Cole? Lindor? Rendon? The realistic guide to the Yankees' offseason

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Monday, November 25, 2019

In many ways, it was a decade of success for the New York Yankees: They had the most wins in the majors with 921, they hit the most home runs and scored the second-most runs, they never had a losing season and they played in more postseason games than any other American League team.

The only fact that matters for Yankees fans, however: no World Series appearances. The 2010s were the first decade since the 1910s that the Yankees didn't make a trip to the World Series -- that was the decade before a certain Sultan of Swat was acquired from theBoston Red Sox.

Hey, on the bright side, at least the Yankees finished in first place for the first time since 2012. They had gone six consecutive seasons without a division title. Still, 103 wins and an American League Championship Series loss to theHouston Astrosfor the second time in three seasons only created a final sense of frustration. That is not good enough for a franchise and its fans, who treat World Series appearances like a birthright.

It's especially frustrating in light of what happened last offseason. After acquiring James Paxton, DJ LeMahieu,Zack Brittonand Troy Tulowitzki, the back cover of the New York Daily News termed them the "Snore 4." In spring training, asked why the Yankees hadn't signed Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said, "I get hammered every year about something. If you don't win the World Series, that's perfectly justifiable."

The ironic thing is Gio Urshela had a better season than Machado. LeMahieu was better than Harper. Nice work, but that doesn't take the pressure of Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman to figure out a way to get the Yankees back into a World Series. The truth is longtime Yankees fans still want their shiny new toys. That whole birthright thing, going back to Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner can claim, "We did everything we wanted to do to really improve," as he did last spring, but until that first World Series trophy since 2009 is lifted, the belief will be the Yankees didn't do everything.

The New York media loves to push this narrative as well. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Francisco Lindor, Luis Castillo, Zack Wheeler, Jonathan Villar, Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson are all potential Yankees, based on your favorite report.

Three of those toys would make Yankees fans particularly happy. But it has been a long time since the Yankees actually operated this way. Since signing Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Hiroki Kuroda in the 2013-14 offseason -- part of a $471 million haul in one winter -- the Yankees have not signed a $100 million free agent. There's the old Yankee way of doing thing and the new Yankee way.

Let's examine those three toys and what might happen.

Old way: Sign Gerrit Cole

New way: Give Michael King and Deivi Garcia an opportunity

During their run of 17 postseason appearances in 18 years from 1995 to 2012 -- including 13 division titles -- the Yankees never let money get in the way of signing a big free-agent pitcher. Among the starters they signed in those years were David Cone (re-signing him after initially acquiring him in a trade), David Wells, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens (bringing both back to New York), A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia.

After spending that $471 million in free agency resulted in an 84-78 record in 2014, the Yankees haven't played in that market. Sixteen players have signed for $100 million-plus, none of them landing with the Yankees. The $100 million pitchers the Yankees didn't sign: Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Yu Darvish and Patrick Corbin. Certainly a mixed bag there, but with Scherzer in pinstripes, maybe the Yankees win it all in 2017 and 2019. The largest contract the Yankees have given out in the past five offseasons was the $86 million they gave Aroldis Chapman. The second-largest was $52 million to Chase Headley.

Of course, Cole is probably more Scherzer than Zimmermann. Maybe he's the pitcher that will get Hal to act like his dad. Plus, after getting under the luxury tax in 2018 to reset their tax rate, the Yankees were back over it in 2019. Their 2020 payroll currently sits at an estimated $196 million, including the $21.1 million they owe Ellsbury that they are shamefully trying to avoid paying.

That gives them about $35 million to spend to match last year's payroll. But they also have a lot of money coming off the books after 2020, including Ellsbury, Tanaka, Paxton, LeMahieu and possibly J.A. Happ (who has a vesting option). In other words, they could sign Cole, assume a one-year hike in payroll (which they can easily afford) and then revert to 2019 levels.

Now, Cole might not want to pitch in New York, and Strasburg will probably go back to the Nationals. The Yankees might also think they have enough starting pitching depth with a healthy Luis Severino, Paxton, Tanaka, Happ, Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery, plus Garcia (who struck out 165 in 111 innings in the minors) and King (who battled injuries in 2019 but dominated the minors in 2018). New pitching coach Matt Blake comes over from Cleveland, where had just been promoted to director of pitching development. The Yankees might want to see if he can work with the pitchers they already have, similar to developing the likes Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac for the majors.

