Were the Yankees a success or a failure in 2019?
I love these types of questions because there isn't a right or wrong answer from a fan's perspective. Some fans feel that only a title is enough to satisfy what they crave. Other fans look at the entire journey to decide whether or not the season was fulfilling or not. As a Yankees fan for a long time, I have always told people that one of my favorite seasons was all the way back in 1993. The Yankees won nothing that season, but there was an energy about that club that can't be accurately described. The Yankees were just starting to get their footing back after years of terrible baseball and the fact that they hung with the big, bad Blue Jays into September was a treat to watch.
Nowadays, success is measured more in how the team does in the postseason, and I get that. This Yankees team is built to win now. They have a core in place that is capable of winning a World Series.
It should be noted that nothing is guaranteed in baseball. No move you make will guarantee a World Series. You may not love to hear this, but there is a randomness to postseason baseball that is built into the equation of who wins and who loses. However, there are always things you can do to reduce the effects of randomness. If you had a chance to win $1,000,000 by simply picking a number, would you rather pick a number between 1 and 100 or a number between 1 and 75? That is a rather simple example to a more complex problem: How do you shape a baseball team to reduce randomness? Is there a surefire way?
That is what I had to think about as I was typing up this year's plan. There are many variables in place, including a luxury tax that the Yankees will consider as they make their moves. You may agree with that (or not), but it is the reality. If your opinion is "sign everyone!", good for you – but it isn't reality because we know the chances of Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, AND Anthony Rendon playing for the Yankees in 2020 is much lower than the chances that one of them will…and I think the odds that one of them will is rather low to start.
I did read the Hal Steinbrenner article today and I don't have any major reaction to it. He has always been guarded in his quotes and I don't think there is much to read into. Saying that he is confident in Jordan Montgomery isn't saying that he is unwilling to upgrade the rotation because of Montgomery's presence. Don't try to read too much between the lines when it comes to "owner speak". He is not going to come out and say "We want an ace, and will do anything in our power to secure one!" What owner in any business says things like that?
1. Sign Gerrit Cole
Simple, right? I can save myself thousands of words just by typing "Sign Gerrit Cole" and hitting the "Publish" button. Cole is the type of pitcher you throw at the top of the rotation and tell most of your bullpen to take the night off. He pushes every other pitcher down a spot in the pecking order, meaning you now have Luis Severino as a #2 starter and James Paxton as a #3. Those are three top-flight power arms at the top of the Yankees rotation, with Masahiro Tanaka settled in nicely as one of the game's best #4 starters.
Cole is going to be very costly both in years and dollars. You may be able to lower his AAV slightly by spreading out the money over more years. You can throw in an opt-out clause after Year X. There are things you can do to potentially reduce risk in the long-term, but is Cole even worth getting fancy with? If he wants an opt-out, give it to him. It doesn't matter, as the Yankees are built to win soon. If he can potentially opt-out after Year 3, who cares? You hope to win a World Series within that three-year timeframe anyway.
Do I think the Yankees will actually sign him? I am in the middle on this one. I still firmly believe that the Yankees are willing to hand out big contracts to any player as long as they think it makes sense. While you can see their argument as to why Manny Machado and Bryce Harper wouldn't have made sense, it is harder to find a good argument to not make a serious run at Cole. They might get outbid. They might find that Cole takes a little less to go to California (for the record, I don't believe the mantra since Cole is from California that means he wants to pitch in California) or even stay in Houston. Those are things that are hard to control. The thing the Yankees can control is their own bid, and it should be an aggressive one.
The other option for an ace signing would be Strasburg, who is coming off of a postseason where he was a top cog in the Nationals' run to a title. I would prefer to nab Cole, though Strasburg is hardly a bad second choice. Strasburg has a more consistent overall career than Cole and sports a 1.46 ERA in 55.1 career postseason innings. I think from this point forward, Cole is the safer value. He is younger and his injury history isn't as scary. However, if you prefer Strasburg, I can't argue against it. Both work at the top of any rotation.
2. How about secondary options?
Failing Cole or Strasburg, there are some cheaper alternatives on the market. Here is how I would rank them.
