Yankees Need to Sign These Free Agents

The best free-agent class in history is coinciding with the most important offseason in Yankees history

Brian Cashman

Last week, the Yankees began building their 2019 roster by re-signing Brett Gardner to a one-year deal. The move was both good and bad, but now that Gardner is back, there’s nothing to do other than pray he produces and we get the 2017 version of him and not the 2018 version.

The Yankees declined Gardner’s $12.5 option, bought him out for $2 million and then gave him $7.5 million. So in essence, they saved $3 million by re-signing the longest-tenured Yankee. That $3 million is a very big deal because the Hal Steinbrenner Yankees are worried about every single cent that goes into payroll, doing everything they can to avoid being hit by the luxury tax. We saw it this past season when the team cut payroll by about $50 million despite getting to within one win of the 2017 World Series.

Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think the Yankees won’t operate under the same idea in 2019 and beyond to make sure they don’t have to pay tax on their payroll. This will please the other 29 teams in the league because if the Yankees aren’t willing to flex their financial muscle, which is the one advantage they have over every other team in the league, then the rest of baseball doesn’t need to worry about being outbid on free agents by the frugal, money-managing Yankees. The idea the Yankees are going to go bargain hunting this winter is a huge problem because we are looking at the best free-agent class in history.

I like to think the Yankees didn’t do everything they could to get under the luxury tax in 2018 only to sit back and not wildly spend on the best free-agent class in history. But if the Yankees were willing to cut payroll after reaching Game 7 of the ALCS and were willing to play Shane Robinson every day in August in the middle of a pennant race to avoid overpaying for an outfielder, well, I’m not about to think they will spend the way they did after 2008 and 2013.

But the Yankees need to spend. They can’t bring back the same team in 2019 that wasn’t good enough to win in 2018 and think they will go farther than they did in 2017. This is the most important Yankees offseason of all time. The team has a strong young core already in the majors in Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and Luis Severino and surrounding veteran All-Star pieces to be good enough to contend for a very long time. Couple that with this free-agent class and by Opening Day the Yankees should be the favorite to win the World Series.

The Gardner signing was the first of the most important offseason in team history and it doesn’t make the Yankees better. It makes them either the same or worse. Gardner coming back most likely means no Bryce Harper (if the team was even thinking about him given their financial worries) and it means no better option left-handed hitting option for left field like Michael Brantley. Gardner is now the team’s left fielder against right-handed pitching (which most of the league is) unless he continues on his 2018 decline or Clint Frazier is healthy and producing to force Gardner to the bench.

Maybe the Yankees don’t care about having Gardner relegated to the bench at some point and maybe they are secretly hoping for that since that would mean Frazier is healthy and ready. Or maybe Gardner was just a $7.5 million insurance policy if the Yankees are unable to land Harper or another better outfield option, and if they do, they will make Gardner the official fourth outfielder.

The problem is the Yankees can’t afford to screw this offseason up and destroy the future they are set up for. There are many avenues and options and paths to go this offseason between free agency and trade possibilities, but they can’t get it wrong. By no means can they get it wrong.

Since it’s nearly impossible to predict trades let alone trades the Yankees make, here is how I would will build the 2019 Yankees through free agency. Let’s start with the other 2018 Yankees, who are now free agents.

Sabathia can come back, get his $10 million, pitch every five days, give the team five quality innings, miss a few starts to get his knee drained and hopefully enjoy a trip to the World Series and get his second ring. I want Sabathia to return to the Yankees as the No. 5 starter and nothing more. Absolutely nothing more. I don’t want to see him start a postseason game again under any circumstances.

I’m happy that Sabathia was able to revitalize his career by finally learning how to pitch like his so-called two best friends in Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte. I’m still not happy about how long it took for him to realize his velocity was gone and he would need to rely on location and offspeed pitches to be successful, but better late and never I guess.

Sabathia earned $10 million last season and I’m thinking the same amount of money would be enough to get him back in 2019. Throw in some incentives and sign him up for 150 innings and the Yankees have the best No. 5 starter in baseball.

For a while, I was disappointed Walker was dragging the best first name in baseball through the mud with his awful play. But over time, he learned how to play without playing every day and turned into a nice utility player for the Yankees.

