March 20, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
New York Yankees: Two Low-Budget(ish) Strategies
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the front offices of New York (Yankees), New York (Mets).
The Yankees moved a lot of stuff around this offseason. They traded with the Braves, Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Pirates. Smaller, player-for-cash trades were also made. Chase Headley, Andrew Miller, Chris Young the Outfielder, Stephen Drew, and Chris Capuano were signed to major-league contracts. David Robertson, Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki, and Brandon McCarthy left via free agency. And Derek Jeter retired to start a website. Again, a lot happened, but nothing big happened. The big splash that many thought the Yankees would make—signing Yoan Moncada—was not made; the 19 year-old Cuban signed with the Red Sox, the highest bidders.
With an already bloated roster (seven players making more than $15 million a year and another three players making more than $9 million, whose total remaining salaries equal about $618 million), Brian Cashman was going to have to be creative if he was going to put a competitive team on the field. Why was he going to have to be creative? Why could he not just spend more money? As Howard Megdal excellently wrote for Capital New York, it appears that ownership is not interested in further increasing payroll, believing that a team can win championships without a $200 million payroll.
Assuming ownership enforced this limit, what the Yankees did this offseason was very interesting, maybe even unusual. Why? It was unusual because management finally seemingly acted in accord with the constraints being placed on them by ownership. Whereas past offseasons have often looked like unfinished masterpieces, this offseason looks like management knew that there were not going to have enough resources for a masterpiece to begin with. Rather than adding stars where they can, management spread around what little (relatively) resources it had. Two “low-budget” tactics appeared to be used:
Spending where you’ve already spent
For starters, the Yankees spent where they already had money spent. They filled some holes (middle infield) and did so on the cheap, while spending more resources on depth by acquiring players at positions where they were already somewhat committed, namely third base, first base/designated hitter, corner outfield, and bullpen. In the Yankees’ case, adding players to increase depth at these positions makes sense—in fact, it seems painfully obvious—given that banking on a year’s worth of production from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran (entering their age 39, 35, and 38 seasons respectively) would be foolhardy. However, when it comes to cost, especially player’s salaries and contracts, people do not always act rationally. More specifically, it easy to get caught taking sunk costs into account.
We have seen the Yankees disregard these costs in the past. Only last season, after a an offseason of spending on superstars and adding little depth, the Yankees were forced into giving at least 75 starts each to Ichiro, Yangervis Solarte, Brian Roberts, and Kelly Johnson. This resulted in 2.2 WARP over 1,249 plate appearances. Moreover, this was all done knowing that the team would be starting aging veterans such as Alfonso Soriano, Beltran, and Jeter. The results, as we know, were not good. So while signing Chase Headley in order to move Alex Rodriguez into a depth role, trading for Garrett Jones, adding Chris Young, and bolstering the bullpen seems obvious and boring, the Yankees are at least taking depth more seriously by coming to terms with the inane budget constraint and ignoring sunk costs.
Specialists at bat, generalists on the mound
The second low-budget strategy the Yankees employed this offseason seems to be acquiring hitters with platoon splits in Jones, Young, Drew, and Didi Gregorious (the exception being the switch-hitting Headley), while adding pitchers with limited platoon splits in Miller, Capuano, and Nathan Eovaldi. While Ichiro, Roberts, Solarte, and Johnson might be better all-around players than Young, Gregorious, Drew, and Jones, the latter group each hits opposite-handed pitching much better than same-handed pitching. In a vacuum, this is not better or worse, but come the late innings and throughout the season, having the option to gain platoon advantages is a positive for the manager and team. The Yankees will probably not be using strict platoons (given Joe Girardi’s tendencies), but their 2015 roster is set to do so. The right-handed hitting middle infielder (Brendan Ryan or Jose Pirela) that wins the backup middle infielder job will likely spell one of the left-handed middle infielders against lefties if only occasionally. Additionally, the Yankees will be able to employ quasi-platoons at DH and outfield using Rodriguez, Jones, and Young if necessary, while providing above-average pinch hitters in the late innings.
The flip side of this is acquiring pitchers that show relatively small platoon splits. This might only be coincidence, but it could also be an attempt to improve against the league-wide increase in platoon use. If it is the case, then like the offseason acquisitions seen on the hitting side, we see Yankees’ management trying to get more bang for their buck in this bizarre, financially-constrained Yankees world.
Again, this is not a discussion of the merits of these financial constraints (note the word inane above); rather, it is taking a look at a management team that might be learning to deal with these constraints a little better than they had done so previously. It also may be pointing to a quiet rebuild, as seen by their prolific spending on international prospects and avoidance of free agents attached to draft-pick compensation. While we cannot know, at least we have some theories to observe.