1. Zack Wheeler, Mets – Wheeler scares the heck out of me, given both his history of injuries and inconsistent results. For all the talent he has, his career ERA+ sits at an even 100. However, there has always been one way to reduce randomness in the postseason: Power pitchers. Wheeler's strikeout totals also don't overwhelm you (in the modern game at least), but there is a power profile here, and with the Yankees looking for a new-school pitching coach, it is possible that Wheeler would become his first client. The cost? His relative youth tells you he should get a decent long-term deal, but his injury history probably reduces his earning power. He is a fascinating fallback plan to the top two pitchers because a healthy Wheeler has the stuff to join them in the top tier of MLB pitchers. He has done that in spurts but has yet to figure out how to do it consistently.
2. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers – If Wheeler scares me, Ryu must make me feel as if I am going to have a heart attack. Ryu comes with extensive health risk and is older than Wheeler, making you question just how much more he has in the tank. The positive news? When Ryu pitches, he can still be dominant. Also, Ryu's age and injury history likely mean a shorter commitment. I just don't see the power profile here that I would want in a potential postseason starter and even if he won't cost much in years, I tend to think he will cost a lot in AAV, which is a very important number for the Yankees.
3. Madison Bumgarner, Giants – Bumgarner's biggest strength heading into 2020 is his ability to limit walks, which allows him to be a modern-day bulldog type of starter. He also still missed his share of bats in 2019 as well, but it is hard to envision him as a true power pitcher. His big weakness? A surge in his flyball rate. His ground ball rate fell nearly seven percentage points to 35.8% while his flyball rate of 41.6% was nearly three points higher than his career rate. His soft contact rate was was low while his hard contact rate was high. These aren't trends that look good on any pitcher's profile, and when you factor in what Bumgarner's asking price may be, you come to the conclusion that you aren't going to get much value here, even if he is effective. You are paying for a big-name innings eater.
4. Jake Odorizzi, Twins – I would never have thought that Odorizzi would be on a target list, but his big jump in strikeout rate suddenly puts him on the radar. Odorizzi is a bit of a "give us what you can for as long as you can" type of pitcher nowadays, which makes having a strong bullpen imperative for him to be valuable. For the Yankees, investing in Odorizzi and nobody else doesn't make much sense to me, but if his strikeout rate spike is real, they can do worse at the bottom of their rotation.
5. The "Field" – Nobody else would even be high on my list. I don't see value in a Cole Hamels for the Yankees, as one example. Dallas Keuchel? I was lukewarm on him for a half-season deal, nevermind a longer commitment.
Bottom Line: In the secondary free-agent market, I think there is a big gap between Wheeler and the rest of the field just based on what I want the Yankees to target. Coming into this offseason, I was lukewarm initially on targeting Wheeler. However, there is no denying that a healthy Wheeler is a pitcher who can dominate a lineup. In the end, I would be disappointed in missing out on Cole or Strasburg while having some guarded optimism with Wheeler if that is the direction the Yankees went in.
3. The Yankees' Free Agents
The first order of business, in my opinion, is trying to get Dellin Betances re-signed. The caveat with Betances is that nobody in baseball knows him better than the Yankees. The Yankees know what is going on medically and if they feel a Betances decline is coming, they may just let him walk. The encouraging sign with Betances is that you received a (brief) glimpse of how he may be able to still be a strong reliever even with reduced velocity. Can the Yankees get him on a one-year deal with some sort of second-year option?
Austin Romine has been a good enough backup. He isn't nearly as good as some make him out to be, but for a big-league backup catcher, he is probably better than average. He may try to parlay that reputation into a starting gig elsewhere, even if it is with a team that is a fringe contender or worse. The Yankees have Kyle Higashioka around (he is out of options, so the Yankees will no longer be able to hang onto both), and free agency offers some backup types as well. Imagine the Yankees signing Martin Maldonado to a deal in an effort to appease Cole, who used him as a personal catcher. That stuff rarely does anything to move the needle (remember all the stuff about the White Sox signing every associate of Manny Machado as their way to entice Machado to sign?), but the pitcher-catcher relationship can sometimes be a strong one and Maldanado's defensive reputation is likely justified. Jason Castro has pop in his bat and may entice the Yankees given that he hits left-handed. Castro may look for a starting gig somewhere, but he will also know that the Yankees are a contender with a catcher who misses time every season. There will be some playing time for him.
