Brian Cashman has attacked the previous two offseasons differently following disappointing years, and this one has a chance to be handled a third way after the New York Yankees’ return to the postseason in 2015 lasted all of three hours.
When the Yankees missed the playoffs in 2013, general manager Cashman reacted by spending more than $450 million in free agency to land Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.
When that spending spree didn’t get them into the playoffs last fall, Cashman turned to the trade market to fill holes with shortstop Didi Gregorius and right-hander Nathan Eovaldi.
Those moves helped the Yankees reach the American League Wild Card Game, where they lost to the Houston Astros, and now Cashman has to again figure out how to best improve his roster while balancing the significance of the team’s payroll and youth. That could lead to an expensive free-agent signing, but it could also mean the Yankees make a blockbuster trade and/or a signing to upgrade their bullpen from very good to completely dominant.
Names like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Madson should have been floated around at the Yankees’ recent organizational meetings and made into legitimate offseason targets.
"I'm open to anything," Cashman told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal last week. "I'm always open to anything. I'm not afraid."
The Yankees’ biggest problems sit in their starting rotation. Plagued by injuries and inconsistency, it ended up being one of the weaker rotations in the league. The team could easily go out and bolster that area with any number of free-agent starters, including the big fish—David Price, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto.
However, one of those guys is going to cost somewhere between $150-200 million, easily. With the Yankees already having $180 million committed to 11 players for next season, per Spotrac, adding that kind of money seems unlikely since they’d like to keep the payroll in check and are valuing draft picks more.
Cashman can still help the team’s pitching, though. Adding a huge arm to the rotation might not be an option, but as the Kansas City Royals have shown over the last two seasons, a dominant bullpen can mask rotation deficiencies, even in the playoffs. Having great relievers shortens games and can go a long way in winning close and extra-inning games, especially in October.
The Yankees bullpen is already one of the best in the majors with lefty Justin Wilson, setup man Dellin Betances and closer Andrew Miller forming the back end. And as an entire group, the bullpen set a major league record for strikeouts in a season with 596.
"It's a great accomplishment and these guys have meant so much to our club,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters late in the regular season. "When you look at our club, that formula—get through six innings and turn it over to those guys and they've been great."
Adding yet another great piece to that group could push the Yankees to the top of their division while also helping them maintain a semblance of payroll flexibility. Ryan Madson showed he is still an elite reliever with a 2.13 ERA for the Royals, and he is a free agent well within the Yankees’ price range.
Aside from Madson, Cashman could also aggressively pursue either Kimbrel, the San Diego Padres closer who had a 2.58 ERA in 2015 but has had it below 2.00 in his three previous seasons, or Chapman, the Cincinnati Reds closer whose 41.7 percent strikeout rate led all major league relievers, in the trade market.
Kimbrel was on the trading block in July and Cashman tried to pry him away, but the price ended up too high. Talks between the teams could start again soon, as recently as this week at the GM meetings, as Dan Martin of the New York Post thinks.
Chapman’s price was high before the July 31 trade deadline, which kept him in Cincinnati. But the Reds are in a rebuild and Chapman has one controlled year remaining before hitting free agency. It could cost “a blockbuster package” to land him, according to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. But the Yankees certainly have the pieces to pull it off if Cashman decided to go that route—a real possibility since a rival official told Rosenthal it “sounds like the Yankees are shopping everyone” with the exception of 21-year-old right-hander Luis Severino.
The Yankees probably cannot significantly upgrade their rotation or lineup this winter, but they can make a major impact on the market and for next season by going after at least one top-flight back-end reliever. It would benefit the starting pitching and almost guarantee a win any time they lead after five innings.
Considering the payroll limitations and what a starting pitcher would cost, building one of the best bullpens ever assembled would move the Yankees from so-so contender to scary good. This could be the best option for Cashman to attack this winter after a third consecutive disappointing season.
All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired first-hand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.