It’s Up to You; New York, New York – What is Next for New York Baseball?
Ryan “Scoop” Woodhams
Sports Business Writer
This offseason will likely prove consequential for both baseball franchises based in New York City. For one organization, they have gone 11 consecutive seasons without securing a World Series title, while continually running a payroll that challenges for tops in the sport, and set to lose a host of key components to free agency while having to make difficult roster decisions on others. For another, they are transitioning under new incoming ownership, longing to put to bed an era of super-frugality, mediocrity, and purgatorial standing, perpetually having talent that would put them as one of the better teams in the National League, yet somehow always succumbing to injuries or underperformance.
I am referring – of course – to the Yankees and the Mets, each of whom is in position to have an offseason that defines what the next decade of New York baseball will look like.
It is arguable that the two best pitchers of the present day reside in opposing boroughs of the Big Apple. Since 2014, Jacob deGrom has served as a reliable kingpin of the Mets rotation and is currently a candidate to be the first pitcher in either league since Randy Johnson to win his third consecutive Cy Young Award. Across town, Gerrit Cole joined the pinstripes this year and was about as dominant as one could ask for in the truncated season, following up beautifully from a pair of elite campaigns for that technologically savvy club in Houston.
The Yankees enter free agency with a pretty clear intent to trim payroll to below $210 million. These are not George’s Yankees, meaning if the front office has a mandate for frugality, the powers-that-be will not so easily dismiss such a directive in sole effort to guarantee the club’s first title since 2009. The organization has also watched a myriad of contracts expire this month: right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, outfielder Brett Gardner, second baseman DJ LeMahieu, left-hander James Paxton, left-hander JA Happ, along with assorted depth pieces such as Matt Duffy. Tommy Kahnle has also left the organization. Additionally, there has been somewhere between rampant speculation and transparent admission by those within Yankee circles that they have yet to determine what the future holds for former top prospect Gary Sanchez, middle infielder Gleyber Torres, and first baseman Luke Voit.
With SPOTRAC projections currently putting the Yankees’ payroll at $158 million, the team has about $50 million with which to seek to retain LeMahieu and Tanaka (these two alone should combine to exceed a $30-$35 million expenditure), and then use that remaining ~$20 million (this is increased based on the assumption that if the Yankees are looking for a catcher, Sanchez is no longer on the roster) to fill holes. I project the team will look to find probably one starting pitcher (assuming that Cole and Tanaka are set and some combination of Montgomery, Schmidt, and Garcia fill the other two spots), at least one reliever (the team has to address their drop in reliable bullpen depth over the last two seasons), perhaps a catcher (if you watched the past two years, I do not need to elaborate on this) and a middle infielder.
So, let’s go bargain shopping position-by-position. How do the Yankees go about acquiring those four pieces on a ~$20 million budget?
I assume that they will be open to spending the most money on this position. I do not believe that any of the big-ticket items (Bauer, Morton, etc.) are in play here given the threshold. One name I could see being a fit here is a veteran player in whom the Yankees have had interest before, Cole Hamels. SPOTRAC projects Hamels at $4 million this year, and prior to missing 2020 due to injury, he was settling in as a reliable back-end starter. While not the elite pitcher he once was with the Phillies, even since leaving Philadelphia he has been an innings-eating pitcher who does not allow the deep ball at dangerous levels (not an easy feat between Globe Life Park and Wrigley Field).
So, that would leave the team with about $16 million left for the final three guys. I think that Aroldis Chapman has given fans a form of PTSD with the fact that he has been involved in giving up the season-ending score in the last two postseasons. Justifiably so. I believe that the Yankees need to not only add a reliever, but add someone who has closer experience so that they can stop forcing themselves into going to Chapman in every high leverage final inning situation, with the loss of Kahnle and regression of Ottavino, and previous losses of Robertson and Betances. Fortunately, there are plenty of this type of pitcher available. Brad Hand was a surprise cut by the Indians in October. He is projected to make about $9 million next year. The Yankees have also shown previous interest in Ken Giles, and while he barely saw time this season, he proved in 2019 he can be successful in the AL East.
