Another poor offseason breeds familiar uncertainty for the Yankees
The accoutrements of spring are timelessly evocative. The slap of baseball on leather. The chirp of giddy hitters around the batting cage. A ballpark vendor hawking peanuts from afar. We need these treats just now. They are therapy for our weary souls. Yet, for jaded fans of the New York Yankees, spring brings another familiar phenomenon each year: wincing dissatisfaction, born of the team’s parsimonious paranoia. Once again, as Opening Day rounds into view, we are left pondering whether Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner did enough to make this good team great. And once again, I’m afraid the answer may be no.
For a fifth straight year, and a sixth year in seven, the Yankees arrived in Florida for spring training licking their wounds from bygone failures. In 2020, the Tampa Bay Rays ended the Yankees’ season prematurely – just as Houston did in 2019, 2017 and 2015, and just as Boston did in 2018. Many familiar faces have returned, one year closer to the sunset, and the window keeps shrinking. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman. Will they ever cross the Rubicon in pinstripes, delivering a long-awaited title? Only time will tell, but the lengthening odds are a decent bellwether.
New York Yankees 2020-2021 offseason review
As repeated ad nauseam, this Yankees generation is defined by thrift, efficiency, nimbleness and marginal gains. However, as we have seen, that has so far resulted in a slew of failed Octobers comprising a 12-season championship drought. In Yankeeland, that is an existential crisis, their worst run for two generations. Yet remarkably, despite such persistently dissatisfying results, there is no sign of change in ethos or approach, as evidenced by another underwhelming winter. We are expected to accept the banal status quo, because god forbid the richest team in professional sports has to pay a cent in luxury tax contributions while improving its roster. Apparently, that is the gravest concern.
Heading into the offseason, the Yankees had several clear needs. Another frontline starter to help Cole was sorely needed. Likewise, their bullpen was shaky in 2020, and the team lacked a killer instinct. A defensive upgrade at catcher was of paramount importance, while the team’s lack of left-handed contact hitting has bordered on preposterous for too long.
Far from setting the league alight, New York ranked tenth in win percentage during the pandemic-shortened season, and nagging questions needed to be addressed if any realistic hope of improvement was to flourish. The Yankees failed to adequately fill those gaps and assuage those concerns, however, casting a clichéd pall of mildly irritating uncertainty over another fragile team.
Inside the Yankees’ luxury tax paranoia
New York did bring back DJ LeMahieu, hitting savant and dirt dog grinder, but the player made that happen more than the team, it would appear. DJ signed a 6-year, $90 million contract, which – at just $15 million per season – represents a heavy discount for the Yankees. In terms of average annual value, LeMahieu is probably worth close to double that figure, and his passion to remain in pinstripes is commendable. It is redolent of a bygone age, when Yankee mystique spoke louder than cold hard cash, and I salute LeMahieu for his baseball romanticism.
Alas, management did little to supplement LeMahieu’s commitment with even incremental upgrades. Unlike previous winters, reinforcements were available, too, and that makes the Yankees’ profligacy all the more bewildering. Take the starting pitching market, for instance. I’m not a huge Trevor Bauer fan, and the Dodgers paying him $40 million per season is absurd. Still, some appealing arms were eminently gettable, but Cashman – obeying austerity orders from above – refused to pull the trigger. Taijuan Walker would have fit the Yankees’ modernisation project, for example, but he signed with the crosstown Mets. Chris Archer might have been a nice addition, but he joined the division rival Rays. Even low-risk, high-reward gambles such as Julio Teherán interested me, but the Yankees looked elsewhere, shopping in the more banal – yet no less risky – aisle of bygone aces.
To that end, two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber was signed to a one-year, $11 million pact, rather incongruously, despite pitching just 36.2 innings in the past two seasons due to shoulder and arm injuries, respectively. Kluber is 34 years old, and way past his best. Sure, under the aegis of pitching guru Matt Blake, the Yankees fancy their chances of revitalising Kluber, who was once a phenomenal pitcher, but this stinks of another transaction that came four years too late – a Steinbrenner speciality, it would seem.
