Every year I write a Christmas List here and ask for things that will make my life as a sports fan better. Whether it’s for Masahiro Tanaka to sign with the Yankees or for the Giants to make the playoffs or for the Rangers to build an even adequate defense in front of Henrik Lundqvist, I have asked for many things over the years, and like any Christmas List, sometimes I get the things on it and sometimes I don’t.
This Christmas, I don’t have a list. I have one thing I want, though that one thing has two parts to it. I want the Yankees to sign the two 26-year-old generational talent free agents. I want Bryce Harper and Manny Machado to be Yankees. That’s it. Is it too much to ask the richest team in Major League Baseball to spend somewhere around $750-800 million on two players to give them their best chance to win the team’s first World Series in a decade? No, it’s really not.
The cost of Harper and Machado is money. Yes, a lot of it, but the Yankees have it. No trade, no prospects and no more dismantling of a now mediocre farm system. Just money: the one thing that separates the Yankees from the rest of the league. Or at least the one thing that used to separate them from the rest of the league.
Somehow over the last few years, Yankees ownership has tricked its fans into believing the team can’t afford to go over the luxury-tax threshold, which is simply untrue. The truth is Yankees ownership doesn’t want to go over the threshold because they feel they are throwing away a few dollars that could better line their own pockets, not because they can’t afford to go over the threshold. So now you have an entire fanbase worried about the salaries of back-end starters, bench players and relievers, counting every penny the way the Steinbrenners do to see if the team can add any pieces during the season.
This line of thinking is what led to the Yankees not going over the top in 2018 after coming one win short of the World Series in 2017 and instead cutting payroll significantly. The 2017 Yankees had a 25-man Opening Day payroll of $196,389,700 and their 40-man roster at the end of the season cost $224,224,707. After blowing a 3-2 series lead in the ALCS, the 2018 Yankees 25-man Opening Day payroll was $166,111,632, which was over $30 million less than the year before. The 2018 Yankees 40-man roster at the end of the season totaled $192,980,833, which was over $31 million less than the year before. This way of spending is why Shane Robinson started in the outfield for a World Series-contending team for nearly an entire month in the second half because the Yankees were scared off by the initial asking prices in salary relief of potential trade targets. It’s why the team didn’t sign the best available free-agent starting pitcher in Patrick Corbin and it’s why Harper and Machado are still free agents.
I would like to think the Yankees are slow playing the Harper and Machado situation, waiting to make their move at the final minute the way they have done with big-name free agents before. But with the way ownership has worked in recent years, it’s hard to think they are going to suddenly act like the Yankees, as they are now more worried about nickel-and-diming their way to building a roster rather than building the best roster possible. For a family and a franchise that used to care only about winning and championships and doing everything in their power to a put a team on the field which left no questions, we are far from those same ideals now.
Brian Cashman cited the Yankees’ crowded outfield as to why the organization isn’t interested in Harper. It’s the biggest lie Cashman has ever told, even bigger than when he said he would grade Aaron Boone’s first season with “A’s across the board” after the manager single-handedly destroyed the last two games of the ALDS. Let’s break down the crowded out field. Aaron Judge has a place on the team. Aaron Hicks has a place on the team. Giancarlo Stanton has a place on the team. That’s three outfielders, though it’s essentially two as Judge and Stanton rotate as designated hitter (or at least they should even though Stanton was the DH most of the time in 2018). Brett Gardner? He’s essentially a fourth outfielder at this point in his career, as he was down the stretch last season after the trade of Andrew McCutchen. Clint Frazier? I would like for Frazier to be part of the equation, but after last year’s concussions, which held him to 242 minor-league plate appearances and 41 plate appearances for the Yankees, it’s hard to rely on him not only in 2019 but also in future seasons. Jacoby Ellsbury? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
So the crowded outfield is essentially Judge, Hicks, the DH, a fourth outfielder, a former top prospect with concussion issues and a 35-year-old who lost his starting job in 2017, missed all of 2018 with a variety of injuries and is rehabbing after surgery for a torn labrum in his left hip. On top of all this, Gardner is on a one-year contract and Hicks is a free agent at the end of this coming season. The crowded outfield is far from crowded.