Now that Didi Gregorius is going to miss close to half the season in 2019, the Yankees need a middle infielder. Gleyber Torres can move over to shortstop, leaving second base open for a reunion with the switch-hitting Walker. (No, Manny Machado isn’t in my plans, as you will find out later.)

Walker earned $4 million last season as a late-spring training signing and I would think that same number can get him another one-year deal with the Yankees (they could probably get him back for even less) to be their starting second baseman for half the season and possibly more if Gregorius is out longer or if other injuries arise (they always do).

Ah, David “Copperfield” Robertson. I was crushed the last time he left the Yankees since I thought they needed to sign both he and Andrew Miller and not just one of the two, but I was equally as happy when he returned in 2017 in the trade that also brought over Todd Frazier and Tommy Kahnle.

Robertson was his usual self in 2018 as he pitched to a 3.23 ERA and 1.033 WHIP in a career-high 69 2/3 innings with 91 strikeouts (11.8 K/9). He wasn’t as dominant as he was for the Yankees in the final two months in 2017 (1.03 ERA, 0.743 WHIP and 13.1 K/9), but he was still the same old reliable David Robertson.

The bullpen was, or at least it was supposed to be, the Yankees’ strength for the postseason before Aaron Boone decided to mismanage it in the ALDS. The Yankees can have another dominant bullpen in 2019, and I expect them to have one, and that starts with bringing back Robertson.

The Yankees traded for J.A. Happ because they were in desperate need of rotation help. That and because he was AL East tested and proven, had postseason experience and was the Red Sox’ kryptonite. Unfortunately, Happ was unable to face the Red Sox in the biggest series of the season in August because of a rare illness, and when he faced them in Game 1 of the ALDS, he couldn’t have been worse.

Happ was the ideal trade deadline candidate. As a Yankee, he made 11 starts, went 7-0 and pitched to this line: 63.2 IP, 51 H, 20 R, 19 ER, 16 BB, 63 K, 10 HR, 2.59 ERA, 1.052 WHIP. (The home run total was a little high, but three of those came in his only bad start with the Yankees and another came when he had an 8-0 lead in the sixth inning and grooved one in for a grand slam in Boston.) The team won 9 of his 11 starts and his acquisition helped them avoid a complete collapse in the wild-card standings. (Though, now I wish they had either been the second wild-card team or lost the wild-card game.)

Happ would give the Yankees another left-handed pitcher in the rotation to go with Sabathia and a free agent to be named shortly. He would give them quality innings and he has already proven he can pitch in the AL East, in New York and for the Yankees.

Bring back Sabathia, Walker, Robertson and Happ in 2019. Simple enough. Now let’s get to the best free-agent class in history and let’s get the Yankees back to the World Series where they haven’t been in what will be a decade next October.

The prize of the 2019 free-agent class. In the early 2000s, this signing would have been a given. I wouldn’t have to check daily to see the latest rumors on Harper and worry about where he is signing because I would know that sometime in December he would be at Yankee Stadium, smiling and putting on a number 34 jersey over his dress clothes. But in 2018 with Hal Steinbrenner signing on to his online banking account every 15 minutes to make sure every penny is counted for, the chances of Harper are slim and now even slimmer with Gardner back.

If you try hard enough, you can find a reason not to sign any player even one with Harper’s abilities. It’s like criticizing a supermodel. Her hair kind of looks weird. Her boobs are too big. Her smile is too much. But that seems to be what a lot of Yankees fans are doing with Bryce Harper: coming up with reasons to not want him. He’s always hurt! He hit .249 last season! He sucks in the postseason!

If you can find a reason to NOT sign Harper then why sign anyone? If you can criticize an MVP-caliber, generational talent entering his prime enough to not want him then what are we all doing?

The Yankees might not need Harper, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t sign him. All it will take to land 26-year-old Bryce Harper entering his prime is money! No prospects, no Gleyber Torres, no Miguel Andujar, no Justus Sheffield, just money. MONEY! And guess what’s even better … it’s not your money! It’s the New York Yankees’ money and they have so much of it they could sign Harper, Machado, Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Patrick Corbin, J.A. Happ, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton if they wanted to. Somehow, the Yankees tricked most of their fan base into thinking the luxury-tax penalty somehow affected the fan base and that fans should be worried about the team’s financial state. Money used to be the Yankees’ biggest advantage over all 29 other teams. Now they operate as if each dollar matters to them and as if Yankee Stadium isn’t essentially a currency printer.

