The Yankees used the winter to re-sign an American League MVP finalist and gamble on a pair of former high-end starters returning to form.
Major League Signings
- DJ LeMahieu, 2B: Six years, $90MM
- Corey Kluber, RHP: One year, $11MM
- Brett Gardner, OF: Two years, $5.15MM (second season is a player option)
- Justin Wilson, LHP: Two years, $5.15MM (second season is a player option)
- Darren O’Day, RHP: Two years, $3.15MMM (second season is a player option)
- Total spend: $114.45MM
Trades and Claims
- Traded RHPs Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, INF Maikol Escotto and OF Canaan Smith to the Pirates for RHP Jameson Taillon
- Traded RHPs Adam Ottavino and Frank German to the Red Sox for cash or a player to be named later
- Traded LHP James Reeves to the Padres for OF Greg Allen (Allen was later outrighted to Triple-A)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Jay Bruce, Robinson Chirinos, Adam Warren, Derek Dietrich, Nick Goody, Jhoulys Chacin, Kyle Barraclough, Asher Wojciechowski, Tyler Lyons, Socrates Brito, Nestor Cortes Jr., Andrew Velazquez, Matt Bowman
- Adam Ottavino, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, James Paxton, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Holder, Ben Heller, Erik Kratz
The biggest question the Yankees faced entering the offseason was whether they would bring back second baseman DJ LeMahieu, who thrived in their uniform from 2019-20 after they signed the ex-Cub and Rockie to a two-year, $24MM contract. LeMahieu turned into one of baseball’s premier players during that two-season stretch, even earning MVP consideration last year, so it was naturally going to cost the Yankees much more this time to keep him in the fold.
Thanks to shortstop Gleyber Torres’ ability to play both middle infield positions, the Yankees could have let LeMahieu walk and seriously pursued a trade for Francisco Lindor or Trevor Story or dipped into free agency for old friend Didi Gregorius, Marcus Semien or Andrelton Simmons. Otherwise, they may have left Torres at short and signed, say, second baseman Kolten Wong, though their offense would have taken a major hit in that tradeoff.
LeMahieu garnered serious interest from multiple teams in free agency after rejecting the Yankees’ $18.9MM qualifying offer, but remaining in the Bronx was always his preference. After a drawn-out trip to the open market, the two sides came together on a six-year, $90MM pact. Six years is an especially long deal for a player who will turn 33 in July, but the Yankees made that commitment in an effort to lower the average annual value and skirt the luxury-tax threshold.
Staying under this year’s $210MM tax seemed to be an important offseason theme for the Yankees (whether that should be a concern for such a rich franchise is up for debate), as they didn’t give out any other big guarantees in free agency, instead structuring various deals to lower the AAVs of the contracts. Outfielder Brett Gardner, the Yankees’ longest-tenured player, and relievers Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson are prime examples; they inked pacts which include cheap 2022 player options that they’re unlikely to exercise barring nightmarish results in 2021.
Gardner and Wilson will both earn $2.85MM in 2021 before deciding on player options valued at just $2.3MM. Should they decline that player option, the Yankees would then hold $7.15MM club options over the pair — each with a $1.15MM buyout. Exercising the player option for either player would only mean guaranteeing an additional $1.15MM for himself. In Wilson’s case, that would trigger a third-year club option at the league minimum, making it even less appealing to exercise his player option for 2022. As for O’Day, his $1.4MM player option comes with a $700K buyout even if he declines, so there’s little reason for him to pick up his end of the deal. It’s a complicated series of accounting measures, but the end result was adding three solid veterans while remaining about $3.5MM shy of the luxury threshold.
O’Day and Wilson should help replace Adam Ottavino, who departed in a rare trade with the archrival Red Sox that saved the Yankees more than $8MM (another move driven by the luxury tax). New York’s bullpen figures to be strong yet again, although key setup man Zack Britton is off to an inauspicious start in 2021. The team will go without him for as many as three to four months because of arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. The Yankees kicked off their winter by exercising Britton’s 2022 option for $14MM. Had they declined it, he could have opted for free agency this past offseason.
