Back To The Drawing Board

It’s now been a while since the 2020 Major League Baseball season ended with a thrilling victory for the Los Angeles Dodgers, heartbreak for the Tampa Bay Rays, concern for fans over Justin Turner’s positive COVID test, and what appeared to be an extended Happy Hour for Commissioner Rob Manfred—who got booed off the dais on the field before delivering the World Series MVP to Corey Seager while appearing to be shitfaced.

Free agency begins today, and the Yankees, after another disappointing end to the season, will yet again find themselves attempting to plug the holes that have prevented this team from hoisting the Piece Of Meta—I mean the Commissioner’s Trophy—for the last eleven years, and last four with the current core.

Trying to understand what exactly those holes are is an exercise in futility; guaranteed to differ no matter who you ask. 

Some will point to the lack of pitching depth behind Gerrit Cole, with Paxton, Tanaka, and Happ hitting the market and uncertainty about Luis Severino’s ability post-Tommy John surgery. Others will point to the bullpen, admittedly no more than a corpse of the dominant unit that it was in 2019, with the disappearance of Ottavino and likely departure of the rehabbing Tommy Kahnle. Others still will drone on about the lineup, which remains devoid of potent lefty bats, and has an annoying tendency to turn anemic in the later games of a playoff series.

Some may even claim that the team, as it was in 2020, is perfectly capable of winning a title if it remains fully healthy in 2021. While that assertion is flawed, it does highlight the fact that the Yankees are still one of, if not the behemoths of the American League. It also highlights the fact that retaining certain free agents, and keeping the team healthy, could very well be the difference between a 105-win season and a 95-win one. Either way, the Yankees are a team that has the means to always be improving, and let’s look at some of the free agents they could pick up this offseason.

Undoubtedly the single most important re-signing would be that of the 2020 batting champ and 2019 All-Star second baseman DJ LeMahieu. While LeMahieu was admittedly horrid in the 2020 playoffs, he has been nothing short of a godsend in the remainder of his career in the Bronx. Over the last two years, DJ slashed .336/.386/.536 with 36 HRs, good for a wRC+ of 146 (!) and a combined WAR of 7.8. Fewer needs to be said about the one-man show he put in October of 2019, including a home run in Game 6 of the ALCS that could have found itself embedded forever in Yankees lore had the team been able to claw through and win the game. Not only is he an excellent player in his own right, but he is also the perfect high-contact complement to some of the more power-oriented hitters on the team.

It also wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for the Yankees to resign one of two starters they are losing to FA this winter in James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. Paxton’s case is an intriguing one; his peripherals and X-stats rival some of the top pitchers in the game, but at the same time, he has been mighty inconsistent in his Yankees career with both elite, pinstripe-earning performances and groaner, turn-off-the-TV-already meltdowns alike. And then, of course, there is the (very) concerning injury history. Tanaka, on the other hand, presents a free-agency case built primarily around his postseason tenure with the Yankee, where except for 2020, he posted an elite October resume with a playoff ERA below 2.00, among the best of all time. He, too, has stretches of brilliance interspersed with a few clunkers every regular season and would not be a bad middle-rotation arm at a reasonable price.

The choice that the Yankees make between Paxton and Tanaka, if any, will say much about how they view their rotation as a unit. Do they prefer Paxton’s high-risk-high-reward skillset, or are they more drawn to Tanaka’s veteran presence and playoff brilliance?

External additions to the rotation could come in the form of free agents Charlie Morton, Corey Kluber, or Kevin Gausman. Trevor Bauer has likely priced himself out of New York, and it is not likely Marcus Stroman is going to wear pinstripes after taking every opportunity to publicly deride the team. 

The case of Morton is an exciting one; after the Rays surprisingly declined his option, he becomes a UFA. Morton sports a 3.34 ERA since 2017 with a 3.27 FIP—elite numbers with peripherals to back it up. With a 10.64 K/9 and a 30% hard-hit percentage in that span, he’s the perfect pitcher for Yankee Stadium and the Yankees should take a long hard look at him. Corey Kluber is only a couple years removed from a Cy Young season, but after throwing all of one inning in 2020, there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his ability to help a team in 2021. Either way, the upside with him is hard to ignore. Kevin Gausman rounds out a list of possible candidates as perhaps one of the most underrated free agents this cycle. He pitched to an ERA of 3.62 with an FIP of only 3.09, which would lock him in as a solid #2 on the Yankees. His fastball velocity has shown welcome upward trends, and his strikeout numbers, similar to Morton, are well into the upper percentiles of MLB, which is always welcome in the hitters’ haven that is Yankee Stadium. 

The offense is likely not going to see any major shake-ups, but we could see signings of Jurickson Profar, Tommy La Stella, or (this would be sweet) Brock Holt in super-utility roles. Especially if DJ returns, it’s hard to imagine any of the three securing a starting job on the team, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that a) logjams on the Yankees tend to work themselves out and b) the team that breaks camp is likely vastly different from the one that starts in October.

The final area that the Yankees could look to shore up is their bullpen, which does not boast as many shutdown arms as it once did, with Green, Britton, and Chapman being the only legitimately good relievers on the squad. Targets in this area could include AL Reliever of the Year Liam Hendriks, although he might come at too high a price. Brad Hand, who posted a 2.05 ERA with an outstanding 1.37 FIP in 2020 and was 19/19 in save opportunities is also a very solid option, although age could be a concern there. The Yankees might also want to look into a reunion with David Robertson (far-fetched, but who knows?)

Either way, this is going to shape up to be an interesting off-season with no singular marquee target for the Yankees to fire the Death Star laser at. It will remain to be seen what can come of their ingenuity and foresight in the coming months.

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