There’s pretty much never been a time in my life when the Yankees’ title window wasn’t open. I was born in 1990, so I have no memory of the pre-dynasty teams that didn’t fare so well. I suppose the 2013 through 2016 clubs weren’t World Series contenders either, but that’s neither here nor there. Currently, the Yankees have a fantastic core that’s come close in each of the past three seasons and can undoubtedly win it all in 2020. In spite of missed opportunities, the organization’s title window is still wide open. That said, it may not be open for as long as you think with the current core.
Frankly, the Yankees window should never close. The Steinbrenners invest heavily in the club year in and year out, though they’ve become beholden to winning with a budget. Do I wish they spent more to acquire the likes of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and others? Of course, but this is the route ownership has chosen and it doesn’t seem like they’ll waver. Look, it is possible to win with a payroll below the luxury tax threshold, as Hal has been adamant about. But doing so is about to get much more difficult.
The Baby Bombers we’ve come to love in recent years are about to get much more expensive, which means the front office will have less wiggle room for external improvements. There are a number of arbitration raises upcoming for 2020, including two big name first timers: Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez. Thanks to MLB Trade Rumors typically accurate arbitration salary projections and Cot’s Contracts, we already have an idea of the incremental payroll for next season:
|James Paxton||$ 8.575||$ 12.900||$ 4.325|
|Aaron Judge||$ 0.684||$ 6.400||$ 5.716|
|Gary Sanchez||$ 0.670||$ 5.600||$ 4.930|
|Tommy Kahnle||$ 1.388||$ 3.000||$ 1.613|
|Gio Urshela||$ 0.547||$ 2.200||$ 1.653|
|Chad Green||$ 0.568||$ 1.400||$ 0.832|
|Greg Bird||$ 1.200||$ 1.300||$ 0.100|
|Jordan Montgomery||$ 0.597||$ 1.200||$ 0.603|
|Luis Cessa||$ 0.579||$ 1.100||$ 0.521|
|Jonathan Holder||$ 0.522||$ 0.800||$ 0.278|
|Tyler Lyons||$ 0.087||$ 0.800||$ 0.713|
|Total||$ 15.416||$ 36.700||$ 21.284|
You can also tack on another $11.5 million to the year-to-year increase because Masahiro Tanaka, Aaron Hicks, and Luis Severino all have raises from 2019 to 2020 in their multi-year contracts. Now, the Yankees do have a decent amount of money coming off the books. It’ll be either $39.3 million or $56.5 million depending on Aroldis Chapman’s opt out.
That was a long-winded way of saying the Yankees will have $6.5 or $23.7 million of freed up payroll entering this offseason, which isn’t much for a team seemingly unwilling to exceed the luxury tax (at least not by much – they went back above the limit this season). Especially when you consider that they’ll need to re-sign or replace free agents like Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner, and Dellin Betances.
This isn’t just a one year issue for the club, either. Guys like Judge and Gary Sánchez will get even bigger raises in years to come. Arbitration for Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andújar will come after next season. Sure, they’ll shed the big deals of JA Happ and Jacoby Ellsbury, but they’re going to need to spend in order to keep this core in tact.
All of this means that the Yankees are nearing a major decision point. If ownership doesn’t wish to veer off route and raise payroll, then prepare yourselves for some unpopular decisions.
In the short-term, it could mean eschewing Gerrit Cole in free agency. Despite the star hurler being an obvious fit, Brian Cashman and co. will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It’s the same reason why we’ve seen the team pursue cost-controlled starters via trade (i.e. Sonny Gray and James Paxton) instead of big fish in the free agent market. They know the core’s payday is coming and unless Hal opens up the purse strings, the front office will have a number of difficult choices to make. They can either land the big free agents now and lose a few pieces from the core later, or keep the core together while passing on big name players on the open market.
Even if the team plays free agency conservatively, they still may need to move on from certain core players. Right now, it may sound inconceivable for the Yankees to let someone like Aaron Judge leave. But remember, they’ve already done this once before with Robinson Canó. Who’s to say they wouldn’t do the same with someone like Judge? Seems hard to believe right now, but I thought Robbie would be a lifetime Yankee. I mean, look at what the Red Sox are considering with Mookie Betts right now. It shouldn’t happen, but this is where the Yankees, Red Sox, and the rest of the league seem to be going.
At the same time, Brian Cashman’s actions have already indicated that the team is trying to prepare for the young stars coming of age. He signed Severino and Hicks to team-friendly extensions, and he assuredly will try to do that again over the next few months.
So without more investment from ownership, the length of this core’s title window could be shorter than you may expect. Given the club’s behavior in free agency in recent years, there’s a very real chance that significant improvements aren’t made in the short-term (i.e. Gerrit Cole). And in the long-term, the Yankees could break up its core in the name of winning efficiently. Neither sound great, but we should brace ourselves just in case.