Here in this little sliver of the world we are not a hostage to format. This might be 3Up, but I think there are four big-picture ways this offseason can play out for the Yankees:
1. They re-sign Aaron Judge, and then keep spending big to join the Dodgers and Mets with near-$300 million payrolls.
2. They re-sign Judge, and are relatively more frugal afterward, settling in with a payroll more in the $260 million-$270 million range.
3. They don’t re-sign Judge, and they compensate by making lavish additions elsewhere.
4. They don’t re-sign Judge, and they attempt to reset their tax situation by going under the first threshold of $233 million.
Before we do a dive into each scenario, first let’s cover items that will be universal for each:
The Yankees will work hard to get rid of the $29 million ($21 million next season and $8 million due on the buyout of a 2024 option) owed Josh Donaldson and the three years at $30.5 million (plus another $1 million in an assignment bonus if there is a trade) owed Aaron Hicks.
This will not be easy. The duo (with the assignment bonus) is due a combined $60.5 million. I floated the idea at the GM meetings to a Nationals official of taking those two plus a prospect (more on this in a bit) for Patrick Corbin, who is owed $59 million over the next two years. The rebuilding Nats would get a prospect for the trouble of basically washing money while the Yankees would occupy just one 40-man roster spot with Corbin rather than two with Donaldson/Hicks. They then can hope with their pitching lab work to revive Corbin, who has been one of the majors’ worst pitchers the past three seasons, into a back-end starter or useful reliever. The Nats official essentially told me he wouldn’t put Donaldson on his roster.
The problem with moving Donaldson — beyond that he turns 37 next month and his offense went considerably south — is his prickly reputation precedes him. Most clubs are not going to want anything to do with him, even if the Yankees take back bad money and/or sprinkle a prospect into the trade to make absorbing Donaldson’s deal easier. Remember, the Yankees wanted access to Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt last year, and the price for doing that was to take on the two onerous years left on Donaldson’s contract plus his baggage.
The Yankees could talk themselves into the idea that Donaldson’s defense at third and occasional power is enough to bring him back next year. I would love to see what a secret ballot of his teammates and coaches would say about that.
No player is untradeable, but some are close. So Hal Steinbrenner might have to decide whether he sees Donaldson as a sunk cost and simply move on. You might notice the Cubs just released Jason Heyward with $22 million left — and he has a reputation as a great guy.
The Mets, in early May last year, released Robinson Cano with most of two years left on his contract. It has been generally reported the Mariners were paying $3.75 million in each of the five seasons that were left on Cano’s deal when he was traded to the Mets. But Seattle actually doubled up on those payouts in Cano’s first Mets season, so as not to owe anything in 2023. Thus, besides paying most of the $20.25 million they owed Cano last year, the Mets are on the hook for $24 million for him this year — unless it is offset by the probably minimum salary if he hooks on elsewhere. Cano’s cost toward the luxury-tax payroll remains the same, though, at $20.25 million for the Mets in 2023.
That is an involved way of saying the Mets are going to pay about $11 million more in all to rid Cano from their roster than the Yankees would have to pay to do the same with Donaldson. It is not impossible the Yankees find a trade for Donaldson in which they offset his money in some way. But if they don’t …
The need to move Hicks is not as desperate. If he were the fourth outfielder, it would just be an expensive luxury. His presence is more about bad mojo that the Yankees don’t need. It became clear that Hicks’ performance got even worse when the fans turned on him completely in 2022.
Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner has two years at $37 million left. But he has a five-team no-trade provision, and everything from his history would suggest he has no desire to play in New York. Plus, word from inside the Diamondbacks is that even as Bumgarner’s effectiveness has waned from his elite heyday, he has been resistant to modern/analytic advancements — which would also make him a bad New York fit.
Would a team such as the White Sox take on Hicks for, say, Lance Lynn (owed $19.5 million) if they also could get their hands on a young pitcher such as Clarke Schmidt? Would a team such as the A’s, who have no major league contracts signed yet for 2023, much less 2024, take on at least part of the Hicks deal if they also could get their hands on some prospects?
The Yankees at this point will be very open to seeing if there is any lingering interest in Albert Abreu, Deivi Garcia and/or Luis Gil as part of an enticement.
Those three pitchers have basically no future with the Yankees. All three are out of options. Gil, who had Tommy John surgery and will likely miss all of next season, can be put on the 60-day injured list, where he would not count toward the 40-man roster. But in 2024, he would have to be all the way back to stick with the Yankees all year or be potentially lost on waivers. That is true for Abreu and Garcia in 2023. Does anyone believe either will make it through the whole season with the Yankees’ major league team next year?
