If you went to Boston a few days after the World Series and asked an informed Red Sox fan, after he or she was finished celebrating, how they would advise the Yankees this post-season, they probably would have come up with something like what the Yankees have done. The Red Sox fan, however, would be coming from the position of somebody who hates the Yankees, while the Yankees have made these moves, at least in theory, as part of an effort to improve the team and get back on a championship course.
The Yankees have signed free agents Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran to contracts worth $290 million. They have also resigned Hiroki Kuroda, restructured the contract of Derek Jeter and have indicated they are done yet. More significantly they have lost two players, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, to free agency.
Some of these signings are reasonably straightforward. Kuroda has been one of the Yankees best pitchers in recent years so bringing him back makes sense. Catching was a weak spot for the Yankees next year so bringing McCann to New York, at least at first glance, makes sense. It is, however, unlikely McCann will be a full time catcher for the duration of his contract, but he could still be valuable from 2016-18 spending time at DH, first base and catcher. The Beltran signing, on its own, is also not bad. A two year contract would have been better but Beltran has been a consistently strong hitter for many years and will be a big upgrade from Ichiro Suzuki in right field.
The Ellsbury signing is particularly baffling and has led to this off-season being botched by the Yankees. Ellsbury's contract it too long and for too much money, but that is true of most free agent contracts. It should not be overlooked, however, that Ellsbury is not all that good and that the Yankees already had a good leadoff hitting center fielder in Brett Gardner. In signing Ellsbury, the Yankees made their biggest acquisition in one of the few areas that is a relative strength. Ellsbury's value is largely defined by whether or not his outstanding 2011 season was a fluke. If he is able to produce like that, he will be a very valuable pickup. However, in the more much likely scenario that the rest of his career is more indicative of his true talent level, Ellsbury is little more than a good, but not great, leadoff hitter who has trouble staying healthy.
The Ellsbury signing looks particularly bad when viewed in the context of Robinson Cano leaving the Yankees for Seattle. Of all the free agents either leaving or coming to the Yankees, only Cano is remotely the kind of player around whom a top team can be built. Cano's contract of ten years and $240 million is too much for too long but equal to about what the Yankees spent on Ellsbury and McCann combined. The Yankees would have been much better off keeping Cano and letting Ellsbury and McCann go elsewhere. Since 2005, when McCann and Cano made their big league debuts, Cano has accumulated 45.1 WAR, Ellsbury and McCann 45.6, but despite being slightly older, Cano has been much healthier and more durable than Ellsbury or McCann. McCann's best year was 2008 when he was worth 4.7 WAR, a number exceeded three times by Cano since that time. Similarly, Ellsbury's standout 2011 season would only be the third best in Cano's career according to WAR. These Yankees moves amount to letting the one great player on the free agent market go, while replacing him with two players who are more injury prone and less productive.
After a flurry of expensive free agent signings the Yankees have upgraded modestly in center, and significantly behind the plate, but they have gotten much worse at second base and have done nothing about big holes at shortstop and third base, where they appear to be counting on aging stars like Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. They have also not determined a viable plan for first base if Mark Teixeira cannot come back, or done anything to improve their pitching staff. Signing Masahiro Tanaka would help the rotation a lot, but the Yankees will have ample competition in that pursuit.
The most striking thing about the Yankee moves when taking as a whole is that at no point was there any possibility of any minor leaguer in the Yankee system providing even replacement level value at second, third or behind the plate. Nor was there any prospect capable of adding some punch at DH or in a corner outfield. This is why the Yankees had to go outside the system to solve every problem and why these problems have not yet been fully addressed. Signing good but injury prone free agents is a good way to complement an existing strong nucleus, but without that nucleus, the moves are unlikely to have a major impact. This is particularly true because the only true impact player on the market just left the Yankees.