Alex Rodriguez not biggest or only question for Yankees in offseason
A-Rod is under contract with New York for five more years and $118 million
The Yankees have said they want to get their payroll under the luxury tax
Bringing back Russell Martin makes sense but other players have to go
The Yankees have a ton of work to do this offseason to rebuild their team in the wake of their dismal performance in the American League Championship Series. That work, however, has very little to do with the team's poor showing at the plate this postseason and should have nothing at all to do with Alex Rodriguez.
Rather, the Yankees will be busy because two of their top three starting pitchers this postseason, their catcher, four of their corner outfielders, Rodriguez's postseason platoon partner and the greatest closer in major league history are all due to become free agents in a couple of weeks, and their playoff closer and centerfielder could join them via option clauses in their contracts.
Further complicating matters, New York can't just throw money at the problem this winter because ownership has tasked general manager Brian Cashman with bringing the team's payroll under the luxury tax threshold by 2014, when it increases to $189 million (the Yankees' Opening Day payroll this year was more than $209 million).
Here, then, is a look at the what the Yankees need to do this offseason.
1. Work toward Hal Steinbrenner's Competitive Balance Tax goal
If the Competitive Balance Tax had passed a note to a pair of Australian models during the ALCS, maybe people would be paying more attention to the thing that will have the greatest impact on the Yankees offseason. No such luck. Heck, I'm guessing half the people reading this article have already skipped ahead to number two on this list. Their loss.
Steinbrenner, the franchise's managing general partner, is serious about getting his team under the threshold in 2014, and for good reason. The Yankees put more than $206 million into the Competitive Balance Tax coffers from 2003 to 2011 and will pay a 50 percent tax on the final amount by which they exceed the 2012 threshold of $178 million. That sets them up for a bill in the area of $15 million, or roughly the price of Curtis Granderson's 2013 option.
The Yankees pay the highest tax rate because they have exceeded the threshold every year that the tax has been in place, and the rate increases with each successive violation of that threshold. However, getting below the threshold for just one year resets the tax rate. If the Yankees can get below the threshold in 2014, they could exceed it in 2015 and pay a mere 17.5 percent tax on their excess. To put that another way, New York could exceed the threshold by $85 million at that rate and play less tax than it would this year on an excess of $30 million.
The Yankees are actually surprisingly well set up to get below the threshold. They only have three players under guaranteed contract past 2013. True, those three -- Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia -- will count for a combined $73.5 million toward the threshold (calculated by using the average annual values of each contract) in 2014, but that's still just 39 percent of the threshold.
It's the middle infield where things get tricky. The multi-year deal the Yankees gave Robinson Cano in February 2008 expires after his $15 million option for next season (the exercising of which will be the easiest decision Cashman will make this offseason). That means the Yankees have to start talking extension with Cano, who hired Scott Boras as his agent before the 2011 season and turns 30 on Monday, in order to know what kind of flexibility they're going to have elsewhere on the roster, or whether or not they're going to need a new second baseman in 2014.
Then there's the ailing captain. Next year is the final guaranteed year on Derek Jeter's contract, and while he owns an $8 million player option for 2014, it represents a $9 million paycut from his 2013 salary, barring various awards-based performance bonuses, none of which have been triggered yet. The surgery Jeter just had on his fractured left ankle could cause him to miss Opening Day next year, and he'll turn 39 next June, so the Yankees likely won't talk contract with their captain until next November. A likely scenario could find Jeter declining his option but demanding a new multi-year deal from the team, at which point Cashman may have to chose between a bad fiscal and baseball decision or a public relations disaster.
Elsewhere, the Yankees are unlikely to make any big free agent splashes that could compromise their 2014 tax status, and will likely try to fill their emerging holes with short-term, mid-priced contracts, which could continue their recent focus on older role players looking to hook on for one last chance at the postseason.
2. Get everyone to shut up about A-Rod.
Okay, so that's not going to happen, but neither is a Rodriguez trade. That's not just because Rodriguez said after the Yankees were eliminated on Thursday that he wouldn't waive his no-trade clause ("I will be back. I have a lot to prove, and I will come back on a mission."), or because the $118 million he's owed over the next five years is untradeable. It's because the Yankees have too many other holes to plug to create one that doesn't already exist at third base.
Look, the Yankees were second in the majors in runs scored in 2012 with 804, just four behind the Rangers. Despite its performance in a small sample of nine postseason games, New York's lineup was not a problem this season, it was a strength. Furthermore, the two positions Rodriguez played this year -- third base (81 starts) and designated hitter (38 starts) -- were among the strongest on the team. Here's a list of the Yankees positional split OPS+ (sOPS+) figures, which shows how their OPS at each position compared to league average at that position with 100 being average:
The Yankees' catcher and corner outfielders are free agents this winter, which conveniently allows the team to address the few underperforming parts of its lineup. Third base is not one of them.
Nor will it become one, given myriad factors, such as:
the other work that needs to be done;
the effort that would be required to find a taker for Rodriguez;
the fact that any trade would likely offer little to no salary relief;
the fact that Rodriguez's post-game comments suggest that, at minimum, he would require additional compensation to waive his no-trade clause;
the lack of viable alternative third basemen on the market this winter.
The one caveat to all of that is that third base and designated hitter were strengths for the Yankees in part because of the players who shared time with Rodriguez at those spots. Eric Chavez started 50 games at third base and 19 at designated hitter, Derek Jeter started 25 games at DH and Raul Ibaņez started 28 there.
Postseason heroics aside, the Yankees can live without a 41-year-old Ibaņez, particularly with Chris Dickerson, who is out of minor league options, on hand as a lefthanded alternative who offers speed, defense and a career .269/.354/.424 line in 505 major league plate appearances against right-handed pitching. New York might want to bring back Chavez, however, as the 34-year-old rediscovered his power stroke this season and hit .298/.365/.543 against righties with 16 homers in 274 plate appearances for a total salary of less than $2 million. Chavez, who nearly retired last winter, likely won't require a significantly larger deal for next season.