Offseason Outlook: New York Yankees

In conjunction with this post, Mark Polishuk will hold a Yankees-centric chat on 10-24-23 at 1:15pm CT. Click here to leave a question in advance.

The Yankees’ 82-80 record kept the club’s streak of winning seasons alive, but that was small consolation within a very disappointing season in the Bronx.  Some manner of unspecified changes seem to be coming within the organization, yet GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone look to be returning, as the Yankees will try to figure how (or how much) to build around an incoming wave of young talent.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Aaron Judge, OF: $320MM through 2031
  • Gerrit Cole, SP: $180MM through 2028 (Cole can opt out after 2024 season, but Yankees can overwrite opt-out by adding a $36MM salary for 2029)
  • Carlos Rodon, SP: $162MM through 2028
  • Giancarlo Stanton, OF/DH: $128MM through 2027 (includes $10MM buyout of $25MM club option for 2028)
  • DJ LeMahieu, IF: $45MM through 2026
  • Anthony Rizzo, 1B: $23MM through 2024 (includes $6MM buyout of $17MM club option for 2025)
  • Tommy Kahnle, RP: $5.75MM through 2024

Other Financial Obligations

Total 2024 commitments: $188.25MM
Total future commitments: $883.75

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2024 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

2016 was the Yankees’ last season out of the playoffs, so it is perhaps instructive to look at how Cashman responded after that last setback.  Re-signing Aroldis Chapman and trading for Brian McCann were the two biggest moves of a relatively quiet (by Yankees standards) 2016-17 offseason, yet the club was able to rebound and reach Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, as New York was revived by the “Baby Bombers” group that included Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, and Gary Sanchez.

The Yankees would undoubtedly love to see another youth movement blossom in 2024, especially with so much promising young talent already debuting in the big leagues.  Anthony Volpe spent 2023 as New York’s everyday shortstop, Oswald Peraza got a bit more playing time than in 2022, and Everson Pereira, Austin Wells, and Jasson Dominguez all made their Major League debuts.  Even with Dominguez out until roughly the All-Star break due to Tommy John surgery, there is plenty of optimism that at least a couple of these highly-touted youngsters can break out in 2024.

That said, it isn’t the Yankees’ style to take a step back for a development year.  The club finds itself in the tough spot of wanting or needing to find playing time for these rookies, yet also definitely needing to make a strong return to contention.  It doesn’t appear as though managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner is yet considering firing Cashman, but for Boone, 2024 is the last guaranteed year of his contract, so the manager could be on the hot seat unless the Yankees at least make it back into the postseason.

For all of these bigger-picture issues facing the Yankees, their offseason plan is perhaps pretty simple — improve the offense.  New York finished within the bottom seven of the league in total runs, OPS, OBP, batting average, and were persistently undone by an inability to get hits with runners in scoring position.  Losing Judge to a torn toe ligament for close to seven weeks didn’t help, but almost all of New York’s other hitters had down years.  Judge (174), Gleyber Torres (123), and the lightly-used Dominguez and Greg Allen were the only Yankees hitters to post even a 102 wRC+, as DJ LeMahieu was the next best of the group with a slightly above-average 101 total.

In the most optimistic of views, getting healthy seasons from Judge and Anthony Rizzo, some level of bounce-back from LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton, and that aforementioned breakout from one or two of the rookies could greatly improve the lineup without even any outside upgrades.  But, that is asking a lot from inexperienced players, and it might be that LeMahieu and Stanton won’t ever regain their prime form.  Given the lingering effects of Rizzo’s post-concussion syndrome, it also shouldn’t be assumed that Rizzo will suddenly be an All-Star again even with an offseason of recovery.

To some extent, the rookie crop can be a hedge against the veterans’ chances of a comeback season.  LeMahieu and Peraza could be involved in a timeshare at third base, LeMahieu could likewise get some first base time along with Rizzo, and Pereira’s ability to become an everyday left fielder could keep Stanton firmly in a DH-only role, which may be for the best at this stage of his career.

Could a trade clear some room?  Stanton’s salary and his no-trade clause make him among the most immovable players in baseball, so the Yankees would have to eat virtually all of his contract to accommodate a deal, even if Stanton did agree to a move.  LeMahieu is also a tough sell in trade talks, given the $45MM left on his contract and his own no-trade protection due to his 10-and-5 status.  Rizzo is perhaps the easiest of the trio to move since he is only under contract through the 2024 season, yet the Yankees would be selling low given the unknowns of his injury situation, and they’d be losing one of the few left-handed bats from their heavily righty-leaning lineup.

Trading Torres would also seem counter-productive, as he was the team’s second-best hitter in 2023.  Moving Torres would both open up a natural middle infield spot for Peraza (or Volpe, if he was moved to second base and Peraza took over shortstop) and it would save some money, as Torres is projected for a huge arbitration raise to $15.3MM.  While the Yankees generally don’t pursue extensions as a club policy, there hasn’t been any indication that Torres is in the team’s plans beyond 2024, which is the second baseman’s final year of arbitration eligibility prior to free agency.  Still, the Yankees might be content to just let Torres walk in free agency rather than trade him this winter and create another question mark in the lineup.

When it comes to discussing Torres’ arbitration number or the possibility of eating money on contracts, it is fair to remember that this is still the New York Yankees we’re talking about.  As much as Bronx fans might consider the team to be more conservative spenders than they were in the George Steinbrenner era, the Yankees still had baseball’s second-highest payroll in 2023.  While far too much of that payroll went towards non-productive players, a case could certainly be made that the Bombers could address their offensive woes by splurging on some of the offseason’s top free agent bats.