Cashman also said he doesn’t see Harper as a first baseman. Harper appeared at first base in one game this season and that’s the only time he has in 927 career games. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t play first base. And more than likely someone on the team is going to have to learn to. Greg Bird can’t be relied on in 2019 and who knows if Luke Voit is anything more than a great two-month story. It would be irresponsible to go into next season thinking Bird or Voit is the starting first baseman with no backup plan or no depth at the position, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Yankees went into a season with no first-base depth only to get the worst first-base production in the league during the season and refrain from fixing the situation during the season because of … money!
Cashman and the Yankees can make up any excuse they want as to why the team isn’t going after Harper, and if they don’t sign him, they can come up with plenty of bullshit reasons why they didn’t, but any reason they give will be susceptible to criticism and full of holes. If the Yankees let Harper sign with another team it will be because of the luxury tax, no matter how they spin it. Whether they talk about there being no room on the roster for one of the game’s best players or saying they offered a fair number that didn’t meet the asking price, if Harper signs anywhere else it will be because of one thing: money. That used to be the one thing the Yankees didn’t care about because they have more than every other team.
The same goes for Machado. If Machado doesn’t sign with the Yankees, the team will tell its fanbase there wasn’t a place for him in a crowded infield and that there would be no room for everyone once Didi Gregorius returns midseason. With Gregorius out for at least half the season, an infield of Gleyber Torres, Manny Machado and Miguel Andujar sounds a lot better than an infield of Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and some average utility guy with no bat. And once Gregorius returns, you add him with those other three, and the best part is, you then have Machado for the foreseeable future and his entire prime. (I will worry about where Andujar plays when the time comes.) And if it’s not a crowded infield or a low-ball contract, the Yankees will use Machado’s hustle comments from the postseason as their reason. The Dodgers reached the World Series with Machado’s “lack of hustle” and if not for Dave Roberts’ historically bad management in the series, Machado might be a champion right now. I care just a little more about Machado averaging 36 home runs over the last four years and coming off a .905 OPS than I do about him sprinting down the first-base line on routine ground balls.
But like Harper, there doesn’t have to be room for Machado. You make room for these two. You sign them and figure out the rest later because it’s not often superstars reach free agency in their age 26 season because superstars don’t usually reach the majors as teenagers. And if they do, they get locked up to long-term contracts through their prime by their original team long before they ever get to this point. And a crowded outfield or crowded infield for one season doesn’t stay crowded for long with injuries and underperformance, and these signings aren’t only for the 2019 seasons, they are for many seasons.
The Yankees are in a championship window. They are either in the second or third year of this window depending on how you view the 2017 season and this window isn’t going to last forever. They wasted last season by not doing everything possible prior to the season to build the best team and then by not adding the necessary pieces during the season. The result: .500 baseball in the second half finished off by an absolute embarrassment in the postseason.
I’m holding on to the idea the Yankees didn’t throw away 2018 to get under the luxury-tax threshold for this offseason only to come away with Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ and an eventual reliever. I’m holding on to the idea that the Yankees don’t think they can essentially throw the same team out there for a third season in a row and think 2019 will end any differently than 2017 or 2018 did. I’m holding on to the idea that the Yankees are still the Yankees who use their financial prowess to their advantage.
I’m scared I won’t get either Harper or Machado for Christmas and for the prime of their career. I’m scared the Yankees think they can run out the same team that couldn’t get through the Astros in 2017 or the Red Sox in 2018 and think they will have a different result in 2019. I’m scared the Yankees are going to be scared of the luxury tax forever.
At this point, it will take a Christmas miracle for the Yankees to change course and become the Yankees once again, but it would make for the best Christmas story possible.