This isn't the first time the Yankees have laid low in free agency. In 2012, they were quiet until signing Hiroki Kuroda in January. In 2013, they signed Travis Hafner and Ichiro Suzuki to modest deals. They've been boring before.
This is the first time the Yankees have ignored free agents entirely, though. This might be the first winter in the history of free agency that they won't sign a single free agent to a major league contract. And it's freaking people out. I'm here as the voice of reason.
Here's the story of the 2015-16 Yankees offseason in one sentence: There just weren't a lot of ways to upgrade the roster in the first place.
Before the offseason started, the Yankees had a lineup filled with entrenched, expensive veterans of moderate promise. They had one of those everywhere but second base. Then they traded for a second baseman. It was a simple, tidy and creative fix. The Yankees spending scores of millions on a free agent would have made the offseason seem familiar, but I'm not sure if it would have made them better.
They weren't going to replace Mark Teixeira, Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Carlos Beltran or Alex Rodriguez. Those eight players will make a combined $124 million next year, and every single one was worth at least a win above replacement. Headley, Beltran, and Ellsbury were the only three who weren't worth three WAR or more. And even if the Yankees wanted to spend $100 million to replace Headley, their least-productive position player, there wasn't a third baseman on the market to spend it on.
The Yankees could have used another starting pitcher, perhaps, but that starter would have had to be better than Nathan Eovaldi. The Nathan Eovaldis of the free agent world get $75 million on a bad day, so the Yankees would have needed to spend $90 million on a modest upgrade or almost twice that for a no-doubt, hot-dang, yee-haw upgrade. The first approach didn't make sense. The second approach apparently wasn't tenable, which is why the Yankees shrugged and built a bullpen monstrosity. It was the most reasonable, resourceful way to allow fewer runs in 2016.
Here's the story of the 2015-2016 Yankees offseason in another sentence: Once they decided they weren't going to spend hundreds of millions on David Price or Zack Greinke, there really wasn't a way for them to spend at all.
That Price signed with the Red Sox is something of a poke in the nose, sure. It wasn't that long ago that the Yankees would have charged into the offseason, determined to come away with one of the hyper-expensive aces, so I can understand a mild sense of fan frustration at the relatively quiet offseason. But we're seven years removed from the Yankees being absolute bullies on the open market, declaring the most expensive free agents theirs by fiat. Since then, we've seen the rise of the Dodgers and the liquid cash that's leaking out of the television bubble. It's not so much that the Yankees are crying poor, it's that other teams have caught up.
Here's the story of the 2015-2016 Yankees offseason in one last sentence: They did go on a wild, drunken free agent spending binge to prepare for the 2016 season, but they did it two years ago.
The Yankees sure wish they could have that spending spree back, or at least, they wish they could have the same players at a greatly reduced rate. Jacoby Ellsbury would be looking for something like a Dexter Fowler contract, and Masahiro Tanaka would have picked up a deal filled with incentives and performance bonuses. But all of the players are still the kinds of targets the Yankees would have had in the first place. If the Yankees needed to fill four positions -- C, CF, RF and SP -- they might have targeted a veteran switch-hitter with Yankee Stadium power (Beltran), a rock-solid catcher who can hit (McCann), a center fielder who could run, field and hit (Ellsbury), and a pitcher with the potential to be much more than a mid-rotation goof (Tanaka).
Or different players, sure. But it's reasonable to think that the Yankees would have still been interested in all of those players in an alternate reality, where the Yankees were filled with tons of roster holes and those players were all free agents in a crowded market. Even if you take those players away and give the Yankees money to spend on those four holes, I'm not sure how much better they could have made next year's team. You might prefer the combination of, say, Alex Avila, Yoenis Cespedes, Denard Span and Johnny Cueto to the four players the Yankees already have. It's debatable, though. It's certainly debatable.
The Yankees didn't have a lot of roster holes. Once they decided they were out on the Grade-A, nine-figure pitchers, there wasn't a great way to upgrade the rotation. And because all of the members of the half-billion free agent class are coming off relatively productive seasons, they can afford to be optimistic with the players they settled on two years ago.
Is it weird that the Yankees didn't spend? In an aesthetic sense, sure. But in a practical sense, it shouldn't be surprising at all. The Yankees were reasonable because they were unreasonable two years ago, and the team should still contend with what they have.