The Yankees have been quiet since reeling in the offseason’s biggest fish and it is hard to blame them for that. They have placed an ace at the top of their rotation and likely feel that the current squad is World Series worthy and probably the World Series favorites. There aren’t many teams in the sport who have the same level of talent as the current Yankees’ squad.
That said, there are always areas where teams can look to improve, even if those areas are already considered strengths.
1. Should the Yankees look to add to their bullpen?
As it stands right now, their bullpen consists of Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, and Chad Green. That is a strong top five in the bullpen, with Luis Cessa still around to handle a workload in the middle innings. This would leave open a pair of slots with pitchers like Jonathan Loaisiga, Ben Heller, Stephen Tarpley, Jonathan Holder, Nick Nelson, and Brooks Kriske all in the conversation to fill them. The Yankees were also thinking of calling up Deivi Garcia for bullpen work in 2019 before he slumped upon hitting Scranton. He also can be in the mix along with Mike King, though he is best served as a starter in the minors than a reliever in the majors. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Luis Medina and his advanced stuff making a run at a bullpen spot sometime later in the season. I like letting pitchers like Medina develop at their own pace but if he comes out slinging in 2020 like he did as the season went along in 2019, he is going to start forcing the issue.
The Yankees are well-covered here, which is why I wouldn’t be going all-in on a big relief pitcher such as Josh Hader. Hader is an elite relief pitcher that can fit into anyone’s bullpen, but does the cost of securing the asset worth it, regardless of how talented that asset is? If the Yankees let Chapman walk after the 2019 season, I can see holding your nose and giving Milwaukee a good package for Hader. The Yankees did not move on from Chapman, however, and now you have to wonder just how many high-leverage innings will be available to satisfy everyone if Hader is acquired.
I have seen many fans proposing a deal that involves Miguel Andujar and I just don’t see it. I don’t see the Brewers accepting Andujar straight up. I don’t see the Yankees wanting to give up Andujar AND MORE for a relief pitcher. Has Andujar’s value dropped to the level of using him to acquire something that is more luxury than a necessity?
The Yankees were reportedly interested in Ken Giles in 2019 before his elbow injury. They could revisit a deal here, but you have the same issue of trying to use all these assets optimally. Most games don’t finish 4-3 with the need to use five relievers to get through the final four innings to secure the win.
Bottom Line: Let the young guys battle it out for the last bullpen slots. There will probably be a few pitchers lingering on the market who could come in on minor league deals to provide competition. If there is one thing that is in abundance when the trade deadline comes around, it is usually relief pitching. If guys like Heller aren’t cutting it or you have an injury to one of your top guys, trades will be there to be made. Those trades likely won’t come at an extreme cost. You may not get Hader-like performance from one of those trades, but the Yankees likely wouldn’t need that level of performance.
2. Should the Yankees look into left-handed bats?
The issue I have here is simple: Where exactly is this shiny left-handed bat going to play? I guess if the Yankees aren’t fond of Luke Voit and/or Mike Ford at first base that they could place a left-handed bat there. I guess they can use a left-handed bat at designated hitter, though the Yankees aren’t fond of using the designated hitter slot for one player. They could bring someone in to rotate around at 1B/DH/OF as well. The “26th man” rule in 2020 can allow teams to be more flexible with roster construction.
The biggest name you probably see being floated around is Kyle Schwarber, the burly left-handed slugger who has been linked to the Yankees going back to the days of the Aroldis Chapman trade. The Cubs love Schwarber, but with talk that the Cubs are starting to reshuffle their deck, a player like Schwarber could be available.
He would be a nice match to the Yankees lineup, as his OPS has risen in each of the last three seasons. This past season, he hit .250/.338/.531 in 610 plate appearances while playing left field for the Cubs. It might come as a surprise to many that Schwarber, who many see as a power-hitting outfield bat, never slugged over .500 before the 2019 season. If he is about to explode as he enters his age-27 season, he could make the Yankees lineup insane, regardless of how they decide to line players up on the field.
The cost to get Schwarber will be high. The Cubs will trade him for nothing less than a package of players that will help the team in the immediate future. Chicago may be looking to retool their roster, but in the National League Central, it doesn’t make much sense for them to completely tear things down to start over.
As for other names, there are a few intriguing bounceback candidates on the free-agent market, Scooter Gennett and switch-hitter Asdrubal Cabrera. Gennett is coming off of a down season and does not provide much positional flexibility, coming off of an injury-plagued season that likely contributed to his poor performance (he only played in 42 games for the Reds and Giants). Gennett doesn’t appear to be a huge fit if the Yankees plan on using DJ LeMahieu more at second base going forward. Cabrera, coming off of being a contributor to the 2019 Nationals’ World Series run, can play all-round the infield while providing average-ish production. The problem one may have with him is that he is not used to being a bench player, having played in at least 131 games per season going back to 2011. Would he even accept roving around the Yankees’ infield as a backup option?
Bottom Line: Last year, I wanted Bryce Harper because I thought he could balance out the Yankees’ right-handed lineup. I am not going as crazy this season over needing a left-handed bat. While it is hard to count on Brett Gardner continuing to beat Father Time and Mike Ford/Mike Tauchman being consistent MLB contributors, all of these players have the potential to provide some left-handed pop. I would be more interested in a left-handed bat than I am in trading big assets for relief pitching, but you don’t want to be shoving square pegs into round holes just for the sake of adding left-handed power. The longer players like Gennett linger on the market, the more likely they will come to you with little risk attached. The Yankees may be best off waiting out the market to see if anything comes to them. I love the idea of Schwarber, though I know that the cost will be extreme. One potential lineup with him in it:
I am not even including Miguel Andujar in this lineup – he could make it even more insane if he bounces back from his injury and can play different positions on the diamond. If Urshela reverts back to his pre-2019 ways, fans will be happy to have Andujar around even with his subpar defense at third base.
