5 Moves Yankees Must Consider to Remain Kings of NYC, Reach 2021 World Series
The biggest dilemma the New York Yankees face this winter is whether to surrender once and for all to Billy Beane's postseason doctrine: It's a crapshoot. That would be no small concession from a franchise that inherited George Steinbrenner's opposing win-or-else edict. But times have changed, and so has the booming voice from the front office.
Unlike his father, Hal Steinbrenner's response to the Yankees' 11-year championship drought has been button-down and bottom-line driven. Every year the memory of The Boss' 96-point tabloid headlines seem hazier and less relevant. Yet the YES Network ratings are healthy. Attendance figures ranked among the American League's best before the pandemic. And you can count on seeing the Yankees in the playoffs just about every October.
If you're a Beane disciple, that's good enough: construct a playoff-caliber roster and hope for the best. Being injury-free and having a little momentum can't hurt, but otherwise, even the best lineups are subject to the sport's random outcomes.
That all makes sense, except that in New York, 2009 seems like another lifetime. Steinbrenner tried to channel the ghost of the old Boss last offseason by signing a $324 million check for Gerrit Cole. But even that didn't help. The Yankees flamed out in the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays and then watched with envy as the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first Word Series since 1988.
Does that mean the Yankees are due in 2021? It depends on how much Steinbrenner is willing to invest. He may or may not feel pressure from Steve Cohen, who's set to take over as New York Mets' owner with a $14 billion portfolio. That would make him the wealthiest man in the industry and a secondary threat to the Yankees.
Cohen has the money and motivation to prop up the Mets, which might influence Steinbrenner's business plan. The Yankees have enjoyed nearly 20 years of financial domination over the Wilpon family, but that will change starting this week with Cohen officially approved by MLB's other owners.
That could be the starter's gun on the courtship of, say, Trevor Bauer, the market's most coveted free-agent pitcher. The Yankees appear torn over the right-hander, in part because Steinbrenner is deciding whether to cut payroll. And the free agent's long-running feud with Cole may also be a factor, even though Bauer says the two have made peace.
But there are other options for the Yankees if they want to A) upgrade the roster one more time and B) retain their status as the Big Apple's No. 1 team.
Here are a few ways Steinbrenner can go, without necessarily doing the full George transformation.
Sign Free-Agent SP Marcus Stroman Away from Mets
The ever-blunt Marcus Stroman didn't endear himself to the Yankees with his recent critique of their starting rotation. It wasn't particularly well-researched, either, considering the right-hander forgot to mention Luis Severino and had to send a follow-up tweet. But he was nevertheless right about the absence of backup for Cole.
Masahiro Tanaka's seven-year run in the Bronx might be over, as the right-hander is set to hit free agency. He's been a reliable No. 2 man throughout, but his performance in the 2020 postseason (12.38 ERA in two starts) suggests it could be time to move on. Severino has the talent to ride shotgun with Cole, but he won't return from Tommy John surgery until midsummer. With James Paxton and J.A. Happ all but certain to leave as free agents, Stroman looks to be a fit.
He's AL East-tested from his days with the Toronto Blue Jays and grew up in Long Island. This loud, overheated market won't bother him.
Stroman pitched reasonably well during his brief stint with the Mets. He was especially effective down the stretch in 2019, winning three out of his last four decisions with a 2.91 ERA. Stroman didn’t quite match his best year (2017 with Toronto) but he was close enough for the Mets to think big going into 2020. Unfortunately, the right-hander suffered a torn calf muscle in July and then opted out for the rest of the season a few weeks later.
The Mets extended a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer to him on Sunday. If he declines as expected, he'll be tied to draft pick compensation.
Sign Free-Agent C J.T. Realmuto
Unless you think Gary Sanchez can rebound from a massive slump that has lasted a year-and-a-half, J.T. Realmuto would be the perfect upgrade at catcher. He's 29 (30 in March) and would arrive with none of Sanchez's flaws.
For one, Realmuto is a Gold Glove winner (2019), which stands in contrast to the 27-year-old Sanchez, who's led the majors in passed balls three of the last four years. The two are bona fide home run hitters, although Realmuto hasn't suffered through the peaks and valleys that've been the signature of Sanchez's career.
So what's not to like? The price tag, for one: Realmuto is believed to be looking for a deal in the $200 million range. That's enough to end the conversation with the Yankees before it even starts.
The second hurdle is his age. One club source said that while Realmuto certainly isn't old, "he's not a kid anymore, either." The Yankees are more inclined to make long-term commitments to players in their mid-20s.
Truth is, Realmuto would have to be overwhelmed to play in New York. He's reportedly interested in returning to the Philadelphia Phillies, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Jim Salisbury, and needs crazy money on the table to even open a dialogue with the Yankees or Mets.