Keep in mind that roster spots are precious. With both Gil and Scott Effross expected to take up 40-man spots all offseason even though neither is likely to pitch next year, the Yankees are essentially operating with a 38-man roster this winter. So some cleansing is going to have to be done. Garcia has probably lost all of his prospect shine. Abreu has shown the kind of erratic talent and lack of control that is true about many arms in pro ball. And Gil, who probably is the most attractive of the group, is recovering from major surgery. Would a rebuilding team see the value of rehabbing him in 2023 to see whether they can have a talented 25-year-old with years of control beginning in 2024?
There’s another item that I think will be true no matter which way the Yankees go: the possibility of trading Gleyber Torres and/or Kiner-Falefa. I think it would be more surprising if both were back next year than if both were gone — and I would be shocked if at least one was not moved. The Yankees let executives at the GM meetings know they were open for business with their middle infielders.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Yanks turned down the Marlins’ ask of Torres and Oswald Peraza for Pablo Lopez and Miguel Rojas. Some form of that proposed deal can be rebuilt. The Mariners have interest in Torres and have bullpen arms that should interest the Yankees even after using Erik Swanson to land another mid-order righty bat from Toronto in Teoscar Hernandez.
Here is my totally made up trade: Torres and Schmidt to the White Sox for Lucas Giolito and Aaron Bummer. Torres and Giolito are roughly a 2023 salary wash, but Chicago gets two years of control with Torres versus having Giolito in his walk year. Schmidt would replace Giolito in the White Sox rotation with five years of club control. Giolito had a down 2022, but did so for a dysfunctional team with a poor defense. He had an ugly confrontation with Donaldson in the past — uglier than the one that Gerrit Cole and Donaldson patched up — so that would have to be considered if the Yankees don’t move Donaldson. Bummer is owed at least $10.5 million over the next two seasons, and, at his healthiest best, is a bit of Zack Britton 2.0 — a lefty with a menacing sinker.
As for Kiner-Falefa, MLB Trade Rumors has him pegged to make $6.5 million in 2023 via the arbitration process. I can’t imagine the Yankees would want to pay that much to a backup infielder — and if Kiner-Falefa is anything more than a reserve, that would be accentuating a 2022 mistake. Teams have to add 2023 contracts to their 40-man personnel by Friday. That is the first hurdle: Will Kiner-Falefa be tendered a contract? I would think so.
One last move I think is true in all offseason scenarios: The Yankees try to secure a lefty-hitting left fielder with retaining Andrew Benintendi perhaps the first priority and Japanese star Masataka Yoshida a possibility if the Yankees think he can handle the defensive assignment in their spacious home left field.
OK, let’s get to the Judge scenarios:
1. Judge stays and the Yankees keep spending. I think if this plays out, it does so in one of two ways: They also make a big play for a starter such as Justin Verlander, or they make a big play for a shortstop such as Carlos Correa or Trea Turner and then use Peraza as a trade chip to upgrade elsewhere, likely in pitching. Anthony Volpe would move to second base and DJ LeMahieu would become the regular third baseman, which is what he should be next year in all scenarios.
When I envision Verlander and the Yankees, I think about Randy Johnson and the Yankees. Johnson and the Yankees kept circling each other, and by the time he joined, it was the lefty’s age-42 season and the Yankees got a pale version of Johnson (and one who clearly hated playing here). Verlander and the Yankees have circled each other a few times. He pitches at the age of 40 next year, though he just won the AL Cy Young at 39.
If not Verlander, Carlos Rodon and Jacob deGrom are also atop the free-agent starting pitching market. Does deGrom even want to play in New York, especially if it is not for the Mets? Is Rodon just too much of a health risk?
The Yanks can play big in the shortstop market, but this will only worsen how bad their decision-making from last offseason looks. They decided not to pursue anyone in an elite free-agent shortstop class because their intention was to use the money to re-sign Judge and they believed Peraza and Volpe were close to the majors.
Now Peraza and Volpe are probably ready, and in this scenario, Judge is signed. If the Yankees invested $300 million-ish in a shortstop now, would it scream that they should have done it a year ago and greatly improved their chances of winning the 2022 title?
2. The Yankees re-sign Judge and are more deliberate elsewhere. They already have retained Anthony Rizzo for two years at $40 million. I think ideally they would like their 2023 infield to be Rizzo at first, Volpe at second, Peraza at short, LeMahieu at third and Oswaldo Cabrera moving all about. The minimum-salary-range deals for Volpe, Peraza and Cabrera would be somewhat of a balance for re-signing Judge, as would moving as much as possible of the money owed to Donaldson and/or Hicks, plus Torres and/or Kiner-Falefa.
