Given all the preseason hype, it's difficult to see how the 2018 season qualifies as something better than a disappointment for the New York Yankees. The Yankees did win 100 games during the regular season, but they had to settle for second place in the AL East, and they were unceremoniously bumped out of the postseason by the rival Boston Red Sox in the ALDS in four games.
"We've been through a lot this year, but the one thing I'm most proud of with these guys is they always compete ... Just really sucks we came up short," said manager Aaron Boone following the ALDS Game 4 loss. "As far as (offseason moves), that's for the winter. As the roster changes and adds and subtracts and those kinds of things, and hopefully we'll continue to work towards having the most complete team we can."
The Yankees, even with their disappointing ALDS ouster, are set up as well for the next few seasons as any team in the game. They have a high-end young core led by Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar. They have more top flight prospects like Justus Sheffield on the way. And they have money to spend. Lots and lots of money to spend. Right now, it's tough to see the Yankees as anything less than a World Series contender in 2019.
That all said, the Yankees do have some significant questions to answer this offseason as they shape their roster and on-field personnel going forward. After all, their success is measured in World Series titles, not regular season wins or home run records. Here are four of the biggest questions facing the Bronx Bombers this winter.
How much will the Yankees spend this winter?
A weirdly overlooked story this season is that the Yankees went to Game 7 of the ALCS last year and trimmed nearly $50 million off their payroll this year. Between salary and luxury tax, the Yankees paid about $242.1 million for their 2017 roster. Their 2018 roster will cost them a few million bucks under the $197 million luxury tax threshold.
Consider the Yankees' Opening Day payroll ranks the last five seasons, per Spotrac:
- 2014: $214.9 million (second highest in MLB)
- 2015: $222.6 million (second)
- 2016: $220.7 million (second)
- 2017: $209.7 million (third)
- 2018: $179.6 million (sixth)
The Yankees did take on payroll at the trade deadline, for sure, but seeing a Yankees team -- a contending Yankees team, at that -- outside the top five in payroll is a bit weird. This was all done intentionally, of course. The Yankees made it no secret they wanted to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold to reset their tax rate, which had been at the maximum 50 percent for years. They did that this season by staying under the threshold.
So now, with their luxury tax rate reset, how high does the payroll climb next season? Ratings and attendance went up considerably in 2018, as expected, and the Yankees raked in millions thanks to postseason home games. The question is not whether the Yankees have money to spend. The question is whether they're willing to spend lavishly like we know they can. No team can match the Yankees when it comes to spending power. None.
The upcoming free agent market offers two 26-year-old superstars in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The Yankees need to figure out their left field situation, and making room for Machado at third base wouldn't be difficult. The Yankees also need rotation help and gosh, free agent and native New Yorker Patrick Corbin sure would slot in nicely alongside Severino in the rotation. What if Clayton Kershaw opts out? Think the Yankees would love to get their hands on him?
The Yankees will, clearly, throw some money around this winter. The question is how much. Are they willing to exceed the luxury tax threshold now that they've reset their tax rate -- the threshold rises to $206 million in 2019 -- or is avoiding the luxury tax an ongoing organizational mandate? Chairman Hal Steinbrenner is on record (many, many times) as saying he doesn't believe you need a $200 million payroll to win. Maybe that's just posturing. We should find out for sure this winter.
Is Boone the right man for the job?
The Yankees lost the ALDS for a multitude of reasons. One of them was Boone's decided lack of urgency. He gave Game 3 starter Luis Severino and Game 4 starter CC Sabathia far too long a leash, and it cost the Yankees runs on the board. It's impossible to look at that series and think Red Sox skipper Alex Cora didn't manage Boone under the table. One went for the jugular and used Chris Sale in relief. The other tried to squeeze extra outs from his starter.
Boone was hired right out of the broadcast booth with zero prior coaching or managerial experience. The Yankees went to Game 7 of the ALCS last year and they essentially handed the keys to an entry level manager this year. Boone did fine work during the 162-game regular season. In the postseason, the lack of urgency was alarming, especially since he repeated his Game 3 mistake in Game 4. That's not second-guessing either; it was difficult to understand the Severino and Sabathia moves while watching live.
Obviously, a manager's on-field decision-making is only one part of his job. And these days front offices have so much input into strategic decisions -- who platoons with who, who pitches what inning, etc. -- that it's tough to know what comes from above and what is the manager's own doing. The manager's most important work takes place in the clubhouse, behind closed doors. That's where he builds relationships and trust with his players, and disseminates data from the front office.
By all accounts, Boone is excellent in the clubhouse. He's regarded as a special communicator and liaison between the front office and players. He's also great with the media, which is no small thing in New York. That said, his strategic mistakes in the ALDS were glaring, so much so that it's fair to wonder whether a Yankees team with World Series aspirations should wait for Boone to come into his own as a manager. The rookie skipper's inexperience was very apparent in the postseason.
Is it time to move on from the old guard?
