankees tied with the Royals for the most valuable relief corps in baseball in 2014 with a 5.9 WAR. New York's bullpen performed exceptionally the year after Mariano Rivera's retirement, with the best strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate in baseball and third-best xFIP.
The Yankees would like to re-sign David Robertson—who converted 39 saves in 2014 and recently rejected their $15.3 million qualifying offer—to be their closer, but he could command upwards of $50 million (MLB Trade Rumors' Adams predicts a four-year, $52 million deal).
"He has helped us be very successful here and helped us be a World Series club as well. He was great," said manager Joe Girardi on Tuesday, per LoHud's Chad Jennings. "I think anytime you're negotiating and things like this [rejecting the QO] happen, your hope is that the players are always going to come back."
If he walks, the most likely scenario would be turning over the ninth-inning duties to Betances, who shined in his rookie year. Cashman could also consider someone like Andrew Miller, the best lefty reliever on the market who represents a younger, slightly cheaper alternative to Robertson, but he'd still come with a hefty price tag for a non-closer (MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes expects four years at $32 million).
One way to insure the back end of the bullpen with or without a Robertson or Miller would be to target a proven late-inning arm who would come on a more inexpensive deal.
Luke Gregerson is a great example, sporting a career 1.078 WHIP and 2.99 FIP in six seasons with San Diego (2009-13) and Oakland (2014), during which time he's led the league in holds. As Oakland's setup man last season, the 30-year-old right-hander posted a 2.12 ERA (14th in AL) and 1.009 WHIP in 72.1 innings.
As Dierkes notes, among free-agent relievers with at least 60 innings, only Pat Neshek and Miller posted better ERAs.
Gregerson's not overpowering (7.3 K/9 in 2014), but he produces a ton of ground balls (52.2 percent ground-ball rate in 2014), rarely puts runners on base (1.9 BB/9 in 2014, 2.6 career) and has a proven and durable health history. Writes Dierkes:
Gregerson will not turn 31 until May next year. Only a handful of Gregerson's fellow relievers on the free agent market are that young, and none of them have a track record close to his. ...
Gregerson comes with a remarkably clean bill of health, having only hit the DL twice in his career. He missed 25 games in 2009 for shoulder inflammation and another 25 in 2011 for an oblique strain. His 419 1/3 relief innings from 2009-14 rank second in baseball, behind only Tyler Clippard.
He's also expected to come on a bargain, with CBS Sports' Jon Heyman predicting an annual average salary as low as $5 million.
Honorable Mentions: Luke Hochevar, Jason Grilli, Zach Duke
Stephen Drew, SS
2015 will be the first season of the post-Derek Jeter era at shortstop, and finding the long-term solution is a priority. Finding that long-term replacement this offseason, however, may not be the most rational course of action; the Yankees could be better off with a cheap stopgap piece to pair with Brendan Ryan.
Though much of the chatter around the Yankees front office regards bringing back Headley for third base and McCarthy for the rotation, Cashman shouldn't overlook re-signing Stephen Drew to fill out the left side of the infield.
At the top of the free-agent shortstop food chain is Hanley Ramirez, but the Yankees could be locking themselves into a $100-plus million contract for a soon-to-be 31-year-old with past health problems and diminishing defense.
There are attractive trade ideas like Troy Tulowitzki and, most recently, per the Daily News' Feinsand, Jimmy Rollins and Elvis Andrus. But the Yankees may not possess the prospects capable of prying loose Tulowitzki, Rollins will turn 36 this month and hasn't hit .270 since 2008, and Andrus' defense is an issue, as his 2014 season finished with minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and minus-4.4 Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150), per FanGraphs.
"It's a limited market," Cashman said on Monday, per NJ.com's Brendan Kuty. "I say limited in terms of availability or acquisition cost. So I would describe the shortstop market as limited."
Among second-tier free agents are viable candidates Asdrubal Cabrera and Jed Lowrie. But Cabrera hasn't hit .250 since 2012, has an ugly advanced stats profile on defense (minus-seven DRS, minus-10.5 UZR/150 in 2014) and is predicted to receive upwards of $30 million, per Heyman.
Lowrie hit .249/.321/.355 in 2014 and is a career .261 hitter, but his defense left much to be desired as well with a minus-10 DRS last season, and Heyman predicts the 30-year-old to receive a contract in a similar range to Cabrera.
Though either would technically be a "bargain" for the Yankees when you consider the expected money for Ramirez and their spending past, a truer bargain would see another one-year deal for Drew; Bowden predicts as low as an $8 million deal.
He may seem unattractive after a disastrous partial season—one he entered with no real spring training—saw him bat .162 in 85 games, but he's easily the best defensive free-agent shortstop.
"I don't think last season affects what his true ability is," Cashman said, per Kuty. "We'll certainly stay in touch."
But the Yankees would be wise to more seriously consider Drew for 2015, and they should keep him on their radar as they parcel through their potential options. They could get by with a middle infield combination of Ryan, Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder, but the first has proved he's defense-first, and the second two are still-unproven prospects.
A full season for Drew, on the other hand, would most likely see the 31-year-old shortstop move back toward his career averages of .256/.322/.425, and he was excellent on defense last year with four DRS and 8.1 UZR/150.
"You need a defender at shortstop," Cashman noted on Tuesday, per Kuty.
Honorable Mentions: Ramon Santiago, Rickie Weeks (2B), Jack Hannahan (3B)
Peter F. Richman is a Yankees Featured Columnist and Copy Editor for Bleacher Report: Follow @Peter_F_Richman