But to the idiotic Yankees fans who don’t want Harper, let’s go through their reasons.

No, he isn’t always hurt. Yes, he played 118 games, 100 games in 2014 and 111 games in 2017, but he also played 153 games in 2015, 147 games in 2016 and 159 games last season. That’s not to say injuries don’t happen, but the time missed in 2017 was due to him slipping on a wet first base in what was a complete fluke incident.

Yes, he hit .249 last season, but he also had a .393 on-base percentage, hit 34 home runs, drove in 100 runs and walked 130(!) times. Harper had a .889 OPS in what was a “down year”.

He has sucked in the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean he will always suck in the playoffs. He has played 19 games in the playoffs and has had 89 plate appearances, batting .211/.315/.487 with five home runs and 10 RBIs. He hasn’t been David Ortiz in the playoffs, but he certainly hasn’t been Nick Swisher or Mark Teixeira either. I also wouldn’t sign or not sign a player based on their postseason history. (However, once they are a Yankee, if they suck in the postseason, small sample sizes go out the window.)

Harper is going to get at least a seven-year deal and I really think there is no way he gets only seven years. The Marlins gave Giancarlo Stanton his 10-year, $325 million deal when he was 25, only one year younger than Harper, and Harper is a much better player with a much better resume than Stanton was when he signed his deal.

I don’t care if it takes a 10-year deal to land Harper, which would make him a Yankee through 2029. There’s no sure-thing in baseball or free agency, but right now, the only player ahead of Harper I would sign to such a deal would be Mike Trout, and unfortunately, he’s not a free agent.

Corbin is a good pitcher. He’s a lefty who put it all together this season and figured out how to consistently get strikeouts (246 in 200 innings) and he’s a New York native who falls into the “grew up a Yankees fan” narrative like Harper.

Corbin is by no means an ace or a guaranteed front-end starter. He should be counted on as a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm, who has the potential to be a front-end arm if he can maintain his consistency. But while everyone is fawning over what he did in 2018, he’s also two years removed from a disastrous 5.15 ERA and 1.561 WHIP in 2016 that saw him moved to the bullpen for the last two months of the season. Luckily for Corbin, he wasn’t a free agent after 2016 and is a free agent after his best season in the majors.

I don’t want Corbin because I think he’s going to win the Cy Young for the Yankees (though he might since Rick Porcello did once win the Cy Young). I want Corbin because I think he’s a stable rotation option, who throws the ball with his left arm and has finally tapped into his strikeout potential. If you want Corbin because you think he’s going to challenge Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka as the No. 1 in the rotation, well, you are going to be disappointed. But if you want Corbin because he might have finally put it together for good and because he’s a more reliable rotation option than Domingo German or Luis Cessa or any other hittable garbage in the organization then you’re in luck. All it will take to get Corbin is MONEY! M-O-N-E-Y!

I was sad when the Yankees traded away Miller in 2016, but I understood why they had to do it. (They had to do it because Brian Cashman poorly built the team.) The Yankees weren’t going anywhere and they needed to cash in on all of their tradable assets and Miller was their best one. He was a great Yankee, who took the ball after breaking his non-throwing wrist, and served in every role he was asked to without complaining all while putting up zeros as both a setup man and closer.

Miller dominated with the Indians in 2016 and the 2016 postseason and again in 2017. He had the blemish of giving up a home run to Greg Bird in the 1-0 Game 3 of the 2017 ALDS, which now looks like the most unbelievable feat of all time given the player Bird has become, or rather not become.

Miller would give the Yankees a second left-handed option in the bullpen (or possibly a third if Stephen Tarpley is a Yankee in 2019) and fills the void left by Zach Britton, who couldn’t have been a bigger disappointment, but who I certainly expect to return his former self as he gets farther removed from his Achilles surgery. The more elite bullpen options Boone has, the less chance there is of him calling on a crap reliever in a big spot like he did with A.J. Cole all summer or Lance Lynn in the playoffs. Bring back Miller.

Like all these other free agents, all Miller will cost is MONEY! The Yankees have a lot of it. They better be willing to spend it.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!

The book details my life as a Yankees fan, growing up watching Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams through my childhood and early adulthood and the shift to now watching Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge and others become the latest generation of Yankees baseball. It’s a journey through the 2017 postseason with flashbacks to games and moments from the Brian Cashman era.

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