During the press conference announcing the return of Aaron Boone as manager, Yankees GM Brian Cashman offered some insight into the club’s offseason plans. Cashman was open with regard to the Yankees’ needs, telling reporters he’ll need to offer Boone more flexibility in lineup construction (Twitter links via The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler).
Most notably, the GM addressed the club’s need at shortstop directly and candidly, stating that “[s]hortstop is an area of need. We have to address it.” With one of the most highly regarded classes of shortstops in free agent history about to hit the market, the big-market, big-spending Yankees are a near certainty to feature prominently in the offseason rumor mill.
As MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand and ESPN’s Marly Rivera further noted, Cashman broke several pieces of news on the injury front: starter Jameson Taillon will undergo ankle surgery on October 28 and is expected to be out for five months. DJ LeMahieu, who underperformed expectations after a stellar 2020, has had a procedure to address a sports hernia that will keep him out roughly eight weeks. Cashman also noted that outfielder Aaron Hicks, out since a May wrist surgery, should be ready to resume baseball activities by December and hopes to play winter ball. Assuming all goes to plan, LeMahieu’s surgery shouldn’t have an impact on his availability to start the 2022 season, but Taillon’s timetable suggests he’ll only be ready to return to game action around the end of Spring Training, putting his availability for the Opening Day roster in question.
While Cashman suggested that he hopes to add more athleticism and contact skills to a lineup that had the sixth highest K% (24.5%) in the majors in 2021, Yankees fans have already begun to salivate over the forthcoming free agent market. All three of Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, and Trevor Story would bring a significant potential for star-level production to the Bronx — as might Marcus Semien or the enigmatic Javier Baez, potentially — and each would offer a significant defensive upgrade over incumbent Gleyber Torres.
Any from that group could represent an upgrade on both sides for the Bombers, but how Cashman views them remains to be seen. Though none are poor with the glove, Correa and Story (who have compiled 68 and 69 career DRS at short, respectively) have been a cut above the others. Correa will be 27 next season, giving him an edge in the age department, although Seager isn’t far behind as he heads into his age-28 campaign. Both Story and Baez will play next year at 29, while Semien — who played second base in Toronto this season but has a long track record at shortstop — will play next season at 31.
Though the Yankees are regularly players at the top of the free agent market, payroll implications may also play into their approach, as might the particulars of the forthcoming collective bargaining agreement (presuming, of course, that one is forthcoming). The club’s payroll came in just below the luxury tax threshold of $210MM in 2021, which may allow them to pay a lower rate should they become tax-payers again in 2022, but the only significant salary to come off the books is Corey Kluber’s ($11MM in 2021).
With a number of players set for significant raises in arbitration (most prominently Aaron Judge, though both club and player may prefer to reach an extension agreement), there’s not likely to be much room below the tax threshold for splashy free agent signings. Owner Hal Steinbrenner has not declared any plans to cross the threshold, but the club probably dipped below in 2021 for a reason. Paired with Cashman’s assertion that the Yankees will be “open to anything and everything” (Twitter link via SNY’s Andy Martino), the stage is at least ostensibly set for an active winter.
Following a season that saw them settle for a wild card spot and get bounced from the playoffs by the rival Red Sox, Cashman’s mixed tone is no surprise. Per Rivera, the longstanding GM described the 2021 Yanks remarkable inconsistency, stating that while they were at times “unstoppable,” they were at others “unwatchable.” As MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch relays, Cashman addressed fan disappointment directly with the “obvious” admonition that “we want more. We expect more.”
Injuries clearly played a role, but poor performance also loomed large. Among players with more than 100 plate appearances, only Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit, and Anthony Rizzo (acquired from the Cubs at the deadline) posted a wRC+ over 100 while wearing pinstripes. The club’s pitching fared somewhat better but was also bitten by the injury bug, with only Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and Taillon notching 20 or more starts and potential high-end righty Luis Severino logging only six innings across four appearances as he made his way back from February 2020 Tommy John surgery. With Kluber out and Taillon a question mark, the club will likely look to dip into the pitching market for at least a depth piece or two.
How, exactly, Cashman will address these shortcomings remains an open question, but he did offer some insight into other offseason plans in the Bronx, including making clear that the club views Torres as a second baseman moving forward and is not entirely committed to Gary Sánchez as its everyday catcher.
Both players were disappointments in 2021. Torres posted a .259/.331/.366 line (down from career marks of .271/.340/.493 entering the year) and was eventually moved from shortstop to second basse. Sánchez regained some of the pop (23 home runs in 440 plate appearances) he’d shown from 2016-2019 alongside a career-high 52 walks but continued to struggle overall; he posted only a .307 OBP driven by a dismal .204 batting average and 27.5 K%. By DRS, both players also struggled with the glove, with Torres costing the Yankees nine runs in the field and Sánchez ten (while throwing out only 17% of would-be base-stealers).
With Torres permanently moving to the keystone and Rizzo’s future uncertain, LeMahieu will likely serve as the Yankees’ primary third baseman in 2022, perhaps sharing time there with Gio Urshela as well as Voit at first — assuming Voit is back in the next year. With the Yankees looking to add a shortstop to the mix, they’ll be left with four regulars (LeMahieu, Urshela, Voit, and Torres) for the other three infield spots. As none of this group has any significant experience in the outfield, a healthy roster might leave Boone facing something of a logjam for at-bats.
With Severino expected to offer quite a bit more on the mound in 2022, better health from Hicks and Voit and bounceback years from LeMahieu and Torres could already go a long way toward righting the ship for a club used to contending for titles year after year. Addressing their need at shortstop with a high-end signing that improves the team on both sides of the ball may go even further.