Recently, I was discussing the issues besetting the Yankees with a top baseball-operations official from another team. The executive let me prattle a bit then essentially did the sport’s version of talking an insane person off a ledge:
“You are overcomplicating this. They have to fix catcher and shortstop,” the official said. “They have a lot of good players. They have just wasted time with [Gary] Sanchez and trying to make Gleyber [Torres] work at short. If they fix those two spots, they are going to keep being really good.”
I think it is a little deeper than that, including not trusting Aaron Hicks to be a starting center fielder defensively or to stay healthy, plus some overall questions about how bonded the clubhouse was in 2021. But, in general, I do agree that if the Yankees repair catcher and shortstop, that would do much to keep them a 90-plus win contender.
There really aren’t glamour moves at catcher, unless they take on the four years at $95.5 million of Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto contract. And, trust me. I already have been mentally juggling Realmuto trade concepts: The Phillies would save the $54 million difference between Realmuto and Hicks (four years, $41 million) to earmark elsewhere while adding a much needed center fielder, plus the prospect-challenged organization also would receive two young pitchers, like Luis Gil and Clarke Schmidt.
But my suspicion is that the Yankees just emphasize, at catcher, a cost-effective strong defender who is not a complete zero at the plate, such as Manny Piña, in free agency, or Tucker Barnhart if the Reds do not pick up his $7.5 million option.
This, though, has been the long-anticipated glamour free-agent market for shortstops. Even after Francisco Lindor signed last April with the Mets and Brandon Crawford extended recently with the Giants, there still are Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story.
The Yankees made a July trade-deadline push for Baez. But I think they saw him as a short-term answer for their defensive nightmare at shortstop. The hatred for the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal still pulses in the Yankees’ organization — within which many harbor the belief that if Houston had not cheated, the Yanks would have won it all. So, I just can’t believe they would swallow that to sign Correa. There seems to have been a steady falling out of love with Story. I believe if the Yankees were going to play big for a shortstop, it would be Seager or Semien.
Will they play big?
Part of the answer is what is the system? The 2021 Yankees went under the threshold to reset their tax percentage. But the collective bargaining agreement will expire in six weeks, and it has not yet been negotiated if there will be a tax in the next CBA, and what the thresholds and penalties will be if the system returns. Hal Steinbrenner will probably want to know the rules before approving another big outlay.
And it would be “another” big outlay. Cole and Giancarlo Stanton are owed roughly $60 million between them annually through 2027 (Cole is signed through ’28, Stanton has an option that year). Aaron Judge will be a free agent after 2022. Add one of the two big free-agent shortstops, and the Yankees would be paying at least $110 million annually (probably more) to four players, who for most of those years would be in their 30s.
What else might give Steinbrenner pause?
1. He has seen the Rays win the AL East the past two years, and they aren’t doing it by spending at the top of the market. 2. The Yankees’ two best, closest-to-the-majors prospects are both shortstops, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, so the team might just need a stopgap, not an expensive shortstop. 3. High-end free agency is the riskiest element in the game. If you think the crackdown on sticky substances doesn’t have the Yankees wondering if they have a far less dominant version of Cole than they believed they were signing, you are wrong.
And yet, the Yankees have won one division title in nine years and one World Series since 2001, and Steinbrenner has been motivated to make big outlays if the stimulus is right, including to move into the new stadium in 2009, when the perception crested after 2013 that the Yankees were squeezing dimes, and to give the biggest contract ever to a pitcher (Cole) when it was perceived that was the missing piece to a title.
Also, Steinbrenner can look to his Western doppelganger. Clubs are constantly looking to capitalize on the inefficiencies in the market. The defending (and perhaps soon repeat) champion Dodgers have exposed one: If most teams are going to treat a luxury tax like a salary cap, then a rich team can really differentiate itself. The Dodgers’ payroll is north of $260 million. No team is within $50 million. The 2021 Yankees’ $205 million-ish payroll is similar to what they were spending in 2005.
Semien is a wonderful player, and if the Yankees landed him, they would be better. But Seager fits them well. The Yankees have been filled with too many all-or-nothing hitters, specifically right-handed ones. Seager is lefty. He has power. But he is a hitter, and his .306 average over the past two seasons is the sixth-best (minimum 600 plate appearances).
In 2021, he had a near identical walk rate (11.7) and OPS (.915) to Judge (11.8 and .916), but Seager struck out in just 16.1 percent of his plate appearances compared to 25 percent for Judge and 24.5 percent for the Yankees as a team.
Unlike someone such as Joey Gallo, who never played in a big game before joining the Yankees, Seager’s Dodgers have been in the playoffs every year of his career (since 2015) and he was both the NLCS and World Series MVP last year. Los Angeles is not New York, but it also isn’t Arlington, Texas. Seager has played in a big market with expectations, and (if it matters) Seager’s dad is from upstate New York and he has lots of family sprinkled in the metropolitan area. More important: Seager is known for his seriousness about baseball and for being excellent at blocking out distractions.
The downside? He has great hands, but is just an average defender at short. But simply making the plays (which he does) would make him a upgrade for the Yankees. Plus, his offensive profile and hands suggest he could move to third when Peraza or Volpe is ready to man shortstop (there also is lineage, Seager’s brother, Kyle, has been the long-time Mariners third baseman).
Seager has played in more than 140 games just twice, missing most of 2018 after needing Tommy John surgery. Since then, he had a 2019 hamstring injury that cost him a month and he missed 2 ¹/₂ months this year after his hand was fractured by a Ross Detwiler pitch. From his June 30 return to the end of the season, Seager hit .335 with a 1.009 OPS.
And, of course, there is the question of cost. Fernando Tatis Jr. signed for 15 years, $341 million, Lindor for 10 years, $340 million. Neither has aged well — Tatis due to injury and concerns whether he can still man shortstop, Lindor because of uncomfortable and underwhelming results in New York. Still, expect Seager’s agent, Scott Boras, to argue for more, citing that neither Tatis nor Lindor was even a free agent able to bargain with multiple suitors. He will note his client won’t turn 28 until April. He will point out all the positives I just did (and way more). And it will be this simple: Is Steinbrenner willing to spend?
The five most expensive free-agent signings in Yankees history are Cole, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Jacoby Ellsbury. Boras negotiated all of them, except Sabathia.
The Yankees have a need at shortstop. How far will Hal Steinbrenner go to solve it?