Trade for Pirates SP Joe Musgrove
Joe Musgrove is a realistic option for general manager Brian Cashman, especially if the latter is forced to shimmy under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold. Musgrove, the Pittsburgh Pirates' sought-after right-hander, could fit neatly in the middle of the Yankees rotation if they can make the right swap.
The Bombers will have competition, though, considering the 27-year-old Musgrove was nearly dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays last August. Other clubs will be circling back this winter, as well, and don't discount the possibility of the Pirates snuffing out this scenario altogether by extending Musgrove's modest contract. He's due to make $3.75 million next year—pennies in Yankees currency—and is under club control through 2022.
That's why the Bombers would be tempted to move, say, Miguel Andujar for him. They know Musgrove's ability to pitch to contact would play well at the Stadium. His ground-ball rate reached a career-high 48.4 percent last season, thanks to a killer slider that's supplanted the four-seam fastball as his best weapon.
The only downside? Musgrove threw just 39.2 innings in 2020 thanks to a triceps injury in August. And the Pirates might be gun-shy about dealing yet another young hurler, having been scorched by sending Tyler Glasnow to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018. But that won't stop the Yankees from trying.
Take a Run at Indians SS Francisco Lindor
This would be another George-era move, since Cleveland Indians All-Star Francisco Lindor would cost the Yankees plenty in terms of prospects. But what a glitzy addition he would be.
Lindor is precisely the shortstop the Yankees were hoping Gleyber Torres would become but so far hasn't. Both are legitimate offensive threats, but one is the more athletic defender. We're talking about Lindor, of course, who's already won two Gold Gloves—and he's only 26.
Acquiring Lindor would allow the 23-year-old Torres to slide over to second base, where he'd be more comfortable. That would relocate DJ LeMahieu to first base (assuming the club re-signs him), and, yes, force the Yankees to deal home run champion Luke Voit. He might be part of the price tag to tempt the Indians, who won't be able to afford Lindor as a free agent after the '21 season. The Yankees will be one of a half-dozen teams looking to leverage Cleveland GM Mike Chernoff.
Actually, it's the Indians who'd have the advantage in these talks. They'd force the Bombers to pay heavily for this trade—think: Voit and/or Deivi Garcia and Andujar—which is why Cashman would require a window to negotiate a long-term deal with Lindor. The other possibility is to sign former Yankee Didi Gregorius, who'll be testing the market after signing a one-year deal with the Phillies last season.
Gregorius is still popular among the loyalists in New York. And he would cost less than Lindor. But this topic brings the conversational road back to its origin. Does Hal Steinbrenner want to pay up or not?
Trade RP Adam Ottavino
We've flipped though the Rolodex of moves Steinbrenner can approve from outside the organization. But here's one he must green-light internally: shed Adam Ottavino.
There's a sizable swath of Yankees fans who want to blow up the bullpen corps altogether, and that includes Aroldis Chapman. We get the ire: the closer has surrendered season-ending home runs in back-to-back years. But remember that A) Chapman is being held to a near-impossible standard as Mariano Rivera's de facto successor and B) he was being asked for a seven-out save in Game 5 of the AL Division Series when Mike Brosseau took him deep.
And that's where Ottavino enters the picture. He was seemingly no longer trusted by manager Aaron Boone, having lost the feel for his Frisbee-like slider. In that five-game war with Tampa Bay, Ottavino pitched exactly two-thirds of an inning.
Had he been a viable option, Ottavino could've been the bridge between Gerrit Cole and the back end of the Yankees bullpen. Instead, Boone had to go to Zach Britton in the sixth inning and then Chapman in the seventh. And look what happened.
The Yankees would have to make a sacrifice to move the 35-year-old Ottavino, specifically agreeing to eat a portion of the $9 million he's owed in 2021. But that could be the only way out, as the club has lost patience with Ottavino's inability to hold runners on (base stealers were 4-for-4 against him this year; 15-of-16 in 2019), and he suffered through struggles against left-handed hitters (.294 batting average allowed).
Ottavino was counted on to pick up the slack once Tommy Kahnle underwent reconstructive surgery on his elbow in August. But like so many other Yankees plans, this one never panned out. Now it's time for a makeover in the Bronx. The only question is how much it will cost.
Dealing Ottavino won’t be easy, not if the Yankees are looking for a quality return. His age and salary aside, the reliever now has a reputation for under-achievement in the postseason (career 7.04 ERA). The Bombers would be happy with a hard-throwing prospect they can develop. Conversely, the biggest favor they can do for Ottavino is to send him to a non-contender, where his nerves won’t get in the way of his respectable breaking pitches.