Last week, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote an article where he discussed how the Yankees recent frugal nature is part of a very calculated plan on their part to change their operating model in order to maximize profitability after years of being penalized by the league’s revenue sharing policy/luxury tax. He further speculated that while they are revising their operating model, they are simultaneously prioritizing future money to ultimately pursue Bryce Harper when he is a free agent in 2019.
I thought it was a great piece that clearly explained why the Yankees have been deliberately avoiding free agent spending this offseason, and why they will likely avoid long term financial commitments to players in the near future. However, no offense to Jeff Passan, but I think we can do a little more than speculate that the Yankees might pursue Bryce Harper in 2019. Anybody following New York Yankee baseball over the last 22 years knows that the Yankees will do whatever is necessary to ensure they are in a position to not only acquire Bryce Harper in 2019 but also to acquire Matt Harvey. Right now, I have more confidence betting on the Yankees signing Harvey and Harper in 2019 than placing a bet on any specific team to win the 2016 World Series. How do I know they will end up with Harvey and Harper? Because between 1994 and 2016, the Yankees have consistently ensured that their roster includes arguably the best position player and pitcher by making the necessary acquisitions roughly every 3 to 4 years. In fact, they specifically went out and acquired arguably the “best” position player or pitcher 9 times in the last 22 years.
First, let me preface this by saying I am not trying to make any statement about the correlation between the Yankees acquiring star players and winning World Series Championships. In no way am I trying to belittle the value of the precious “Core 4”. The Core 4 is the main reason for the Yankees run of success between 1996 and 2001. Second, let me define what I mean by “arguably the best position player and pitcher”. All the robot computers these days value players based on Wins Above Replacement aka WAR. So that’s what I’m going to use (as defined by Baseball-Reference.com) to value the position players and pitchers the Yankees have had on their rosters over the 22 year timeframe. And when I say “arguably”, I’m going to operate under the assumption that an argument can be made that any player finishing in the Top 5 for WAR in a single season is the “best” in the league. If you refuse to accept this premise then stop reading.
Pitchers- In the strike shortened 1994 season, the Yankees had no position players or pitchers finishing in the top 10 for WAR. In 1994, David Cone finished with a 6.8 WAR while playing for Kansas City which was good enough for 2nd in baseball behind only Greg Maddux. So what did the Yankees do? They traded for Cone midseason in 1995 and he finished 3rd that year with a WAR of 6.4. The Yankees did not have a top 10 WAR pitcher in the 1996 season but still managed to win the World Series with a staff that included Cone and Andy Pettitte. However, in 1997 Pettitte went on to finish 3rd with a WAR of 8.4.
Position Players– Between 1994 and 1997 there were no Yankee position players in the Top 5 for WAR. However Chuck Knoblauch finished 5th in 1995 with a WAR of 6.7 and 4th in 1996 with a WAR of 8.6. In 1997 he only finished 8th with a 6.7 WAR but his three year body of work combined with the lack of Yankee position players in the Top 5 during that span, was enough for the Yankees to trade for him after the 1997 season.
So between 1994 and the end of the 1997 season, the Yankees acquired one of the top position players and pitchers in the game to add to their “Core 4”.
Pitchers- In 1998 after winning the World Series, the Yankees had no Top 10 WAR pitchers in their rotation. So what did they do? They went out and traded for Roger Clemens who finished number 1 in 1997 with a WAR of 11.9 (2nd place went to Pedro Martinez at 9) and number 2 in 1998 with a WAR of 8.2 (behind Kevin Brown at number 1 with 8.6). Unfortunately, Clemens did not crack the Top 10 for WAR between 1999 and 2000.
Position Players- As mentioned above, no Yankees position players finished in the Top 5 for WAR between 1995 and 1997. When Chuck Knoblauch was brought in for the 1998 season he represented one of the top performing position players in that 1995-1997 timeframe. However, it turned out that between 1998 and 2000 the Yankees did not need to go outside their organization to have arguably the best position player in the league. Derek Jeter finished fourth in WAR in 1998 with 7.5 (A-Rod was number 1 with 8.5 WAR) and he finished number 1 in 1999 with a WAR of 8.0. In 2000 however they had no position players in the Top 10.
Pitchers- After Clemens failed to crack the Top 10 in WAR between 1999 and 2000, the Yankees once again decided to bring in one of the game’s best starting pitchers. In 2000, Mike Mussina finished 6th in the league in WAR. He finished behind Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, Greg Maddux, and Brad Radke. Now I do realize that a 6th place finish does not meet my qualifications of “arguably the best”. That being said, at the time the Yankees signed Mussina he had finished in the Top 10 for CY Young voting 7 of the 9 seasons he played in Baltimore and was Top 5 for 5 of those 9 seasons. He also had 5 All-Star appearances. Not to mention the fact that in his first season as a Yankee in 2001 he finished 3rd in WAR with 7.1 wins. Based on that, I think he’s close enough to meet the criteria.
