Yankees' Fate in 2021 Is Tied to Four Key Decisions

New York needs to shuffle its roster a bit heading into next season.
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One year after signing Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract, the Yankees are still chasing their first World Series since 2009. They fell short again, losing to the Rays in the American League Division Series.

The Yankees are one of the best teams in baseball, but many of their shortcomings over the last few years remain despite the addition of Cole. There are four key decisions for the Yankees to make in the coming weeks and months. Let’s explore each of them:

Re-Sign DJ LeMahieu

LeMahieu has been the Yankees’ best and most versatile player over the last two years. In that span, he's slashed .336/.386/.536 with 36 homers and a 145 OPS+. He’s also been their most durable player; his 195 games played are the most for anyone on their injury-ridden roster. In 2020, he posted career bests in just about every relevant offensive category. That is far more than the Yankees could’ve expected when they signed him for two years and $24 million to be a utility infielder.

DJ LeMahieu runs the bases

So it’s no wonder he declined the $18.9 million qualifying offer. He’s worth far more than that on the open market, even with the uncertainty of this winter. The Yankees want to re-sign LeMahieu, and he has said he wants to return. The big question is whether they can work something out—his market value is three years, $68.5 million, per Spotrac—or if other interested teams will make him a better offer. The Mets, Blue Jays and Nationals are reportedly among the other teams pursuing LeMahieu.

Gleyber Torres’s future as a shortstop also must be considered. His -4 outs above average ranked third worst among qualified shortstops last season, according to Statcast. The Yankees may choose to move Torres back to second base and look to sign or trade for a shortstop. Didi Gregorius, New York's shortstop from 2015-19, and defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons would be two interesting targets in free agency. The Yankees could also look to trade for Francisco Lindor, who is entering the final year of his contract with Cleveland and headlines a loaded class of free-agent shortstops next offseason. All of these options likely will hinge on whether LeMahieu re-signs.

Figure Out Gary Sánchez

They’ve tendered him a contract. Now what? I have long been in the camp of Sánchez supporters. He was dreadful last year, but he’s far from the only good player to have a career-worst campaign in 2020. He continues to hit the ball extremely hard—he ranked in the 97th percentile in barrel percentage and 92nd percentage in hard-hit percentage last season, per Statcast. Catchers with power are rare, and the Yankees know this; it’s why they remain committed to Sánchez.

He did show improvements last season behind the plate, but Sánchez is never going to be a good defensive catcher—with the exception of his elite throwing arm. Make no mistake, his glove only becomes a problem when he struggles on offense. When he produces at the plate, the Yankees are willing to tolerate his below-average defense. Strikeouts are Sánchez's biggest issue. He set career highs in strikeout rate (36%) and swing-and-miss rate (34%) last season.

Last month, The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler and Eno Sarris wrote an excellent deep dive into what’s gone wrong for Sánchez. Their diagnosis is somewhat concerning, though there isn’t much the Yankees can do other than stick with him. Sánchez lost his starting job to Kyle Higashioka in the postseason, but we still don’t know if Higashioka is a viable everyday option for a full season. With both of them on the roster, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees will sign a catcher this offseason, though the idea of Yadier Molina playing with and mentoring Sánchez, as well as managing their pitching staff, is intriguing.

Gerrit Cole pitching

Upgrade Starting Pitching

Starting pitching remains the thinnest position for the Yankees, even after signing Cole last winter. Free agents J.A. Happ and James Paxton almost certainly will not be back next season, and they could lose Masahiro Tanaka in free agency as well. This is how FanGraphs’s Roster Resource projects their rotation to look on opening day next season if they do not make any external moves:

1. Gerrit Cole

2. Jordan Montgomery

3. Deivi Garcia

4. Michael King

5. Domingo Germán

So, uh, not great. Luis Severino should be back sometime next season after having Tommy John surgery at the end of February, but even if he returns early in the year, this is not a World Series-caliber staff.

Trevor Bauer is the obvious target for the Yankees, and they surely have the financial resources to get him—no matter what new Mets owner Steve Cohen says. But, there are other more affordable options. Re-signing Tanaka seems like a solid start. He’s comfortable in the Bronx and he’s beloved in the clubhouse.

From there, the Yankees could trade for Lance Lynn, who is entering the final year of his contract with the Rangers. Over the last two seasons, Lynn has more WAR (9.8) than any pitcher other than Jacob deGrom (10.2), and no pitcher in that span has made more starts (46) and recorded more innings (292 1/3) than Lynn.

Add Depth

Injuries have been a problem for the Yankees the last two seasons. There are a few moves they could make to bolster their depth for when some of their regulars get hurt in 2021.

Two affordable infield options are Joe Panik and Hanser Alberto, who was non-tendered by the Orioles Wednesday night. Both Panik and Alberto are high-contact hitters and could be nice compliments to a powerful, strikeout-prone roster. Tommy La Stella and Cesar Hernandez are also viable options, though they will be more expensive and will probably sign somewhere they can be an everyday player.

The Yankees could re-sign Brett Gardner to be their fourth outfielder. He’s spent his whole career in the Bronx and does want to return. The Cubs non-tendered lefty power hitter Kyle Schwarber, though he’s limited defensively to left field and designated hitter. The Yankees could keep with their recent trend of adding former Rockies hitters and sign former All-Star David Dahl, who was non-tendered by Colorado and will be 27 next season. There are options out there, and New York needs to pounce on them.