Aroldis Chapman watched the market for Craig Kimbrel unfold last winter and that has to scare him as he decides on whether or not to opt-out of his contract. Chapman may be a tough call for the Yankees if he does opt-out. The closer market this winter is not robust, and Brian Cashman has yet to show that he is willing to scale back on having a dominant bullpen. Personally, I would pass on Chapman and perhaps look at a potentially cheaper option like Will Smith, though he is coming off of a season that will increase his value. There will also be trade possibilities out there for the Yankees to explore, including Ken Giles (who the Yankees nearly traded for at the deadline), Brad Hand (who the Indians may look to deal in their quest to do one of their patented quick rebuilds), and Archie Bradley (also a trade deadline rumor). There is never a shortage of directions you can go in to build up a bullpen and the Yankees have always been good at figuring this part of their offseason out.
Brett Gardner may have been a toss-up until the injury to Aaron Hicks. That increases his value to the Yankees for 2020, as he will be safe and relatively cheap for them to retain. I am already hearing whispers about Japanese IF/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo amongst the Twitter community and rumor mills. He is the type of left-handed bat the Yankees would seemingly have interest in, but there are concerns over his ability to play the outfield. Unless you live under a rock, you already know that the Yankees have an offensive outfielder with defensive issues on their roster. Although he has also played third base, his profile screams 1B/DH, and don't the Yankees have 2,109 of those types as is?
Didi Gregorius is no longer going to be able to command a $100+ million deal (and if he CAN get that, it is an easy pass). I would slap a qualifying offer on him, as I think the Yankees would be fine with him accepting it and coming back for a year. If he declines, it is more complicated. On paper, the Yankees can definitely justify a pass. They can use budding star Gleyber Torres at shortstop, move DJ LeMahieu to a permanent spot at second base and fill in at first base with Luke Voit, Mike Ford, or even a returning Miguel Andujar. Andujar is also an option to try out in left field (it is worth trying to find a defensive position for Andujar, given his bat). The Yankees can try Tyler Wade or Thairo Estrada as the main backup in the infield. Personally, it would be sad to see Didi go, but if he doesn't accept the qualifying offer, I may just have to move on. The Yankees have the depth to cover for him.
Minor league deals are always possible for players like Cory Gearrin and David Hale, but neither is going to be signed to an MLB contract for next year. Cameron Maybin may have done enough with the Yankees to earn himself a shot at more playing time elsewhere. The Yankees like Erik Kratz and they can use the catching depth, so it is also possible they try to get him back on a minor-league deal if he wants to keep playing.
Bottom Line: Keep Betances and Gardner. Offer Didi a qualifying offer. Let Chapman walk if he opts out (attach a qualifying offer to him as well if he does). Don't worry much about what Romine wants to do.
4. Find a trade partner for J.A. Happ
Everyone loves team control. You hear it a lot in trade rumors nowadays – how many more years of control does the player have? In the case of Happ, his team control may actually hurt the Yankees' chances to trade him rather than help their chances.
If Happ had a straight contract with one more year left on it, I think it would be easier for the Yankees to deal him to a team willing to take him on for that year. However, he has a vesting option attached to his contract that is trigged by doing something he has consistently been able to do. It may be harder to convince a team to take on what could be two years of Happ.
It is hard to find a silver lining in Happ's 2019 season. He gave up a ton of home runs and never could find a consistent groove during the regular season. A pitcher who was in the discussion to start the winner-take-all Wild Card game in 2018 was not mentioned as an option for the 2019 playoff rotation, despite the Yankees' being thin in that area of the squad. They could bring him back and hope that he adjusts, but the signs show a rapidly declining pitcher who just may not have the ability to consistently get MLB hitters out.
Bottom Line: Don't expect much in exchange, regardless. Maybe you can attach him to a prospect to get something more significant back, but in a straight deal, you are just dumping money for what could be a lottery ticket. The idea of dealing Happ is also attached to signing a free agent pitcher. If the Yankees don't add to their rotation, it makes trading Happ more difficult. I am doing this under the assumption that they do add to the rotation, making a Happ deal more likely. Remember, teams like the Phillies had interest in him last winter. His 2019 season probably cooled off his market, but I can see where teams wouldn't mind throwing his durability at the bottom of a rotation.
