Red Sox, Blue Jays' High-Octane Offseason Could Force Yankees' Hand This Winter

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2014

AP Images

The American League East is forcing the New York Yankees’ hand. 

The Boston Red Sox are making another play to go from worst to first in the division, signing two of the more coveted hitters on the free-agent market in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez while trying to lure ace pitcher Jon Lester back to the city. The Toronto Blue Jays picked up the best catcher on the market in Russell Martin, just traded for one of the league’s top third basemen in Josh Donaldson and still could re-sign Melky Cabrera, giving them a deep, potent lineup for 2015.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles are still the defending division champions and aren’t expected to relinquish the title meekly.

That leaves the Yankees, who finished 12 games behind the Orioles last season, vulnerable to missing the playoffs for a third straight season. Keeping up with the rest of the division could require the Yankees to once again dig deep into their pockets and shell out money. They swung and missed with that approach last year, having spent $471 million on free agents only to again miss out on October baseball.

However, do not expect the Yankees to run wild in the same fashion this winter. More than likely, the team is going to focus on specific needs—shortstop, the bullpen, third base, starting pitching—and try to keep spending at a moderate level.

Then again, that could change as it did a year ago.

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“Don’t be surprised if their plan changes a month from now,” one executive told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. “It’s happened before.”

As of now, the hope for the Yankees is the money they dished out last year actually pays off in a playoff appearance next fall, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post suggested:

Column http://t.co/WXzl7uOrfc Most important fr agt pacts #Yankees sign for 2015 season were ones already signed last offseason

— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 25, 2014

While the Yankees have been linked to expensive free agents this offseason, none of that means much until the checks are signed. That includes a rumor that they had made an offer Saturday to ace Max Scherzer, via Dan Pfeiffer of the MLBlogs Network

That did not seem to make much sense given the team’s spending goals this winter, but the Yankees also put payroll limitations on themselves last year only to break them. YES Network’s Jack Curry eventually shared news that the Yankees were still sticking to their current plan of not going after a free-agent ace like Scherzer, Jon Lester or James Shields: 

Yankees haven't offered Max Scherzer a 6-year deal. That report is inaccurate.

— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) November 29, 2014

Owner Hal Steinbrenner already thinks the payroll is at its limit, according to Sherman. Spending nine figures on a pitcher, or anyone else, would only further hamper the Yankees, making them inflexible with several long-term, expensive contracts for players on the wrong side of 30.

If the spending spree last offseason did not fix the Yankees' troubles, it’s safe to assume throwing more money at the problem won’t fix it this time around either. The team already has close to $170 million committed to next season’s payroll, and that does not include arbitration raises or what it will take to sign a shortstop and possibly re-sign reliever David Robertson, starter Brandon McCarthy and third baseman Chase Headley.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Bidding wars for Robertson and even Headley could get too rich for the Yankees. Robertson reportedly already has a three-year offer on the table, and he might be seeking a fourth, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com. That would likely push the Yankees out of play for him. As for Headley, seeing Sandoval get $95 million from Boston means his price is going up, and the San Francisco Giants are likely to pursue him, further driving up the cost for the Yankees.

Because the Yankees have a thin farm system, competitively spending to land guys like Robertson, Headley or even one of the free-agent aces like Scherzer is still a possibility.

“It will be high, I can tell you that,” general manager Brian Cashman said of the team’s payroll next year, according to Feinsand. “It will be impressive. I’m just hopeful to have a roster that’s as impressive”

That does not necessarily mean the team will go on a spending spree. It simply means the payroll is already high and can’t help but to go up by Opening Day. The underlying message here, especially with that last comment, is Cashman knows the current payroll obligations are not going to be enough to get the Yankees back in to the postseason, especially when taking into account the spending within the division already in this offseason.

The Red Sox and Blue Jays have clearly put themselves in win-now mode because of their spending for players nearing 30 or already beyond that age. The Yankees are trying not to be reactionary as they have in the past, but seeing a couple of rivals surpass them in the division’s hierarchy might be too much to handle.

Nov 20, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN;  Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin (left) receives his jersey from general manager Alex Anthopoulos after being introduced at a press conference at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees don’t want to spend wildly for a second consecutive winter, and that would probably be wise. However, the Steinbrenner family has always valued winning above virtually all else.

Seeing the rest of the division rise could very well mean the Yankees dip back into the piggy bank to buy talent within the next two months.

Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.