Sayonara, Masahiro! Why did the Yankees ditch Tanaka?
While some fans are happy with the move, Kluber is unlikely to be the bonafide number two starter Aaron Boone so desperately craves. Moreover, rather than adding such a piece in pursuit of the upgrades that win championships, the Yankees subtracted from an already thin rotation. Masahiro Tanaka, the team’s de facto ace for the past seven years, was snubbed at the age of 32, deemed too much of a health risk to warrant an extension. Tanaka returned to Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, who will pay him $8.3 million per year – a bargain in this financial environment.
Masahiro Tanaka was a great Yankee. Statistically, he started 173 games for the organisation and won 78. Tethered to such longevity, a career ERA of 3.74 is very good, while Tanaka’s 1.130 lifetime WHIP is positively brilliant. Yet, on an intangible level, he also acted like a Yankee, carrying himself with classy decorum. He also started for the Bombers at London's Olympic Stadium in the first baseball game I ever attended, creating a special sanctuary in my heart. I was mesmerised watching Tanaka warm-up in the bullpen prior to that game, and such memories will never be extinguished.
While he is no longer a bonafide ace, and while he has thrown a lot of innings during his career, Tanaka was a reliable bulwark of the Yankees’ pitching staff. Delving beyond recency bias, he was useful in the postseason, too, and that high-level experience will be sorely missed. In short, letting such a fine pitcher walk away with gas in the tank is borderline illogical. George Steinbrenner would have flipped.
“The moment I became a free agent, truthfully, my desire was to re-sign with the Yankees and continue playing for them,” Tanaka told Japanese reporters upon returning home. “But at a very early stage, I heard from them through my agent and felt it would be better if I considered other options, including a return to Japan.” Masahiro never entertained offers from any other major league team. For him, it was pinstripes or sayonara, and his love of New York was apparently unrequited.
According to industry whispers, the Yankees were afraid of Tanaka’s historic workload, viewing his 32-year old arm as that of somebody considerably older. Like most Japanese pitchers, Tanaka did pitch an awful lot of innings as an amateur and emerging professional, and that likely contributed to the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, which has been an issue for a number of seasons. Tanaka has avoided surgery thus far, but perhaps the team knows something we do not about his health. Nevertheless, citing such concerns as rationale for releasing Tanaka jar with the explanations given for signing Kluber, and this lack of consistency drives Yankees fans nuts.
Adding to the confusion, Cashman went out and traded for Jameson Taillon, hoping to stabilise a starting rotation of Cole and a bunch of question marks. Once a promising prospect with Pittsburgh, Taillon is recovering from two Tommy John surgeries. Sure, he is an interesting pickup at 29 years old, but the guy has not thrown a major league pitch for 22 months. Moreover, he has not pitched effectively in the big leagues since 2018, when he posted a 3.20 ERA and 1.178 WHIP for the Pirates. Once again, then, relying on such an unknown quantity to bolster a deflated pitching corps is philosophically opposed to cutting Tanaka free. Some things just do not add up in the Yankee Universe, and the act is becoming wearisome.
How much revenue did the Yankees lose in 2020? How much money has MLB lost due to Covid-19? And why is Hal Steinbrenner so reluctant to spend money?
Digging a little deeper, though, the above statement is only correct if we assume the Yankees’ philosophy is to win at all costs, an ethos authored by George and passed down through the generations. In this regard, fielding a championship-calibre team may remain a pleasant ambition of the Yankees’, but it is no longer their driving mission. You see, dear readers, their overarching objective is to remain competitive without breeching the luxury tax threshold and triggering associated penalty payments. If only they gave rings to the most cost-efficient also-ran - the Yankees would be undisputed champions.
