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The 2019 season didn’t end in ideal fashion for the Yankees, but there is no debating that they posted one of the most impressive years of any team in baseball. A litany of major injuries threatened to torpedo their campaign from Day 1, but the club seldom faltered in the face of that overwhelming adversity. Instead, the Yankees plugged in one surprisingly effective cog after another en route to 103 victories – the third-highest total in the game – and their first AL East title since 2012. The Yankees once again made easy work of the Twins in the ALDS, but just as New York has toyed with Minnesota in October, Houston has done the same to the Bronx Bombers. The Astros eliminated the Yankees for the third time since 2015, cutting them down in a six-game ALCS. Now, general manager Brian Cashman has to continue trying to figure out how to get his team over the Houston hump and back atop the sport.
- Giancarlo Stanton, OF: $244MM through 2027 (including $10MM buyout for ’28)
- Aaron Hicks, OF: $61MM through 2025
- Aroldis Chapman, RP: $48MM through 2022
- Luis Severino, RHP: $34MM through 2022 (including $2.75MM buyout for ’23)
- Jacoby Ellsbury, OF: $26.1MM through 2020 (including $5MM buyout for ’21)
- Zack Britton, RP: $26MM through 2021
- Masahiro Tanaka, RHP: $23MM through 2020
- Adam Ottavino, RP: $18MM through 2021
- J.A. Happ, LHP: $17MM through 2020 (also has $17MM vesting option for ’21)
- DJ LeMahieu, INF: $12MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- James Paxton – $12.9MM
- Tommy Kahnle – $3.0MM
- Tyler Lyons – $800K
- Greg Bird – $1.3MM
- Gary Sanchez – $5.6MM
- Aaron Judge – $6.4MM
- Chad Green – $1.4MM
- Jordan Montgomery – $1.2MM
- Luis Cessa – $1.1MM
- Gio Urshela – $2.2MM
- Jonathan Holder – $800K
- Non-tender candidates: Lyons, Bird, Holder
The offseason is only in its infancy, but Cashman has already gotten a couple key orders of business out of the way. For one, there won’t be any question as to who will be closing games for the Yankees in 2020. The Yankees were facing the departure of star closer Aroldis Chapman, who had a chance to opt out of the last two years and $30MM left on his contract, but the two sides prevented that from happening last weekend. New York added a third year and $18MM to Chapman’s deal, giving him a pact worth $48MM over three seasons. It’s a reasonable deal for the Yankees, as Chapman – despite the series-losing home run he allowed to Houston – remains one of the majors’ premier relievers. Considering Chapman’s lengthy track record of excellence, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him break Wade Davis’ average annual value record for a reliever ($17.33MM per annum) had he gotten to free agency, but the Yankees managed to retain their game-ending southpaw for less.
Turning to the position player side, Cashman had noteworthy calls to make at shortstop and at designated hitter/first base the past few days. And he may have opted to say goodbye to two of the Yankees’ most recognizable players in shortstop Didi Gregorius and slugger Edwin Encarnacion. Gregorius is a revered Yankee who was one of the league’s elite shortstops from 2017-18, but he fell flat this year after sitting out the first few months while recovering from Tommy John surgery. As a result of the underwhelming production Gregorius mustered, the Yankees decided not to issue him a $17.8MM qualifying offer. He’s now on the open market without draft compensation weighing him down.
Whether to qualify Gregorius looked like the type of decision that could have gone either way, whereas it’s no surprise the Yankees pulled the plug on Encarnacion’s $20MM option in favor of a $5MM buyout. Encarnacion remains a serious home run threat and a formidable offensive player, but for a soon-to-be 37-year-old with no real defensive value, his option was unpalatable.
Now that Gregorius and Encarnacion aren’t on the Yankees’ roster anymore, it’s fair to wonder what the team will do to replace them. It’s entirely possible they’ll re-up either or both if their markets don’t materialize as hoped. But if not, the Yankees are seemingly in the luxurious position of having ready-made replacements on hand. They could slide budding star second baseman Gleyber Torres to short to replace Gregorius, thus leaving the keystone to versatile infielder DJ LeMahieu. Alternatively, if the Yankees want to make their latest enormous offseason splash on the trade market, they could at least inquire on the Indians’ Francisco Lindor or the Rockies’ Trevor Story. Finding a way to trade for either, albeit at would surely be a sizable cost in assets, would enable the Yankees to keep Torres at second and continue to move LeMahieu around the infield.
The Yankees may need LeMahieu at first and/or third, as there’s an argument their options there aren’t incredibly trustworthy. Third baseman Gio Urshela had an out-of-nowhere breakout season in 2019, but is it sustainable? And the player he replaced, Miguel Andujar, missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury and wasn’t exactly a source of defensive brilliance as a rookie the previous year. The Yankees may be able to live with Andujar’s defensive shortcomings if he regains form at the plate, especially if they can rotate him in at DH on occasion, but who’s to say he’ll be the same hitter in 2020?
At first base, the Yankees have a pair of sluggers – Luke Voit and Mike Ford – who look capable of holding down the fort (that’s assuming the Yanks abandon their long-running dreams of a Greg Bird breakout and don’t make any other moves like bringing back Encarnacion). Voit’s coming off an injury-wrecked season in which he tailed off badly toward the end, though, and the 27-year-old Ford has just 163 major league plate appearances to his name. LeMahieu would continue to make for nice insurance at both corners, then, though how often he lines up there could depend on whether there’s a Gregorius re-signing or a different middle infield acquisition.
Are there any other splashy scenarios in which the Yankees could give their infield a boost? Sure, they could sign Anthony Rendon to play third base for $200MM-plus or maybe even Josh Donaldson for something in the vicinity of $60MM-$80MM. But if the Yankees, who are always mindful of the luxury tax, are going to spend an exorbitant amount on a free agent, it seems more likely to be a pitcher than a position player.
