The Yankees clinched another postseason berth in 2020 before falling short in the playoffs once again. They’re now facing offseason questions in their middle infield, at catcher and in their pitching staff. Those issues could be difficult to properly address if the club decides to tamp down its payroll, which seems likely.
- Gerrit Cole, RHP: $288MM through 2028
- Giancarlo Stanton, DH/OF: $218MM through 2027 (including $10MM buyout for 2028)
- Aaron Hicks, OF: $50.5MM through 2025
- Aroldis Chapman, LHP: $32MM through 2022
- Zack Britton, LHP: $27MM through 2022
- Luis Severino, RHP: $24.25MM through 2022 (including $2.75MM buyout for 2023)
- Adam Ottavino, RHP: $9MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Luis Cessa – $1.1MM
- Clint Frazier – $1.6MM
- Chad Green – $1.6MM
- Ben Heller – $700K
- Jonathan Holder – $900K
- Aaron Judge – $9.3MM
- Jordan Montgomery – $1.3MM
- Gary Sanchez – $5.5MM
- Gleyber Torres – $2.5MM
- Gio Urshela – $3.5MM
- Luke Voit – $3.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Heller, Holder, Sanchez
- Exercised Zack Britton’s $14MM option for 2022
- Declined Brett Gardner’s $10MM option for 2021 in favor of $2.5MM buyout
As Joel Sherman of the New York Post detailed last month, it could be a relatively low-spending offseason for the Yankees if their goal is to get under the $210MM luxury-tax line in 2021. They may only add around $30MM to a payroll that is already in the $170MM range with guaranteed deals, arbitration raises and rookie contracts. That’s problematic for a team with a pair of high-end free agents and needs to address.
The biggest possible departure for the Yankees would be DJ LeMahieu, who has been their premier player since they signed him to a two-year, $24MM contract before 2019. The move couldn’t have worked out better for the Yankees, with whom LeMahieu went from solid contributor to superstar. The 32-year-old is coming off a season in which he won a batting title, led the AL in wRC+ and finished third in MVP voting. Great timing for LeMahieu during a contract year, but it could price him out of the Yankees’ range.
The Yankees did issue LeMahieu an $18.9MM qualifying offer at the beginning of the offseason, but he predictably rejected it. According to Sherman, they might be reluctant to do much better than a three-year, $48MM offer on a long-term pact, and it’s hard to believe he’d accept that. For what it’s worth, MLBTR predicts a four-year, $68MM accord, but it’s possible he’ll do even better than that.
If LeMahieu does exit, where would that leave the Yankees? It’s hard to imagine them turning the reins over to the light-hitting Tyler Wade. Fortunately for the Yankees, they do have some flexibility in their middle infield because of the versatility of shortstop Gleyber Torres, who has also played extensively at second base.
Should the team decide to leave Torres at short, it could pursue any number of Band-Aid free agents at the keystone, including Kolten Wong, Tommy La Stella, Jurickson Profar and Jonathan Schoop. Those aren’t especially exciting options on paper, though remember that LeMahieu didn’t look like the most thrilling addition when the Yankees brought him into the fold. Perhaps they’d be able to strike gold yet again on a somewhat understated pickup.
Moving Torres back to second would also present some possibilities for the Yankees, as free agency features a few accomplished vets at short (old friend Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons). Korea’s Ha-Seong Kim is going to be posted, so he could also pique the Yankees’ interest. And you can’t ignore the trade front, where the Indians’ Francisco Lindor is likely to wind up on the move. It’s also not unreasonable to think the Rockies could listen to offers for Trevor Story.
While middle infield is the main concern in the Yankees’ position player group right now, catcher isn’t too far behind. Gary Sanchez won their starting job with an all-world performance in 2016 and has held it down since. There have been defensive miscues and up-and-down offense since then, though, and now the Yankees may elect to pull the plug on the Sanchez era. They’re reportedly willing to listen to offers for Sanchez, whom they could non-tender if they can’t find a trade partner. They’ve also shown interest in free-agent catcher Yadier Molina, which doesn’t seem to bode well for Sanchez. Molina would figure to start ahead of Kyle Higashioka.
