The New York Yankees have yet to sign any superstars to any megadeals this offseason. That may or may not be because of one superstar megadeal they're already saddled with.
In December 2017, the Yankees acquired reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins. As part of the deal, they took on $265 million of the $295 million remaining on Stanton's record-setting $325 million contract.
The 29-year-old's debut season in New York was at once quite good and quite disappointing. Though excellent by any other measure, his .852 OPS, 38 home runs and 4.0 wins above replacement (per Baseball Reference) were far off the marks he'd achieved in 2017: 1.007, 59 and 7.6.
It was difficult even at the time of the Stanton trade not to consider how it would ultimately shape New York's agenda on the 2018-2019 free-agent market. To this end, there was an optimistic outlook to cling to even throughout 2018: Better $265 million for him than $400 million for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
But with spring training now ramping up and Opening Day of the 2019 Major League Baseball season not far beyond the horizon, it suddenly seems like neither 26-year-old superstar will even sniff $400 million.
Though the San Francisco Giants have emerged as a front-runner for Harper, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that they're not motivated to match the 10-year, $300 million offer from the Washington Nationals that the 2015 National League MVP reportedly rejected last September, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
Machado's market wouldn't appear to be any stronger. His top suitor may be the Chicago White Sox, whose offer to the star shortstop/third baseman was worth "about $200 million," according to Nightengale.
There would seem to be a chance for the Yankees to opportunistically snag Harper or Machado for less than expected. Trouble is, there isn't much room on their roster or payroll.
In the outfield, they have Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Clint Frazier in reserve. On the infield, they have Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit around the horn, with DJ LeMahieu and, eventually, a healthy Didi Gregorius as backup.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are set to open 2019 with a $217.3 million luxury tax bill. That's well over the $206 million baseline threshold. Signing Harper or Machado would likely put them over the $246 million threshold for the harshest penalties.
But lest anyone blame these logjams solely on the Stanton trade, let's start by ditching the hindsight glasses and remembering that the trade itself was tantamount to a steal for New York.
The Yankees maneuvered for Stanton after he used his no-trade leverage to freeze Miami's talks with the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. In the end, they convinced the Marlins to hand over Stanton and $30 million for nothing more than Starlin Castro and two low-level prospects.
Though the 2018 Yankees couldn't overcome the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox, Stanton wasn't the problem. He was a central part of an offense that fueled an improvement from 91 wins to 100 wins with a record 267 homers. Though he was largely silent against Boston in the American League Division Series, he had nothing to do with the 6.94 team ERA that sealed New York's fate.
Looking ahead to 2019, optimism for the Yankees should be centered on how they've gotten better while the Red Sox have arguably gotten worse. The Red Sox will face further challenges after 2019, when they stand to lose Chris Sale, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts and Rick Porcello to free agency.
If there's a scary part of the Yankees' pact with Stanton, it's what comes after 2020. Given that he'll be coming off his age-30 season and staring at a free-agent market rife with uncertainty, chances are he'll forgo his opt-out in favor of the $218 million owed to him through his age-37 season in 2027.
The bright side is that the money pitched in by the Marlins lowers Stanton's luxury tax valuation (h/t Kyle Downing of MLB Trade Rumors) to $22 million per year. Relative to the $30 million per year it could take to land Harper or Machado, that's a huge advantage for the Yankees' long-term cost effectiveness.
Granted, there's little point in trying to argue that Stanton has more long-term upside than Harper or Machado. He's three years older than either of them, and he's achieved neither Harper's peak (10.0 WAR in 2015) nor Machado's overall excellence (23.2 WAR) since 2015.
But if the question is how each star is actually trending, WAR paints a more nuanced picture:
Despite his warts—namely: trouble with the injury bug and a tough-to-shake strikeout habit—Stanton has been a steadier performer than Harper, whose 2015 explosion looks as much like an outlier as it does a sign of his true talent level.
Machado, on the other hand, really is going places. His value is being fueled by his transformation into a slugger and defense that's playable at shortstop and well above average at third base. His occasionally toxic demeanor aside, he arguably deserves a place among MLB's top five position players.
If there's a worry with Machado, it's over how such a big dude (6'3", 185 pounds) with two surgically repaired knees will hold up defensively. Perhaps sooner than later, there will come a point when his bat will have to carry him.
This is where proper respect for Stanton's bat is in order. Even as Machado has found his offensive groove over the last four seasons, Stanton has still been the better hitter. That mostly traces back to power that's produced more homers (305, to be exact) through his age-28 season than all but seven other players in baseball history.
Beyond Stanton's extreme raw power, he has Yankee Stadium and the designated hitter going for him. The former is nearly as friendly to right-handed sluggers as to left-handed sluggers. Stanton took to the latter with a .942 OPS and 24 homers in 86 games as a DH in 2018.
The best offensive comp for Stanton right now is Nelson Cruz, who also happens to be an encouraging example of how an especially talented slugger can age with the help of the DH. Perhaps it's not a stretch to believe that he'll live up to his contract as well or better than Harper and Machado will live up to whatever deals they eventually get.
Rather than on the Stanton deal, complaints about the Yankees offseason should be in regard to why they didn't just splurge for Harper or Machado to begin with. After finally getting under the luxury tax in 2018, they could have easily done so.
Heck, the Yankees could still land Harper or Machado if they wanted to. Though they'd be signing up for millions in luxury tax penalties, the franchise is worth enough billions ($4 billion, according to Forbes) to cover the cost.
In any case, the Stanton trade shouldn't be viewed as one the Yankees shouldn't have made.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.