5. Dump Domingo German
I admit it – I don't know the full story yet on Domingo German and I applaud MLB for keeping this investigation under wraps. However, I can also read between the lines: Nobody fought against German, who was a significant part of the 2019 pitching staff, being shut down for the playoffs due to the investigation. If this was something where MLB wasn't finding any credible evidence or the incident itself wasn't what it was rumored to be, you would think German would have been allowed to play. He wasn't, so I think it is safe to say there is a story that will be significant.
I get that there are some who can easily separate personal stuff from "on the field" stuff. If you are a Yankees fan, are you supposed to root against the Yankees nailing down a lead in the 9th because the closer has a domestic abuse suspension on his record? It's something we all wish we didn't need to have in the back of our minds.
By the way, I think there was a decent chance the Yankees were going to shop German this winter regardless of his suspension. That may be difficult to believe, but this would have been the offseason to cash in the chips if you didn't think he would be able to consistently repeat his performance.
Bottom Line: German will have value on the trade market and I suspect the Yankees will evaluate what type of market there is for him. I hope they do as I would rather him not be a member of the 2020 pitching staff. Sometimes, you are best off just removing the potential headache. I am going to leave him off my final roster below while recognizing that the Yankees may view this completely differently than I do.
6. There is no reason to go crazy with the offense
It is true that the offense failed after they were effective in winning their first four postseason games. However, the Yankees really do not have to go crazy with their offense. There shouldn't be any nuclear options on the table (I would not trade Gary Sanchez, for example). There could be room for a little tweaking, but with Andujar due back to provide another strong bat, there simply aren't any positions on the field where the Yankees should be looking to upgrade.
The most significant move I would make with the offense is trying to be creative with Miguel Andujar in an effort to find a position for him to play. I would personally try him out in the outfield, though an argument can also be made for trying him out at first base. Andujar, if given the time, has the ability to be a good outfielder. There would be some 2020 growing pains, but in my opinion, the Yankees need to do what they can to keep his bat in the lineup.
The biggest free-agent bat on the market is Rendon. Imagine a world where Andujar gets hurt and his replacements hit .220/.280/.350? That was a fear of Yankees' fans when Andujar went down, as their best replacement was Gio Urshela, who never showed much as a big-league bat prior to the season. If that happened, imagine the cries to sign Rendon to fix the third base problem. There are still reasons why the Yankees would be interested in the National League MVP candidate, but I am not sure if a big payout to a position player would be even remotely in their plans. If the Yankees aren't going to go nuclear this winter, they certainly will not spend the resources they do have on another bat.
While they may be in the market for at least catching depth (and at most a backup catcher), it is hard to see them playing around much in the position player market. If the scouts and analytics guys come to Brian Cashman with another LeMahieu-like guy, maybe they will try to get a bargain. I just don't see it as a priority.
Bottom Line: If the Yankees dabble in the market, it will be for pitchers – starters and maybe relievers. They will seek catching depth. They may sign a few veterans who slip through the cracks to minor league deals. Beyond that, don't expect much tweaking to the major league lineup or bench.
7. The Rule 5 Dilemma
The Yankees currently have 38 players on their 40-man roster (the 40-man roster currently includes Aroldis Chapman but does not include Austin Romine, Didi Gregorius or Brett Gardner). It also includes guys who are on the 60-day injured list as all of them have to now be placed on the 40-man roster.
The Yankees can open up further slots by designating players such as Tyler Lyons and Jake Barnett for assignment. Nestor Cortes Jr. probably should feel safe, either. It is always going to be painful that Jacoby Ellsbury is required to occupy a 40-man roster slot in the offseason, but at least this will be the last offseason where this is mandatory.
The Yankees are loaded with Rule 5 decisions and most of them revolve around their vast collection of pitching prospects. Pitchers you weren't worrying about much early in 2019 (ie, Luis Medina) made the type of strides that almost make them impossible to leave off the 40-man roster. Other pitchers like Miguel Yajure jumped out of the shadows to turn themselves into viable MLB prospects. Pitchers are easy enough for rebuilding/tanking teams to throw into their bullpen for a year in order to secure the talent.