Two rookies in the middle infield, plus Cabrera as the rover, is a lot of risk with inexperience for a team trying to win next year. Perhaps the Yankees retain Torres to begin the season at second, start Volpe at Triple-A, and if he earns his way up, they try to revive Torres trade talks during the season.
But keep in mind that new rules might favor the young infield. There is a ban on extreme shifts next year, so middle infielders will need to be rangier. Peraza and Volpe almost certainly have that over Kiner-Falefa and Torres. Also, bigger bases and restrictions on pickoff throws are expected to promote base stealing, as those rules did in the minors last year. Peraza and Volpe were 77 out of 90 in stolen-base tries in 2022 at various levels. Could they provide energy, defense and a different scoring avenue for the 2023 Yankees?
3. The Yankees lose Judge and splurge to replace him. This would have a lot of overtones of the 2013-14 offseason. Cano was their best player and their best homegrown player since Derek Jeter. But the Yankees thought it was too risky to invest so heavily in one player well into his 30s. They had thoughts about trying to go under the luxury-tax threshold, especially with Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera retiring and Alex Rodriguez being suspended for the season.
When Cano signed with the Mariners, however, there was a huge blowback against Hal Steinbrenner that he was not willing to invest like his father. He responded by guaranteeing $458 million to Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka.
Judge is the Yankees’ best player and their best homegrown player since Jeter. Their concern about investing in Judge into his late 30s tempered their extension offer last spring. They could counter and go under the tax in 2023. But if Steinbrenner thought the noise was loud about Cano, just wait for what he hears if Judge gets away.
At that point, they could try to redirect dollars and anger by signing, say, Verlander and Turner plus importing Yoshida. How badly do the Angels want to get out of the eight years at $283.6 million left on Mike Trout? Is he an asset to the sale of the Angels or is that contract deep into his baseball senior citizenry a detriment? Would he accept a trade out of Anaheim? Would Giancarlo Stanton (owed $130 million the next five years by the Yankees) accept a trade to his native Southern California? That is $150 million in savings for the Angels plus perhaps a prospect or two. OK, it is all a pipe dream.
The question the Yankees will have to ask: Is the cost to replace Judge worse than simply paying Judge what he wants, especially considering that Judge has demonstrated he can flourish in New York and the Yankees always have to worry when they dabble outside their walls if they are signing the next Ellsbury?
4. Judge leaves and the Yankees go frugal. Let’s create a pretend number here to sign Judge. Let’s say it’s in the range of eight years at $304 million to nine years at $342 million — $38 million per season. Are the Yankees better for the extent of those years signing Judge or not signing Judge?
In the short term, they are probably better with Judge. He is a great, New York-tested player. But 62 homers has created an amnesia about his age and past health issues that helps him in this market. Let’s try these questions: Do you think Judge is likely to play as well in any future season as he did in his walk year? Do you think he is more likely to play better for the next six years than the six years he just played — and now add on two or three more future years in a contract?
Steinbrenner is committed to keeping Judge. But if he didn’t, there would be logical reasons to let him go beyond Steinbrenner being cheap. If the best strategy is to do what your smartest opponents hope you don’t do, then I would ask this question, too: Do you think the Rays want the Yankees to retain Judge or not? I bet they hope the Yankees pay him a ton. A club such as Tampa Bay needs scenarios in which the Yankees spend poorly to open an avenue to beat them. And watching Judge and Stanton age into a battle for DH at-bats would be ideal for the Rays.
So if the Yankees let Judge go, would it then be wise to counter by not spending a ton of money, especially long-term money? What would that look like? They still would have Rizzo and Stanton. They could keep Torres. They would not suddenly be a team without power, especially if youngsters such as Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe deliver 15-20 homers each. They can use the year to find out about those three youngsters, and perhaps put Schmidt into the rotation to learn whether he can be a full-repertoire starter if they stop forcing him to be just a slider-monster reliever. They will see whether outfielders Jasson Dominguez and Everson Pereira and lefty-hitting catcher Austin Wells can make it to the majors — or if they improve or worsen their prospect standing.
In the best case, that is still an 85-plus win team that can augment at the July trade deadline. And the Phillies just showed it is about getting into the tournament healthy and getting hot at the right time.
Either way, if it succeeds or fails, the Yankees will have learned a lot about themselves, and can then try for Shohei Ohtani in free agency next offseason and/or Juan Soto in the one after that.
This is the scenario I believe is the least likely to occur because I do think Steinbrenner will do everything to sign Judge and will not just go mild if he fails there. But if the Yankees do not retain Judge, this scenario should not be simply dismissed. It arguably could leave the Yankees in a better place for the long-term future.