(The following is being syndicated from An A-Blog for A-Rod)
With Hal and Cash making the magic number of $189 million official last week, we now know without a doubt that the Yankees are going to make a concerted effort to get the payroll at or below that number by 2014. It’s an aggressive goal, but a worthy goal in the big picture, and it will certainly come with some casualties as it’s already very clear that not everybody on the current roster can be retained while keeping the payroll below the $189 mil threshold. That being the case, the Yankees are going to have to lean on their young players more in 2014 to help make this goal a reality, and not just as fodder to fill out the 40-man roster or as a placeholder while somebody else is on the DL. The Yankees’ goal every year, regardless of budget, is to win, and to do that while cutting payroll they are going to need some serious production from this current crop of high-level young players. It’s a drastically different approach than the one they’ve taken with their prospects recently, but one that will help define just how good this farm system is.
A hot topic of conversation before the number 189 became so important was the impressive crop of free agent starting pitchers that will be available after this season. It seemed like the Yankees were well positioned to add one of these big names and make their days of shallow starting pitching depth a thing of the past. With the amount of money that is going to be tied up in a handful of players, however, the likelihood of the Yankees adding a big name arm and still staying beneath the $189 million ceiling is incredibly low. That void in the rotation will have to be filled from a more cost-friendly source, which means plans for guys like Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances will likely change. In a perfect world they would spend this entire season in Triple-A, working on refining their mechanics and building up their innings counts, then maybe get a September call up to work with and learn from the big leaguers, and come into the 2013 season with a chance to make the team as the 5th starter to lessen the pressure on them and ease them into their careers. Now they might not get that luxury.
The reality of the situation is that the Yankees are only going to have three starters under contract in 2014 (CC, Pineda, Nova), and they’ll need to get that remaining 40% of their starts from somewhere. They can probably find a cheap starter somewhere on the market to eat innings, but to keep costs down they are going to need someone from the Minors to step in and pitch, and pitch well. As the top dogs of the farm system, the pressure would be on Banuelos and Betances to produce in 2013 and show that they’re capable of shouldering their share of the load. The clock is ticking down to 2014, which means it’s ticking down faster on Banuelos and Betances to improve as pitchers and be ready to contribute. If you stop and think about it, that same logic can apply to Michael Pineda. Cash and Joe can try their hardest to downplay the significance of where Pineda pitches in the rotation, but the fact of the matter is he was brought in to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and he’s going to have to develop into that if the Yankees want to stay away from the free agent market and control costs.
The situation is a little different when looking at the lineup. Rather than having too few people to fill roles, the Yankees have too many guys to re-sign and not enough money with which to re-sign them all. There’s next to no chance that they don’t sign Robinson Cano to a new deal at some point, but with the chunk of money that will come out of the budget to do so it’s almost a foregone conclusion that somebody, and perhaps somebodies, from the Granderson-Martin-Swisher trio will be playing elsewhere as a result. To fill that open spot in the lineup in a payroll-friendly way, the Yankees should be looking to replace from within, and the spotlight will be shining brightly on guys like Austin Romine and Zoilo Almonte to see if they are up to the task.
Normally a kid from Double-A going 5-5 in Spring Training doesn’t mean much, but in Almonte’s case he could be building a resume for himself for when Cash comes around looking for a cheap corner outfielder. Joe has already name dropped Almonte on multiple occasions this spring, so he’s clearly making an impression. He’s probably the best OF prospect the Yankees have Double-A or higher, and he could be on the fast track to the show if he continues to play well. And Russell Martin, best shape of his life or not, is not a pillar of health behind the plate. If he has an injury setback this season that prevents him from staying on the field and producing, the Yankees might think twice about re-upping with him for multiple years. Before they go out and ink Miguel Montero to a big contract, they’re going to take a long, hard look at Romine and it will be up to Romine to prove his worth.
Even fringe guys like Corban Joseph, Ryan Pope, and George Kontos become more attractive options for the future. The Yankees had their hearts set on Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez to fill out the bench this year, but those smaller deals can be killers to the $189 million goal when there’s already so much money tied up in other veteran players. If the Yankees can fill those spots with cheaper guys like Joseph or Brandon Laird, and get some decent production from them, that helps control costs and gets them closer to reaching their payroll goal while also staying competitive. No Mo and no Soriano in the 2014 bullpen leaves the door wide open for guys like Pope and Kontos (and Betances) to come in and eat those lost innings at a fraction of the cost of someone like Joakim Soria. The onus is still on these young players to perform and earn the spots, but their opportunities to get those spots are going to be much more real than in years past.
There’s the old saying in sports about just needing to get an opportunity, and the next few years could be ripe with opportunity for this current class of young players thanks to the new cost-cutting initiative. With that opportunity, though, comes increased expectations. These kids are going to have to prove that they’re capable of being full-time contributors at the Major League level. The Yankees have done a fantastic job of building up their farm system over the past few years, and on paper they are well-stocked to cover this payroll slashing effort with cheap young talent. But this talent is unproven at the Major League level, and there’s going to have to be a bit more of a sink-or-swim approach with these players over the next couple years to see who can hack it and be a contributor in 2014 and who can’t. It’s an approach not taken in the Bronx in quite some time, but it’s similar to one that was taken with certain group of young players in the mid-90s. If memory serves correct, that worked out pretty well.
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