Yankees Winter of Discontent

MADDIE MALHOTRA/BOSTON RED SOX / GETTY IMAGES

Have the Yankees done enough?

The offseason optimism begins when the disappointment of not reaching the World Series dissipates for baseball fans. There is always hope for improvements through trades and free agent signings. Some teams are more aggressive than others, and the New York Yankees are generally one of the more active Major League Baseball teams in seeking reinforcements.

At the start of free agency, the potential losses of left fielder Andrew Benintendi and starting pitcher James Taillon created urgent needs to fill their roles if they signed elsewhere, which they eventually did. Yet, the highest priority (rightfully so) was Aaron Judge. The Yankees had to sign Judge, the face of the franchise and an invaluable offensive and defensive star. Yankee fans had to endure the famed Jon Heyman “Arson Judge to the Giants” tweet, but in the end, the Yankees got their man for nine years and $360 million.

To an outside observer, there never appeared to be a strong desire to chase Jameson Taillon. Taillon found a new home with the Chicago Cubs, while the Yankees sought an upgrade which they found in former San Francisco Giants LHP Carlos Rodón. Rodón easily slots in behind Gerrit Cole in the starting rotation and ahead of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who was perhaps the Yankees’ best starter in 2022. 

In a surprising move, the Yankees re-signed a familiar face for the bullpen, bringing back Tommy Kahnle. Before the signing, there had been rumblings the Red Sox were interested in Kahnle. Originally drafted by the Yankees in 2010 but lost in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft to the Colorado Rockies, Kahnle returned to the Yankees in July 2017 and was a key high-leverage reliever for the next three years. In 2020, the last year of his contract, his season ended early when he underwent Tommy John surgery after injuring his ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow. He became a free agent at the end of the season and subsequently signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Kahnle did not make his Dodgers debut until last May and missed time with right forearm inflammation. He finally returned in September with favorable results and is viewed as healthy entering the 2023.

Kahnle provides strong late-inning support for Manager Aaron Boone. The Yankees lost Aroldis Chapman (the happiest departure felt by Yankee fans in recent memory) and Zack Britton to free agency. Chad Green, who will miss most of the season after last year’s Tommy John surgery, is a free agent and will not return. Kahnle helps to make up for their losses and fits in nicely with Ron Marinaccio, Wandy Peralta, and Jonathan Loaisiga, setting up closer Clay Holmes. Michael King also appears healthy and ready to return to dominance in 2023.   

So, the question becomes, ‘did the Yankees do enough to close the gap with the Houston Astros?’ I am not sure they did. Once they signed Rodón, they backed off trying to bring back Andrew Benintendi, who subsequently signed a five-year contract with the Chicago White Sox. Interest in Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Brian Reynolds never materialized, reportedly due to Pittsburgh’s high asking price. One by one, other options were signed or were acquired elsewhere.

The best free agent option remaining for left field is Jurickson Profar. With the Yankees bumping up against the Steve Cohen luxury tax threshold of $293 million, it seems unlikely the Yankees will pursue the Scott Boras client. 

Faced with the prospect of playing Aaron Hicks and/or Estevan Florial in left field, the offseason has not been as successful as it could have been. Oswaldo Cabrera did a decent job after Benintendi was injured last year. Still, he was not a trained outfielder in the minor leagues, and his greater value is his versatility and athleticism. He can play nearly every day, rotating through the majority of the infield and outfield positions.

Several players were brought in on minor league contracts with invitations to Spring Training. The most notable is Willie Calhoun. The others include Rafael Ortega (who might have the best chance of making the roster) and Billy McKinney. 

The Yankees spend money, so to call Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner “frugal” is a misnomer. My problem with GM Brian Cashman’s handling of the finances is the inability to maximize the value of the dollars used. Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge are worth the money they are paid (well, you could argue that nobody is, but they provide what they are paid for). Yet, it is disturbing that the Yankees are paying $41 million this season for Josh Donaldson, Aaron Hicks, and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. The Yankees did not expect Donaldson’s bat to disappear last season, but his acquisition after the lockout ended did not make sense then, let alone now. The Yankees could have non-tendered Gary Sanchez (addition by subtraction) and kept Gio Urshela. Donaldson is the better defender, yet Urshela would have been a more reliable bat for a team that could not hit in October.

It is frustrating that the $25 million owed to Donaldson for 2023 is money that could have been used to seek a strong left field option.

The Yankees have been attempting to fill left field since Brett Gardner left, which says what you need to know about Aaron Hicks. They gave up four prospects to the Texas Rangers for the failed Joey Gallo experiment in July 2021, and they sent three prospects to Kansas City for Andrew Benintendi last July. All the Yankees show for those trades is minor league RHP Clayton Beeter. If the Yankees trade for an outfielder, it is possible that more than ten prospects will have been lost in an attempt to fill one position. That is crazy. 

So, despite the return of Aaron Judge and the additions of Carlos Rodón and Tommy Kahnle, the Yankees offseason has not been successful. They have not closed ground on Houston…and the Toronto Blue Jays are nipping at their heels in the AL East. Finding a strong left field option could have been the difference maker for an optimal offseason. 

There is still time for GM Brian Cashman to make the necessary moves. Opening Day is more than a month away. Maybe the Yankees just ride it out with what they have and reevaluate in July. It has been the blueprint for the past two years. If only the Yankees were as aggressive in adding an elite left fielder as they have been in adding accomplished baseball executives Brian Sabean and Omar Minaya to the front office.

Operation Status Quo remains in effect. I hope it is not a decision that brings a premature end to the 2023 season.  

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