Here is some of the depth they need to sort through: Medina, Yajure, Deivi Garcia, Nick Nelson, Alexander Vizcaino, Brooks Kriske, Freicer Perez, Jio Orozco, Luis Gil, Rony Garcia, James Reeves, and Trevor Lane. Kriske, Reeves, and Lane are reliever-only types who may have a higher probability of being chosen…but do not have the upside of some of the other arms. Perez is coming off of an injury and you would think he would be very safe to leave exposed. Rony Garcia doesn't have the pedigree of some of the others on this list, but did show flashes of having big-league potential in Double-A. I don't think they would protect him. Everyone else? They are all at risk of being taken away. The caveat about Rule 5 players has always been this: The Yankees talk to teams at the trade deadline. Those teams probably have asked the Yankees for some of the names above. That can easily dictate who they decide to protect: Based on the demand they are seeing first-hand in the market in addition to their own first-hand evaluations of said players. If I am the Yankees, I simply cannot leave pitchers like Deivi Garcia, Luis Medina, Alexander Vizcaino, Miguel Yajure, Nick Nelson, and Luis Gil exposed. However, that is SIX pitchers, which is almost impossible to pull off when you also have prospects like Estevan Florial, Kyle Holder and Chris Gittens to consider. Florial will obviously be on the protected list.
Luckily for the Yankees, there are teams out there who don't have the same type of 40-man crunch that they do, which opens up trade possibilities. If they let Chapman walk (for example), maybe they use a few of these Rule 5 players to acquire a relief pitcher. Maybe they try to secure a young starter to add to their mix. Cashman is also known for trading for prospects who are years away but also not yet Rule 5 eligible. There are moves they are likely to make to relieve the crunch while not risking losing some of these players for nothing. Teams who are interested in these players may be more interested in trading for them outright rather than have to wait for the Rule 5 draft and expose themselves to the "must stay on the roster all year" rule. There is also the danger of another team selecting a player you like before he drops down to you.
Teams are getting braver when it comes to securing Rule 5 talent. Nobody thought the Padres had a chance in heck of keeping a catcher like Luis Torrens around for a full season, but they did (much to the Yankees' chagrin), and he is now developing into a legit MLB catching "prospect" again (I put prospect in quotes because he isn't technically one anymore, given his big league service time).
Here is something else to consider: Most free agents are signing later nowadays. The Yankees could fill in these open 40-man roster spots with as many of these prospects as possible and sort out everything after they sign whichever free agents they are going to sign. The Yankees haven't had many seasons in recent memory where the 40-man roster crunch was a non-story. This winter, it is a fascinating story due to the number of talented arms they have to consider for the list.
Bottom Line: Without a doubt, Deivi Garcia and Estevan Florial are going to be protected if they aren't traded. Luis Gil is also a sure bet. Everyone else? There are going to be some major decisions made and I just wish the Yankees would let me listen in on the conference calls discussing all of them. I can see a lot of debate and back-and-forth on how this list is going to look and who they decide to shop around in deals to help ease the load.
The Rule 5 draft doesn't really amount to much pain in most years. Torrens? That is one that will always sting. However, the vast majority of players still do come back to your organization. The players who stick on rosters for a full season typically do not come back to haunt you. The Rule 5 Draft is often a thing of much discussion that doesn't turn into much substance. The best part of the Rule 5 draft for me is that we get a glimpse as to how the Yankees truly feel about the prospects who are eligible.
8. Any immediate help in the minors?
I am glad you asked. Mike King (who made a cameo late in the season) is probably ready to contribute at the big-league level. Cashman is already talking up Deivi Garcia as a possibility for 2020. Nelson was able to make it to Scranton, and his power stuff could make him a relief candidate rather quickly. Those are the three pitching names to watch in the spring at least. A live longshot could be Albert Abreu, who thus far has been more about the flash than the results. You never know when a pitcher like this will put things together (you never know IF they will put things together!) The group of Kriske, Reeves, and Lane can also be thrown into the mix if they survive the Rule 5 draft.
Beyond that, I love Clarke Schmidt, if he can simply stay healthy. He has all the makings of a good MLB starter with the potential to be more than good. He is not far from being a finished product and one can see him making his MLB debut in 2020. Yajure had a fantastic 2019 campaign and is moving quickly. It is not impossible to see him as a member of the staff at some point in 2020. His advantage over Schmidt is the 40-man roster crunch mentioned before: Yajure would need to be protected while Schmidt does not need to be protected. Trevor Stephan received some time in Trenton in 2019, so he will also be someone to watch as a potential big league option.
