If you've followed the Yankees on even a semi-consistent basis over the past two years or so, you know by now that ownership is mandating that the team payroll gets below $189 million by 2014. This is the magic number that could save the organization $40 million or so in luxury tax penalties, and that's $40 million that Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner wants badly.
Between Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, however, the organization is committed to roughly $120 million in salary for 2013. That number goes to roughly $110 million in 2014, even after Granderson's likely exit, as Cano is poised for a raise to the $20 million per year range, presuming the Yankees can retain him.
Keep in mind, of course, that these figures do not include the remaining 19 or 20 players that will fill out the rosters over those two seasons. This all potentially combines to make 2013, 2014 and beyond some tough years for the Yankees, at least in terms of accomplishing the concurrent goals of cutting payroll and legitimately competing for the postseason.
In simple terms, the Yankees, due to a farm system that does not project to possess MLB-ready assets until the 2014 season at best, will have some very interesting choices to make.
Removing Jeter from the discussion, what's worse than the dollars owed here is that the team is committed long term, not to just those dollars, but to the players themselves. And with the exception of Cano and Sabathia, these are not players you necessarily want to be committed to long term.
Whether it's age, injury, a decline in ability or a combination of all three, Rodriguez and Teixeira project to be obstacles to improving the team in the near and not-so-near future. Granderson will not likely return after the 2013 season, so he is not a concern for future planning. And Jeter, as alluded to above, cannot reasonably figure into the team's plans beyond 2014, the year he can opt to take an $8M salary or a $3M buyout.
Translated, the Yankees are potentially in deep trouble over the coming years. As they begin the 2015 season, many of the current pieces will either be gone, in lesser roles or considerably less effective, even as they occupy key positions and responsibilities.
To be more specific, taking into consideration only those assets that are currently under control or that project to be under control, the Yankees in 2015 will be in need of a shortstop, a third baseman (considering that by that point in time, with Rodriguez at 40-plus, the team will be fortunate if he's a somewhat useful DH), a center fielder, a right fielder, at least two (more than likely three) reliable starters, and whatever assets are needed to supplement the various bullpen pieces that always seem to need tinkering with.
Consider also that by 2015, Teixeira and Cano will be 35 and 33, respectively. In no uncertain terms, the Yankees need to get younger and better as quickly as possible; otherwise, they'll experience a franchise collapse similar to the one that began after the 1964 season. That year was effectively the end of the Yankees dynasty, and the organization is on the cusp of something similar now.
The blame for this looming franchise collapse falls squarely on the shoulders of Yankee GM Brian Cashman and, to no lesser degree, co-owner Hank Steinbrenner. It was Hank who chose to lavish Alex Rodriguez with a 10-year deal for $275 million after the 2007 season, and this was prior to the more fiscally focused Hal assuming control of the franchise.
Rodriguez was already 33 at the time, so there can be no justification for the length of that contract. It has hamstrung the franchise in many ways, and Cashman has not helped matters in recent seasons by essentially ignoring the fact that a healthy franchise can supplement both the pitching staff and the lineup with internal options when the need arises.
To illustrate just how negligent Cashman has been in terms of developing positional players, heading into the 2013 season, the team projects to have not one internal prospect competing for a regular spot in the lineup.
This may change as of 2014, with catcher Gary Sanchez likely to be a factor. However, barring the unanticipated rapid emergence of Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Tyler Austin or Dante Bichette Jr., the team will be in the same situation it's in now when 2014 arrives: with big holes and few if any shovels at the ready.
Consider that by 2015 the rotation will of course no longer include Andy Pettite or Hiroki Kuroda and that Sabathia will turn 35 during that season, and you begin to realize just how dire the future might be for this franchise. The Yankees do have young arms that could step in, but as we'll explore shortly, it is quite probable that some of these young arms could be shipped out to bolster the lineup.
To explore this line of thought, if the Yankees are to get younger and better, they may very well need to enter into the trade market aggressively. While Torii Hunter and Carlos Beltran have been mentioned as options to pursue, most notably by Joel Sherman of the New York Post, neither of these players are building blocks to a better future.
In the case of Beltran, the Yankees should have signed him prior to the 2012 season to the same deal he signed with St. Louis, specifically two years at $13M per. They could have jettisoned Nick Swisher and his horrific-in-the-clutch history and been set in RF through the end of 2013.
As it stands now, to bring him aboard they would have to surrender assets in a trade, a prospect that should shut down any internal discussions before they even start.
Hunter, on the other hand, is a free agent, and as a result, it would be a simple matter of dollars and years to bring him aboard. With that said, due to his age, these would be dollars poorly spent, and the two years that he would likely demand would merely block Yankee prospects like Heathcott, Williams, Austin and others from amassing any meaningful playing time with the big club.
There is also Ichiro Suzuki in the mix; however, he is at best a solution for the 2013 season only, as the Yankees would likely avoid any entanglements that include a second year for his services.
