After two months of inactivity, the Yankees made their first two major moves of the offseason. First they re-signed infielder DJ LeMahieu, their most valuable player over the past two years, to a six-year, $90 million deal. Hours later, they added veteran righthander Corey Kluber to slot behind Gerrit Cole in their rotation.
The easy, superficial assumption every year is the Yankees will simply outspend the competition to address their needs. It’s even more tempting to latch onto such a narrative this winter, as most clubs are tightening their belts in response to the fallen revenues of pandemic baseball.
Sure, they addressed their two most pressing concerns when they brought back LeMahieu, a two-time batting champion, and signed Kluber, a two-time Cy Young award winner. But why stop there?
Trevor Bauer, the current NL Cy Young winner with a Big Apple–sized personality, remains on the open market and the Yankees surely could use another starting pitcher. J.T. Realmuto also is still a free agent. Signing the best catcher in baseball sure would put an end to the Ballad of Gary Sánchez. Two of baseball’s most powerful hitters—Marcell Ozuna and Nelson Cruz—and smoothest defenders—Kolten Wong and Andrelton Simmons—are also there for the taking. No price is too high for the mighty Yanks to sign top free agents, right?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Together, LeMahieu and Kluber will make $26 million next season, bringing the Yankees within $5 million of the $210 million luxury tax threshold. Any deal for one of the top free agents would cost at least $5 million and result in a tax levied against them for whatever they spend that exceeds the threshold. Because the Yankees went over the threshold in each of the last two seasons, they’d face a 50% penalty.
Starting pitching remains New York’s biggest concern, even after signing Kluber. As it currently stands, the Yankees’ opening-day rotation will look something like this:
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP
2. Corey Kluber, RHP
3. Jordan Montgomery, LHP
4. Deivi García, RHP
5. Domingo Germán, RHP
This is a volatile group beyond Cole. Kluber, who will be 35 in April, was one of baseball’s best pitchers from 2014 to '18, but a series of injuries limited him to just 36 2/3 innings over the past two years. The Yankees were impressed with what they saw in an open workout Kluber had last week for his potential suitors. If healthy, he could be a bargain at $11 million. Montgomery, García and Germán—the latter of whom served a season-long suspension for domestic violence last year—are talented, though relatively inexperienced, starters who have all had previous success in the majors. But, after the shortest season in history, the Yankees are taking a huge gamble in relying on so many young pitchers to get through a full season. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote last week, “The physical risk is most acute for young pitchers who have not packed on enough innings.”
So, even after adding Kluber, the Yankees would be smart to sign a low-cost, veteran starting pitcher. Jon Lester’s $5 million deal with the Nationals is a good barometer for which pitchers could be available in New York’s price range. Lester, 37, is one of the most consistent starting pitchers of the last 15 years, but looking at his declining fastball velocity, it’s clear he’s not what he once was. If Lester got $5 million in free agency, perhaps Cole Hamels or Rich Hill could fall within the Yankees’ price range. Unlike Lester, a workhorse who started at least 31 games per season from 2008 to '19 and didn’t miss a start in 2020, Hamels, 37, has struggled with injuries over the last few years. Hill will be 41 in March, but he has pitched well as he’s aged, even if he no longer can make every start.
J.A. Happ, 38, was actually New York’s second-best starting pitcher last season (behind Cole), and Wednesday he signed with the Twins for one year and $8 million. It seemed unlikely the Yankees would re-sign Happ after the acrimonious ending to their relationship, but his signing is also a good indication of what the Yankees could do to stock up their rotation.
Before the Kluber signing, it would have made sense for the Yankees to re-sign Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka is remarkably consistent, really good in the postseason (3.33 ERA in 10 starts) and beloved in the clubhouse. But, for these reasons and others, to sign Tanaka it would probably take more than the $5 million the Yankees can spend before reaching the luxury tax threshold. His projected market value, per Spotrac, is $16.6 million per year for two seasons. It's also possible that Tanaka returns to play in Japan, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman. Perhaps the Yankees could find a way to sign Tanaka for that amount over three years to deflate the average annual value of the deal.
There is also a third man who pitched for the Yankees last season to consider. Like Orson Welles in the 1949 classic The Third Man, James Paxton is very much alive despite his absence. He, too, should yield more than the Yankees can afford if they plan on staying below the CBT. But, he is coming off a slew of injuries in 2020—back surgery in February, flexor strain in August—and it could make sense for him to take a low-cost, incentive-based deal to prove he’s healthy and boost his value on the open market in either ‘22 or ‘23. Paxton, 32, is the same age as José Quintana, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Angels this week after an injury-filled season. Paxton’s projected market value is one-year, $12.1 million, according to Spotrac. Would Paxton consider a deal for two years and $12 million ($4 million in ’21, $8 million in ’22, so they can stay beneath the threshold this year), which could increase to, say, $15 million with incentives? If so, the Yankees should be interested.
The Yankees could look to cut costs by trading Adam Ottavino, who is owed $9 million in 2021, the final year of his contract. The problem is Ottavino is coming off a dreadful year (5.89 ERA), and the Yankees likely would have to absorb some of his remaining salary and throw in a prospect or two to make a deal work. It might not be worth it to free up a few extra millions just to spend more in free agency.
And then there are the Luis Castillo-Yankees trade rumors, which manifested seemingly out of nowhere this weekend on social media. Reds general manager Nick Krall called the rumors “completely false” in a text to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon Sunday night.
Still, trading prospects for a controllable and affordable starting pitcher could make sense for the Yankees. Castillo will make $4.2 million this season, just cheap enough to keep New York below the tax threshold. Affordable starters on non-contending teams include, among others: Colorado’s Antonio Senzatela ($3 million); Pittsburgh’s Jameson Taillon ($2.25 million) and Chad Kuhl ($2.13 million); Arizona’s Merrill Kelly ($4.25 million), Luke Weaver ($1.95 million) and Caleb Smith ($1.465 million).
The Yankees certainly do not have to add another starting pitcher to be a playoff team in 2021. Luis Severino is expected to be back sometime during the season after having Tommy John surgery last February. If all goes well, a rotation led by Cole, Kluber and Severino could be among the best in the league. Should they need reinforcements, the Yankees could also turn to young arms Clarke Schmidt, Michael King and Nick Nelson.
Then again, despite all these decent (if underwhelming) options to improve the rotation, the Yankees could just resort to their bats bullying their way into the playoffs. To those thumpers anyway, pitching is overrated.