In three weeks and six days Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa to begin Spring Training 2019. We are five weeks and two days away from the first Grapefruit League game. There are still a lot of free agents who have to sign between now and then — a lot of big name free agents, at that — but, soon enough, baseball will return. I can’t wait. I’m totally over the offseason.
The Yankees have, for the most part, handled all their offseason business. The rotation has been bolstered, Didi Gregorius has been replaced, and the bullpen has been shored up. There is always room for improvement, but, generally speaking, the Yankees are in good shape. FanGraphs currently projects them as the second best team in baseball, two games behind the Red Sox, and I’m not sweating a projected two-game difference in January.
Even with the roster largely set, there are still four weeks to go until camp opens, and that gives the Yankees some time to address any remaining items on their to-do list. It also gives them time to pounce on anything unexpected that comes their way. Here are six things the Yankees should look to get done before Spring Training (or shortly thereafter), in rough order of importance.
Monitor the Machado and Harper markets
Has to be done. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are still unsigned and it doesn’t seem like either player is particularly close to making a decision. As long as these two sit in free agency, the Yankees have to remain engaged in case something falls into their lap. Reports that the White Sox offered Machado seven years and $175M have been shot down several times over. Still, the offers can’t be that good if he and Harper are still unsigned.
If Machado and Harper continue to sit out on the market, I am confident Brian Cashman will lobby ownership to expand payroll and sign them, the same way he (successfully) lobbied for Mark Teixeira. Will ownership say yes? Who knows. I guess it depends on the contract terms. Point is, as long as Machado and Harper remain unsigned and this is their market, the Yankees owe it to themselves to stay involved. Not doing so would be negligent.
Find Another Reliever
The Yankees reportedly want two relievers this winter and so far they’ve only added one, re-signing Zach Britton two weeks ago. They could stand pat with their current bullpen. Britton, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder form about as strong a bullpen top five as you’ll find. Others like Luis Cessa, Domingo German, Tommy Kahnle, and Stephen Tarpley are interesting enough that giving them a chance is not unreasonable.
That said, the Yankees are built around their bullpen, and any additional depth they can add would surely come in handy. Remember, the Yankees had Britton and David Robertson in their bullpen late last season. Robertson’s gone and has not been replaced. Here, in my opinion, are the top unsigned free agent relievers:
- Craig Kimbrel
- Adam Ottavino
- Mariano Rivera
- Cody Allen
- Adam Warren
Eventually some team will show interest in Kimbrel, right? His market has been extremely quiet thus far. After Kimbrel there’s Ottavino, a fine fit for the Yankees, and a bunch of reclamation projects and third tier relievers. The free agent reliever market has thinned out quite a bit these last few weeks. Kimbrel and Ottavino are far and away the best available and I can’t see the Yankees splurging for Kimbrel. Ottavino? Maybe.
Either way, Kimbrel and Ottavino or no Kimbrel and Ottavino, the Yankees do have room in their bullpen for one more established reliever. They don’t necessarily need another high-leverage guy but hey, I’d take one. Someone to reduce the reliance on Kahnle bouncing back and Cessa or German figuring it out would be appreciated. Aside from keeping tabs on Machado and Harper, adding another reliever is the top priority right now.
Explore Contract Extensions
The Yankees signed eight of their nine arbitration-eligible players to one-year contracts prior to the salary filing deadline last week. Now that that’s out of the way, the Yankees can begin to explore contract extensions with their impending free agents, specifically Betances, Gregorius, and Aaron Hicks. Those are three really important players! They’re under contract for 2019. That part is out of the way. Now they should discuss 2020 and beyond.
Because Betances, Gregorius, and Hicks all have one-year contracts in place for 2019, the Yankees can sign them to a multi-year extension that begins in 2020 without it changing their luxury tax number this year. Any raise would be pushed back a year for luxury tax purposes, which is helpful. Get them signed long-term without altering your short-term payroll. That’s why the one-year contract for 2019 was so important. It allows the extension to begin in 2020.
