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The Yankees should scare you

2017 was supposed to be a rebuilding year in the Bronx. But their surprising success this season means they’re a threat both now and in the future.

Alex Rodriguez News Conference
The face of eeeeeeeevil.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It’s still jarring to see the words “Yankees” and “rebuild” in the same sentence. I grew up a Red Sox fan in the late-90s and early-00s, so my enduring impression of the Yankees is as the ‘Big Bad’, the team with more money, a bigger stadium, and a bigger city that let them tromp all over MLB. The ups and downs of a normal franchise just didn’t apply to them. They were the Evil Empire.

But empires fall, and that’s what happened in the Bronx. After winning the 2009 World Series, longtime owner George Steinbrenner died partway through the next season, and New York failed to make it past the ALCS in any of 2010, 2011, or 2012. In 2013, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs altogether for only the second time since the Wild Card was instituted, and despite spending a boatload of money the following offseason, repeated the ignominious feat in 2014. A-Rod was suspended for an entire season, and Derek Jeter had his ill-fated and embarrassing retirement tour. Finally, after losing the 2015 Wild Card game and watching 2016 get off to a disappointing start, Brian Cashman talked the Steinbrenners into trading away assets at the deadline, and the Yankees were rebuilding.

Now, the Yankees are still rebuilding, in many ways — they didn’t spend on free agents this past offseason (with the exception of Aroldis Chapman), and have been disciplined about developing their farm system. But on the field, the rebuild is progressing much faster than expected, and that acceleration is setting the Yankees up to dominate all of MLB for a long time to come.

The promised rebuild in the Bronx was already intimidating because of what a team with the resources of the Yankees can do when they start with a clean slate. MLB has had ultra-rich teams before, mostly in the form of the Yankees of the 1990s/2000s and the modern Dodgers, but both teams employed their lucre mostly to minimize the consequences of any mistakes, not to maximize the upside of their roster. They ran (or run, in the case of LA) enormous payrolls, of course, but much of that payroll was spent on agéd stars, players past their primes who had been signed six years ago without considering how they might decline over time. But ultra-rich teams can give out those kinds of contracts, thanks to the power of cold hard cash.

The 2017 Dodgers, for example, have a current payroll of $257 million, according to the very helpful Spotrac. That’s more than $35 million higher than the next-highest payroll (the Yankees’), and more than $100 million more than the league-average payroll. But only $88 million of that — roughly one-third — is actually going to players on the Dodgers’ 25-man roster, putting LA with the 15th highest “active payroll” and below league-average by about three million dollars. The rest of their payroll is going to players who are either on the DL, no longer on the roster, or in the minors..

Of course, some of the players on the Dodgers’ disabled list are only there temporarily (Brandon McCarthy, Clayton Kershaw), but there’s plenty of contract dollars locked up there in players who won’t add anything in the rest of 2017 and possibly beyond: $44 million to Adrián González over the next two years, $35 million to Scott Kazmir for the same, $20 million to Andre Ethier. And lots of money is going to players no longer employed by the Dodgers at all: Carl Crawford is getting $22 million for the last year of his contract, and a mix of others (Alex Guerrero, Hector Olivera, Matt Kemp) combine for another $25 million. Those named players alone account for nearly $100m of LA’s 2017 payroll.

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers
A huge contract extension probably wasn’t a good idea even at the time, but to a team with the resources of the Dodgers, it doesn’t really matter.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

I’m not saying that the Dodgers aren’t getting an advantage from their immense wealth; to the contrary, they’re getting an enormous advantage. But the advantage is coming in the form of consequence-less mistakes, with ill-advised contracts and trades being swept under the rug and not impacting the team’s current payroll at all. To most teams, owing more than $100 million to non-contributing players would restrict their options in a huge way; the advantage the Dodgers gain from their money (and the advantage the big-spending Yankees teams of the last two decades gained) is the ability to never be restricted by a bad contract. That’s what money has traditionally given a franchise in modern MLB.

And the Yankees, by choosing to take a year or two off instead of trying to spend their way out of the down years, were getting ready to flip that script, and deploy their riches in a more directed and focused fashion than MLB had ever seen.

The 2017 Dodgers are a terrifying team, on track to win well over 100 games and within striking distance of the MLB record for wins in a season. The Dodgers of the present and future are a terrifying franchise, set up to be the end boss of the National League for probably a decade. They got where there are through some luck, of course, but also immense financial resources combined with careful planning and analytic know-how. Imagine if they could do the same thing, but without any of the baggage the franchise inherited from the McCourts and Ned Colleti. That’s what the Yankees were setting up to do by holding off in the free agent market recently. That was intimidating enough.

And then, to everyone’s surprise, the 2017 Yankees got good.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In what was supposed to be their down year, the start of the brief dip into mediocrity that was needed to free up all that money, the Yankees are currently 57–49, just one game back of the AL East lead and 2.5 games up in the Wild Card. FanGraphs gives them a 72.3 percent chance at making the playoffs; Baseball Prospectus, an 87.7 percent chance.

They’re in that position largely because of the unexpected contributions of a group of young players. Aaron Judge is of course the foremost of that group, in the midst of an MVP-caliber season and looking for all the world like a superstar. But behind him, Didi Gregorious is in the midst of his best offensive season (118 wRC+, 3.1 WAR), Aaron Hicks is going through what appears to be a legitimate breakout (147 wRC+, 2.7 WAR), Gary Sanchez is back to his slugging and excellent-defending ways (121 wRC+, 2.7 WARP (the version of WAR that incorporates framing)), and Luis Severino is blowing past all expectations (2.92 FIP, 4.1 WAR). New York also just added Sonny Gray, a young starter with ace pedigree in his past and in the midst of a fine bounceback from a down 2016 (3.24 FIP, 2.2 WAR). The Yankees are good.

So when they do decide to rebuild, the Yankees, rather than building on a clean slate, with immense wealth and reduced financial commitments but little preexisting talent to work with, will be building on a clean slate, with immense wealth, reduced financial commitments, and with a core of talented, young players to add on to. That is a recipe for a juggernaut.

In the 2018–19 offseason, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw*, Manny Machado, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Donaldson, A.J. Pollock, David Price*, Drew Smyly, and others will all be free agents. The most likely path for the Yankees sees them stay steady for the next 18 months, making the occasional trade or signing, and continue to clear their books of financial obligations while developing their young core and (probably) playing in several playoff series. Then they use their newfound financial freedom, and classic Yankees wealth, to sign... two? three? more? of those ultra-elite players who will be available, and to set themselves up as the lords of the AL for the next decade. It’s easy to imagine, and also terrifying to everyone other than NYY.

*Players with opt-outs and who could conceivably choose to remain on their contract.

The Yankees were already doing something we haven’t seen before: combining colossal wealth with a willingness to rebuild. That alone was setting them up to buy their way to elite status in just a couple of years. But along the way, and almost by accident, they’ve developed a core of young players to go with that wealth, and done so without giving up any of their important resources for that rebuild. They’re about to build a team in a way we’ve never seen a team built, and the 2018–19 offseason will provide them the perfect opportunity to do so. Get ready! It’s gonna be wild.

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.