When will the Yankees have another free agent spending spree?

All or nothing. That seems to be the Yankees’ motto in free agency since the 2008-2009 offseason. Of course, I’m being a tad hyperbolic in that there weren’t years the team signed nobody — there was always at least one fairly significant signing each winter, whether it be Rafael Soriano for the 2011 season, Hiroki Kuroda pre-2012, or Kevin Youkilis entering 2013. The point is, though, that the 2008-2009 and 2013-2014 offseasons make it seem like nothing happened in the years between. What can we glean from those two outlying winters?

Aside from the availability of very good players capable of filling the team’s needs, the Yankees had a good chunk of money coming off the books after the 2008 and 2013 campaigns. So even when the club spent big, total payroll remained relatively stagnant. Below, a simplistic look at how the Yankees kept overall payroll pretty stable while still going big in free agency.

Out In
Player ’08 Salary (M) Player ’09 Salary (M)
Abreu  $                   16 Sabathia  $                   23
Giambi  $                   23 Burnett  $                   17
Mussina  $                   11 Teixeira  $                   23
Pavano  $                   11
 Total  $                   61 Total  $                   62
Out In
Player ’13 Salary (M) Player ’14 Salary (M)
Granderson  $                   15 Tanak  $                   22
Cano  $                   15 Ells  $                   21
Pettitte  $                   12 McCann  $                   17
Youkilis  $                   12 Beltran  $                   15
Rivera  $                   10
 Total  $                   64  Total  $                   75

Following this methodology has kept the luxury tax threshold within striking distance, which keeps Hal Steinbrenner’s goal to win below that level alive. Essentially, it seems that the only way he’ll authorize a shopping spree is if the total payroll is still within sniffing distance of the luxury tax cap. If we expect that strategy to continue, then the best way to figure out when the Yankees might dip into their deep pockets is to take a look at their future salary obligations. Luckily, Baseball Prospectus’ Cot’s Contracts makes it easy to find that out. Here’s a quick summary of Yankees’ free agents to be, and the salary freed up each year:

One thing to note is that Sabathia could be a free agent after 2016 depending on health. Per Cot’s, his 2017 salary becomes guaranteed if:

1) does not end 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury, 2) does not spend more than 45 days in 2016 on the disabled list with a left shoulder injury or 3) does not make more than six relief appearances in 2016 because of a left shoulder injury

As you can tell from above, I’ve assumed his 2017 option will kick in. Either way, there’s a significant amount of money off the payroll following 2016 and 2017. The $18M freed up after this season isn’t bad, either. Independent of how much money is available, though, is the quality of the free agent class. The Yankees won’t spend for the sake of spending — there needs to be a worthwhile player or two. Or three. Or four.

Although more money will be available after 2016 and 2017, it looks like the best free agent class of the next three seasons will be this coming one. The post-2015 group includes:

The post-2016 group isn’t bad, it’s just not as deep as the prior one. A lot can happen from now through 2016, however. Injuries, contract extensions, and decline are all in the realm. For now, the names to keep in mind:

2017 is a bit of a stretch to predict, given that many of the below guys are just hitting their first arbitration eligible season. There are a few interesting candidates, though:

When I first had the idea to write this post, I presumed the next splurge wouldn’t be until the expiry of some of the bigger contracts like Teixeira, Sabathia, and A-Rod. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees sitting out on the deep post-2015 class, even if it diverges from Hal’s desires. Why? The $18M of commitments ending certainly helps. However, signing more than one of those big name free agents would quickly surpass those savings and raise total payroll for 2016. Yet, ownership can make up for the one year jump in payroll with quieter free agent periods as $86M comes off the books the following two years. If the team were to wait to spend until the post-2016 and 2017 classes, not only would it be punting on a very good post-2015 group, but it would also be risking some of the 2016 and 2017 free agents inking extensions. Sure, the same could be said about the 2015 class, but because the group is so close to the promised land, many of them might be reluctant to pass up on the open market.

Envisioning David Price and Jason Heyward in pinstripes, yet? Some other combination soon-to-be available stars? It’s hard not to. Hopefully, the Yankees will flex their financial muscles sooner than initially anticipated, given the circumstances. There’s plenty of time to debate that, though. Next winter is a long time from now, thankfully.

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