Murky financial forecast looms over Yankees’ offseason questions
By James Wagner
At some point this offseason, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will meet with Hal Steinbrenner, the team’s managing general partner, for their usual dissection of the season. The team’s professional scouts will huddle to do much of the same: examine the roster and discuss ways to avoid repeating the outcome of the 2020 season.
Despite being a preseason World Series favorite and possessing one of the most talented rosters in MLB, the Yankees again failed to reach the World Series, extending a drought that dates to their 2009 title. This time, they were toppled in a best-of-five American League Division Series by the Tampa Bay Rays, who sit one win from reaching the final round despite having a payroll about a third of the Yankees’.
In the Bronx, though, the path forward this offseason is perhaps hazier than any other in Yankees history.
Will Gleyber Torres, who was tied for the AL lead in fielding errors among shortstops, stay at that position next season? Will Gary Sánchez, who was one of the worst hitters in baseball and was benched during the playoffs, be the team’s primary catcher — or with the team at all? Will Luis Severino, who may not return until next summer from Tommy John surgery, and Domingo Germán, who was suspended for the entire 2020 season for violating MLB’s domestic abuse policy, be enough to upgrade a starting rotation that Cashman called “at-risk” in the playoffs and in definite need of improvement?
Beyond that sampling of questions, one issue perhaps supersedes all: How much money will MLB teams, the Yankees included, be willing to spend after a year in which they said they suffered billions in losses because of a pandemic-shortened season without fans in the stands until late in the postseason?
“We’ll see,” Steinbrenner said Tuesday on the radio show hosted by Yankees television broadcaster Michael Kay. “It depends what kind of money is going to be required to be spent, based on what we look at and decide needs change. But look: There’s no doubt we sustained significant losses this year, more so than any other team in baseball. It’s just been a crazy year.”
While teams have not opened their books, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said about 40 percent of revenue comes from tickets, concessions and other gate-related income. The Yankees, who generally rank near the top of the league in attendance, have said that share might be higher for them. And just before the pandemic, they committed a record $324 million to ace Gerrit Cole and pushed past several luxury-tax thresholds with the largest opening day payroll in the majors, at $265 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
About $65 million in 2020 salaries are set to come off the books as star infielder D.J. LeMahieu, and pitchers J.A. Happ, Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton are eligible for free agency. That doesn’t include Zack Britton, a key reliever, and outfielder Brett Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, who have team options or clauses in their contracts that will need to be sorted out soon.
Exactly how much wiggle room the Yankees have to upgrade their roster, specifically on the mound, is unclear at best. One area the Yankees could improve is adding more left-handed batters to a lineup that was heavily right-handed, which the versatile Rays exploited in the playoffs. But that is not a simple exercise.
“Of course you’d like to have the balance, if you can, but then when you’re faced with a decision of: Do I not try to resign D.J. LeMahieu because he’s right handed, so I can get a left-handed bat in there?” Cashman said.
During his and manager Aaron Boone’s annual season-ending news conference with reporters Wednesday, Cashman said he had yet to have the “heavy lifting” conversations about the future payroll with Steinbrenner. But he said he was looking forward to pairing existing talent on the team (including the young starters Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt) with players who weren’t available in 2020 (like Germán and Severino). He said the front office would consider free-agent and trade options at a later date.
“This global pandemic has affected everybody in a horrific way in a business setting,” Cashman said, adding later, “These are real constraints that exist throughout all industries and in households alone, and so it’ll be something that will clearly factor into how we approach the future.”
Over two days, Steinbrenner, Boone and Cashman spent a lot of time explaining the shortcomings of the year (like the regular-season inconsistencies that led to a fifth seed in this year’s expanded playoffs, Sánchez’s disappointing performance and the team’s overall defensive troubles, including Torres’); the disappointment of once again not winning a title (“At this point in time, all I can do is apologize to our fans,” Steinbrenner said); and the organization’s decision-making in Game 2 of the ALDS. In that contest, the Yankees started García for only one inning before handing the ball to Happ, who wasn’t pleased with the decision and struggled.
“If I can get better players, a deeper roster — which is on me — I think we have a chance to have maybe a better outcome in some of these matchups,” Cashman said. He said he was sorry that he put Boone — whom Steinbrenner said would return as manager in 2021 — in a position where he had to use a less-traditional pitching plan that backfired.
“Because of the roster, the way it was configured — which is my responsibility, not his — he was forced to try to come up with different game plans and be open-minded to how to best navigate it,” Cashman said of Boone. “And it didn’t work out. But hopefully in the future, we’ll be in a better position than we are right now.”