Inbox: Will Yankees pursue a FA shortstop?

Beat reporter Bryan Hoch answers questions from fans

November 4th, 2021

Do you see the Yankees going for one of the top-tier shortstops?
-- Jimmy T., via Twitter

I could see Yankee Stadium visits on the horizon for and , something the Yanks haven’t done since someone in the scoreboard department used Photoshop to paint pinstripes on digital images of free agents Manny Machado and Patrick Corbin during the winter of 2018-19 (Bryce Harper was also part of that free agent class, but he didn’t receive the Stadium tour experience).

The Yankees are definitely in the market for a shortstop after abandoning the Gleyber Torres experiment in September, seeking an upgrade over incumbents Gio Urshela and Andrew Velazquez in the middle of their infield. Fortunately, they’ll be able to shop among a loaded class that includes Correa, Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story, with Correa and Seager thought to be the likeliest fits in the Bronx.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman recently said that he has not yet received his 2022 operating budget from managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner. Given the looming expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that’s not altogether surprising. Once that matter is settled, a shortstop should be at the top of the priority list, given Cashman’s stated intent to field an athletic, contact-oriented “strong spine” up the middle.

The 27-year-old Correa is regarded by many as the best all-around player on the market, though he carries the baggage of being a key figure in the 2017 Astros scandal. Would the Yankees -- or their fans -- be willing to let bygones be bygones? The 27-year-old Seager offers left-handed pop and potential to shift to a different position (likely third base), with shortstop prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza forecast to make their Major League debuts in 2023.

Know that none of the free agent shortstops will come cheaply, making the Steinbrenner/Cashman budget issue a priority. Even with the Yankees having reset their luxury tax this past year, that presents a concern given existing big-ticket commitments to Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton, plus a potential extension to keep Aaron Judge from reaching free agency after ’22.

Can you give us your prediction for what the infield will look like next season?
-- Matthew C., via Twitter

Anything and everything seems to be on the table, but let’s start with the assumption that their Opening Day shortstop is not currently in the organization, while Urshela and Torres are not traded this offseason. If that’s the case, I’d expect Urshela to be at third base and Torres at second base, which now creates a wrinkle with DJ LeMahieu.

I could see LeMahieu opening the season as the starting first baseman; his offensive profile isn’t prototypical there, but the defense is fine and the Yankees love having him hit at the top of the lineup. So my envisioned infield would have LeMahieu at first, Torres at second, TBD at shortstop (see above) and Urshela at third.

I’m not sure what the future holds for Anthony Rizzo and Luke Voit; given the current state of the roster, adding payroll at first base would not be my priority. Rizzo is eligible for free agency and he’s an athletic left-handed bat with a good glove, but he’s 32 and turned down a five-year, $75 million extension from the Cubs last spring.

Voit is one year removed from leading the Majors in homers during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, but his injury issues prompted Rizzo’s acquisition in July and he made it clear that he was not thrilled by a reduction in his playing time down the stretch.

Why is Bernie Williams not in the Hall of Fame?
-- Bill G., via e-mail

Short answer: just didn’t receive enough votes, falling off the BBWAA ballot with only 3.3 percent in 2013, his second year of eligibility. Though he wasn’t close to the 75 percent necessary for induction, Williams deserved more consideration; the “Today’s Game” Committee will have the opportunity to delve into his credentials in 2023.

Arguably the Yanks’ best hitter from 1996 through 2003, Williams was a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover who helped lead the team to four World Series championships, winning the 1998 American League batting title with a .339 mark. Williams’ excellent 16-year career included 121 postseason contests, over which he batted .275 with 22 homers and 80 RBIs, earning honors as the MVP of the 1996 ALCS.

Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric places Williams below the Hall of Fame induction threshold, a candidacy impacted by unfavorable defensive metrics. Still, you can present a solid case by placing Williams’ offensive numbers against 2001 Hall inductee Kirby Puckett. What’s more, Williams’ oWAR of 63.2 ranks 10th among centerfielders -- only Mike Trout and Carlos Beltran compiled higher figures without making it to Cooperstown, and both likely will.

In the meantime, at least Williams got to be on stage in Cooperstown, N.Y. for the inductions of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.

If the team doesn’t get past the Wild Card Game next year, what are the chances of seeing a complete blowup and rebuilding of the roster?
-- Jon B., via e-mail

I truly don’t see that happening. Cashman touched upon a similar theme in an end-of-season news conference to announce Aaron Boone’s return as manager. To put it simply, the Yankees do not believe they can endure a rebuild as the Astros did in the early 2010s, when they posted three consecutive 100-loss seasons before rising to win the 2017 World Series.

The awful Cubs of the early 2010s are another excellent example, bringing a historic title to Wrigley Field in 2016. Every ounce of the Yankees’ organization mindset is that they must field a postseason contender every year; that’s the “championship-caliber” phrase you always hear from the front office. Cashman said that the Yankees’ financial reserves permit them to continue “treading water” as a 90-win plus team, good enough to qualify for October baseball.

“The easiest thing would be to break it down and live to fight three or four years from now. That’s not in our DNA,” Cashman said. “So we’re going to continue to turn through it and try to maintain. That’s not what New York is about and that’s not what Yankees fans deserve. They deserve a chance to take a shot at the World Series title by getting yourself in the postseason.”

Could you see the Yankees looking to bring back Tanaka?
-- Dovid F., Brooklyn, N.Y.

I could. decided to return to Japan after the 2020 season, a decision spurred at least in part by off-field concerns, but I don’t sense that any of those issues revolved around playing for the Yankees or in New York. By all accounts, Tanaka genuinely enjoyed his time with the Yanks -- had there been no pandemic, I suspect he might still be on the roster. If Tanaka is ready to return to the Majors, the Yankees should be the first team he speaks with.

How likely is it that someone other than Hicks or Gardner is playing center field for the Yankees in 2022?
-- Frank L., New York

We’re approaching the midpoint of the seven-year contract extension that signed with the Yankees before the 2019 season, and thus far, injuries have limited him to 145 games. This phase of the marriage hasn’t been what either the team or the player expected, but there are still four years remaining for better production ahead.

If Hicks is healthy, and Cashman has said that he should be all the way back from left wrist surgery by December, then I expect him to be the Yankees’ center fielder. As for , I frequently think about his comments after the 2020 season, when he said that he didn’t want to end his career playing in empty ballparks without his family in attendance.

This year permitted Gardner to author a more acceptable conclusion, though he wasn’t tipping his hand as he prepared to return home to South Carolina at the end of the season. At Fenway Park, Gardner felt no particular urgency to remove his uniform following the Wild Card Game loss, savoring it for a few extra minutes just in case.

“You don’t know how many chances we’ll get to put the uniform on again,” Gardner said then. “It just feels good to still have it on.”