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Offseason In Review: New York Yankees

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The Yankees’ offseason was highlighted by a blockbuster trade, but some major injury concerns have threatened to undermine New York’s work in upgrading the roster.

Major League Signings

2023 spending: $23.25MM
Total spending: $41.25MM

Trades & Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Juan Soto and Aaron Judge hitting back-to-back is a pitcher’s worst nightmare, and having Gleyber Torres and a healthy Anthony Rizzo bookend those two elite sluggers in the lineup should also cause a few sleepless evenings.  Between this impressive top of the lineup, and fresh input from newly-hired hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler, there is plenty of hope that the Yankees can improve upon their strangely punchless offense from the 2023 season.

Soto is slated to hit free agency next winter as he heads into his age-26 season, and the outfielder and agent Scott Boras surely have an eye towards the biggest non-Shohei Ohtani contract in baseball history.  Since the Yankees are one of the few teams who can afford such an expenditure, it’s certainly possible this won’t be Soto’s only season in the Bronx, but New York paid quite a premium for just one guaranteed year of Soto’s services.

Kyle Higashioka may have been expendable within the Yankees’ catching depth chart, but the real score for the Padres in the Soto trade was four talented and controllable young pitchers.  Michael King emerged as an intriguing starter with New York last year and looks to step right into San Diego’s rotation — at worst, King can be a lockdown reliever for the Padres if he doesn’t stick as a starting pitcher.  Drew Thorpe is a top-100 prospect who the Padres flipped to the White Sox as part of the Dylan Cease trade package.  Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez are also big league-ready arms and one of them likely would’ve won a rotation job had Cease not been acquired.

Trent Grisham was the other player acquired from San Diego, and though he is only earning $5.5MM via an arbitration-avoiding deal, his inclusion in the trade may have been a bit of a salary dump from a Padres deal that was eager to payroll this winter.  (Obviously Soto was the pricier figure in this equation, as his $31MM salary for 2024 is the highest ever given to a an arbitration player.)  Grisham is an outstanding defender whose hitting has dropped off over the last two seasons, and he seems to be ticketed for at least backup duty within an intriguing Yankees outfield mix.

The first-choice outfield alignment looks to be Soto in right field, Judge in center field, and new acquisition Alex Verdugo as the left field starter at least against right-handed pitching.  When a southpaw is on the mound, the Yankees will probably use Judge in left field and Grisham will step into center field.  Giancarlo Stanton will get most of the DH at-bats and might get some occasional looks in the outfield, though as GM Brian Cashman rather bluntly stated last November, it may simply be unlikely that Stanton can stay healthy for the entire season.  Judge figures to get a good dose of DH usage regardless of Stanton’s availability, since one of the Yankees’ chief priorities this year is keeping Judge healthy amidst the added physical strain of regular center field work.

A rare trade between the Yankees and Red Sox brought Verdugo into the fold, and between Verdugo and Soto, New York now has two legitimate left-handed bats to help balance out a lineup that was overloaded with right-handed hitters.  Verdugo has been exactly a league-average (100 wRC+, 100 OPS+) hitter over the last two seasons, and given the whispers of behind-the-scenes discord with Boston manager Alex Cora, a change of scenery might be just what Verdugo needs to get on track.

An in-form Verdugo, a healthy Stanton, and steps forward from highly-touted youngsters Anthony Volpe and Austin Wells would suddenly make the lineup look a lot more Bronx Bomber-esque, rather than simply “improved.”  A rebound year from DJ LeMahieu would also help, but the infielder’s 2024 season has gotten off to a rough start with a bone bruise that will begin his season on the injured list.

The Yankees had been looking for infield and utility depth even before LeMahieu got hurt, as Oswald Peraza is facing an extended absence while recovering from a shoulder strain.  The need was finally filled just yesterday when Jon Berti was acquired as part of a three-team trade with the Marlins and Rays.  Berti brings a ton of speed and defensive versatility to the roster, and his ability to draw walks and make contact has led to some occasional above-average offensive production over his six MLB seasons.

Landing Berti came at the cost of catcher Ben Rortvedt and minor league outfielder John Cruz, though New York is confident that Wells is ready to take on a larger share of the catching duties with Jose Trevino.  Wells’ defense could be the x-factor in whether or not he can move into a full platoon or even a playing-time edge over Trevino, and gauging by Wells’ minor league numbers, his bat is at least ready for the Show.  In other bench news, waiver claim Jahmai Jones won a spot on the Opening Day roster, and he brings more multi-positional utility to the mix.

The aforementioned search for a utilityman type led the Yankees to explore such free agents as Enrique Hernandez, Tony Kemp, Amed Rosario, and old friends Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Gio Urshela.  In terms of position players, the Yankees made some more high-profile explorations, as the team had interest in the likes of Cody Bellinger, Jung Hoo Lee, Jeimer Candelario, Kevin Kiermaier, and probably several other free agents whose talks with the Bombers weren’t publicized.

Since the Soto trade was completed in early December, it seems as though the Yankees decided relatively early to go with the one-year strike for Soto rather than a longer-term deal with Bellinger or even Lee as their major offensive addition of the winter.  Cashman’s front office couldn’t have known at the time that Bellinger’s market would be limited enough that he would settle for an opt-out laden three-year, $80MM deal with the Cubs, and naturally it makes sense that the Yankees would want to pounce on Soto and solidify the lineup as early as possible.  It’s easy to say this with hindsight being 20-20, but if New York had been comfortable enough to try and wait Bellinger out, the team could’ve landed a big bat at a lower average annual value than Soto, and King and company might still be on the roster.

