Beyond winning as many games as possible, the Yankees went into the 2018 season with the goal of avoiding the luxury tax. They accomplished their mission by spending less than $200 million on payroll for the first time since 2004, all the while winning 100 games.
After paying $341 million in luxury-tax penalties between 2003 and 2017, the Yankees were on the hook for nothing extra this past season. Moreover, they reset their penalties on future overages from 50 percent to 20.
Ergo, it was time for principal owner Hal Steinbrenner to deliver on a hint he dropped in November 2017 (via David Lennon of Newsday): "I think that flexibility is going to be a reality for us to do that and still field the kind of team that our fans demand."
Yet rather than some combination of Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Patrick Corbin and Craig Kimbrel for hundreds of millions of dollars, the Yankees have added lesser stars for a total of roughly $150 million.
Five years ago, the Yankees gave each of Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka more than that in a massive splurge. The task at hand now is the same as it was then: close the gap between them and a Red Sox team hot off a World Series championship.
But despite any rabble-rousing buzz you may hear from disgruntled fans, the Yankees have done just that.
On paper, the Red Sox were significantly better than the Yankees in 2018. Even before they dispatched the Bombers in four games in the American League Division Series, the Red Sox outpaced them by eight wins in the regular season en route to a third straight AL East title.
Luck plays a factor in every team's season, and the Red Sox enjoyed more of it than the Yankees. Per their Pythagorean records—based on runs scored and allowed—the Red Sox were only four wins better than the Yankees. Per BaseRuns, it was more like two wins.
To safeguard against regression in 2019, the Red Sox re-signed World Series heroes Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi. The former will bring depth to a lineup that led Major League Baseball in runs last year. If healthy, the latter will be an impressive No. 4 starter behind Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello.
However, the Red Sox's bullpen has already lost Joe Kelly, and Kimbrel could be next. On a related note, Boston's luxury-tax bill for 2019 is projected at $241.3 million. That's well above the $206 million baseline threshold, and not far below the $246 million threshold for the harshest penalties.
The Red Sox don't have much choice but to hope their incumbent relievers can pick up the slack. What's more likely is that their bullpen will indeed regress.
In so many words, the Red Sox now have a fatal flaw. And it happens to be in an area where the Yankees might be stronger than any team in history.
For now, the best bullpen ever might be the one the Yankees had last year. Led by Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green, New York's pen set MLB records with 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 9.7 wins above replacement.
Missing from last year's pen is David Robertson, but in to take his place is Adam Ottavino. This will be an upgrade if Ottavino carries over his 2018 success (a 13.0 K/9 and 2.43 ERA) with the Colorado Rockies. If re-signee Zach Britton picks up where he left off with the Yankees (a 2.88 ERA and a vintage 77.8 ground-ball percentage), he'll be an upgrade in his own right.
Above all, the Yankees' star-studded bullpen will ensure that even the slimmest of late leads generally stay safe. Beyond that, it can cover on occasions when a Yankees starter has a bad day.
But that shouldn't be as big of a bother as it was in 2018. The Yankees have filled the three open slots behind Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka by re-signing CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ and trading for James Paxton. These five would have combined for a 9.9 K/9 and a 3.63 ERA in 2018. They have enough collective talent and experience to do at least that well in 2019.
Severino and Paxton, in particular, are potential Cy Young Award contenders. Before a slow finish to 2018, Severino had a 10.6 K/9 and 2.60 ERA over a 49-start span. Injuries have slowed Paxton's progress toward stardom, but not enough to keep him from a no-hitter and career-bests in K/9 (11.7) and innings (160.1) in 2018.
Which brings us to the most unchanged part of the 2018 Yankees: their lineup.
DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki are the only new additions to New York's offense. The former is a singles hitter who largely made his living at Coors Field as a member of the Rockies. The latter is another former Rockie who hasn't played since July 2017, and he doesn't have a clear avenue to playing time in New York anyway.
Then again, the Yankees offense didn't need saving. It hit an MLB-record 267 home runs and scored 5.3 runs per game in 2018 despite a variety of challenges.
One was Aaron Judge's absence with a broken wrist between July 27 and September 13. New York's offense wasn't the same without the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up:
- 117 games with Judge: .798 OPS, 5.4 runs per game
- 45 games without Judge: .735 OPS, 4.9 runs per game
The Yankees also got less-than-expected production out of Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 21 fewer homers than he did with the Miami Marlins in his 2017 MVP season, and Gary Sanchez, whose OPS fell from .876 all the way down to .697. Both are too young and too talented not to bounce back in 2019.
Elsewhere, Aaron Hicks proved his 2017 breakout was the real deal, and we're willing to believe that Luke Voit's 2018 breakout will also prove to be legit. New York can also expect further growth out of Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, who combined for an .840 OPS and 51 homers as rookies last year. Should one of them falter, Didi Gregorius will come to the rescue when he returns from Tommy John surgery.
FanGraphs' projections expect the Red Sox to win one more game than the Yankees in 2019. A margin that small amounts to a toss-up, and it's one the ol' eyeball test says the Yankees have a darn good chance of winning.
While they could have done more this offseason, don't say they haven't done enough.