When the New York Yankees bounced out of the 2018 MLB playoffs to the Boston Red Sox, they went out with a whimper. To lose is one thing, to lose to your rivals is another, but to lose to your rivals in such a disappointing fashion and then sit at home, kissing your wounds while watching them coast to another championship – their second since your last.
The Red Sox, with rookie manager Alex Cora, stormed to the World Series and the Yankees, with their rookie manager Aaron Boone, were left looking back at their season and wondering where they could improve. How could you improve on a 100-win season (their first 100-win season since 2009) and a season where you broke the record of most home runs in a single season (267, beating the Seattle Mariners record of 264 in 1997)? Well, there clearly wasn’t much that you could do. Other than intangibles like mentality, being ready for every game and being ready to fight back if you ever fell behind, there wasn’t much that the Yankees could bring in to improve what was already at the club. Some fans weren’t happy with Boone’s performance as manager and whilst that’s an understandable complaint he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon… so what could they do?
The pitching was the major red flag and the Yankees, filled to the brim with cap room, managed to bring in James Paxton from the Mariners, Adam Ottavino from Colorado and Zach Britton stayed put along with J.A. Happ following their spell at the end of last season.
CC Sabathia resigned for what looks like to be one final season and all of a sudden, the Yankees have one of the best pitching staffs in the entire league. That was one red flag out of the way, and now all of a sudden the Yankees had eyes on the free agency market.
The 2018/2019 free agency was perhaps the best it’s been in recent memory and the Yankees had the room to make moves for one – maybe two if they were clever – stars to perhaps take them to the next level. First on the agenda was Manny Machado, the third baseman/shortstop from the LA Dodgers, soon followed by Bryce Harper, the most marketable man in the entire sport. And the Yankees were probably looking at them in this order. Machado had more value because if he came in as a third baseman he’d open up Miguel Andujar for a trade for a top-level starting pitcher but if he came in as a shortstop – his preferred position – he’d be able to fill in the gap vacated by the injured Didi Gregorius and wouldn’t affect the development of either Andujar or Gleyber Torres, the second baseman. Harper, on the other hand, would replace one of Aaron Hicks or Brett Gardner in the outfield to create perhaps the best outfield in all of baseball with Harper, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. The need for Harper wasn’t as big as the need for Machado, but the want was equal.
These two have been free agents since the winter and now, typing this at the beginning of February, they are still free agents. Each team that has been linked with Harper have signed a replacement (the Dodgers brought in A.J. Pollock instead of making a mega-money move) and as for the Yankees, they signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and second baseman and all-round utility player D.J. LeMahieu on a two year, $24M.
The latter of these two deals took the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold and seemingly ruled them out of play for either one of Machado or Harper, and while many will have you believe that free agency is broken because these two aren’t signed (free agency isn’t broken, club owners just do not want to spend outrageous amounts of money when a cheaper form of ‘winning’ has been showcased by the Cubs and Astros in recent years), it begs the question “why aren’t the Yankees making moves on these two?”
Now, I get why they aren’t. They aren’t because they don’t want to make the same mistakes they did with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira of signing stars to big money contracts that last about 10 years and cripple any development in the future. The Yankees have to remember that they still have to sign the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier to actual deals in the not so distant future and they have the biggest total-value deal in all of Major League Baseball in Stanton (13-years totalling $325M), so it makes sense not to go all out on the big names. But from a baseball point of view, it doesn’t.
The Yankees needed pitchers, so they got pitchers. The Yankees need infielders, so they got cheaper alternatives to the one star infielder in the free agency class of 2018/2019 who will be expecting a salary offer to match Stanton’s monster contract, at the very least. Do the Yankees need Manny Machado? Of course they do, everyone knows it especially Machado himself but are the Yankees, Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman willing to spend more money on a player that they’ll be tied down to for multiple years? Probably not.
The only way the Yankees would offer a contract to Harper or Machado is if they included an opt-out clause 3 or 4 years down the line and even then it’s a risk to bank your future on a star player deciding to up sticks and get out of dodge (presuming the plan of winning is working, why would they leave?). It might be the easiest “tough” dilemma that any MLB side has to face this offseason and yet it’s perfectly understandable to be on either side of the coin. It’s okay to think that in order to catch and defeat the Red Sox, the Yankees need to do exactly what the Red Sox did last free agency and spend big on a J.D. Martinez type of guy who will take you just that little bit further. At the same time, it’s okay to also point out that Martinez’s five-year, $110M contract has swiped the Red Sox’s legs from under them and they’re now desperate for a closer on the cheap. The Yankees solved their pitching issues early on in the offseason and it allowed them enough time to fully evaluate what they wanted to do with any cash they had left.
It’s okay to feel like the Steinbrenners are “too tight” (especially when you pay a league-high $95 a ticket at Yankee Stadium) and that they shouldn’t care about the luxury tax and they should be doing whatever they can to win just like George Steinbrenner did back in the day, but it’s also understandable to feel like the Steinbrenners are well within their right to keep their chequebook close to them and get ready to spend big on the young core they have in place now just like George did with Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in the 90s.
Ultimately it boils down to this; if the Yankees want to win now, they’ll completely blow away their future for one or two titles now. If they Yankees want to create a new ‘Core Four’ and save the money for when rookies contracts are up, they’ll pass on this free agency, gamble on this current side being good enough to win the World Series and build for the next 10 or so years. It’s simple enough, yet it’s not. It’s simple to see why the Yankees don’t want to splash the cash on Harper or Machado, yet it’s not. It’s a simple yet complicated situation that has divided everyone in the Yankees fanbase and they don’t look close to resolving anything soon. Can a deal be done? Of course… because you should always trust Brian Cashman.