It's a little more than week removed from the one-game wild card elimination game that ended Yankees season, If you're like me, you're still watching the playoffs just because it's fun to watch a game. More than that, I watch these teams winning and it makes me nostalgic. I don't know if you remember. That used to be us. We used to have the spark, the right players at the right time to put us over the top and win. Players like Yoenis Cespedes, who single-handedly turned the Mets season around, lit up the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, and may propel them to the NLCS. Players like David Price, who turned the Blue Jays from a 3rd place, team, 6 games out, into division winners that haven't lost a Price start since August. Players like Cole Hamels, who gave the Texas Rangers hope after they gave up on their season. He was supposed to be an investment in the future. “There is still a chance,” he said when asked about the Rangers playoff chances after the trade. They were 8 games out. The Rangers lost his first two starts. He hasn't lost since then, and the team won the division by 2 games.
It's been obvious all season that the Yankees had a lot of potential, but they were missing that spark, the straw that stirs the drink. They'd get hot, then cold, then hot again, ans so on. When it was on the line, the team that had a 7 game lead and running away with the division in July couldn't get a runner to reach third in a 1-game elimination game. I'm not saying the Yankees should have traded away their future talent. I'm saying the Yankees could not find any other way to acquire the missing piece to the puzzle because they're locked into expensive long-term contracts. Yeah, it's great that the Yankees front office is happy they didn't make a move at the trade deadline. Are they happy they signed their $20M/yr players, preventing them from sweetening the pot with some cash? I mean, the Phillies threw in $9.5M in the deal to unload Hamels. Couldn't the Yankees have absorbed that?
The fact is they could not. They already have five $20M+ per year - CC Sabathia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez. Nobody else has that many. The Dodgers have 4, the Rangers, Blue Jays, Mets and Cubs each have one. When it came time to add the missing piece, they had the flexibility to make the moves that made them competitive. I wrote about this some time ago in WHY THE YANKEES CAN’T JUST "SPEND MORE".
For the Yankees to be competitive there are only two possibilities in my view. The better option is that their $20M players start playing to their expectations. It is also the least likely of their options. C.C. Sabathia has to come back strong and capable of winning 18+ games. Teixeira has to come back healthy and capable of hitting .300 with 30+ homers and gold glove play at first. Tanaka has to return to form and hope that he does not reinjure his shoulder, or (God forbid) need surgery. Alex Rodriguez has to become the Alex Rodriguez of old. It would take a miracle.If you run through that list, the Yankees didn't get their money's worth. My friend Dan Lucia wrote a great piece about players not living up to expectations - AGING VETERANS CREATE ROADBLOCKS. But I want to focus on those five guys - the five most expensive. Sabathia wasn't even close. He had 4 good weeks at the end of the season, and a few other brilliant starts earlier. Otherwise, he struggled to find his command, and gave the Yankees 6 wins and a 4.73 ERA for a price tag of $24M. Tanaka missed time on two stretches, and when he was healthy he was good. He just wasn't the dominant starter we signed. For $22M, we got 17 quality starts and 12 wins. Jacoby Ellsbury hit a paltry .257 with 35 walks on the season - hardly a good return on a $21M investment. Alex Rodriguez had to be the comeback player of the year for the Yankees. With 33 home runs and an .842 OPS, he regained power we hadnt' seen in close to five years. But we still paid him $22M, for which I would have expected more than a .250 batting average and 145 strikeouts in 620 plate appearances. Mark Teixeira, whose numbers are the closest to that of a $23M player, hit 31 home runs and had a .906 OPS. But even he broke down and failed to play a single game in September.
Which leads us to the other big problem. Except for Alex, all of our $20M+ players missed significant playing time due to injury. In the most important game of the season - the wild card game - only two of those 5 players were in the game. Now, let's be clear that we don't lay any blame on CC Sabathia. He had a life issue to deal with, so he gets a pass. There is still a lot of debate on why Jacoby Ellsbury was not in the lineup. Nevertheless, he and Teixiera were not available. Tanaka was not 100%. ARod looked bad at the plate, going 0 for 4 with 2 strikeouts. These were our premier players in a win-or-go-home game.
Here is how the Yankees painted themselves into a corner, and how it showed at the trade deadline. The Yankees payroll for 2015 was about $218M. The five players I mentioned account for $112.5M of that. That's almost 52% of the team payroll. Almost half the team payroll for, based on their stats, what amounts to a #3 starter, a #5 starter, and three .250 hitters. Two of those hitters hit for power, but only one of them was able to finish the season. It means the rest of the 25-man roster is averaging about $5M per player, and the Yankees are left to stitch together a team that's supposed to win it all.
Look, I don't think there are any easy answers. The most likely path to recovery for the team is to live out the expensive contracts, invest in the rookies to make up the difference, and then invest properly when you have the cash. The Tex contract is the first to expire, and that doesn't happen until a year from now. ARod and Sabathia's contracts end the year after. Tanaka and Ellsbury are too young to think that far ahead - they are great players, and I still believe they could pay big dividends. The good news is that the upcoming talent is huge. We saw a little of it with Luis Severino and Greg Bird. Those two and the rookie class of 2016 are the Yankees' best hope.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Senior Staff Writer
My blog is: Shots from Murderer's Row
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