However, I think Schwarber is a pipe dream. The Yankees may try to buy low on a left-handed bat who can provide some bench depth, though they may be comfortable with Tauchman, Voit (or Ford), Wade, and Higashioka as their four bench players.
Just like with the bullpen, the Yankees have leverage. They don’t need to do a thing to own one of the deepest lineups in baseball.
3. Should they look for another starter?
As is stands now, the Yankees rotation sets up as Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ. They also have Domingo German coming back at some point after his suspension (if they hang on to him), a fully-healed Jordan Montgomery, and youngsters such as King and Garcia who will at least be at Triple-A. Clarke Schmidt, one of my favorite prospects at the moment, is not a 40-man roster guy but one can see him forcing the Yankees’ hand at some point during 2020.
The Yankees, just like everywhere else on the roster, have a lot of coverage on the mound. If they trade Happ, they lose the veteran depth. If Tanaka’s off-season surgery has any complications, that can also force them to quickly dig into their depth. Isn’t it amazing how quickly a deep pitching staff can become shallow?
The Yankees could turn their attention to Robbie Ray, who they were rumored to be after at the trade deadline. Ray is a power pitcher (the Yankees love that!) with command and control issues (nobody loves that) which leaves him sitting in that land of unfulfilled potential. As a pitcher you count on at the bottom of your rotation instead of the top, you can see the value. Given that he will be a free agent after 2020, the cost wouldn’t figure to be high. I would assume the Yankees would still have an interest. They could also dig into the veteran free-agent market to see if they can secure any buy-low candidates, such as Alex Wood. I am a proponent in pitching depth, especially starting pitching depth. It is why I feel hesitant about trading Happ, despite his subpar performance. He is still a durable innings-eating guy who isn’t making a crazy amount of money for a modern-day pitcher. If the Yankees can secure further pitching depth while trading Happ, that is fine. I just don’t trade him for the sake of trading him. His value is not zero.
Bottom Line: I don’t care if you have five stud pitchers with five stud prospects in Triple-A. You still may not have enough pitching depth (OK, this is an extreme example!) If you can continue to add to your depth, you do it. I think the Yankees are well-positioned as is. “As is” can change by the time March 10th comes around, nevermind July 15th.
4. Should they look for an upgrade over Kyle Higashioka?
Higashioka’s time has come and the organization has always loved him. He can hit left-handed pitching and can pop a home run against any pitcher. A backup catcher doesn’t need to do more than that. If a backup catcher has one solid offensive attribute, you are ahead of the game. For Higashioka, that attribute is hitting home runs.
Defensively, he has a solid reputation as a pitch framer and game caller. His metrics for pitch framing on StatCast are strong (even if the sample size is limited) and he has a solid pop time from behind the plate, though his arm is not one of his best qualities. Higashioka’s profile screams of having the potential to become one of baseball’s best backup catchers, so they may as well give it a try.
The problem is the depth underneath Higashioka. Josh Breaux and Anthony Seigler are nowhere near ready to be MLB catching depth. Catchers higher in the minors like Jason Lopez and Donny Sands haven’t even broken through Double-A yet, and they may just end up being organizational depth rather than MLB depth. The Yankees have some intriguing catchers in their system, but none of them are particularly close. As of this writing, the security blanket is Erik Kratz, who isn’t a terrible security blanket but you certainly want to add to that.
If Higashioka had options left, the easy route would be to find a veteran backup and let Higashioka play in Triple-A. However, he doesn’t have options left so he can no longer be the caddy. There was talk about Martin Maldonado until he signed back with the Astros but the only reason why his name even came up was that he caught a lot of Cole’s games down the stretch in 2019. Veterans remaining on the market include Russell Martin, Jason Castro, and Kevin Plawecki. I can see the Yankees having some interest, but they may also decide that the only thing that keeps Higashioka from being as good as some of these options is his inexperience.
Bottom Line: I don’t think the Yankees are driving themselves crazy looking for a backup catcher. They do need to add depth (would they consider John Ryan Murphy as a minor league option? Maybe. He hasn’t been particularly good since he left the Yankees, but I believe that there doesn’t exist a bad minor-league contract). While catchers are certainly not as easy to find on the trade market as relief pitchers are, the Yankees could probably find a veteran backup on the market during the season if Higashioka isn’t pulling his weight.
5. The bottom-bottom line
I don’t think the Yankees have to do much at all over the next few months. Cashman will continue to read the market for improvements that make sense cost-wise (both dollars and prospect value) but I think he is in such a strong position that he can play the entire market on his terms, which is an incredibly strong position to be in.
The Yankees are a World Series contender. There aren’t many LOGICAL moves to be made that will increase their percentage chance to win it all by an extreme number. Those types of players (Francisco Lindor, for example) just don’t appear to be coming to New York even if they are traded. This is about improving the roster around the edges, which is important but not season-altering. I expect another move or two before the Yankees enter spring training, but I would place the odds of a major move as “low.”