To recap, we find the Yankees in 2015—and sooner than this in certain scenarios—in need of at least four and possibly five positional players (SS, 3B, RF, CF, C), based, again, on the assets that project to be under control at that time.
They will also need a minimum of two, likely three, starters to supplement Sabathia and whoever remains from the trio of Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps. We say whomever remains as it is likely that two of the three will be sent elsewhere in the trades that figure to be necessary if the Yankees have any viable reason to be confident in their ability to compete.
Regarding possible trade targets, the Yankees will unquestionably have to decide to either go big or not go at all, deciding instead to wait until all internal prospects are ready to contribute. This second approach is highly unlikely, as there is still the matter of a one billion dollar ballpark to support.
There is also a third approach, which would be to go absolutely humongous. In this third scenario, humongous is defined as the Yankees attempting to acquire both Chase Headley and Justin Upton, either during this upcoming offseason or as the season progresses.
In the case of Headley, the 27-year-old, switch-hitting third baseman is arbitration-eligible and due for a huge raise over the $3.475M he earned in 2012. Coming off of an MVP-caliber season on a team that had few other weapons will do that.
In an ideal world, after acquiring Headley, the Yankees would be able to essentially determine what they feel his worth is going forward and sign him to a contract that fits into their budget. Great 2012 or no, Headley is not a $15-$20M per year player yet, and the Yankees could offer him a significant bump without compromising their payroll needs.
Upton, on the other hand, is a trade fantasy for Yankee purposes. The 24-year-old right fielder is still incredibly young considering his track record, under contract for a relative pittance (roughly $8M per year) through 2015 and a consistent performer. His OBP numbers are exactly what the Yankees look for, and he solves the RF issue through 2015.
Also, if Upton continues to produce, and should the Yankees decide to sign him for 2016 and beyond, they will be signing a proven performer who would still be just 27 years old.
To acquire players that are such attractive assets, the Yankees will have to surrender a considerable number of attractive assets in return. There are essentially no untouchables in this scenario, though the Yankees should do everything in their power to hold on to catcher Gary Sanchez.
The good news for the Yankees is that both Arizona and San Diego have young, high-ceiling catchers as it is, and so perhaps New York will be spared the fate of surrendering their second highly touted catching prospect—Jesus Montero being the first—in two seasons.
In terms of the assets the Yankees will have to offer, again, virtually everything is on the table. This includes IF Eduardo Nunez, currently on the MLB roster and itching for a larger role, as well as young pitching prospects like Manny Banuelos, Jose Campos, Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Ty Hensley, Mark Montgomery, Jose Ramirez and Nick Turley.
These names are all in addition to the aforementioned Hughes, Nova and Phelps on the pitching side and Heathcott, Williams, Austin and Bichette on the positional side. Other positional assets that would be in the mix would be OF Zoilo Amonte, 2B Angelo Gumbs, OF Ramon Flores and others.
Trading away your future is never attractive, and the Yankees have largely avoided that approach in recent years. With that said, though, the team is simply not positioned at this stage to reap the rewards of holding onto its youth. Tough decisions are coming, no doubt, and there are perils regardless of which approach is taken.
If the Yankees do decide on the go-humongous approach and acquire both Headley and Upton, it's clear that assets will be surrendered. Those assets are for the most part not MLB-ready until 2014 in the best possible scenario. So New York, in acquiring two proven MLB performers, would be accomplishing what should be their primary goal, namely getting better and younger quickly.
The acquisitions would without question decrease their pool of pitching prospects and also impact the MLB rotation in the process; however, the team could avoid a complete disruption of their pitcher development approach by striking a delicate balance.
Specifically, if New York could retain at least two of the three young starters with MLB experience, Hughes, Nova and Phelps to be precise, then whoever is lost amongst the promising pool of pitchers named above would be acceptable, at least within reason.
There are eleven names cited in all, with unnamed others also possibilities, and if the Yankees can walk away with at least six of those names, they'll be the winners in the process.
As for positional players, if the team is capable of bringing in Headley and Upton both then the positional players that are lost in the process become less of an issue. With RF and 3B secured, and with Rodriguez moving to the DH role exclusively, New York will then need only to focus on CF and SS for the foreseeable future.
This is certainly predicated on the team retaining catcher Gary Sanchez, of course, and they can aid themselves in doing so perhaps by sweetening the offers to San Diego and Arizona by including other serviceable Yankee catchers such as J.R. Murphy, Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli.
It remains to be seen how New York chooses to address its looming personnel issues. 2013 will be a bridge year if they do not aggressively address their positional needs, however the bridge will be unstable and may not have any capability of getting them to the postseason, much less to a championship. Act now or forever hold your peace, as they say.
The team was old and one-dimensional in 2012, and without adjustments they'll be one-dimensional and even older in 2013. Consider that the team received unexpected production from both Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, 35 HRs and 99 RBI between them, leading any objective observer little room to suggest that a status-quo kind of off-season should be on the menu.
It is time for Cashman to prove his worth. This column and others have advocated for his dismissal in the past, and should another quiet offseason take place, Cashman will have nowhere to hide.