NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees have needs, but not a lot of options as they head to Nashville next week for baseball’s winter meetings.
With their 2016 team already bought and paid for at all but one position -- second base -- and more than $180 million already committed to 11 players, the Yankees don’t have much wiggle room to improve the team that won 87 games and the first AL wild-card spot in 2015, only to be shut out by the Houston Astros and AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel in the play-in game.
Still, Yankees GM Brian Cashman has shown creativity when faced with a similar dilemma in the past -- last year, he pulled off trades for pitcher Nathan Eovaldi and shortstop Didi Gregorius, both of whom showed great promise and value for the future -- and no doubt will try to do so again this year, although he lost his right-hand man, Billy Eppler, this fall when Eppler was hired by the Los Angeles Angels to replace Jerry DiPoto as their GM.
“We'll enter December the same way we entered November," said Cashman, who last month acquired outfielder Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy. "Our team is fairly set, but we’re open to exploring any and all trade opportunities. If we can improve our team, we’ll do it. If we can’t, we won’t."
Assuming the Yankees are out of the high-stakes free-agent game this winter -- and sources both within and outside the team tell me they are -- here are Cashman’s top tasks at next week’s meetings:
1. Look for ways to bolster the starting rotation
While the Yankees have quantity, with six proven big-league starters on the roster and at least one minor leaguer probably capable of stepping in if necessary, once again there are question marks about their quality. Masahiro Tanaka is coming off elbow surgery, Eovaldi finished 2015 on the disabled list, CC Sabathia had his worst big-league season and is coming off alcohol rehab, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova are inconsistent and Adam Warren is perpetually being sent back to the bullpen. The Yankees have young Bryan Mitchell to call up from Triple-A, but look for Cashman to explore a trade for a young pitcher -- maybe someone like a Shelby Miller or a Carlos Carrasco -- in exchange for a package of say, Brett Gardner and Nova.
2. Find an everyday second baseman
As much as Cashman has talked about going with a platoon of Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder at second base, the Yankees have questions about the ability of both to field the position. Refsnyder is not one of the Yankees' famous "untouchables" -- those would be Luis Severino, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge -- and could be included in a package. Who might the Yankees get back? Well, there’s Dee Gordon in Miami, but the Marlins are unlikely to take on the $39 million still owed to Gardner, or even the $27 million owed closer Andrew Miller, who may also be available. Better option? Martin Prado, who in 2014 played a half-season for the Yankees, who incidentally are already paying $3 million of his $11 million 2016 salary.
3. Beef up the bullpen
It’s an annual ritual with the Yankees, and with many other teams: stockpile middle-relief arms, which are usually readily available. Last year, the Yankees added Justin Wilson for Francisco Cervelli and Chasen Shreve and David Carpenter for former prospect Manny Banuelos. Wilson worked out, and so, to a lesser extent, did Shreve. Carpenter was a bust. But if Cashman is seriously shopping Miller, likely meaning Dellin Betances becomes the new closer, he will need someone to replace Betances as the setup man. As usual, Cashman is not letting on who he has his eye on, but you can bet he will be looking.
4. Look for cost-effective ways to improve the team
It may seem ridiculously obvious, but the Yankees have to resist pressure from their ever-demanding fan base to make a move just for the sake of making a move. The Yankees spend a lot of money -- $217 million last year -- but due to the changing economics of baseball because of revenue sharing and the rise of regional sports networks, it’s a much more level playing field and a high payroll is no longer a guarantee of anything. The Yankees seem to have given up on cutting payroll to below the luxury-tax threshold, but at the same time aren't going to go much, if at all, over what they spent last year. So rather than sign say, a Jordan Zimmermann for $22 million a year -- which would cost them more than $30 million in real dollars due to the luxury tax -- Cashman will look for bargains of the type he found last winter. That means no trading controllable parts like Severino, Bird, Judge, Refsnyder, etc., but in fact trying to find more players like them.
5. Patience, patience
No need to take on anyone else's bad contracts while riding out your own. Next year, the Yankees will be rid of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran. In two years, it will be bye-bye to Alex Rodriguez and Sabathia. If Cashman is smart -- and we know he is -- he will wait a couple of years to make a splash in the free-agent market. Don’t be surprised if this is a quiet winter meetings, and a quiet winter, for the Yankees.