Meantime, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising to see the Yankees re-sign outfielder Brett Gardner, their longest-tenured player, to what should be another relatively affordable short-term contract. The 36-year-old stuck around on a $7.5MM guarantee last offseason and then proceeded to record one of the most productive seasons of his career. Gardner also showed he’s still capable of manning center, which is hugely important for a New York team whose starter, Aaron Hicks, recently underwent Tommy John surgery. With Hicks set to miss a large portion of 2019, the Yankees need a viable center fielder to slot in alongside corner options Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Tauchman, Clint Frazier and, if he re-signs, Cameron Maybin. Free agency’s not teeming with appealing possibilities, though, and trading for Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte may not make sense with Hicks due back in several months and under team control for the long haul. With that in mind, it seems realistic to expect Gardner back in the Bronx in 2020.
Let’s shift to catcher, where Gary Sanchez is coming off another year in which he drew fan and media ire for his strikeout tendencies at the plate and his defensive troubles behind it. Could the Yankees now try to deal Sanchez and look for an upgrade? Possibly. But where would they get this upgrade? Sanchez is hands down a better choice than every free agent but Yasmani Grandal, who’s four years older and looks likely to command a guarantee worth more than $60MM. And unlike last offseason, there’s no J.T. Realmuto on the trade market. What does that mean? Expect Sanchez back in pinstripes next year, possibly with Kyle Higashioka as a backup to replace free agent Austin Romine.
And now we arrive at the pitching staff, a source of frustration for Yankees fans in 2019. The Yankees had to go through almost the entire year without their ace, Luis Severino, whose shoulder and lat injuries held him to 12 regular-season innings. The good news is that he should be ready to lead their starting staff again in 2020, while James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka will continue to provide a pair of nice complements. But what about the rest of the rotation? There’s no more CC Sabathia, who called it a (Hall of Fame?) career. Meanwhile, unless they swap him for another bad contract, the Yankees are probably stuck with the aging J.A. Happ for the last season of a two-year, $34MM pact. There’s a chance they may never get another pitch from 2019 standout Domingo German, whose season ended in September when he landed on administrative leave under the MLB-MLBPA Joint Domestic Violence Policy. Deivi Garcia’s the organization’s No. 1 prospect, though he’s still just 20 and has thrown a mere 40 innings at the Triple-A level (where he posted a 5.40 ERA/5.77 FIP this year). Jordan Montgomery (a 2018 Tommy John patient) and Jonathan Loaisiga could be wild cards, but the Yankees might be pressing their luck by locking either of them into rotation jobs.
Frankly, if the Yankees want to go into Evil Empire mode and try to steal a high-priced free agent from the rest of the league, the rotation seems like the place for it. There happen to be a couple aces on the table in Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but whether the Yankees would crush the $200MM mark for the former and go well above $150MM for the latter is in question. While it’s well-documented that the Yankees have coveted Cole in the past, it’s worth noting they haven’t reeled in a free agent for anything close to the type of money he’s about to receive since they re-signed Alex Rodriguez to a $275MM deal entering 2008. George Steinbrenner was still alive at that point. That doesn’t mean today’s Hal Steinbrenner-run Yankees won’t sign Cole, Strasburg or at least someone like Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner or Hyun-Jin Ryu, but it would be difficult to call the Yankees favorites in any of those cases.
It may be easier to envision a trade for a starter coming together, considering Cashman has swung deals for the likes of Paxton, Happ, Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn over the past couple years. Would he do it again, this time for someone like Corey Kluber or Matthew Boyd? It’s doubtful anyone but a Cole or a Strasburg would suffice for a high number of Yankees fans, but with Severino back at full strength, there’s a case the team doesn’t have to pick up a true front-line type before next season.
Regardless of how the Yankees fill out the rest of their rotation before next year, the offseason heavy lifting in their bullpen already appears to be done with Chapman staying in the mix. The Yankees doled out a combined $66MM in guarantees to Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino in free agency last winter. For the most part, those signings have worked out well so far. Those two will be back, while Chapman, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green (if he doesn’t fill an opener role next season), Luis Cessa and Loaisiga are among holdovers who could or will join them.
At this point, the main concern centering on New York’s bullpen is whether its relationship with longtime force Dellin Betances is over. The Yankees showed they could succeed in 2019 without the four-time All-Star, whom shoulder problems stopped from making his season debut until Sept. 15. Betances retired both batters he faced that day in Toronto, but he suffered a partial left Achilles tear while hopping off the mound at the end of the inning. That brought a quick and cruel close to a Murphy’s Law season for Betances, and it was especially inopportune during a contract year. However, the injury’s not so severe that it will hinder the soon-to-be 32-year-old from faring somewhat nicely on the open market. MLBTR has Betances in line for a $7MM guarantee, and with the tax-minded Yankees paying close attention to every penny nowadays, they may deem that too expensive for a reliever coming off a lost season.
As always, the Yankees will be one of the game’s most fascinating teams to watch this offseason. Are they a sleeping giant that could swoop in for Lindor, Cole or maybe even both? Perhaps. On the other hand, the Yankees are talented enough that they could mostly stand pat in the coming months and enter 2020 in better shape than just about everyone else. The avenue they take will depend on how much much Steinbrenner’s willing to spend on a roster that exceeded the luxury tax this year and already looks as if it’s on pace to breeze past the $208MM threshold for next season. Unless Steinbrenner’s OK with outspending the second penalty bracket ($228MM) or even the third ($248MM), this might not be a particularly eventful winter in the Bronx.