Molina’s aging, and his offense has declined of late, yet he’s still one of the top free agents at his position. J.T. Realmuto is No. 1 with a bullet, but whether the Yankees would dole out a $100MM-plus contract for him in their current situation looks iffy. They might not even be willing to go into the two- to three-year range for James McCann, the second-best backstop out there.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Yankees’ lineup looks pretty well set. Torres will be back to play somewhere. First baseman Luke Voit has developed into a star slugger. Gio Urshela remained a highly productive starting third baseman in 2020. His presence could push out Miguel Andujar if the Yankees find an enticing enough trade offer. Right fielder Aaron Judge and designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton aren’t going anywhere, though the team will need healthier seasons from the hulking duo next year. Clint Frazier finally broke out in 2020 and now looks like the Yankees’ answer in left field, while Aaron Hicks has center locked up.
There’s a question as to whether the club will bring back Yankees institution Brett Gardner as a reserve outfielder. New York bought out the 13-year veteran and saved $7.5MM in the process, but it could re-sign him for a lesser salary. If not, the Yankees might be content to plug in Mike Tauchman as their primary backup.
Whether or not LeMahieu, Sanchez and Gardner return next year, the Yankees should still feature a strong offense. Their rotation may be another story, however. Gerrit Cole delivered in the first season of a record nine-year, $324MM contract, though the Yankees don’t really have any sure things after him.
Of returning Yankees starters, Luis Severino has been an ace when healthy enough to pitch. The hope is he’ll get back to form next year, but he missed almost all of the previous two seasons because of serious arm injuries. Severino might not even be ready for Opening Day after undergoing Tommy John surgery in February. Domingo German sat out 2020 after a domestic violence suspension, though it appears the Yankees will pencil him in for some role next season. Jordan Montgomery is also an in-house front-runner for a starting job, but he had his struggles in 2020 after coming back from a TJ procedure. Otherwise, the Yankees have some younger hurlers they could turn to in Deivi Garcia, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt.
For now, the Yankees’ starting depth looks as if it’s going to take a hit in free agency. Career-long Yankee Masahiro Tanaka is on the open market, as are JA Happ and James Paxton. Tanaka, who has long been effective in New York, seems the most likely of the three to re-sign. He’s not going to come at an exorbitant cost – certainly nothing like the seven-year, $155MM contract the Yankees originally gave him. Other free agents who should be affordably priced include Jake Odorizzi, Charlie Morton, Corey Kluber, ex-Yankees farmhand Jose Quintana, Garrett Richards and Adam Wainwright, to name some familiar names. And the Yankees could explore trades for one of their former pitchers, the Rangers’ Lance Lynn, or the Pirates’ Joe Musgrove.
Considering the spending power the Yankees have typically shown off, perhaps you can’t rule them out for the No. 1 free agent available, NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. Of course, that would require the franchise to hand out yet another massive financial guarantee. Notably, Bauer and Cole – who were teammates at UCLA – have not gotten along in the past. Bauer did, however, tell reporters this week that there is no feud with Cole (via Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media).
“I have nothing wrong with Gerrit,” Bauer said. “We had our differences in college and that was nine or 10 years ago at this point. I’m a different person now than I was then. I’m sure the same is true for him.”
Regardless of whether it’s Bauer or someone else, it seems probable the Yankees will sign or trade for at least one starter this winter. General manager Brian Cashman could also make an addition(s) to their bullpen, which wasn’t the lights-out unit the Yankees expected. They already retained Zack Britton, so he’ll be a key late-game piece again. Closer Aroldis Chapman isn’t leaving, while Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa should also be back. The Yankees would probably like to move on from the last year and $9MM of Adam Ottavino’s contract after a rough 2020, but it would be difficult to find a trade partner right now. If no team wanted Brad Hand for $10MM, why would anyone take on Ottavino at $9MM?
Hand is now looking for a job – as are several other well-known relievers – but that depends on if the Yankees are interested in throwing money around on bullpen upgrades. They could at least take a fairly low-priced gamble on someone like Greg Holland, Kirby Yates, Jake McGee, Joakim Soria or ex-Yankees Mark Melancon and Shane Greene. The top of the market includes Hand, Liam Hendriks, Blake Treinen, Trevor May and Trevor Rosenthal. Let’s not forget that the Yankees pursued superb Brewers reliever Josh Hader last winter. Maybe they’ll circle back there this offseason, though Hader would cost a significant amount in a trade package.
It was no surprise that the Yankees reeled in Cole, last year’s best free agent, an offseason ago. However, because of the economic issues the league is currently facing, this looks as if it will be a much less predictable offseason for the Yankees and just about every other team. If the Yankees actually are going to slash payroll, though, it could be a winter of discontent for their fans.