Is Yankees’ Roster Finalized?

Avoiding the luxury-tax threshold means the roster is about complete

The Yankees weren’t good enough to win the World Series in 2020. They weren’t good enough to get out of the division series. They weren’t even good enough to win the division in the regular season. And it looks like they are going to try to erase their soon-to-be-12-year championship drought with nearly the same roster in 2021.

During the 2010s, when the Yankees failed to reach the World Series for the first time in a decade since the 1910s, the team would use corny slogans to try to depict the organization and help boost ticket sales. Everyone remembers “Pride. Power. Pinstripes.” and “Our History. Your Tradition” and “A Timeless Legacy” from in-game commercials on YES. Well, if there’s a new one for 2021, it might as well be “Complacency” or maybe “Luxury-Tax Threshold.”

The Yankees have grown complacent since their last championship with the goal of simply getting in the playoffs, not caring how they get there. Home-field advantage doesn’t seem to matter for a team that keeps losing because of it, and having a strong, durable rotation or a lineup that can frequently put the ball in play aren’t important either.

Brian Cashman has made it clear the Yankees’ goal is to reach the playoffs and then hope to have luck and random chance on their side once they get there. Many times Cashman has called the playoffs a crapshoot, which means the general manager thinks the Yankees were just one really, really, really lucky team in four out of the five years from 1996 through 2000. They were extremely fortunate to have the dice land the way they did in 2009 as well.

It’s obvious the Yankees are doing everything they can to stay under the luxury-tax threshold for 2021 and have to avoid forfeiting an amount of money that’s probably equal to a homestand’s worth of Coors Light sales in the at the Stadium. (If Coors Light was $12 in 2019, what’s it going to be the next time fans are allowed to attend games with all of the supposed lost revenue the Yankees have suffered? $15? $18? $20?!) DJ LeMahieu’s contract says as much with the Yankees spreading his $90 million across six years rather than the expected four or even five. Their decision to replicate their pre-2008 season plans by possibly having both Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt in their rotation like they did Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy also makes it clear: avoid the luxury-tux penalty.

That means the team you see today (with LeMahieu and Corey Kluber counted as sure-things even though the team has yet to announce either as officially signed) is the team you will see on Opening Day. You can probably add Brett Gardner as well though it wouldn’t surprise me if the Yankees are prepared to replace an inevitably injured Aaron Hicks or Aaron Judge with Mike Tauchman and Greg Allen. But after Gardner, that’s it. There’s barely enough room under the luxury-tax threshold to add Gardner and have space for any in-season call-ups or potential trade acquisitions. Then again, after the Yankees stood completely pat during the 2020 deadline when they had glaring weaknesses and needs, why would they be active at the 2021 deadline, especially with no wiggle room before the penalty.

When Cashman finally decided to pull the plug on Sonny Gray as a Yankee because Cashman’s pitching department couldn’t tap into the pitcher who David Ortiz referred to in 2015 as “the toughest guy I’ve faced in the last few seasons,” Cashman said the following: “I don’t feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results.”

Each time Cashman has had a chance to put the Yankees over the top in the last four seasons, he has failed to do so and ownership has failed to allow him to do so. The Yankees could have had Justin Verlander at the August 2017 deadline, but they didn’t want to take on his salary. So he went to the Astros and single-handedly swung the ALCS with wins in Games 2 and 6.

The 2017 Yankees came within one win of the World Series after not trading for Verlander, and then they decided to cut payroll by $50 million for 2018. The Red Sox and Dodgers greatly outspent them that season, and guess which two teams met in the 2018 World Series?

Cashman tried to bolster the team’s staff for 2019 by trading top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield for the oft-injured James Paxton, who had never thrown more than 160 1/3 innings in a season in his career, a career which had been and still is one long injured-list stint with some innings in between rather than the other way around. In two seasons with the Yankees, Paxton was bad then hurt then good then hurt then bad then hurt again. The 24-year-old, left-handed Sheffield didn’t miss a start for the 2020 Mariners, pitched to a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP and allowed only two home runs in 55 1/3 innings. The Yankees could have used that arm against the Rays in the ALDS.

For 2020, the Yankees finally had starting pitching depth. Cashman and the Yankees created a rotation of Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ with Jordan Montgomery as insurance. But that was in February and before Severino needed Tommy John surgery and before Paxton underwent back surgery. The Yankees’ inability to properly diagnose Severino’s elbow injury from the previous October and Paxton’s back injury from the previous September had altered their 2020 plans. The Yankees had four months from the time the 2020 season was shut down until it finally started to add to their rotation, and they didn’t. When Tommy Kahnle went down in the first weekend of the shortened season, the Yankees decided not to add to their bullpen. The trade deadline came and went and the Yankees willingly decided to take their chances with a makeshift rotation, the kind of makeshift rotation they always seem have to by the time October rolls around, and three trustworthy bullpen arms.

Right now, the Yankees’ rotation is Cole, Corey Kluber and his eight starts over the last two seasons, Montgomery who is 11 starts removed from Tommy John surgery, and two rookies. The other rotation option is noted scumbag Domingo German, who it’s now impossible to root for, the same way it’s impossible to feel anything other than awful to need to also root for noted scumbag Aroldis Chapman to close out games for the Yankees. Unfortunately for Hal Steinbrenner, I haven’t forgotten that either is a scumbag, the way he hoped Yankees fans would when he allowed the Yankees to trade for Chapman and then gave him a five-year deal and said, “Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?” I haven’t forgotten, and I certainly didn’t forget when for the second straight season the highest-paid reliever of all time gave up a home run to end the Yankees’ season.

The Yankees are going to try to win in 2021 with the same lineup that wasn’t good enough in 2020 or 2019. They are going to try to win it all with a rotation that desperately needs Luis Severino to return completely healthy midseason and have no adjustment period after having only made five starts in what will be nearly two years. They are going to try to win it all with a bullpen that is now down to three trustworthy relievers in Chad Green, Zack Britton and Chapman with the departures of Kahnle and Dellin Betances over the last two years and the disappearance of an effective Adam Ottavino.

It’s a wild, ill-advised and irresponsible plan for a team in a supposed championship window, but it’s the Yankees’ plan. The Yankees are going to go through the same exercise and expect different results.

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