Only two players from the 2009 World Series team were still with the Yankees in 2018. Well, three if you include David Robertson, who left for a 2 1/2-year stint with the White Sox before returning. Anyway, Sabathia and Brett Gardner have been stalwart Yankees over the last decade, and, moreso than at any other point, their futures with the organization are in question. Sabathia will be a free agent after the season and Gardner's contract includes a $12.5 million club option for next season that is no lock to be picked up.
On one hand, both players are important clubhouse leaders. Gardner is the club's unofficial captain and Sabathia has helped form an inclusive culture that allows rookies like Torres and Andujar -- and Judge and Sanchez before them -- to come up, be themselves, and thrive almost immediately. The clubhouse impact Gardner and Sabathia have is not negligible. Their on-field contributions are fading, however. Gardner finished with a career worst 86 OPS+ this year and Sabathia is no longer a safe bet to complete five innings every fifth day.
In both cases the Yankees could look to continue transitioning to their new core -- Judge has emerged as a team leader already -- by replacing Gardner and Sabathia with younger players. Harper could replace Gardner, for example. Or the Yankees could stay in-house with Clint Frazier, who had concussion problems in 2018. Replacing Sabathia isn't as easy only because there are five rotation spots and pushing youngsters like Sheffield and Jonathan Loaisiga for that many MLB innings may not be a good idea.
Point is, Gardner and Sabathia are longtime Yankees contributors who are at a crossroads right now. They have both said they want to play in 2019, but they are no longer the players they were in their prime -- still useful, both of them, but not impact players -- and the Yankees moving on would be understandable. What does it mean for the clubhouse? Possibly nothing. Possibly a lot. That is part of the equation for the Yankees and will be a factor in deciding whether to part ways with Gardner and/or Sabathia.
Where does Andujar wind up?
By almost any measure, Andujar had a fantastic rookie season in 2018. The 23-year-old third baseman authored a .297/.328/.527 (126 OPS+) batting line with 47 doubles and 27 home runs despite starting the season in Triple-A. Andujar set a new franchise record for doubles by a rookie and finished 12th among all players with 77 extra-base hits in 2018. He was one extra-base hit behind NL MVP favorite Christian Yelich. Andujar was outstanding this year.
At the same time, Andujar is a below-average third baseman who rated among the worst defensive players in baseball. Two-hundred-and-fifty-six players played at least 500 defensive innings in the field this season. Here is the bottom of the Defensive Runs Saved leaderboard:
DRS data goes back to 2003 and Andujar just had one of the worst defensive seasons by a third baseman on record. The defensive stats hate his glovework, and you know what? The Yankees told us what they think of his defense in the postseason. In New York's two postseason wins, Adeiny Hechavarria took over at third base defensively in the sixth inning. Eighth or ninth inning? Sure. But the sixth? I can't remember the last time I saw a defensive replacement that early in the game.
Clearly, Andujar's bat belongs in the lineup. Only 10 players in baseball combined a .520 slugging percentage this season with a sub-10.0 percent swing-and-miss rate, and they're basically the nine best hitters in MLB (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Alex Bregman, Matt Carpenter, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, Christian Yelich) and Andujar. His combination of power and bat-to-ball ability is special. He needs to be in the lineup.
At what position, however? That question will help shape the Yankees' offseason. Given his age, keeping him at third base is not unreasonable. Give him more time at the position and see if he improves. Shifting him over to first base could make sense as well, though he'd handle the ball more often there than he would at third base. The outfield may be the better bet. That gets Andujar further away from the action and thus gives him more time to react.
The wild card here is Machado. Machado is so good and so talented that the Yankees won't let someone even as talented as Andujar stand in the way of signing him. The Yankees could pursue Machado for third base, and, if they land him, they could shift Andujar to first base or perhaps left field. And if they miss out on Machado, Andujar could remain at third another year. Andujar's best position will always be batter's box. It's not often you see a contending team with third base defense that rates this poorly, however.
Going into the offseason New York's top priority will be addressing their rotation. Assuming Sonny Gray is traded or otherwise let go -- a near certainty after the season he just had -- the only starters in place for next season will be Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Retaining Sabathia as a fifth starter seems possible. Do the Yankees spend for Corbin or Kershaw or Dallas Keuchel? Dip into their prospect base to make a trade for someone like, say, Madison Bumgarner or Jon Gray? Or roll the dice on kids like Sheffield? The rotation is the top roster issue this winter.
Beyond that, the Yankees have to figure out what to do with some walk-year veterans and also figure out where Andujar fits long-term. He fits in the lineup, for sure, but at what position? That's an important issue that has to be resolved. Also, the Yankees kind of have to take a look at Boone, right? A ghastly ALDS performance contributed to the team's postseason exit and the fact he repeated his Game 3 mistake in Game 4 creates some questions about his ability to adjust and adapt.
Hanging over this coming offseason will the payroll question and whether the front office is given the all-clear from ownership to spend wildly and exceed the luxury tax threshold next season. If yes, the Yankees could make some big time noise this winter. If not, GM Brian Cashman and his staff will have to get a little creative. Either way, the Yankees have an excellent young core in place, and look poised to contend for years, even if their 2018 season ended sooner than expected.