We’ve all heard armchair general managers and sports talk callers complain during the off-season that their team isn’t signing enough talent. Over the last few years ago, much wailing and gnashing of teeth occurred over teams not “going for it”, like Boston in 2013 or San Francisco in 2014. In this series, I’ll take a look at contenders who didn’t make the playoffs as well as tankers who never came close to see if it really is possible to turn failures into contenders with some reasonable adjustments through free agency. For example: could we turn a team like the Astros into a competitor without significantly damaging their long term outlook? Could the Yankees have made the playoffs in 2014 without exceeding their already gargantuan payroll?

We know what players would eventually sign for in each off-season from recent years as well as their value during the following seasons so I’m going to use this as the standard for what a general manager could have done if they could predict how free agents would perform in the future. Hypothetical trades are usually offensive to rational thinkers so I’m going to remove myself from that temptation altogether but I will consider what trades a team should have avoided if they wanted to improve their outlook. My hypothesis is that we’ll be surprised to find that the players most people think were key ingredients toward building champions were not necessarily the best values during the off-season. I’m also not going to limit myself to one off-season: if there’s an obvious way to make up ground by reaching back an additional year, I’ll include that transaction.

For the purposes of sanity, I’ll need to make a few reasonable assumptions:

– The contract the player settled on would apply to the team I’m reassigning them to. For example, Michael Bourn would sign for 4 years/$56M with any team since that was his final settlement with the Indians.

– Players will be used in ways to contribute similarly to their overall 2014 value, meaning someone who has demonstrated equal skill at 2nd or 3rd base could change positions while assuming their final value would be approximately the same. For example, players who move up the defensive spectrum to a more difficult position suffer from being less valuable defenders but their offensive contributions will increase relative to the position.

– I’m going to use Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement statistic as a final guidepost as to whether or not the team is demonstrably better. While it’s not advisable to simply add up the WAR of different players at different positions and assume that will equate to a certain number of wins, I think it can be used for before-and-after comparisons when there is a difference of several wins above replacement.

The 2014 Yankees
In 2014, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the second straight season even though they outspent most Major League teams during free agency and made several mid-season trades. During the 2013-14 off-season, the Yankees signed 3 of the top 5 free agents from MLBTradeRumors top 50 free agents as part of a domestic free agent spending spree. In addition to adding stateside free agents, they paid the new maximum posting fee of $20M to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles after signing Masahiro Tanaka to a $155M contract. These transactions couldn’t help the Yankees and retiring inner-circle hall of famer Derek Jeter get back to the post-season, though.

Can we fix the Yankees by signing different players while not adding to their long term payroll? It’s difficult to nail down their exact payroll in 2014 thanks in part to the carousel of players moving through their roster, but I can keep track of savings and expenditures relative to their 2014 payroll as I move through each position..

The Outfield:
On opening day, the Yankees played Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in the outfield with Alfonso Soriano as the designated hitter. This veteran group cost the Yankees an estimated $53.2M, nearly $1M more than the entire Astros’ payroll. While Gardner and Ellsbury combined to contribute 7.3 WAR, Beltran and Soriano combined to cost the Yankees -1.6 WAR. The Yankees used 11 different players in the outfield by season’s end (and the outfield carousel spun faster as the season wound down), these four players served the bulk of the season as the outfield starters for the Yankees. Ichiro Suzuki also saw significant playing time, thanks in part due to Beltran’s injury issues. This is why it makes sense to step back to the 2012-13 off-season to build the foundation for the 2014 Yankees’ outfield.

2013 Outfield Fix: Do not trade for Vernon Wells. Do not re-sign Ichiro. Sign Melky Cabrera.

Part of the Yankees’ 2014 woes actually stretch back to 2013. The Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki in 2012 for a couple of young relievers. On the big stage with the Yankees, Ichiro looked like the hitter baseball fans remembered from earlier in his career, slashing .322/.340/.454. This performance probably influenced the Yankees to re-sign Ichiro to a 2 year contract during the 2012-13 off-season. Ichiro’s 67 game 2012 performance for the Yankees proved to be an exception in an otherwise declining trend for the former star as he has managed only a .649 OPS over the last two seasons. While the Yankees paid Ichiro only $13M over these 2 seasons, every penny saved would have helped the 2014 team.

In addition to Ichiro’s ill-advised contract, the Yankees reportedly paid a $2M buyout for Vernon Wells to go away in 2014. The Yankees originally acquired Wells for two players in the lower levels of their minor league system in 2013. This was hardly a high price to pay but Wells had not been a productive player for several seasons. According to Cot’s Contracts, Wells was paid approximately $11.5M to give the Yankees roughly replacement level production in 2013 with a $2M dollar buyout for 2014. They could have paid less for similar production in 2013 if they had signed Melky Cabrera and they would have saved the buyout money as well.

Cabrera won the 2012 batting title in the National League but declined the honor after he was
hit with a PED related suspension at the end of the season. The suspension lowered his value as a free agent the following off-season and allowed Toronto to sign the disgraced batting champion for $16M over 2 seasons. While the Melk Man struggled in 2013, the Yankees would have paid him $3.5M less than Vernon Wells for roughly equal value in left-field. Looking forward to 2014, Cabrera’s .808 OPS would have fit nicely with the rest of the plan I’ll lay out for the Yankees.