Two positions down, two positions (and about $7 million) to go. I cannot see Realmuto being a fit here. Yadier Molina is a fun discussion to have, but something about his personality just does not feel like he would gel in New York, and I would be stunned if the Cardinals let him walk anyway. I could see someone off the Wilson Ramos, Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki, or Robinson Chirinos. Jason Castro registered as a decent pitch framer this season according to Baseball Savant, which I believe is far more essential for the Yankees than offensive production. He could platoon with Higashioka, as both have shown recently that their offensive numbers play up when they job-share. Higashioka also bats right-handed, where Castro hits left-handed. Castro is projected to make $3 million next year.
Whoever the Yankees target at this position in this scenario, they will likely seek to keep it within the $4-$5 million range. Unfortunately, that means, no, this scenario does not include a trade for Francisco Lindor (though I still believe this is very possible in the coming months). Instead, I would try to make a play for a defensive wizard who is coming off a tenure in Anaheim. I am talking about “Simba,” shortstop Andrelton Simmons. The offensive philosophy of sluggers up and down the order, three-true-outcome guys has clearly led to selling out on defensive fluidity, and it showed in painful situations this season. Simmons has shown he can hover around league-average offensively, while annually beyond one of the cream-of-the-crop defenders not just at his position, but among those at any position.
As for the New York Mets, they are much more of a wild card. For the first time in recent memory, they look to be legitimate players on the free agent scale. With Nimmo, Cano, and Alonso in their projected lineup (flanked by Rosario and Davis) along with the aforementioned deGrom headlining the rotation, the team has pieces with which to work, but also plenty of room to improve and (for the first time in ages) the financial might with which to pursue those pieces.
With those guys holding down their positions, the ones that appear to be up for taking are center field, second base, catcher, and pitching. Let’s take a look at some of the big-ticket items on the free agent market at those roles.
I have been hearing the George Springer-to-Mets chatter since it first became clear that Steve Cohen was a frontrunner to take over control of the franchise. It only escalated when it was reported weeks ago that Springer was unlikely to return to Houston. Plus, aside from maybe Pittsburgh (and if you think the Pirates are shelling out top-dollar for a free agent this offseason, I have some talking geese to sell you), there just isn’t a clear alternative as a fit for a pricey center fielder in this market. The match here makes too much sense.
It is not clear that the Mets are quite as intent on making a splash at second base, so while DJ LeMahieu would be indisputably the cream-of-the-crop choice here, I will instead offer up Kolten Wong. He is more likely to be in the $10 million range than $20 million, yet he has proven himself a solid player on defense with the ability to make some magic happen with his bat (and on the basepaths, when he wants to do so). By saving that extra $10 million, they can allocate it to blockbuster acquisitions in two other areas I believe are far more pressing.
Relief and Starting Pitcher
The Mets for relievers seem to be the equivalent of the Cleveland Browns for pre-Mayfield quarterbacks. Seriously. Every time this team gets an elite reliever, somehow he torpedoes into mediocrity or worse (see: Dellin Betances, Edwin Diaz). This team could stand to make as many as two solid acquisitions on
the bullpen market. I believe they should target Liam Hendriks, who appears to be the best reliever available this offseason. Hendriks has been an elite reliever over the past two seasons, has proven his durability going all the way back to 2015 with the Blue Jays (he pitched in at least 50 games in all but one season between 2015-19, and his WHIP and HR/9 were 65th and 41st among 300 qualified relief pitchers during that stretch). The Mets need durability and reliability in the worst way at the back end of their pitching staff. Additionally, I would go after one of the non-Bauer high level starting pitchers available. Someone of the Masahiro Tanaka or Marcus Stroman ilk, who is a proven quality starter with the ability to give you 200 innings each season. I might slightly favor Stroman as his numbers are slightly ahead of Tanaka’s recently, plus I am generally for retaining your existing players over replacing them when the production delta is marginal-at-best.
For the umpteenth time, sign J.T. Realmuto. This does not need a statistical justification or the 500th argumentative case. The best player available, coming from a division rival, at a position of need. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, Sow JT The Money!
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