What happens: It still feels as if the Yankees will get a pitcher, although more likely one of the second-tier starters like Bumgarner, Wheeler, Michael Pineda or Dallas Keuchel. Bumgarner would be the shiny toy Yankees will like, but Paxton is a better pitcher right now than Bumgarner.

Old way: Trade for Francisco Lindor, play Gleyber Torres at second and LeMahieu at first

New way: Play Torres at shortstop, LeMahieu at second and Luke Voit/Mike Ford at first

Acquiring a big star via trade has long been a Yankee tradition. Since 1995, those trades have included Cone, Chuck Knoblauch, Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Bobby Abreu, Chapman and, most recently, Giancarlo Stanton.

Lindor is a different case than Stanton, however. That deal basically hinged on the Marlins begging somebody to take Stanton's contract and the Yankees didn't have to sacrifice any premium talent to get the slugger. Lindor will cost real pain in the form of prospects and major league ready talent. Miguel Andujar is prime trade bait, but he isn't a good fit for the Indians since they have Jose Ramirez at third base and Carlos Santana for first base. Garcia is an interesting pitching prospect, but Cleveland is deep in starting pitchers. Clint Frazier doesn't move the needle. Realistically, a team with a better farm system is a more likely trade partner.

Plus, it's not as if the Yankees need to make a deal here. Torres can handle shortstop and LeMahieu is a former Gold Glove second baseman. Sure, LeMahieu was valuable in his utility role in 2019 and Torres might lack the plus range you want for a shortstop, but a Torres/LeMahieu double-play combination would be one of the best in the majors if LeMahieu repeats his outstanding 2019.

There is one crazy scenario here: What about Lindor for Torres? Before you laugh, consider what the Yankees gain:

1. The better player. Lindor was worth 4.7 WAR last season (and he missed 19 games) and 7.9 in 2018. Torres was worth 3.9 WAR in 2019.

2. The better defensive shortstop.

3. A switch-hitter, which better balances out the Yankees' lineup that leaned too right-handed (and which the all-right-handed Houston staff shut down).

Look, are you going to trade five years of Torres for two years of Lindor? No. But maybe the Indians send somebody else back in the deal, like one of their young pitchers, or maybe they agree to take on Happ's contract. An extremely unlikely scenario -- you never see challenge trades like this anymore -- but it is at least a fun one to consider.

What happens: They go with Torres and LeMahieu up the middle, with Thairo Estrada serving as a more than capable backup.

Old way: Sign Anthony Rendon

New way: Play Gio Urshela

If they can't get Cole, why not put money into Rendon? That would also follow a long Yankees tradition that began with Reggie back in 1977. Since 1995, their big-name free-agent position players have included Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira and Ellsbury (oops). Do they need Rendon? No, not if Urshela hits .314/.355/.534 again. You also have Andujar coming back off shoulder surgery, so this would just create an unnecessary logjam at third base while spending a lot of money to do it.

Sure, but keep it in mind that it wasn't pitching that cost the Yankees the ALCS. They hit just .179 with 21 runs in six games against Houston. The pitching staff held the Astros to just 22 runs. In the division series loss to the Red Sox in 2018, the Yankees hit just .214 and scored 14 runs in four games. In the 2017 ALCS loss to the Astros, they hit .205 and scored 22 runs in seven games.

It has been the offense that has killed the Yankees in the postseason. Rendon bats right-handed, but he's otherwise a perfect fit. As we saw in October, he hits good pitching. He puts the ball in play (unlike some of the do-or-die Yankees sluggers). Put him in the No. 3 spot and he takes a lot of pressure off of everyone else. You can still keep Urshela as a super-utility guy (he could play second with LeMahieu sliding over to first) and trade Andujar for pitching or play Andujar at first base/DH.

What happens: If not Rendon, Josh Donaldson or even Mike Moustakas (as a lefty bat) could fill a similar role at a lesser, more new Yankee way of doing things.