The Yankees have by all counts had a very strong offseason so far. Cashman moved quickly to bolster the weakest part of the team, resigning CC Sabathia, trading for James Paxton, and resigning J.A. Happ to round out the rotation. The team has moved peripheral pieces to shore up the depth in both the infield and outfield. And more is surely yet to come, with Cashman referring to the team as a “fully operational Death Star” on the last night at the Winter Meetings.
There is every reason to believe the Yankees have several big moves left in them. As I detailed a few weeks back, the Yankees came into the offseason with a tremendous amount of room to maneuver. Even with the move to bring back Happ, the team has roughly $25 million until they hit the luxury tax threshold. If Hal agrees to spend past that point, they have $45 million in space until the next tax bracket kicks in. And if they are truly willing to go big, which public statements cast doubt on, they have a gaudy $65 million in AAV to dole out before the offseason ends.
Sitting out there on the market right now are two of the biggest prizes to ever hit free agency. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are both weighing their options, and will likely be awarded two of the richest contracts the baseball world has ever seen. They are generational talents, both available at the ripe young age of 26, and will cost a team nothing more than money out of the owner’s pocket.
And yet, for a variety of reasons, much of Yankee world seems adamant that the team should not pursue either player. I have been baffled by the vast array of arguments against adding two of the very best players in baseball to an already excellent Yankee team. Why would fans not want to see a better product on the field when it’s no money out of their own pocket (or, more truthfully, they’ve already paid for these players in higher prices)?
But I don’t want to be dismissive since reasonable people can certainly disagree about some of the concerns raised. So, without further ado, here is a quick survey of the reasons I’ve seen to not pursue Machado and Harper. And why I think each one is wrong.
“We don’t need them”
This, to me, is the silliest of all the arguments. Since 2013, the first year both of them spent the full season in the majors, they have been inarguably two of the best 25 players in baseball. In fact, if you’re inclined to like sabermetrics as I do, they have been the 7th (Machado) and 13th (Harper) best players in all of baseball by WAR. Machado’s 29.0 WAR is the second best of all 3B in that span, second only to Josh Donaldson. Harper has been the 5th best outfielder (26.3 WAR), notably behind our own Giancarlo Stanton, who some fans also seem to be inexplicably turning on (he’s really good, guys).
And both of them have a track record that demonstrates an incredibly high ceiling. Machado has put up three seasons of 6.0 WAR or better, including this year. That is star level performance on a consistent from a player who theoretically has not even reached his prime yet. Harper is no different, with one of the best years ever recorded in his age 22 season. That year, he won the MVP and posted a 9.3 WAR and slashed .330/.460/.649.
There are legitimate arguments against getting these guys, but this isn’t one of them. Every team in baseball needs a Manny Machado or a Bryce Harper. They are elite talents that will be a massive asset to whatever team they end up on.
“There’s no space for them”
This is a slightly more valid version of the “we don’t need them” argument, but is still silly. First of all, you get superstars like this first and worry about what to do with them after. And secondly, there is no evidence that the Yankees would have to do much maneuvering to fit either of them in the team.
Clearly it is still early in the offseason, but some Yankee fans seem to be under the impression our infield is all set for Opening Day. That is plainly false. Here is the current opening day infield alignment:
With Didi out for maybe three full months of the season, that is hardly a group that screams: “we don’t need one of the best players in baseball, all good here.”
Specifically with Machado, you can allow him to play SS until Didi returns, and then work on transitioning Andujar to 1B or DH for when Didi returns. Those are positions where his bat can thrive without exposing his abysmal defense. [*Whispers* or you can trade him in a package for an ace].
As for Harper, the main contention is that the outfield is full. The outfield is “full” but it’s absurd to argue that Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, or Clint Frazier should prevent you from signing him. Slotting him into LF or rotating him with Judge and Stanton pushes Gardner out of a starting spot (team gets better), and allows Gardner to rotate through the outfield keeping him fresh (We’ve seen Gardner wear down in the second half a few times), and gives the Yankees an excuse to cut Ellsbury (hallelujah).
These are guys you make room to fit in to your team, period. But right now, you don’t even have to! They fill some voids in this team with premier talent, making the Yankees an even more dangerous offensive team.
“Ten year contracts never work out”
Ok, now we’re getting to the more interesting ones. There is no doubt that if you look at the big contracts handed out throughout MLB history, they have mostly all turned into albatrosses for the signing team. Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Alex Rodriguez (round 2) are the most oft cited examples of big contracts gone bad.
But there is a key difference between these players and the current free agent superstars. Machado and Harper are way, way, way younger than these guys were when they signed mega-deals! People, Machado and Harper are 26. Even if you give them a 10 year deal, that only takes them through their age 35 season.