There are of course reasons to wait on extending these players. Betances is volatile, Gregorius is hurt, and Hicks seems like the type of player who could get screwed over in free agency. In a normal free agent market, seeking Lorenzo Cain and Dexter Fowler money (five years, $80M or so) would not be unreasonable. Look at what’s happening to A.J. Pollock though. What if he gets, say, three years and $45M? Doesn’t that change things for Hicks?
Keep in mind this applies to players who aren’t impending free agents too. The Yankees have a lot of young and talented players. Why not see what Aaron Judge wants for a long-term contract? Or Luis Severino? Or Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, and James Paxton? There is less urgency to extend players with team control remaining beyond 2019. It never hurts to ask though. Maybe someone is willing to sign cheap to lock in the guaranteed payday.
Late-January through March is extension season. That’s usually when we see teams lock up their young players. Maybe the league-wide unwillingness to spend money will change that and we’ll see fewer extensions than usual. For the Yankees, three important players are due to become free agents after the season and at some point they have to engage them in contract talks. The sooner, the better. At the very least, they have to find out what their contract demands are so they can plan accordingly.
Try To Settle With Severino
Severino is the one arbitration-eligible player the Yankees did not sign prior to last week’s salary filing deadline. He’s seeking $5.25M while the Yankees countered with $4.4M. Seems to me the Yankees will have an easier time defending their number. All signs point to the Yankees and Severino going to an arbitration hearing at some point in February. Supposedly all 30 teams are “file and trial” these days, meaning they cut off contract talks once the two sides file salary figures.
An arbitration hearing is not the end of the world. They can be contentious but they don’t have to ruin relationships long-term. The Yankees and Betances went to a hearing in 2017 and they had no trouble hammering out contracts the last two years. Back in the day the Yankees went to arbitration with Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Derek Jeter, and everything turned out fine. The Red Sox and Mookie Betts went to a hearing last year. They’re all good. It’s not the end of the world.
That said, avoiding an arbitration hearing is preferable, which is why players and teams work so hard to get a deal done before the salary filing deadline. The midpoint between the filing figures is the logical place to start when seeking a settlement. Can the Yankees and Severino agree to $4.825M for 2019? How much wiggle room is there? Bottom line, avoiding a hearing is preferable. The Yankees and Severino should try again to see if it’s possible.
There are still a ton of free agents looking for work this coming season. Guys like Machado, Harper, Kimbrel, Ottavino, Pollock, and Dallas Keuchel will be fine. They’ll get paid at some point. Maybe not as much as they were expecting a few months ago, but they’ll be set for life. What about guys like Warren though? Or Neil Walker? Logan Forsythe, Derek Dietrich, Francisco Liriano, so on and so forth? Those guys might be in trouble.
In this current free agent climate, February and March will be a great time to bargain shop because many players will be desperate to sign. That’s exactly how the Yankees landed Walker last season. I hate that it’s come to this for the players. It is what it is though. The Yankees have some open bullpen spots and still an open bench spot even after signing DJ LeMahieu. Scouring the free agent market for bargains as Spring Training draws closer is an obvious move. There could be some real nice depth pieces available on the cheap.
Trade Sonny Gray
My hunch is trading Gray is higher up the Yankees’ priority list than I have it. They seem done with him, and unloading his $7.5M salary frees them up to do other things, like sign Ottavino. I’m fine with bringing Sonny to Spring Training though. It might be a little awkward, but whatever. You can never have enough pitching depth, and all it takes is one spring injury to rekindle trade talks. Hey, maybe the Yankees lose a starter to injury and need Gray for the rotation. That would be kinda funny. Sonny saves the Yankees with 180 innings of 3.25 ERA ball.
But yeah, the Yankees are pretty much done with Gray. They want him gone and have not been shy about saying it. It is (very) surprising to me this has dragged on so long. The sooner the Yankees can move Gray, the sooner everyone can move on from this weird situation. A trade is best for everyone. The Yankees clear payroll and get a player(s) in return and Gray gets a fresh start. I’m okay with keeping Sonny around a little longer. I also think the Yankees want him gone and soon, so get it done.