As for position players, they may lose Holder and/or Gittens. If they don't, Holder provides them with a big-time glove (and improving bat) for depth while Gittens gives them depth in a different way (as a power bat). Trey Amburgey, if he is around, has been solid enough to give you some corner outfield protection. Ben Ruta is further outfield depth, though he is also Rule 5 eligible. Isiah Gilliam had his struggles during his time in Trenton. Rashad Crawford is a speedy guy who can play center field but doesn't offer much with the bat. The Yankees could really use a breakout from Florial. If he was able to develop at a normal pace, he would already be in the discussion for the 2020 roster. As is, there are question marks hanging over him and you can't rely on him to be MLB depth, even if he will likely be on the 40-man roster.
Other than Florial (who has yet to break through), these aren't cream-of-the-crop positional prospects. The Yankees lack strong positional prospects in the upper minors, and that is scary if they continue to suffer significant injuries. Sanchez's injury history tells you that you need to have three MLB-caliber catchers hanging around. The Yankees do not have a catching prospect who is ready to serve as a third catcher in Scranton for the 2020 season. They will need to address that this winter.
Bottom Line: The Yankees' system is better set up to provide help to the big league club if there is a need for pitchers. Cashman may be on the lookout for another Mike Tauchman type of player this winter and into spring training to help them with positional depth.
Within the next few years, we have hope that some positional prospects will start to break through the Double-A barrier and become legitimate MLB options. That just won't likely be the case for most in 2020.
9. A Possible Look at the 2020 Yankees:
C – Gary Sanchez
C – Kyle Higashioka or Free Agent (Martin Maldonado? Jason Castro?)
1B – Luke Voit/Mike Ford
2B – DJ LeMahieu
SS – Gleyber Torres
3B – Gio Urshela
LF – Miguel Andujar
CF – Mike Tauchman
RF – Aaron Judge
DH – Giancarlo Stanton
IF – Tyler Wade
OF – Clint Frazier
OF – Brett Gardner
There is some potential flexibility here. That could also open up the possibility of passing on re-signing Gardner if they feel Tauchman's 2019 season was legit (he was slumping at the time of his injury). However, losing Gardner also means needing to look for someone else who can play center field. The scariest part of this alignment for me is the lack of coverage at third base – the Yankees wouldn't have much of a safety net if Urshela turns into a pumpkin. I don't think anyone wants to see Andujar at the position full-time anymore. First base would be a Voit/Ford battle – I would not currently have both making the squad. This gives an obvious advantage to Voit unless they try to get him included in a trade this offseason.
Frazier as a backup may not be ideal (especially in the alignment above, where I have six guys who can play the outfield on the roster with Wade as the lone backup infielder. The Yankees could instead go with Thairo Estrada for that bench role or look for a cheap veteran free agent like they did when they found Neil Walker), as you would likely want him to be in the lineup as much as possible. However, as we found out in 2019, there is always playing time to go around. On days that Frazier starts, you would likely have a strong glove on the bench who can come in late in the game for defensive purposes. Since you wouldn't glue Stanton to the DH role and throw away his glove, there can be opportunities for Frazier at designated hitter as well. I would still hesitate to trade him, despite his shortcomings.
RP – Will Smith
RP – Dellin Betances
RP – Zack Britton
RP – Tommy Kahnle
RP – Adam Ottavino
RP – Chad Green
RP – Luis Cessa
RP – Jonathan Loaisiga/Ben Heller/Jonathan Holder/Mike King/Whoever else you want to add to a competition for the last spot
This pitching staff is strong. You can see how much the equation changes just by putting Cole at top and knocking everyone else down a peg. That is what the Yankees should be trying to do for 2020 – grab a pitcher that moves your other good pitchers down one peg. It can make all the difference in the world.
My changes are not really drastic, beyond the signing of Cole and letting Chapman walk if he opts out. I don't mind the "spread the wealth" strategy but I am not sure if the Yankees need to spread the wealth this year. They have a core in place to win – they don't need quantity anymore. They need the highest quality. And the highest quality in this class is Cole. He is the ace they should have been waiting for to hit the market. Will they make a strong bid in order to get him? I certainly hope so.