The New York Yankees have yet to add any unrestricted free agents of note this offseason and have made it known that they are waiting until their big contracts come off the books until they go back into the high-priced free agent pool. They have managed to improve through trades for Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman, but not spending any money has left the team still weak in a few areas and with many questions.
There is, however, a free agent out there in his prime who could be exactly what the Yankees need to make another playoff push in 2016.
The top areas of concern may be the middle of the order and right-handed power. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran all turned back the clock in 2015 and were extremely productive when healthy. Rodriguez was the biggest surprise, coming off a full year suspension to hit .250/.356/.486 with 33 home runs and a 129 wRC+. Teixeira was having an All-Star season after his wrist was finally healthy, hitting .255/.357/.548 with 31 home runs and a 141 wRC+ until a fractured leg abruptly ended his season at the end of August. Beltran proved he still could produce after playing through an injury in a disappointing first year in the Bronx. He stayed healthy all season and came through with his usual big hits toward the end of the season. Beltran finished 2015 with a .346 wOBA and a 119 wRC+.
Betting on all three to repeat in 2016 is risky, given their advanced ages and injury histories. Once Teixeira went down, so did the Yankees' offense. The lineup lost all balance and it was amazing to see how much it missed him. It was September and the Yankees had other players wearing down, but Teixeira could have made a big difference. The Yankees hit .233/.309/.393 with a 92 wRC+ as a team in September, which showed just how thin a tight rope they were walking when one of their big hitters went down.
For 2016, the Yankees are relying solely on Rodriguez and switch-hitters Teixeira and Beltran for their right-handed power. Castro will help balance the lineup, but doesn't help in the power department. Aaron Hicks could be an overall upgrade over Chris Young, but Young had lethal power from the right side against left-handers. The Yankees traditionally build around lefty power because of their ballpark and that's wise; however, they need more balance when facing tough lefties, as Dallas Keuchel showed in shutting them down in the wild-card game.
It just so happens that two right-handed power guys are sitting out there on the open market. Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes have not signed yet and if they can be had for any sort of discount, the Yankees should be all over them. Upton would seem to be the more likely fit since he is two years younger and has a much more patient approach at the plate, two things the Yankees value greatly. New York's outfield would seem set with Beltran, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Hicks as the fourth outfielder, but the likely scenario if the Yankees signed Upton would be to trade Gardner for pitching depth.
Gardner has been the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason after having an All-Star first half and a brutal second half. Gardner seems to have trouble staying fresh for the duration of the season, hitting .283/.360/.421 in the first half of the season in his career compared to .236/.326/.351 in second half. Gardner is better defensively than Upton, which is important in the spacious left field of Yankee Stadium, but Upton's advantage at the plate and in birth date -- he's four years younger -- trumps that.
Upton hit .251/.336/.453 in 2015 with 26 home runs and a 120 wRC+. This was a slight down year, perhaps a reflection of Petco Park, although he was very productive in Atlanta at another park conducive to pitching. Trading Gardner -- who has three years and $37.5 million left on his deal (not including a $12.5 million team option) -- could bring back a starting pitcher or help replenish the minor leagues.
Upton is better than any free agent outfielder who will be on the market next offseason when the contracts of Teixeira and Beltran will be off the books. Brian Cashman has been known to make creative moves in the past, and Upton could end up being the sleeper move on his radar.
Matt Bove writes about the Yankees at It's About the Money, a SweetSpot Network blog.