NEW YORK -- Although the New York Yankees are a billion-dollar behemoth with a payroll in the hundreds of millions, they usually only bring out their big bills during free agency, when they can balance the books.
Prior to 2009, the Yankees had nearly $90 million in yearly salary exiting the payroll and spent $60 million-plus in yearly salary for CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. In 2013, again with the Yankees having nearly $90 million in yearly salary exiting, they added $75 million a year with Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.
"Our activity usually lies to expiring contracts," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said.
That philosophy, though, may be evolving. As Cashman noted, the Yankees are "pretty locked-in on some guys," a list for next season -- and beyond -- which includes, among everyday players, the three outfield spots, third base, first base, catcher and DH.
Of those positions, only first baseman Mark Teixeira's contract expires after the 2016 season. Around the diamond, shortstop Didi Gregorius is eligible for arbitration in 2016, while the Yankees figure to have a new second baseman to replace Stephen Drew next year.
As for arms, Andrew Miller is signed to be the closer for three more seasons, while Dellin Betances is in just his second year as an All-Star setup man. The starting staff has Tanaka signed long-term, Sabathia with a contract that contains a likely-to-be-reached option for 2017 (the Yankees have an option for a buyout only if his shoulder is an issue) and young starters Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi and Ivan Nova, as well as rookie Luis Severino, to round out the rotation.
When the next expired contracts come due, the Yankees may not go shopping for big-money free agents, as has been the case in the recent past. Instead, players developed in their farm system might be next. The holes that are on the horizon may be filled from within.
"We do have some square pegs that will fit in some square holes when you look at 2017," Cashman said. "That's a long way off. We do have some placeholders that potentially are going to be in place, if that is the direction we choose. That's a good thing."
The three positions that will likely open up the soonest are first base, second base and right field.
FIRST BASE: Greg Bird, Starting ETA: 2017
Bird is already up with the Yankees, giving a glimpse of the next Yankees first baseman, following a lineage from Don Mattingly to Tino Martinez to free-agent Jason Giambi to Teixeira, another free-agent signing. Now, when Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million contract expires after next season, Bird could come out of the system and take hold as the starting first baseman, as Mattingly did in 1984.
Bird, now just 22, is already disciplined at the plate enough for the majors. He has power, as evidenced by the two homers he hit earlier this month in just his fourth MLB start, earning him an early Yankee Stadium curtain call. His fielding is not on Mattingly's or Teixeira’s level, but he is improving there.
RIGHT FIELD: Aaron Judge, Starting ETA: 2017
Judge, 23, is a 6-foot-7, 275-pound right fielder who advanced to Triple-A this season. Judge has struggled with his average in Scranton, but has shown power. With Double-A Trenton this season, he batted .284 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in 63 games.
The Yankees feel Judge has the personality to lead. He always has a big smile and is tactful enough to steer interviews toward talking about his teammates instead of himself. Beltran's three-year contract ends after 2016, which opens up right field for Judge.
SECOND BASE: Rob Refsnyder, Starting ETA: 2016*
The Yankees are almost definitely going to have a new second baseman in 2016, because the front office knows how bad Drew, whose 4-for-4 performance during the Yankees' 20-run outburst Sunday pushed him above the Mendoza Line for just the first time this season, is at the plate. Fans already want Refsnyder to replace Drew.
The problem, and the reason there is an asterisk next to Refsnyder's ETA, is he is not considered the same level prospect as Judge or Bird. He is a converted outfielder and there are questions if he can field enough to justify what might be a good, but not great bat.
Refsnyder is a proven winner, though, having taken home Most Outstanding Player for the 2012 national champion Arizona Wildcats. Like Judge and Bird, it seems Refsnyder's attitude won't trip him up. The question is if he has enough talent.
That takes care of the Yankees’ lineup through 2017, when potentially it could look like this:
Brett Gardner, LF
Chase Headley, 3B
Alex Rodriguez, DH
The Yankees have a young shortstop prospect named Jorge Mateo. He is 20, but he is already at high Class A. He could rocket through the system and perhaps even claim second base by 2017. He could also be a trade chip or turn Gregorius into one.
Cashman said he doesn't know what the future holds. The Yankees could make a big trade that changes the makeup of the team, or injuries could take a toll. Some of the prospects may not work out. But, if they do, what is next for the Yankees may not be business as usual.