The New York Yankees have entered the new year as arguably the winners of the offseason and, after coming just one win short in 2017, as arguably the team to beat in the race to the 2018 World Series.
This doesn't mean they can do no wrong as the winter winds down.
Mind you, it's not as if the Yankees' hot-stove checklist still contains an endless column of empty boxes. They arranged one of Major League Baseball's most fearsome offenses when they added Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, to a lineup that already had Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. When they re-signed CC Sabathia, they effectively re-upped with one of last season's best pitching staffs.
It's apparent, however, that these Yankees believe overkill is underrated.
According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, the Bombers have their eye on free-agent ace Yu Darvish. Alex Cobb is another talented free-agent starter on their radar. Regarding trade targets, Heyman added to a chorus of reports that have sent Gerrit Cole, Chris Archer and Michael Fulmer strutting into Yankees fans' imaginations.
The club's interest in Darvish and Cobb should be taken with a grain of salt. The Yankees are projected to be $16 million under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018. They likely can't sign Darvish or Cobb without wiping out that space, thereby reneging on a supposed goal.
"You can have a world championship-caliber team and not have a $200-plus million payroll," principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said in November, per David Lennon of Newsday, "and I think we're finally getting to a point where that's coming true for us because we've got a lot of good young players on our team."
If the Yankees deem this goal expendable, well, so be it. It's only money. They crank that stuff out like Motown cranked out hits in the 1960s.
But trades? Different story.
After years of failing to put together a good farm system, the Yankees revamped their system in 2016 and kept it in good enough shape in 2017 for it to end up at No. 3 in Bleacher Report's rankings. Headlined by shortstop Gleyber Torres, the darn thing is loaded.
Alas, there's no way the Yankees could get Archer (29 and controlled cheaply through 2021) or Fulmer (24 and controlled cheaply through 2022) without blowing it up. Their acquisition costs probably include literal arms and legs.
Since he's 27 and only controlled through 2019, Cole should cost less. However, Heyman has reported that the Pittsburgh Pirates want Torres in a Cole deal. The Yankees apparently prefer to part with outfielder Clint Frazier, a 23-year-old who's not far removed from being an elite prospect. But the reality that a deal hasn't been done yet indicates the Pirates aren't willing to settle at that price.
Either that, or the Yankees have asked the necessary question: Is any of this worth it?
Their rotation is already headed by an electric ace (Luis Severino), with a mostly dependable producer (Masahiro Tanaka) in the No. 2 slot and a recent Cy Young finalist (Sonny Gray) in the No. 3 slot. After combining for 304 innings and a 3.79 ERA in 2017, Sabathia and Jordan Montgomery look like an above-average back-end duo.
There's an embarrassment of bullpen riches headlined by Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle. This might be the best collection of relief pitchers in recent memory—which, given the contemporary importance of the breed, makes it possibly the best collection of relievers ever.
Of course, whatever urge general manager Brian Cashman may be feeling to pile on can be justified. Rebuilders hoard prospects so they can build from the ground up. Contenders, on the other hand, are free to deal from their prospect caches to satisfy needs and advance win-now agendas.
But given that the Yankees don't have any real "needs" in their pitching staff, the smart play would be to leave good enough alone and hold off until such needs arise.
Injuries and ineffectiveness always ensure that nothing goes according to plan. The best way for contenders to adjust to that is by using the summer trade market.
The Yankees beautifully illustrated the concept when they used their prospect depth to deal for Gray, Robertson and Kahnle last July, after which they finished strong at 34-24. If they hold off on blockbuster trades now, they'll have everything they need to rescue themselves all over again this summer.
Besides, they have other "needs" to attend to in the meantime.
It's not because of pitching issues that FanGraphs' projections expect the Yankees to finish with the same record (91-71) as the Boston Red Sox in 2018. They have red flags on the other side of the ball, such as potential regressions on the part of Judge (who's also coming off shoulder surgery) and Aaron Hicks.
Then there are the much more conspicuous red flags at third base and second base, where the Yankees are set to give untested rookie Miguel Andujar and light-hitting utility type Ronald Torreyes regular at-bats. FanGraphs expects the duo to combine for just 1.9 wins above replacement. That's unbecoming of a championship contender.
This is a glaring invitation for the Yankees to pursue a reunion with slugging third baseman Todd Frazier, who can likely be signed without sacrificing the team's remaining tax space. They could then go for a low-cost second baseman, such as old friend Eduardo Nunez or a sturdy veteran like Brandon Phillips.
None of this would be as exciting as if the Yankees emptied the farm to land a big-name pitcher. That would have the same kind of allure as if the Galactic Empire put an extra super-laser on the Death Star, just in case.
Instead, the Yankees should be looking to seal up problematic exhaust ports. It's all they need to do to get ready for 2018, and it wouldn't preclude them from more drastic maneuvers down the line.
All they'd have to do then is play the games.