I’ve said it before: If you want the Yankees to get active, just send me to the grocery store or ship me to some foreign country for vacation. Sure enough, if I’m in a poor position to write at a moment’s notice, that’s when the Yankees will strike. So, it makes sense that I spent last week in Costa Rica while the Yankees reportedly came to terms with Brendan Ryan, made their Rule-5 protection choices, and watched the Alex Rodriguez circus reach a new stage of insanity. And then, of course, they signed Brian McCann.
When news of the McCann deal hit, I got a “Told you” text from one of the other Yankees beat writers. Late in the season, this writer and I discussed the idea of a Yankees-McCann signing. He fully expected the Yankees to sign McCann no matter what. I thought McCann would be more of a fall-back plan if it became clear Robinson Cano was about to sign elsewhere. My response to the “Told you” text was simple: “This team is about to spent $240M isn’t it?” It was my first thought when I heard about the deal. Compared to the other early free agent contracts, this one seems perfectly reasonable, but it also seemed like a move made by a team ready to spend and spend big. It sent a new message to the fan base, to the other free agents, and to the rest of baseball.
The McCann signing is the Yankees first real splash of the offseason, and it changes things quite a bit. A quick look at the immediate impact — the lingering questions and the new expectations — after Saturday’s bombshell signing.
It’s the first issue, isn’t it? McCann’s a great hitter, and he fills a position of need, and he seems to be a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium … but what does $85 million mean for the Yankees payroll plans? For the past 12-plus months, the Yankees have created this expectation that they’re looking to cut payroll, and I believe that desire is very real. That said, I also believe the Yankees really enjoy being the Yankees. Their brand is built on being a powerhouse, and as much as fiscal responsibility makes obvious sense, everyone involved has gone out of his way to say $189 million is a “goal not a mandate.” So, the Yankees are going to try to cut payroll, but it might not be possible with this roster and this free agent market. Especially not if Alex Rodriguez is an active player next season. What the McCann contract tells us is this: The Yankees are open for business. They’re not waiting for Robinson Cano, and they’re not focused on the bargain bin. They’re willing to spend, and that means everyone is a real possibility. How long that lasts — how many of these signings they make before the pool runs dry — is impossible to know right now, but the Yankees have sent a pretty strong signal that, for the moment, they have money available. If players want some of it — they’re talking to you, Cano — those player better jump on it right now, because no one knows whether this sort of spending freedom still going to be there in a month. And, if the Yankees ultimately decide to blow past $189 million, the McCann signing certainly suggest they could blow way past it.
Essentially, the Yankees have five starting position players in place. Brett Gardner (in center field) and Derek Jeter (presumably at shortstop, possibly more of a DH) are table-setters, while Mark Teixeira (back at first base), Alfonso Soriano (in left) and McCann (behind the plate) give the Yankees a trio of middle-of-the-order run producers. They are, conveniently, a switch hitter, a right-handed hitter and a left-handed hitter. It’s a good start, and having McCann in place does lessen the at-all-costs need to re-sign Robinson Cano. That said, if the Yankees are able to sign both Cano and one of the top right fielders — Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo, even Curtis Granderson — they’ll really have a lineup capable of putting up big numbers. Of course, putting that kind of lineup together depends on the Yankees ability to spend beyond the McCann deal. We know they’ll spend more, but how much more? And what about Alex Rodriguez? These are the same questions we’ve been wrestling for the past eight weeks. What we know is this: The McCann signing means the Yankees have a powerful left-handed hitter playing a position that was previous filled by a take-your-pick of light-hitting defensive options. That’s a lineup upgrade, probably the biggest single-position upgrade the Yankees could have made.
McCann’s role is obvious. He immediately moves to the top of the catcher pecking order, and he becomes a legitimate designated hitter on days he needs a bit of a break. That said, it’s been three years since McCann started more than 118 games behind the plate — and the Yankees have very real incentive to make sure their five-year investment stays healthy — so there will be moderate playing time available for a second catcher. Right now, the Yankees have five other catchers on their 40-man (Cervelli, Stewart, Romine, Murphy and Sanchez). That’s a huge number, and it seems all but certain that someone has to go. J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez aren’t going anywhere (unless there’s a trade), but Chris Stewart seems to be a strong non-tender candidate. I suppose Francisco Cervelli could be as well, but it seems more likely that Cervelli and Austin Romine will compete for the backup job. Don’t forget that it’s common for an arbitration-eligible player like Cervelli to land a non-guaranteed contract, so if Romine wins that hypothetical roster battle, Cervelli could go away while earning only a fraction of his contract.
I don’t think this is the end of Gary Sanchez in pinstripes. The kid is 20 years old and he’s played 23 games in Double-A. He’s not ready now, and he won’t be ready for a while. A reasonable expectation for Sanchez probably puts him on the big league roster sometime in 2016. Maybe as a September call-up in 2015, but it’s probably going to be at least two years before he plays any kind of significant role.. In the middle of McCann’s contract — if things go well — the Yankees could transition to Sanchez, and at the end of McCann’s contract, Sanchez could be the regular catcher while McCann plays a sort of catcher/first base/designated hitter hybrid. It’s not unreasonable, which means there’s no need to dump Sanchez. These are catchers we’re talking about. The chances of everything going exactly as hoped with both McCann and Sanchez are slim-to-none. Depth is a good thing, and a 20-year-old minor league catcher doesn’t lose his internal value just because a 29-year-old is signed to a five-year deal. Romine and Murphy are around for immediate depth options, and Peter O’Brien has already begun a transition to third base. The Yankees have catching depth, and they can absolutely trade it away if they want to — if the right piece becomes available, why not? — but there’s no reason to believe this signing puts Sanchez in the must-be-traded category.
The Other Stuff
The Yankees are giving up their top draft pick, but McCann is the kind of player who’s worth that sort of sacrifice. I get that draft picks are exciting, and there are plenty who want to hold onto them at all costs, but I’ve seen a lot of minor league baseball in my career. Draft picks are far greater gambles than 29-year-old all-star catchers. And I honestly believe the Yankees 2013 draft makes this sacrifice a little easier to swallow. It was a pretty solid haul in positions of need, so the Yankees are relatively well-positioned to have a quiet draft in 2014. Draft picks are good and all, but remaining a contender in 2014 basically required a draft sacrifice. Not surprisingly, the Yankees were willing to make that sacrifice. … If Cano re-signs, the Yankees will probably want to split McCann and Cano in the order, right? Put them in the No. 3 and No. 5 spots? Is there any logic to batting them second and fourth? I suppose that depends entirely on who’s playing right field. … McCann has never played first base, and I’m not sure there’s much need for him to learn the position right away. Eventually, maybe, but for now, it just seems the Yankees could have an easier time and take smaller long-term risks by having someone else practice for occasional spot-starts at first base. Don’t take that risk with the new five-year investment. … Still have to fix the rotation. The McCann signing sparks a ton of interest in potential lineup changes, but all the offense in the world might not be enough if the Yankees aren’t going to get some starting pitchers in place. Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka are still pivotal pieces in this Yankees offseason.
Associated Press photos