In order to appreciate how the New York Yankees' business model has changed since the late George Steinbrenner was at the top of his game, one only needs to look at how the team replaced future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter. The Boss would have lied, cheated, begged, borrowed and stolen in order to get another superstar -- say, Troy Tulowitzki? -- to fill Jeter's shoes.
Sons Hal and Hank, and general manager Brian Cashman operate differently. They made a savvy, low-cost move to land Didi Gregorius, a 25-year-old with defensive range for days and a swing that, if offering nothing else, was tailor-made for Yankee Stadium's short right porch. They also traded a veteran for a cost-controlled starting pitcher, 25-year-old Nathan Eovaldi. Fans are still steaming over Robinson Cano's departure last winter, massive contract notwithstanding. This approach, while not as splashy, is ultimately more sustainable. After all, Jeter and the rest of the "Core Four" were homegrown products.
That said, it's not like the Yankees have suddenly stopped spending. They spent half a billion dollars on free agents one year ago and signed several boatloads of amateur talent this winter. Their payroll is still one of the highest in baseball history. Their entire projected everyday lineup, save Gregorius, is over 30 years old. The next wave of young talent is still on its way, leaving the 2015 Yankees in limbo. Do they go for broke in hopes of cracking the postseason? Or do they sell off older pieces -- hold on, George just rolled over in his grave -- and start building for 2016?
Between the talent still sitting on the roster and the lack of a true favorite in the AL East, the Yankees have seemingly adopted a "wait and see" approach. There's a chance that they break through if all goes right, but a lot has to go right. The more likely outcome is that some things don't go so well, and the Yankees fall back into that most unforgivable of Yankees terms in 2015: mediocrity.
Replacing Derek Jeter will be a daunting task off the field, but Didi Gregorius is already a big upgrade over a 40-year-old Jeter on the field. Gregorius hit .226/.290/.363 in 299 plate appearances with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and his 76 wRC+ was better than Jeter's 73. Gregorius' value comes on defense, where he projects to be much better than Jeter's -12 defensive runs saved from 2014. Chase Headley will man third base after signing a four-year, $52 million contract during the offseason. Headley hit .262/.371/.398 in 224 plate appearances with the Yankees after a midseason trade last year, numbers reminiscent of his early days with the San Diego Padres. His 2012 season is just a pipe dream at this point, but 15-20 home runs isn't out of the question now that he's finally away from Petco Park. One of the best defenders in the league, he and Gregorius will be a huge defensive upgrade on the left side of the infield.
Second baseman Stephen Drew was worth -1.3 WAR in just 43 games with the Yankees last season, an incredible drop-off from his 3.4 WAR season in 2013. Part of this collapse can be blamed on his extended offseason after declining Boston's qualifying offer, but part of it is the mercurial nature of Stephen Drew. There was talk of bringing infielder Rob Refsnyder north with the team after Brendan Ryan strained his calf muscle, but the Yankees moved quickly to acquire infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros. This all but assures that Drew will be the starting second baseman to open the year, for better or worse.
First baseman Mark Teixeira has been the victim of some aggressive defensive shifting over the past few seasons. The pull-happy slugger has not had a BABIP above .270 since the 2009 season. He was able to put up excellent offensive seasons in 2010 and 2011, but has battled through wrist, thigh, back, and leg injuries to hit just .229/.320/.431 over the past three seasons. Teixeira is not having a strong spring, with a .652 OPS in 51 at-bats. Garrett Jones was acquired this offseason as insurance for the fragile Teixeira, but Alex Rodriguez has also been taking reps at first base this spring. Rodriguez has behaved himself this spring, quietly hitting .284/.400/.524 in 18 games. As reluctant as the Yankees have seemed to welcome him back into the fold, he could actually provide some solid value if he keeps hitting like this.
Brian McCann was one of the more disappointing players on the Yankees roster last season, hitting .232/.286/.406 in 538 plate appearances. His bat perked up somewhat in the second half, but his numbers were still a far cry from the .823 OPS he had in nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves. A 2.3 WAR season from a solid defensive catcher isn't awful, but the Yankees are paying him to be much more than that. The Yankees doubled down on McCann bouncing back when they traded Francisco Cervelli to the Pittsburgh Pirates, making Austin Romine the backup heading into 2015. Romine is a career .204/.247/.281 hitter whose replacement level performance in 2013 was one of the factors that led to the McCann signing last winter.
We didn't hear much from Jacoby Ellsbury last year -- except when he decided to repeatedly torment Max Scherzer -- but Ellsbury quietly accumulated 3.9 WAR in 149 games. He hit .271/.328/.419 with 39 stolen bases in 635 plate appearances, good enough for a 107 wRC+. Defensive metrics weren't as kind to him as in years past, or he could have approached five wins. While Ellsbury fulfilled expectations, rightfielder Carlos Beltran fell far short of what anyone -- people, computers, maybe even your dog -- thought he would do. Beltran hit just .233/.301/.402 in 449 plate appearances. The 95 wRC+ was his worst since 2000, a subpar sophomore season with the Kansas City Royals. Projection systems like him to bounce back, but he will be 38 at the end of April. Brett Gardner's 2014 season was nearly identical to his 2013 campaign, except it unfolded in left field. Gardner was worth 3.3 WAR both seasons, played solid defense, and was an above average hitter. I don't know if he will hit 17 home runs again, though.