For instance, releasing Stanton and absorbing his contract entirely might be an easier pill to swallow for the organization if it created DH space for a generational talent like Shohei Ohtani.  Rather than entrust third base to LeMahieu and Peraza, the Yankees could sign one of Jeimer Candelario or Matt Chapman, which might then create more flexibility to trade Torres to alleviate an infield logjam.

In terms of a perfect fit for New York’s needs, Cody Bellinger checks a lot of boxes.  The former NL MVP is a left-handed hitter who could either play center field until Dominguez is healthy, split time at first base with Rizzo, or move into left field if both Dominguez and Rizzo are healthy, thus upgrading the lineup both offensively and defensively.  The Yankees had interest in Bellinger when he was a free agent last season, though that was back when he was seeking a one-year contract, not the multi-year megadeal he’ll surely command this winter.

If not Bellinger, Kevin Kiermaier or Jason Heyward could also fit as much less-expensive outfield options who are more than capable in center field.  If the Yankees wanted a left field-specific player on a one-year deal, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Michael Conforto, or a number of other options could emerge on the free agent or trade market.  Such an acquisition would perhaps limit Pereira to part-time duty, though Pereira did little to prove himself ready of a larger role given his .427 OPS over his first 103 plate appearances in the majors.  Acquiring a left-handed hitting outfielder would both help balance the lineup, and also create a platoon opportunity for the right-handed hitting Pereira.

As always, the Yankees figure to at least check in on virtually every top free agent due to their financial resources, and Cashman will also explore his options on the trade front.  As much as New York prizes its upcoming wave of prospects, a non-playoff year could make Cashman a little more aggressive in dealing from that depth for a win-now piece or two.  The Yankees figure to prioritize only trade targets with multiple years of control if they were to discuss Pereira, Volpe, or Peraza in any negotiations, unless a high-level player (i.e. Juan Soto) was perhaps made available.

One plus of retaining the rookies is that, in theory, their potential can at least raise the talent floor of the Yankees’ bench.  Isiah Kiner-Falefa was a usefully versatile player who could fill a lot of holes around the diamond, yet his lack of offense means that he isn’t likely to be re-signed.  IKF is one of several part-timers that don’t figure to return in 2024, with most as likely non-tender candidates within New York’s gigantic arbitration class.  Of that group, one of Jose Trevino or (probably more likely) Kyle Higashioka figure to be non-tendered, with the other remaining on hand to share time with Wells behind the plate.

Between the probable non-tenders and the free agent departures, roughly $39MM will be coming off the Yankees’ books.  It’s not a huge amount, and it’ll get smaller given the arbitration raises to Torres, Clay Holmes, and others.  This leaves New York with a projected luxury tax number that is already over the $237MM threshold, yet as noted earlier, it isn’t as if the Yankees were going to cut back spending….especially not after a non-playoff season.

After all of this focus on how the Yankees can improve their hitting, the pitching side can’t be ignored, as Gerrit Cole’s brilliance helped paper over some larger concerns within the rotation.  Cole will again be the team’s ace, but Carlos Rodon and Nestor Cortes will be trying to rebound from injury-plagued seasons, and Clarke Schmidt and Michael King are still both relatively untested as starters (though both have looked quite good at times).  To add depth, the Yankees could consider a reunion with Luis Severino or Frankie Montas on low-cost deals, though either pitcher might prefer for a fresh start with a club that provide a clearer path to rotation work.

Rodon’s struggles in his first year in the Bronx could make the Bombers a little wary about immediately signing another starter to a pricey long-term contract, yet this could still be an option this winter.  Yoshinobu Yamamoto has been heavily scouted by the Yankees and many other teams, and could be the most realistic top-tier pitching option for New York to pursue because Yamamoto is only 25 and might not even be in his prime years.  If the Yankees wanted to make a shorter-term upgrade for the front of the rotation, such arms as the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes or the Guardians’ Shane Bieber are free agents after 2024, but would naturally still some at a significant trade cost.

New York’s bullpen flew somewhat under the radar as one of the better relief units in baseball, so the Yankees could be in good shape since most of the relievers will be coming back.  Pitching coach Matt Blake and bullpen coach Mike Harkey have shown a knack for getting strong results out of a variety of pitchers (whether veterans, rookies, or unheralded acquisitions), so the Yankees don’t necessarily need any big-ticket additions to the relief corps.

Wandy Peralta posted good numbers despite some very shaky advanced metrics in 2023, and even if the Yankees pass on re-signing Peralta himself, they’ll likely seek out another southpaw to fill Peralta’s role.  Finding a replacement for King could be more difficult, as King was excellent in a multi-inning relief role last year but is going to be stretched out for a potential rotation job next year.  While King could always just return to the pen if his starting gig doesn’t work out, his value as a relief arm could be another reason for the Yankees to seek out a more seasoned starter over the winter.

For all of the ways the Yankees could be different on the field in 2024, it also seems apparent that some things need to happen behind the scenes.  Much was made earlier this month about an external audit the Yankees were planning as a top-to-bottom overview of the organization’s practices, but it remains to be seen if any changes made will translate to a return to the postseason.  Cashman’s job might not necessarily be on the line, yet the general manager is facing more public pressure than at any time during his long tenure running the Bombers’ front office.

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