This means the Yankees would have also needed some extra outfield depth for 2013, especially due to significant time Curtis Granderson missed due to injuries. If they had beaten the Braves to Reed Johnson, they could have signed him for the small sum of $1.6M with a $150k buyout on a team option for 2014. With Ichiro and Wells off the 2013 roster, this would be feasible for the Yankees with money to spare. This wraps up the 2013 Yankees and allows me to push forward to the year in question, 2014.

2014 Outfield Fix: Do not sign Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Sign Nelson Cruz and Sam Fuld. Continue to pursue valuable outfielders in trades.

After the 2013 season, the new outfield depth chart would have included Cabrera in left and Brett Gardner in center so the Yankees would need to target a right fielder during the off-season. Thankfully, an opportunity arose late in the 2013-14 off-season to sign a right-handed slugger on a discounted contract. Like Melky Cabrera in 2012, Nelson Cruz’s ability to sign as a free agent in 2013 was hampered by a PED-related suspension. The qualifying offer attached to Cruz only further suppressed his value to teams shopping for outfielders and designated hitters. Cruz was only able to land a one year $8M deal with the Orioles but it was the steal of the off-season. Cruz provided 40 home runs and an OPS 40 percent better than league average over 159 games for the Orioles while splitting time between DH and both corner outfield positions. Cruz does not have a reputation as a strong defender but advanced metrics indicate he provided more defensive value in 2014 than Carlos Beltran and did would not allow significantly more runs than Ichiro. While Cruz spent his season in Oriole Park at Camden Yard, it features cozy dimensions in right field similar to Yankee Stadium so he would not need to cover a lot more ground.

The new outfield depth chart leaves two of the 2014 Yankees out of the roster: Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury. Beltran performed extremely well in St. Louis in his age 36 and 37 year old seasons but it’s incredibly difficult to know when a player at this age will suddenly decline. With our 20/20 hindsight, we know Beltran would only appear in 109 games for the Yankees and post his worst offensive numbers in over a decade. The $15M saved on Beltran, as well as money saved on other players, will later be put to use to bring back a star Yankee rather than pursuing aging veterans. Ellsbury contributed to the Yankees in 2014 through a combination of his bat, glove and legs in but his $21M price tag was hardly justified by the roughly 3 WAR he posted. They could do better for less money with the alternate outfield I’ve proposed.

The alternate outfield is far from perfect, though. Melky Cabrera missed most of September after breaking his pinky finger. Assuming Cabrera would suffer a similar fate, the Yankees would need help in the outfield. Thankfully, the real life Yankees made two key outfield
acquisitions. On July 31st, Martin Prado was acquired from the Diamondbacks. Prado spent 53 games with the Yankees, providing 2.1 WAR for approximately $3.5M. Prado’s contributions throw a wrench into the works since he spent a few games in the outfield before settling in as the Yankees everyday second baseman. At the time of his acquisition, the Yankees had already traded for Stephen Drew and Chase Headley to bolster their infield so it appeared they would use Prado in the outfield. The release of Alfonso Soriano further indicated Prado would spend most of his time in the outfield but Drew’s horrible performance led Joe Girardi to install Prado as the everyday second baseman. Since Prado was originally headed for the outfield and other utility duties, I think it’s reasonable to flip the tables in this alternate scenario and use Prado primarily as a corner outfielder.

Prado’s mid-September appendectomy drove him to the DL for the rest of the season, where he joined Melky Cabrera. Thankfully, the Yankees signed Chris Young in late August. Young posted a an .823 OPS across 19 starts in September. In both scenarios, he makes valuable contributions to a team struggling with injuries. For the purposes of this exercise, Prado and Young’s costs and contributions are a wash from the original to the modified roster since they could provide similar value for similar cost in both scenarios but it’s important to understand how the alternate roster would compensate for Cabrera’s season-ending injury without incurring extra costs.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll assume the Yankees would have still traded for Alfonso Soriano in 2013. His offensive surge after joining his the Yankees nearly propelled them to the playoffs. This would mean Soriano would still open the 2014 season on our modified Yankees roster as the DH and back-up left and right field as he did for the Yankees. The alternate reality Yankees could also release Soriano mid-season, as did the actual Yankees, to make room for their many acquisitions.

To fill out the outfield depth chart, Sam Fuld could back up all three outfield spots for a mere $800k. The real life Yankees started two centerfielders, Ellsbury and Gardner, so the modified roster will need at least one player who can handle the position in reserve. Fuld provided 1.8 WAR over 113 games for the A’s and Twins in 2014. While Fuld’s contributions were not overwhelming, they were efficient and sufficient for the purposes of this scenario.

To make life slightly easier for this exercise, I’m going to strike Kelly Johnson’s one game appearance in the outfield in 2014 from the record in order to include him exclusively as an infielder (which I believe is reasonable since it was just one 11 inning game) but I’ll keep the rest of the Yankees outfielders from 2014 since they do not require major adjustments.

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Savings for 2014: $29.3M; Total value gained for 2014: 5.5 WAR

So far, I’ve saved the Yankees approximately $29.3M while adding approximately 5.5 wins above replacement. While the players on the modified outfield depth chart played in 10 games more than their real world counterparts, this only amounts to a 1.3% increase, hardly large enough to make an impact in the final value of the players’ contributions. These additions alone will not be enough to catapult the Yankees to the playoffs but I will attempt to mine a little extra value out of the Yankees’ infielders and catchers in the next installment. I’ll finish off the Yankees by addressing a pitching staff that was just as volatile as their position players in the final part.

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