Brian Cashman downplayed the hype surrounding Masahiro Tanaka before the 2014 season, but it took all of three starts for the hoopla to return. His coming out party was on April 16, when he threw eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against the Chicago Cubs. Fifteen starts later, Tanaka was an All-Star and a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award. Instead, a UCL injury sidelined him for two months. He didn't make his first start of the second half until September 21st, a measured 70-pitch outing against the Toronto Blue Jays. Tanaka is already under close watch in 2015, as his health is paramount to the Yankees' rotation being an effective unit.
Tanaka's breakout year overshadowed another strong-yet-injury-shortened performance in the 2014 rotation. Michael Pineda allowed a 1.89 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 13 starts, but a shoulder strain sidelined him for all of May, June, and July. While his MLB experience is limited, the 26-year-old Dominican has had a lot of success, and is currently in the midst of a strong spring. CC Sabathia is officially a former ace after allowing a 4.87 ERA over the past two seasons, but there were signs of life in 2014. He struck out 48 batters in 46 innings and hardly walked anyone, while his altered arsenal -- he's throwing a two-seamer now -- generated a slight bump in whiff rate. If a return to a normal home run rate nets him anything near last season's 3.11 xFIP, the Yankees could be in business.
On another team, flamethrower Nathan Eovaldi would be considered the wild card of the rotation. On this Yankees squad, he might be the team's best bet to throw 200 innings. Eovaldi just missed that barrier in 2014, allowing a 4.37 ERA in 199 2/3 frames. He hasn't found a way to turn that mid-90s fastball into strikeouts yet -- he only fanned 142 hitters last year -- but a dominant spring has many people optimistic that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has tapped into the 25-year-old's considerable potential. Righthander Adam Warren was named the team's fifth starter yesterday after he out-pitched Esmil Rogers during spring training. Warren was one of the workhorses of the Yankees' bullpen last season, pitching 78 2/3 innings with a 2.97 ERA and 3.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This isn't the end of Warren's job competition, though. Lefthander Chris Capuano strained his quad in March and will be out of commission for a few more weeks.
Of course, Capuano could also end up in the bullpen, a role that he filled with the Boston Red Sox in 2014. His 4.55 ERA would be quite out of place, though. The Yankees' bullpen led baseball with 5.5 WAR and 10.25 strikeouts per nine innings last season, though their 3.70 ERA was in the middle of the pack. Departed closer David Robertson saved 39 games, but the real star was hard-throwing righthander Dellin Betances, who accumulated 3.1 WAR on his own. Betances allowed a 1.40 ERA and struck out 39.6 percent of batters he faced. Betances has lost a firm grip on the closer's role after a subpar spring, but lefthander Andrew Miller proved to be more than capable in high leverage situations last year. Miller allowed a 2.02 ERA and 1.51 FIP in 62 1/3 innings last season. Justin Wilson, David Carpenter, Chasen Shreve, and Chase Whitley are all likely to begin the year in the bullpen, while prospect Jacob Lindgren has been sent to the minors.
Down on the farm
The Yankees don't have a great farm system, but it is a step or two above the worst minor league rosters in the game. Outfielder Aaron Judge is as large as Steven Moya -- and has the raw power to match -- but also knows how to draw the occasional walk. Pitcher Luis Severino moved quickly through the system last season, and could see the majors this year if he continues to progress. Lower ceiling talents like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Rob Refsnyder are finally reaching the upper minors, but probably won't offer much help to the big league club this season. Most of the impact talent is still in the lower minors, several years away from the bright lights of Yankee Stadium.
Player to watch: Nathan Eovaldi
It's not often that a pitcher throws an upper-90s fastball and strikes out fewer hitters than Aaron Harang, but that's exactly what Eovaldi has accomplished throughout his four-year MLB career. The Yankees gave up Martin Prado and David Phelps to acquire Eovaldi this winter, but the young flamethrower has already shown signs that a breakout is on the way. Eovaldi has been working on improving his off-speed pitches this spring, and has developed a splitter that has drawn rave reviews. While spring stats don't mean much, Eovaldi has struck out 14 batters without walking anyone, and has allowed just one run in 13 2/3 innings. Keep an eye on his strikeout totals early on. If he can approach a strikeout per inning in 2015, look out.
While the Yankees finished second in the AL East last season, they never seriously threatened the Baltimore Orioles, who were 12 games clear of the pack by year's end. The Yankees finished the season with a 77-85 pythagorean win-loss record, their second straight year at least six games better than what their run differential predicted. This is not sustainable, and is a big reason why so many people are down on the Yankees in 2015. Sprucing up an 84-win team for a playoff run is not difficult, but adding double digit victories to a 77-win team is. The Yankees can make that leap if everything goes right -- the rotation stays healthy, the lineup produces, and the bullpen doesn't miss David Robertson -- but that's a lot to ask of a flimsy roster. They might contend for a while, but their age and lack of depth will show at some point, causing them to fall behind in an otherwise wide-open AL East race.