Brian Cashman | Photo Credit: AP News
After a disappointing season that saw them fall far short of lofty expectations, changes are coming for the Yankees. While their window for contention is certainly still open, the team has holes at first base, shortstop, and in the outfield. These holes will have to be filled either by re-signing players or by dipping into a loaded free-agent pool. Of course, the actions of the front office may be influenced in unexpected ways by the outcome of the current lockout and the MLB/MLBPA debate over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but we’ll assume for the sake of this preview that any changes won’t be so drastic as to completely reshape the way teams operate.
With all of this in mind, let’s go through the offseason decisions facing the Yankees’ front office and how each is likely to shake out.
Extending Aaron Judge, who will be a free agent after the 2022 season, should be the Yankees’ top offseason priority. Judge played like a top-5 player in the American League last season, finishing a well-deserved fourth in MVP voting, but given the 3-year stretch (2018-2020) during which he never played in more than 112 games, it’s easy to view his incredible 2017 rookie year as a statistical anomaly.
Yet even if he never again reaches those heights—54 home runs, 114 RBI and a whopping 8.0 Baseball Reference WAR—he is still an elite player in every sense of the word. For each 162 games Judge has played in his career, he has averaged 45 homers, 104 RBI and 102 walks, which works out to a 7.2 WAR. He’s also an excellent defender, a perennial Gold Glove finalist in right field who showed this season that his defensive instincts and cannon arm make him serviceable in center field as well.
What would a long-term extension look like for Judge? For the Yankees, answering that question requires balancing his incredible talent with his age (30) and injury history. A good comparison might be the contract the Blue Jays gave George Springer before the 2021 season—six years, $150 million. Both Springer and Judge are 30-year-old outfielders with incredible talent, and while Judge is arguably the better player, Springer hasn’t been quite as injury-prone. One could argue that Judge is worth even more than six years, $150 million to the Yankees—he is a clubhouse leader as well as their most popular player—and yet, all reports indicate that the front office has yet to approach him about a new contract.
While the hold-up on the front office’s part is baffling, I still think an extension for Judge is inevitable, if for no other reason than the fact that the fanbase would be up in arms were he to depart. Still, the Yankees’ reluctance to lock him up early, along with their recent dedication to stay under the luxury tax threshold, are signs of a shift from the money-printing days when Hal’s father George ruled the roost.
Torres’ offensive potential is undeniable and he’s still just 24 years old, but his power has evaporated over the past two seasons. On top of that, he’s a defensive liability at shortstop, and placing him at second base, where he played better both offensively and defensively, means moving D.J. LeMahieu to third or first. Neither are natural positions for LeMahieu, and third in particular may not be an option for long as his body continues to age.
Moving on from Torres is a move the Yankees could very well regret later, and given he looked a bit more like his old self in September, they might try to ride LeMahieu at third for as long as possible. Ultimately, though, Torres’ future is at least partially tied to whether or not the Yankees add another infielder to the mix by spending big on one of the elite free-agent shortstops. Speaking of…
Who Plays Shortstop?
If the Yankees decide to save the big money for pitching (more on that later), they have the option of going with recently re-signed Gio Urshela as their starting shortstop next season. Defensively, Urshela was serviceable at short, but he’s a better third baseman by far, and the precipitous drop in his 2021 offensive numbers is concerning. With Corey Seager and Marcus Semien now off the market, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story are the most interesting names remaining should the Yankees seek a long-term replacement.
Correa is the better player, but signing him would be swallowing a bitter pill given his part in the sign-stealing practices that helped the Astros eliminate the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS. Story, on the other hand, would certainly come cheaper, but signing him would mean adding another homer-and-strikeout guy to a team that already ranked sixth-worst in strikeouts per game last season. There’s also the possibility that the Yankees go for a cheaper shortstop—such as Andrelton Simmons or Jonathan Villar—as a stopgap solution, as the team has two intriguing young shortstops, Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, in the pipeline. Both are top prospects for a reason, and Volpe in particular looks like a future All-Star. But given the state of the Yankees’ roster, they should be all-in on contending for a World Series title in 2022, and neither Volpe nor Peraza is likely to contribute at the Major League level this year.
In the past, I would have put the Yankees down as a lock to sign Correa or Story, but the team has been surprisingly conservative this offseason. I still think they’ll make a play for one of the two, and they certainly should, but don’t be too shocked if they sign a stopgap and wait for Volpe and/or Peraza to ascend to the Majors.
Even if the Yankees want to re-sign Luke Voit, who spent most of 2021 injured, he may be sick of the team after they benched him for most of August and September in favor of Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo, meanwhile, offers similar offensive value along with far superior defense, and he has expressed his desire to continue playing in New York. Re-signing him would give the team a solid, reasonably-priced first baseman, which might be a very attractive option given the potential for big spending elsewhere.
If the Yankees decide to invest more heavily in the position, however, there are two superstars to keep an eye on. One is Freddie Freeman, who has yet to sign a new contract with the Braves on the heels of their championship season. Freeman would be exorbitantly expensive, but he is one of the best first basemen in the game and could easily hit 40-plus homers as a power lefty in Yankee Stadium.
The other top option on the market is Oakland’s Matt Olson, another lefty with prodigious power. The A’s are rumored to be shopping Olson around, but they are asking for a huge return, which for the Yankees might mean parting with at least one of Jasson Dominguez, Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza. Whether Olson is even an option will depend on the team’s willingness to trade away one of their top prospects.
The Yankees likely have four rotation spots set for next season with Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery and Nestor Cortes Jr. The fifth spot, however, is wide open, and Severino hasn’t even started a game since 2019. Most of the best pitchers on the market have already signed, but there are still several attractive options left, including Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Danny Duffy and Yusei Kikuchi.
None of these four are younger than 30 and there’s certainly some injury risk with this group, but all of them would represent an upgrade over the Yankees’ current options. These other options include Jameson Taillon, who performed very well in 2021 after a rough start, and Domingo German, who has flashed the potential to be a solid 4th or 5th starter. They also have several young pitchers with plenty of upside, including Luis Gil, Clarke Schmidt and Albert Abreu, but all of them are relatively untested and Schmidt is coming off a season lost to injury.
Ultimately, expect the Yankees to sign at least one free-agent starter, even if it’s a cheaper option whose name isn’t listed above. As the Yankees have learned after three straight injury-plagued seasons, you can never have too much pitching.
The clearest conclusion that can be drawn from the Yankees’ offseason thus far is that the open-checkbook days of George Steinbrenner’s reign are over. We’ve seen signs of this for the past several seasons, but it is now clearer than ever that Hal is a different kind of owner, one who prioritizes analytics, player development, and luxury-tax compliance over reckless, win-now spending. While there are certainly merits to each philosophy (and New Yorkers, by and large, prefer the latter) the fact remains that these aren’t your granddad’s Yankees.
Given Hal’s cautious approach, what the team does after the lockout ends may depend on what changes, if any, MLB and the MLBPA decide on. Regardless, I expect the Yankees to spend big on at least one free agent but probably not more than two, with the remaining roster holes filled by cheap stopgaps or internal promotions. For the Yankees’ impatient, championship-starved fans, anything more than that should be viewed as icing on the cake.