Anyone watching Sportscenter for the last week or so has seen Dodgers OF Yasiel Puig put on a show, cracking opposite field HRs and gunning runners out from RF. He has jump-started the anemic Dodgers offense and energized their fan base while looking like a young Bo Jackson on the field. Watching Puig and being reminded of fellow Cuban OF Yoenis Cespedes while playing the A’s tonight, I couldn’t help but cringe when thinking that both of these talents were available to the Yankees a little more than a year ago. At a time when the Yankees offense is putrid and their corner OFs are the worst in baseball it is very frustrating
Puig was one of 3 talented Cuban OFs who were available to the highest bidder in 2012. Cespedes and highly regarded Cubs prospect Jorge Soler were the other 2. Many of us fans thought the Yankees would sign at least one of them and it’s beginning to look like they made a big mistake by passing on these talents. Under Brian Cashman’s leadership, the Yankees have become extremely conservative on the International Free Agent market. After being burned by the signings of Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa, the team has refused to spend significant money on any IFA. In an interview this winter with Drew Voros, Cashman said. “We have learned over time to be very conservative and cautious in acquiring pitching talent from Japan, for instance. It’s a different game there”
Cashman has been applying that conservative approach to all IFAs, signing only a few low-priced players like Adonis Garcia and Ronnier Mustelier. While it’s natural to be conservative, it seems the team has become gun-shy and is more afraid of making a mistake. When you have the largest payroll in MLB, you can afford to take some risks on high-upside talents. While it’s true you cannot expect success in Japan, Cuba, Korea or any other league to equate to success in MLB, talent plays anywhere. And that is where the Yankees are missing the boat. If a 20-yr old LHP in the U.S. was consistently throwing 98-100 MPH or when a trio of young OFs are displaying 4 out of 5 plus tools or a 6’5′ 225 pitcher is throwing 3 plus MLB pitches with great command and poise, you have to get involved! The Yanks let all of the above players pass them by when all they would cost was money….no draft picks, no players in trade. Where else can the Yankees obtain talent like that? The answer is no where. While I think the Yanks did well in this year’s amateur draft, they never have access to elite amateur talent picking at the end of the first round and the financial restraints put on them in the new CBA when it comes to signing amateur foreigners, they are going to have trouble finding high-end talent there also. Well, no problem, the Yankees have always just been able to buy Free Agents at the Major League level, right? Well that window has been closing also. Teams are locking up their young talented players before they become FAs and the small number of big talents that do hit the open market are able to command huge salaries since so many teams have money to spend.
The Yankees MUST become players on the IFA market again. They are paying $27 Million for washed up Vernon Wells and Ichiro to play LF and RF this year and next – approximately $6.5M per yr for each of them. Meanwhile, 22-yr old stud Yasiel Puig signed with LA for $6 Million a year for 7 years and the A’s 27-yr old slugging OF Yoenis Cespedes (36 HRs and .843 OPS in 181 games) is earning $9M per season over 4 years. And they aren’t the only IFA players doing well. Japanese OF Norichi Aoki had a strong year for Milwaukee last season hitting .288 with 10 HRs and 30 SBs and is hitting .300 with a .375 OBP this season while earning just $1.25 M per yr (plus a $2.5M posting fee for his rights). These are just some IFA OFs who were signed in the last year or2 but there are other IFAs all over MLB from Shin-Soo-Choo to Dayan Viciedo to Alexi Ramirez, etc.
There has also been a wave of talented foreign pitchers doing well in MLB the last year or 2 also. The 100-MPH lefty I mentioned of course is Reds closer Aroldis Chapman who has a 15.4 K/9. Texas Ace Yu Darvish was a guy I thought the Yanks should have been all over. He’s a true #1 type starter in his prime at just 26 and signed for the extremely reasonable 6 years @ $56M. An ace pitcher hitting the FA market would get nearly triple that. And make no mistake about it, Darvish is an Ace. He’s 7-2 with a 2.75 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and a 12.0 K/9 pitching in the offensive haven of Texas. And he’s not alone as a front-end starter, Korean LHP Ryu-Hyu Jin is 6-2 with a 2.89 era in his first year for the Dodgers, Japanese RHP Hisashi Iwakuma is 7-1 with a 1.89 ERA and 0.81 WHIP for Seattle in his 2nd season and 27-yr old Taiwanese LHP Wei-Yin Chen has been Baltimore’s best starter the last year and a half.
It’s time for the Yankees to dive back in to the IFA waters. George Steinbrenner was a trailblazer who was all over talented IFAs. While it worked brilliantly with Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Hideki Matsui, the failures of Irabu and Igawa seem to have the Yankee brass afraid today. It is poor reasoning to write off all big-ticket IFAs because of a couple of failures. This is the last market where the Yankees money can be used to acquire high-end talent. Amateur IFAs are subject to spending limits and penalties in the CBA but for veteran IFAs 23 and older, it’s still an open market and one which the Yankees must begin to capitalize on or they will have to continue to spend their money on the veteran has-beens like Wells and Ichiro.