Yankees' offseason could be a game-changer

Fortifying rotation will be top priority for Cashman

October 20th, 2019

When baseball historians look back at the 2010s, they might refer to it as the lost decade of the Yankees’ storied past.

Another season ended in disappointment for New York on Saturday night, as the Astros finished off a six-game American League Championship Series with a 6-4 victory, sending the Yankees home for the offseason. The loss clinched a harsh reality for the Bronx Bombers, who finished this decade without a single World Series appearance, the first time that has happened since the 1910s.

General manager Brian Cashman and his lieutenants will now turn their full attention to the offseason, which has the potential to be a game-changer. If, of course, the Yanks choose to make it one.

The Yankees have been to the ALCS twice in the past three seasons, winning at least 100 games in each of the past two. No major shakeup is needed to get them to the next level, but make no mistake, there will be some urgency to get to the World Series next season after a couple of close calls since 2017.

When former manager Joe Girardi led the Yanks to the ALCS two years ago, it was a feel-good story. Cashman’s 2016 “rebuild” -- we use that term loosely, given that the team competed for an AL Wild Card spot late that season -- launched the start of the Baby Bombers regime, officially moving the franchise past the Core Four days.

Even after losing a seven-game ALCS to the Astros, it felt like things were looking up. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and the rest of the young core had gained valuable experience that would serve them well going forward.

Manager Aaron Boone oversaw a 100-win team last season, but the Yankees ran into a juggernaut Red Sox team that was not going to be denied. This year, Boone’s club came back with a vengeance, overcoming myriad injuries to post 103 wins and claim the Yanks’ first AL East title since 2012.

But after sweeping the Twins (because that’s what typically happens when they play the Twins in the postseason), the Yankees found themselves ousted in ignominious fashion by the Astros.

For all the talk of the Yanks’ dominant bullpen, the rotation proved to be an issue for New York in October. That wasn’t tough to predict back in July, when social media and sports talk radio was abuzz with amazement (and in some cases, anger) that Cashman hadn’t fortified the starting staff with a big arm.

Not that there was necessarily one to be had, mind you. Zack Greinke would never have approved a deal to New York, Marcus Stroman was not the ace that would have put the Yankees over the top and the asking price for Trevor Bauer was too high for Cashman, though Bauer’s personality might have chapped more than a few in this major market.

So, here we are again, wondering what the Yankees will do to bolster a rotation that has lacked the No. 1 workhorse to go up against the likes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

The obvious answer is Cole, an impending free agent set to cash in this offseason with the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher. The bidding for the AL Cy Young Award contender figures to be hot and heavy, with the final contract expected to break records for both total dollars and average annual value.

The Yankees have the money to spend, but two major factors will determine whether Cole winds up in pinstripes. First, will the team shell out the kind of money it will take to land the market’s top arm, something it hasn’t done for a free-agent pitcher since Masahiro Tanaka signed his $155 million deal prior to the 2014 season? Before that, CC Sabathia’s $161 million pact marked was the biggest the Yanks (or anyone, for that matter) had given a pitcher, but that was 11 years ago.

The second -- and potentially more important question -- is whether Cole wants to pitch in New York. The Newport Beach, Calif., native spurned the Yankees when they selected him in the first round of the 2008 Draft, opting instead to pitch for UCLA. Both the Angels and Dodgers are seen as legitimate candidates to make a big play for Cole, who may decide that pitching in his hometown is far more appealing than entering the New York pressure-cooker.

If Cole signs elsewhere, perhaps the Yanks make a bid for Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals starter can opt out of the final four years and $100 million of his contract, though the feeling within the industry is that Strasburg and his agent, Scott Boras -- who also represents Cole -- will leverage the opt-out into another year or two on the back end of his current deal, keeping him in Washington.

That leaves Hyun-Jin Ryu, Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi as the top free-agent pitchers. Ryu is expected to stay with the Dodgers, while the other three wouldn’t represent the type of big-splash arm the Yankees have coveted.

Cashman has shown an unwillingness to overpay for free agents in recent years, evidenced last year when he let Patrick Corbin sign with the Nationals for six years and $140 million. The Yankees had set their limit for Corbin at four years, and even when it became obvious they would not land the pitcher at that term, Cashman held firm to his stance.

Last year’s signing of DJ LeMahieu to a two-year, $24 million deal proved to be a stroke of genius by Cashman. The GM doled out $39 million for three years of Zack Britton and $34 million for two years of J.A. Happ, but none of these deals represent the type of big-game hunting that landed the likes of Sabathia and Mark Teixeira more than a decade ago.

The heat was on the Yankees to bring another title to the Bronx back then, and following a lost decade that ended with another disappointment, that pressure will be there again this winter.

The roster is in great shape overall. Even with Didi Gregorius headed for free agency (and no lock to return), the Yanks have Sanchez, Luke Voit, LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela and Miguel Andujar locked up for their 2020 infield. Judge, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton (a nine-figure contract Cashman acquired via trade) will be in the outfield, not to mention the possibility of Brett Gardner, whom most expect to come back on another one-year deal.

Britton, Adam Ottavino (who had a great year prior to his postseason struggles), Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle will all be back in the bullpen, though the Yankees will likely have to either re-sign Aroldis Chapman (who is expected to opt out) or find a new closer.

As for the rotation -- the most obvious area of need -- the Yanks will return Severino, Tanaka, James Paxton, Happ and Domingo German, though his future is clouded by domestic violence allegations that led to his late-season suspension.

Watching Cashman shape his roster in the coming months should make for great theater. Will he continue to take a measured, methodical approach as he has in recent years, or will we see a 2008- or ’14-type spending spree?

The Baby Bombers aren’t babies anymore. The aw-shucks underdogs of two years ago are now savages, and it’s up to Cashman to do what he must in order to get this team to the next level, which means World Series or bust.

Free agency begins five days after the conclusion of the World Series. Thanks to the Astros, Cashman and his troops now have a two-week head start to prepare.