Position Players- In 2001, Jason Giambi finished 3rd with a WAR of 9.2 only behind Bonds and Sosa. And of course the Yankees signed Giambi for the 2002 season. In 2002, Giambi finished 4th in WAR with 7.1. Unfortunately he fell off in 2003 and 2004 missing the Top 10 entirely. But don’t worry because in 2002 A-Rod, while playing in Texas, finished second in WAR behind Barry Bonds and third in 2003 behind Pujols and Bonds. And I am guessing you know what happens next.
Position Players– In 2004 the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez to continue meeting their unspoken organizational mandate to have arguably the best player in the league on their roster. Unfortunately in 2004, A-Rod only finished 8th in WAR but in 2005 he topped the charts with his WAR of 9.4. In 2006 however he dropped out of the Top 10.
Pitchers- By 2004 Clemens had left the Yankees for Houston and Mussina was no longer a perennial top performer. So in 2004 the Yankees went out and traded for 40 year old Randy Johnson. Why? Why trade for a 40 year old pitcher? Well because between age 35 and 40 he was arguably the best pitcher in the league. In 2002 he had the number 1 WAR of 10.9 which was 2.2 wins higher than Curt Schilling at number 2. In 2004 he was number 2 with a WAR of 8.5 but only behind Johan Santana who had a nearly identical WAR of 8.6. So the Yankees acquired Johnson for the 2005 season. He only finished 8th in WAR for 2005 and never lived up to expectations as an old man in New York. Luckily for the Yankees, in 2006 Chien-Ming Wang finished 4th in WAR with 6.0 wins. However his success was short lived due to injuries.
Position Players– In 2007, the Yankees still had the best position player in A-Rod who finished number 1 in WAR at 9.4 (Cano came in at 10 at 6.7). However, in 2008 A-Rod plummeted to 10th with a WAR of 6.8. So what did the Yankees do? They signed Mark Teixeira who in 2008 had finished third in overall WAR behind Pujols and Utley.
Pitchers- In 2007 and 2008 the Yankees had no pitchers in the Top 10 for WAR. However, CC Sabathia, while with the Indians, finished 4th in 2007 with a 6.3 WAR that was nearly identical to the leader Roy Oswalt at 6.7. In 2008, Sabathia had a WAR of 6.8 and finished 5th but only 0.3 wins behind Johan Santana in 2nd place. So clearly the gap between the 5th and 2nd place finishers was minimal. The leader Tim Lincecum finished with a 7.9 WAR. So in 2009 the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to lead the staff.
The acquisition of Sabathia and Teixeira coincided with a World Championship in 2009.
Position Players– Between 2010 and 2013, the Yankees once again did not need to trade or sign the best position player in the game because they already had him in Robinson Cano. Cano in 2010 finished 3rd in WAR with 8.1 wins (behind Josh Hamilton at 1 with 8.7). In 2012 Cano was 2nd at 8.5 and in 2013 Cano finished 4th at 7.8.
Pitchers- Unfortunately for the Yankees, between 2010 and 2013 Sabathia did not perform at quite the level the Yankees had expected. In 2011 he did finish 4th with a WAR of 7.5. However no Yankees finished in the Top 5 in 2010, 2012, or 2013.
Since 2013, the Yankees have seemingly refused to acquire the position player or pitcher that qualifies as “arguably the best”. This was most evident when the Yankees refused to retain Robinson Cano. It can be explained to some degree by the death of George Steinbrenner and the loss of his passion to win at all costs. But the primary cause is attributable to what Jeff Passan discussed in his article. Due to the penalties associated with revenue sharing and the luxury tax, the Yankees have absolutely been forced to adjust their operating model to ensure maximum profitability. In order to get back in a sound fiscal position, the Yankees are waiting for existing long term commitments to come off the books in 2016 and 2017, while simultaneously refusing to sign any new players to long term deals. Their lack of long term commitments this offseason shows that they are clearly putting that plan into motion.
However, if the last 22 years have taught us anything, Brian Cashman’s plan for postseason success remains a constant: Ensure your roster contains arguably the best pitcher and position player in the sport and adjust every 3 years. Unfortunately, due to the constraints imposed by revenue sharing, Cashman and Yankees fans are going to have to wait 3 more years until 2019 before he can restart the next “cycle of winning”. After 5 World Series wins and 2 other appearances in the last 22 years, forgive me if I don’t shed a tear.