Or, the Yankees might have flipped King, Thorpe, Brito, or Vasquez in another trade, perhaps for a frontline starter with more big league experience.  There is some irony in Thorpe being a centerpiece of the Padres’ Cease deal given how the Yankees themselves talked at length with the White Sox about Cease, but it seemed like Chicago’s insistence on landing Spencer Jones in any Cease trade package was a deal-breaker for New York.

Even though offense was the team’s larger need heading into the offseason, the Yankees were reportedly involved in the bidding for several starters and relievers, on both the free agent and trade fronts.  Beyond Cease, the long list of pitchers the Yankees at least checked in on included Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Corbin Burnes, Shane Bieber, Jesus Luzardo, Aaron Nola, Shota Imanaga, Josh Hader, Yariel Rodriguez, Michael Lorenzen, Jordan Hicks, Robert Stephenson, Hector Neris, Phil Maton, Ryan Brasier, and two of New York’s own free agents in Wandy Peralta (who signed with the Padres) and Keynan Middleton (with the Cardinals).

Yamamoto was one of the chief targets, and was reportedly offered a ten-year, $300MM deal (with two opt-out clauses) to begin his Major League tenure in the Bronx.  Yamamoto passed on that contract for a 12-year, $325MM deal with the Dodgers, as his decision might’ve been influenced by such factors as a big $50MM signing bonus, the flexibility offered by the six-man Los Angeles rotation, and of course the chance to play with a Japanese baseball icon like Ohtani.

Jordan Montgomery was another former Yankee who drew attention from his old club, as the Bombers were said to be in on the left-hander up until the moment Montgomery finally landed with the Diamondbacks for a one-year deal with a vesting player option for 2025.  Blake Snell was on the Yankees’ radar for much of the offseason, and the team’s reported six-year, $150MM offer to Snell in January stands as the largest offer known to have been on the table throughout Snell’s own extended stay in free agency.  The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner ended up signing a two-year, $62MM deal with the Giants that includes an opt-out next winter, as the Bombers didn’t revisit their six-year offer after moving onto Marcus Stroman as a rotation alternative.

Stroman inked a two-year deal worth $37MM in guaranteed money, and another $18MM could become available via a vesting player option for the 2026 season.  With two All-Star nods and a history of success in the AL East on his resume, Stroman is a nice get for the Yankees, and his grounder-heavy approach should play well with New York’s solid infield defense.  Injuries marred the back half of what was looking like a great 2023 campaign for Stroman with the Cubs, however, and adding to the list of health issues facing the Yankees rotation.

Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon combined for only 127 2/3 innings last year, leaving both starters in pursuit of bounce-backs.  Clarke Schmidt pitched decently well in his first full MLB season, and Luis Gil pitched well enough in Spring Training that New York will use Gil as the fifth starter, though Gil himself has only 33 1/3 career innings in the majors and missed all of 2023 recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The biggest question mark of all, however, is one of the Yankees’ most indispensable players.  Gerrit Cole will open the season on the 60-day injured list, meaning he won’t be an option until at least late May as he recovers from nerve inflammation and edema in his throwing elbow.  Missing at least two months is naturally still an infinitely preferable scenario to the initial worry that Cole might need some kind of season-ending surgery, yet the Yankees still have to navigate a big chunk of the season without arguably the sport’s best pitcher.  It isn’t a coincidence that the team’s interest in Snell and Montgomery seemed to spark back up after the news broke of Cole’s injury, but it looks like the Yankees will rely on Gil and their internal arms to hold the fort until Cole is able to return.

Even a late strike for Snell or Montgomery at a relative discount price would have had serious financial implications.  RosterResource’s projections put the Yankees’ payroll at $299.7MM, and their luxury tax number at just over $310.5MM.  The latter figure puts New York well over the highest tax threshold of $297MM, after the team just barely stayed under the $297MM number in 2023.  Since 2024 will be the Yankees’ third consecutive year of surpassing the luxury tax, it all adds up a whopping 110% tax added to any further payroll additions the Yankees might make.

It’s perhaps a reach to say that a team with such a gigantic payroll is hugely concerned with an even larger tax bill, as there’s certainly more pressure for the Yankees to get back into contention.  Yet, the Bombers did keep their free agent spending relatively in check, and the $30MM average annual values offered to Yamamoto and Snell seemed to represent something of a limit to how much New York was willing to offer.  Soto, Torres, Verdugo, Clay Holmes, and (pending a club option) Rizzo are all free agents next winter, representing some significant money coming off the books for the Yankees as they decide how to reload for 2025.

Though the relief corps was pretty successful last year, New York heads into Opening Day with some noteworthy changes in the bullpen.  With Peralta, Middleton, and former relief stalwart King all gone, the Yankees will look to make up those innings with Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez (both acquired in separate trades with the Dodgers) and minor league signing Nick Burdi.  Luke Weaver was re-signed to a low-cost guaranteed deal, and Cody Morris, Cody Poteet, and any number of other pitchers already in the farm system or signed to minor league contracts could emerge as the season progresses.  The Yankees and pitching coach Matt Blake have developed a knack for getting good results out of unheralded bullpen options, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see some other unexpected name or a pitcher not even currently in the organization emerging for some high-leverage work later on in the season.

Between the flurry of additions big and small, it was a busy winter in the Bronx, which isn’t surprising for a Yankees team coming off a rare non-playoff season.  Players and team executives either hinted or outright stated last fall that some changes had to be made to get the club back into contention, extending from both roster moves to more clubhouse-related issues like Judge’s desire to see a difference in both the type of analytical information presented to the players, and in how this info is presented.  These types of alterations aren’t as public as the sight of Soto wearing Yankees pinstripes, of course, and despite all of the roster moves and internal fixes, ultimately a lot of the Yankees’ success in 2024 might simply hinge on Cole’s health.


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