Are Yankees Setting Stage for Colossal Spending in Historic 2018 Free Agency?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 22, 2015

Are Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi and the Yankees saving up for a big splurge three years from now?
Are Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi and the Yankees saving up for a big splurge three years from now?Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Are you sitting there wondering why the New York Yankees haven't seemed interested in building for 2016 this winter?

Here's a potential spoiler: It might be because they have their eyes on what's coming after 2018.

It's not because the Yankees don't have needs in the here and now. They snagged some outfield depth and a solid second baseman in trades for Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro, but those don't look like substantial upgrades for a roster that won just 87 games in 2015. At the least, more starting pitching depth would be good.

Based on the Yankees' silence to this point, though, they're in no hurry to dive into an open market that still features plenty of quality starting pitching and, indeed, good depth overall. And this silence may not be a ruse.

“There’s a reason they haven’t been attached to any big free agent,” an anonymous executive told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News at the winter meetings. “They’re not in on them.”

Besides, it's not like the Yankees have a ton of money to spend. Between the $190 million in guaranteed money and about $20 million in projected arbitration payouts, per MLB Trade Rumors, their 2016 payroll is already slated to be in the ballpark of this year's $217.8 million opening figure.

Mind you, the Yankees do have it in them to eclipse that figure. If they choose not to, one fair criticism to lob at them will be that they missed out on arguably the best class of free agents in MLB history.

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What the Yankees may be thinking, however, is that this winter's free-agent class is a mere little league roster compared to what will be out there in three years.

Among those projected to be available in 2018 is 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper.
Among those projected to be available in 2018 is 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press

We knew coming into this offseason that the winter market would have a lot to offer. David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto gave the market four ace pitchers, and Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon and Chris Davis were the cream of the position-player crop.

Next to what's going to be out there after 2018, though, that's a collection of talent we can disregard with a "meh."

As Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com and others have pointed out, the 2018-19 free-agent class is going to be loaded. Loaded as in L-O-A-D-E-D. Slated to be available are...

  • Three MVPs: Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and Andrew McCutchen
  • One Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel
  • Additional Amazing Bats: Manny Machado, A.J. Pollock, Michael Brantley, Dee Gordon, Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, Hunter Pence and Adrian Gonzalez
  • Additional Amazing Aces: Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Shelby Miller, Garrett Richards, Jose Quintana and Adam Wainwright
  • Amazing Relievers: Craig Kimbrel, Trevor Rosenthal, Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia, Kelvin Herrera and David Robertson

"That's decent talent," one general manager told Castrovince, presumably with his tongue firmly in his cheek. "That's a good year."

If Kershaw opts out of his contract after 2018, he'll only be forgoing two years and $65 million.
If Kershaw opts out of his contract after 2018, he'll only be forgoing two years and $65 million.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

That's one way to put it. And all this is without considering two other players who could hit the market via opt-out clauses: Clayton Kershaw and Price.

So, yeah. This winter's free-agent class may be the best baseball has ever seen, but it figures to hold on to that title only as long as Mark McGwire held on to his title as baseball's single-season home run king.

Now, are all of the aforementioned players going to hit free agency? Presumably not, no.

Rest assured, there will be contract extensions. Teams haven't been afraid to offer them, and players haven't minded accepting them. They could wait for a bigger payday in free agency, but the lure of instant and long-lasting financial security has proved to be too powerful for many players to pass up in recent years.

As such, it's no wonder Yankees general manager Brian Cashman doesn't want to make any promises.

“You can’t predict free agency multiple years out. I can’t project availability," said Cashman, per Chad Jennings of LoHud Yankees Blog. He then added: "It’s such a guessing game when you go through that process that far out to forecast.”

Still, it doesn't take a leap to predict that most of the aforementioned players will hit the open market three years from now. And though Cashman may not want to say he's gearing up for the 2018-2019 offseason, his actions suggest otherwise.

Building a team around Luis Severino and others seems to be the Yankees' primary goal.
Building a team around Luis Severino and others seems to be the Yankees' primary goal.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Those go beyond refusing to spend big bucks in free agency this winter. There's also how Cashman has refused to part with any of his top young players—namely Luis Severino, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge—in trades in recent years. He was especially adamant about holding on to them this summer.

“We tried to match up where it didn’t involve the [Aaron] Judges, the [Luis] Severinos and the [Greg] Birds," said Cashman of the summer trade market, according to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post. "Every offer we made that didn’t involve those players wasn’t good enough."

In retrospect, the Yankees' inaction on the summer trade market likely played a role in the club's disappointing finish to an otherwise solid season in 2015. But that inaction was consistent with the club's stated goal of getting younger and more athletic. That's something the Yankees haven't been in some time, and it's definitely the right idea in today's MLB.

Assuming the Yankees stick to their guns on this front, they will look to further establish Severino and Bird alongside guys like Castro and Didi Gregorius in the coming seasons, and the team will eventually call on Judge to join the fray. In time, the Yankees will have the young core they seek.

And three years from now, they'll get their chance to use free agency to build around it.

A-Rod's contract has just two years left on it.
A-Rod's contract has just two years left on it.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

The Yankees have spent much of the last decade bogged down by expensive contracts, but that's not going to be the case come the 2018-2019 offseason. They only have $57 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2019, at which point they will be free of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia and could also be free of Brett Gardner and Brian McCann.

That's obviously well short of what we know the Yankees can spend. Just as important is where the luxury tax threshold figures to be. It's at $189 million now, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports figures it could be "quite a bit higher" in 2018.

As such, a rough estimate for how much money the Yankees will be able to spend on the open market is something like $150 million. That's plenty by, um, plenty, and it's not hard to imagine how the Yankees could put it to use.

Harper is obviously the big target, and he would make sense for the Yankees on multiple levels. He'd only be coming off his age-25 season, he has a swing perfectly suited for Yankee Stadium, and, as a simple Google search can tell you, he's pretty much destined to be a Yankee anyway.

Of course, Harper wouldn't come cheap. There's talk of him becoming not just baseball's first $400 million player but perhaps baseball's first $500 million player. Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports didn't have to do much complicated math to arrive at that figure.

But, hey, a $500 million contract spread out over 10 years would be "only" $50 million per year. That would be only about one-third of the Yankees' 2018-2019 spending money, so there would be room for additional purchases.

Those could include Machado and Fernandez, who will also be coming off their age-25 seasons. Or, the Yankees could settle for any number of alternative combinations (Harvey and Pollock, Keuchel and Brantley, etc.) and still possibly have room for one of the market's top relievers and a veteran bat to help tie things together.

The possibilities are endless, really, and that's kind of the whole point.

You can argue that the Yankees should be pressing their advantage this offseason, but it's hard to fault them for playing the long game. They're overdue for a core of young, talented players, and the money saved in establishing one of those could pay off in a huge way when the open market gets an epic free-agent class in 2018.

The Yankees haven't come out and said that this is their plan. But it sure seems like it is, and it sure seems like a good idea.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Payroll and contract data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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