Miguel Cabrera was putting up 5.0 WAR seasons as recently as his age 33 season (since which time he’s fallen off). Pujols was an All Star at age 35. A-Rod was not only an All Star, but posted a 4.0 WAR at age 35 as well.
By no means am I suggesting that these guys are certain to “age” like A-Rod did and produce at that level for all 10 years of the contract. But the truly albatross contracts come when players drop to replacement level production with 4-6 years remaining on the contract. The chances of that are close to nothing with these two young players.
Not only this, but unlike most free agents you will be locking up the best seasons these players have to offer. By signing these guys, the Yankees would be signing up for the prime years of elite talents that coincide perfectly with their current competitive window. If either of these guys are signed and help deliver a championship or more to the Yankees, few can realistically complain about one or two years of low production in their final years. The value they provide at their peak can more than cover a couple of bad years at the end. But even if they do match that value in an abstract way, that brings me to the next argument which is…
“Too many long contracts will destroy flexibility”
Another reasonable worry that is misguided. Yes, the Yankees already have Giancarlo Stanton signed through 2027 (if he doesn’t opt out). Yes, the Yankees have lots of young talent that they’ll likely want to extend over time. Neither of these things makes signing Harper or Machado a bad idea.
The players that are up for extension in the near future like Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks are likely going to be allowed to reach free agency regardless of the Yankees spending this offseason. And as much as I love both of those guys, neither one is an absolute lock to get extended or resigned.
Didi is coming off a Tommy John surgery in his throwing arm that could both impact his defensive value and change his swing. Even if it doesn’t impact him, you want to see what guy he is when he returns before extending him long term. And either way, signing Machado is no reason you can’t bring him back.
Hicks, who I consider one of the best center fielders in baseball, plays a position not covered by either guy and so if the Yankees decide to bring him back, it will be irrespective of deals doled out to Machado or Harper.
Most of the Yankees current core won’t be up for free agency for another 3-4 seasons. This includes cornerstones like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. There is a legitimate point at which you eventually run out of space on your payroll to sustain all of these various key contributors.
But Judge will be 31 when he hits free agency, Sanchez may be a first baseman by then, and pitchers break all the time. And wait! Before you accuse me of heresy, I obviously adore all three of these guys, want them to succeed and stay healthy, and want the Yankees to extend them and keep them in pinstripes forever.
My point is that sadly the future with athletes is unpredictable, and these guys are under control for the duration of what looks to be the current championship window. Again, you don’t avoid players like Machado or Harper with the thought of potentially extending guys that are under contract for several more seasons regardless of extension.
And finally, in terms of financial flexibility, the current collective bargaining agreement will expire after 2021. After that time, it is impossible to know what the luxury tax rules will look like. Given that the tax has directly led to fiscal austerity that has hurt free agents, I think it is likely it will be a key negotiation piece in the new deal. The bottom line is there is no way to know that adding one more contract will preclude your ability to spend far down the road. And you know what, even if the luxury tax system stays exactly as is, the argument that has frustrated me the most is…
“We can’t afford them, we need to spend that money elsewhere”
I end here because this is somehow the argument I have seen most and understand the least. Yes, we still need to shore up the bullpen. Yes, you could split money between Ottavino and Miller and Moose and still get under the luxury tax. But guys, signing a Machado and Harper and adding to the rest of the team is not mutually exclusive.
A couple years ago, management very smartly made decision to save money and get younger. This gave us the infamous luxury tax plan, which came with it the promise of saving money to spend big on the big fish this offseason. Then came weird comments from Hal about not needing to spend top dollars to build a winner. Now, the trend continues with Boone and Levine saying we are already as good as the Red Sox.
Guys, we are the freaking Yankees. Our payroll never dipped below $200 million from 2005 to 2017. The Steinbrenners are not suddenly strapped for cash and needing to bargain hunt on the market.
I am not advocating for reckless spending.
I am, however, strongly disputing this ridiculous notion that we need to choose between signing Machado or Harper and making the rest of the team better. The Yankees have been raising ticket prices, raising concession prices, and raking in more revenue than ever the past few years. We were sold the changes in both management philosophy and business model with the promise of improving the product on the field to build a champion again.
Machado or Harper gets us closer to being that champion. I hate to say it, but spending in general gets us closer to being that champion. I love that this team is now home grown, but spending can put you over the top. The Red Sox went out, spent big on adding J.D. Martinez to their core, and won a championship. Our very own 2009 Yankees went out and spent big to bring home the Commissioner’s Trophy.
This is not an impulse purchase a la Jacoby Ellsbury or Brian McCann. This is not extending A-Rod for 10 more years when he was already 31 years old. This is going out and adding a generational talent to win another World Series. Manny Machado can help you do that. Bryce Harper can help you do that. Either way, there should be no excuse not to pursue one or both of these guys hard to build the best team possible for 2019 and beyond.