All baseball seasons are shaped to some degree by what a team does in the previous winter, and this winter is a crucial one for the Yankees. They must figure out what they want to be -- not only in 2016, but beyond. Will they once again plunge into the free-agent market and go for the quick fix, or will they show the patience other successful franchises have -- the Kansas City Royals, anyone? -- and begin to build a team for the future from the developing players in their farm system?
The Yankees were just good enough to squeak into the playoffs as a wild card in 2015 but, as currently constituted, probably can't expect a whole lot more in 2016. The fact is they probably overachieved this season, and when 2016 rolls around, they'll be a year older, which doesn't bode well.
So the Yankees' offseason will be a tipoff to their intentions: Are they going for it in '16, or reloading for '17? Here are 10 things to watch for that might provide a clue:
1. Signs that Yankees are looking to the future: The Yankees may be hoping in 2016 while planning for 2017. No, they aren't going to just punt on '16, but '17 is conceivably when they will really start to turn over the roster. As such, it could be a quiet offseason as they wait for the contracts of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran to expire at the end of 2016 and for Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia to come off the books after 2017. Conceivably, that means the 2017 Yankees could feature Greg Bird at first, Aaron Judge in right field and Luis Severino at the top of the rotation. That also might leave an abundance of money to invest in other areas a year from now.
2. They might try to spend Teixeira's money this year: Brian Cashman likes to point out the Yankees usually spend big in free agency when they have large contracts expiring. They did it after the 2008 season (Sabathia, Teixeira and A.J. Burnett) and after 2013 (Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Beltran). Still, if Cashman sees something he likes and wants to strike, he will go to Hal Steinbrenner and make his case. History tells us Steinbrenner will listen. Could Cashman say that David Price -- despite recent company public policy eliminating themselves from the over-30 free-agent pitching game -- is a must-have this winter? In that case, Cashman could argue that he is merely using Teixeira's $180 million slot a year early.
3. Who's on second? The logjam of long-term contracts at just about every position leaves the Yankees with precious little wiggle room to make a free-agent move. The one exception, of course, is second base, where neither Stephen Drew, Jose Pirela, Gregorio Petit nor the late-season platoon of Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder turned out to be an acceptable solution. This winter, there are a few good candidates -- Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy, Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick. Despite his age (35 in May), Zobrist might be the best candidate, especially since, unlike Murphy and Kendrick, he did not receive a qualifying offer. Look for the Yankees to be in on the bidding for Zobrist.
4. The (almost) annual Cashman surprise: There were no real blockbusters last year, but how many saw the trades for Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi coming, or that the Yankees would let one elite closer (David Robertson) walk while signing another (Andrew Miller) for $10 million less? The Yankees general manager always plays his cards close to the vest, and rarely are the names everyone talks about the ones he winds up bringing home. So expect at least one unexpected player to become a Yankee this winter.
5. Bye bye Brett? The only other position where the Yankees might be able to add a free agent is in the outfield, mainly because one of their few tradable parts is Brett Gardner. Gardner is a relative bargain at $13 million a year for the next three years when you consider the Yankees are paying Ellsbury, who is virtually the same player but less durable, nearly twice that for five more years. And Ellsbury has a full no-trade clause. The Yankees might choose to part ways with Gardner and go after one of the corner outfielders on the market this winter, such as Yoenis Cespedes or, more likely, Justin Upton.
6. Help for Miller and Betances: Besides second base, if there is one addition that seems very likely, it is another quality reliever. The Yankees need to reduce some of Miller's and Dellin Betances' workload. Last year, Justin Wilson was a success, but after that, there was a rotating door of inconsistent relievers. The Yankees looked into a trade for San Diego's Craig Kimbrel, which basically would have given them three closers. They may go down this road again or look to the reliever free-agent market (Darren O'Day?) for another strong arm to go with their back three.
7. Planning for life after A-Rod and Tex: The Yankees basically received dream seasons from Rodriguez and Teixeira -- and it still wasn't enough. They have to decide if they can again try to push those two important players, because of risk of injury and wearing down. The two were the team's MVPs for awhile in '15, but Teixeira again succumbed to an injury while A-Rod wore down. The Yankees could have Bird stay in the majors, serving as a part-time first baseman and DH. Bird would be ready to play every day in the likely event that Rodriguez or Teixeira were to get hurt. The alternative is for Bird to start in Triple-A, playing every day until the inevitable injury to A-Rod and/or Teixeira.
8. Will the Yankees add a starting pitcher? Yes, we know the organizational policy -- no long-term deals for starting pitchers over 30 -- a tenet drawn up after the albatross contracts given to Sabathia, Tanaka (who has made just 44 starts in two seasons and just underwent offseason surgery) and -- dare we mention him? -- Kei Igawa. (Both Tanaka and Igawa were signed before their 30th birthday.) Still, there are enough health questions about the Yankees rotation -- every member except for the 20-year-old Severino spent significant time on the DL -- that they might be tempted to break the rule for Price, a Scott Kazmir or a Jeff Samardzija. (The Yankees passed on Zack Greinke a couple of years ago, feeling he wasn't cut out for New York, and the understanding is that the feeling is mutual.)
9. Hal's wallet: rubber band on or off? We haven't heard the number "$189 million" in two years now, so it is safe to assume that brief flirtation with fiscal responsibility has been trash-canned. Still, how much further will Hal Steinbrenner be willing to go above the $217 million he spent on the roster for Opening Day 2015? The answer to that, of course, pretty much answers all the other questions.
10. When comes The Judge? The Yankees love big stories. The problem is, most of their recent big stories have been rooted in nostalgia. In 2013, it was Mariano Rivera's farewell tour, followed by Derek Jeter's in 2014 and A-Rod's welcome back tour in 2015. But in 2016 and heading into 2017, the big story could be Aaron Judge in right field. Judge, all 6-foot-7, nearly 300 pounds of him, has the personality to be a fan favorite. He struggled in Triple-A last season, but the Yankees are already making plans for the possibility he could be called up in 2016. If he plays well enough at Triple-A, he will likely receive his first taste of the big leagues in '16. In '17, he could be the Yankees' starting right fielder.