Perhaps the clearest example of this penny-pinching approach came when the Yankees traded Adam Ottavino, an effective reliever in a down-trending bullpen, to the Boston Red Sox, of all teams. Even worse, New York received a player to be named later and cash considerations from Beantown. In essence, Cashman was forced to dump Ottavino and his $9 million salary to stay under the $210 million payroll cap. Maybe they should move the team to Milwaukee, because such moves are befitting a small market enterprise, not a team in pursuit of eternal glory.
Admittedly, these are uncertain times for Major League Baseball, which lost $3 billion in revenues throughout 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Yankees reportedly lost north of $100 million themselves in that timeframe, reaffirming Hal’s spendthrift inclination. During the winter, Cashman chopped $50 million from his big league payroll, keeping New York under the aforementioned penalty threshold. To some, that may seem sensible, especially given the current economic climate. Yet these are still the New York Yankees, damnit, with a brand that virtually prints money. As fans, we just want to see a little more of that wealth pumped back into the roster.
How will the Yankees perform in 2021? Preview, projections and predictions
Contrary to those wishes, after signing LeMahieu, Cashman shopped around for bargains and stopgaps while seeking to diversify his offensive lineup. Rather than add a proven winner like Yadier Molina, or bring aboard a versatile lefty hitter such as Kolten Wong, Joe Panik, Didi Gregorius, Joc Pederson or even Brock Holt, the Yankees brought back Brett Gardner at the eleventh hour. Oh, they invited Jay Bruce to spring training, too, but – again – that would have been more exciting in 2017 than it is today.
Therefore, the Yankees approach Opening Day 2021 with much the same roster as last year, albeit with a few new faces rotating into the predictably vapid character slots. The lineup will still feature just one left-handed hitter most days, as Judge, Stanton, Gary Sánchez and Luke Voit attempt to bludgeon the ball to death. The rotation will still feel like a giant missed opportunity whenever Cole does not have the ball. And the bullpen will still flatter to deceive, mixing high-octane gas with a propensity to self-destruct when it matters most.
In truth, the Yankees have come a long way since the strained dénouement of Joe Girardi. The hybrid rebuild of 2015 and 2016 served its purpose – making the Yankees younger and putting them back in contention. However, this team seems incapable of taking that next step and blowing the doors off the American League pennant race. It may eventually run out of time without ever fulfilling its potential.
I do not want to be too negative about this team, however. I love the Yankees, and they have a good ballclub. Fangraphs has them projected to win more games in 2021 than any team other than the Dodgers, and I’m thrilled that baseball season is upon us again, bringing fresh optimism and fond memories. There is more excitement this year, in contrast to the farcical episodes of last spring, when labour strife tore the game apart. I need baseball in my life right now, and Opening Day cannot come soon enough.
In search of further positivity, the Yankees may look at their depth as a potential difference maker in this 162-game marathon. Most teams seem to be hoarding pitchers this year, cognisant that returning to a full season will likely cause more injuries and performance problems than usual. Cashman and Boone have plenty of options in this regard, with Domingo Germán, Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt vying for time in the big league rotation. One-time ace Luis Severino is also slated to return from Tommy John Surgery around midseason, providing another wildcard that may work out well.
Of course, there is one delightful scenario where everything clicks for the New York Yankees in 2021. Kluber is reborn thanks to kinesiology and biomechanics. Taillon is healthy and productive. Judge and Stanton stay on the field. Gleyber Torres and Sánchez rebound. Yet, unfortunately, all of those things are unlikely to happen simultaneously. And, sadly, some of them will reside in the same alternate universe where Carlos Beltran hit 40 home runs in 2015; where Mark Teixeira was not made of ice; and where Jacoby Ellsbury is still the starting centre fielder. Shoulda, woulda, coulda is the slogan of this Yankee age, and 2021 may follow a similar path.
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- Déjà vu all over again as Yankees lose 2020 ALDS to Tampa Bay Rays
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- How Brian Cashman turned mud into gold during the Yankees' rebuild
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Ryan Ferguson is the author of Conflict: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the War for My Heart, available now in paperback and Kindle formats through Amazon. Click the link below to get your copy now!