The Yankees’ starting staff underwent quite a bit of retooling, meanwhile, as mainstay Masahiro Tanaka went back to Japan, J.A. Happ signed with the Twins, and James Paxton reunited with the Mariners. Paxton and Happ were expected to leave, but it was somewhat surprising the Yankees made little effort to retain Tanaka, a quality regular-season performer from 2014-20 who earned a reputation as a big-game pitcher during his run with the club.
Instead of re-signing Tanaka, the Yankees took chances on two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in free agency and ex-Pirate Jameson Taillon in a trade. The two hurlers are intriguing additions because of their potential, but they’re also wild cards. Kluber’s an ex-Indians workhorse, but the soon-to-be 35-year-old missed most of 2019 with a fractured forearm, and enemy offenses had their way with him during that 35 2/3-inning campaign. As a member of the Rangers last season, he made his first start of the season, lasted one inning and didn’t pitch again on account of shoulder problems. Taillon, 29, produced mid-rotation numbers with the Pirates from 2016-19, but he underwent Tommy John surgery – the second of his career – in the last of those years and didn’t take the mound last season.
Kluber and Taillon are sure bets to begin the year in the Yankees’ rotation, as is ace Gerrit Cole. But Cole seems like the only lead-pipe lock to succeed. As for the rest of the group, Domingo German missed last year because of a domestic violence suspension; Jordan Montgomery endured a trying 2020 in his return from a TJ procedure; Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt (who’s down with an elbow injury) and Michael King carry little major league experience; and former No. 1 Luis Severino sat out almost all of the previous two seasons because of shoulder problems and Tommy John. Severino could come back this summer, but it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll give the Yankees. All things considered, it’s a risky bunch behind Cole.
Fortunately for the Yankees, if their rotation doesn’t live up to the front office’s expectations, the lineup still carries the ability to overwhelm opposing pitching staffs. Sluggers Aaron Judge (right field) and Giancarlo Stanton (designated hitter) missed a large amount of action with various injuries during the previous couple years, but they remain imposing threats at the plate. Elsewhere, LeMahieu and Torres make for one of the top offensive middle infield tandems in the sport; Gardner’s a capable fourth outfielder at the very least; first baseman Luke Voit led the majors in home runs last season; third baseman Gio Urshela carried his 2019 breakout into 2020; left fielder Clint Frazier finally broke out offensively in 2020; and center fielder Aaron Hicks, despite annual low batting averages and some past injury issues, has typically given the Yankees above-average production.
If you’re looking for question marks unrelated to injuries in the Yankees’ offense, catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielder Mike Tauchman come to mind. Sanchez has been inconsistent – sometimes tremendous, sometimes terrible – and was both a non-tender and trade candidate after a disastrous 2020. The Yankees ultimately kept Sanchez around for a $6.35MM salary, though they did explore possible upgrades in free agency when they showed interest in James McCann and Yadier Molina in free agency. Looking into McCann and Molina implies that Sanchez could be skating on thin ice with the organization. For now, he and and backup Kyle Higashioka – Cole’s personal catcher late in the season – remain intact as New York’s top two backstops, but veteran Robinson Chirinos is also in camp.
Tauchman was a great find for the Yankees when they acquired him from the Rockies heading into 2019, as he slashed .277/.361/.504 with 13 homers and accumulated a whopping 18 Defensive Runs Saved among all three outfield positions in 87 games. Tauchman was nowhere near that effective as either a hitter or defender last year, though. Now, with Gardner returning as the primary backup, Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich in camp, and no minor league options left, it’s possible the Yankees will deal Tauchman in the coming weeks if they don’t think he’s worthy of a roster spot. Former Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar also finds himself without an obvious path to regular at-bats, although unlike Tauchman, he has a minor league option remaining, so there’s no immediate need to make a tough decision on the 26-year-old.
Longtime general manager Brian Cashman looks as if he has put together another playoff-caliber roster. The Yankees appear likely to once again pile up plenty of runs in 2021, but whether they’ll be able to jump over the reigning AL East champion Rays, fend off the rapidly improving Blue Jays and then win their first World Series since 2009 will depend largely on how well their high-risk rotation performs.
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