Yankees have strong free-agent options at shortstop, center field and starter

George Steinbrenner, the fiery, volatile Yankees owner who prioritized winning over pretty much everything else, died of a heart attack at 80 years old in July 2010, about nine months after his club won the 2009 World Series in six games over the Phillies.

The Yankees, who won seven World Series titles in Steinbrenner’s era (1973-2010) — and made the final round four other times — haven’t been back to the World Series since his death. The team from the Bronx has been good since then, with two 100-win seasons and nine trips to the playoffs — including four to the ALCS — but hasn’t broken through.

Maybe the most frustrating thing of all? The Yankees have had more regular season wins than the eventual World Series champ five times since that 2009 title: in 2010 (95, to the Giants’ 92), 2011 (97, to the Cardinals’ 90), 2012 (95, to the Giants’ 94), 2019 (103, to the Nationals’ 93) and 2021(92, to the Braves’ 88).

So, yeah, there’s plenty of motivation this offseason to add significant talent to what’s already a very talented roster. Here are two things we know about the Yankees’ offseason plans: They are going to acquire a shortstop, and payroll will increase. 

Longtime GM Brian Cashman has spoken often since his club’s season ended about the need to upgrade at shortstop — Gleyber Torres is moving full time to second base — and he addressed the payroll issue speaking to reporters at the GM meetings this week. 

“Well, it’s going to have to be (increasing). We don’t have a lot of stuff coming off,” Cashman said, according to the New York Post. “So obviously I’ll have some latitude.”

The Yankees stayed under the competitive-balance tax threshold in 2021, which was important to the club because penalties for going over the set number — it was $210 million in 2021 — increase sharply for every consecutive year a team is over. Getting back under the number for a season resets everything. So the Yankees are back to zero, but expect them to exceed the luxury tax — whatever the number might be — next year. 

Let’s take a look at what the Yankees might do, at positions that Cashman has said are in play this offseason. We’ll start with the obvious one.

Yankees shortstop options

Back when Cashman made his initial comments saying shortstop was an “area of need” we took a dive into the most obvious options in front of the club, so we’ll just link to that story and give you the Cliff Notes version here. 

Carlos Correa and Corey Seager are the two biggest names, meaning they’ll both demand massive contracts of at least 10 years. Trevor Story is coming off a down year, but the Yankees had a lot of success with one ex-Rockie (D.J. LeMahieu). Marcus Semien is a top-three AL MVP finisher this year, and he could move to second when/if one of the Yankees’ shortstop prospects is ready for the bigs. Javier Báez is an intriguing option. 

“It’s certainly the year of the shortstop, certainly with a lot of high-end, talented players coming out at the same time,” Cashman said at the GM meetings.

After those five free agents, there are options the fan base probably wouldn’t like but wouldn’t be awful, such as signing Jose Iglesias or Andrelton Simmons (Cashman’s mentioned defense a couple of times) or trading for Paul DeJong

Yankees starting pitcher options

Here’s what Cashman said on the topic at the GM meetings: “Always pitching, pitching, pitching, even though our pitching was a good thing for us this year. It’s always good to try to reinforce it and add to it if you can.”

Stealing this from a TSN piece earlier this week: The Yankees’ 2022 rotation options at the moment consist of perennial Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole and about eight or nine pitchers who seem likely to post an ERA in the 4s if given 25 to 30 starts. It would seem unlikely that the Yankees would add a bottom-of-the-rotation starter this offseason, unless it’s an opportunistic trade or signing with low risk. 

Here are four options to slot in there next to Cole:

Max Scherzer, free agent: Scherzer is 37 going on 29, still an effective and often dominant starting pitcher in the big leagues. The right-hander with three Cy Young wins had a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts with the Dodgers after arriving in a trade with the Nationals. He’ll have lots of teams bidding for his services, offering two or three-year deals with crazy-high annual salaries. A short-term, high AAV deal makes sense for the Yankees, who have to tackle the Aaron Judge extension issue sooner than later. 

Justin Verlander, free agent: Sure, he’s coming off Tommy John surgery and will turn 39 during spring training. But that TJ surgery was 17 months ago, and Verlander impressed during his showcase throwing session earlier this week, sitting 94-97 with his fastball. And the idea of pairing Verlander with Cole atop the rotation has to be intriguing. Remember 2019, when those two finished 1-2 in the AL Cy Young race as teammates in Houston? You can bet the Yankees — who lost to those Astros in the ALCS that year — remember the duo well. 

Marcus Stroman, free agent: Stroman was outstanding for the Mets in 2021, one of the few players on the team who was good start to finish. He made 33 starts for the club, posting a 3.02 ERA and 3.49 FIP, with only 2.2 walks per nine. Stroman pitched at least five full innings in 29 of his 33 starts — including every July, August and September outing — and only three pitchers topped that number: Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. And you know Stroman would love the pressure of pitching under the Bronx microscope. 

Kevin Gausman, free agent: Gausman was outstanding in 2021 for the Giants, posting the best season of his career. He had a 2.81 ERA/3.00 FIP in 33 starts, with a 10.6 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9. Plus, he played last year after accepting San Francisco’s qualifying offer, so he has no draft-pick compensation attached, which is nice for him. He knows the pressures of the AL East from his days with the Orioles, but now instead of facing the Yankees a couple times per season, he’d face an Orioles club that lost 110 games in 2021. 

Yankees center field options

Aaron Hicks is a hard worker and a good teammate, but at this point in his career, he’s probably not a full-time center fielder, as much as the Yankees might want him to be. The club gave him a seven-year, $70 million contract after his breakthrough 2018 season — 27 homers, .833 OPS, 4.4 bWAR — but he only played 91 of the possible 324 games in 2019 and 2021, and though he played 54 of the 60 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, his production wasn’t great: 0.8 bWAR, 6 homers, 21 RBI, .225 average. 

The injury issues aren’t new. Hicks has been in the majors for eight 162-game seasons, and he’s played more than 97 games only twice. His contract has four remaining years, but using “contractual obligation” to determine starters isn’t the best way to build a World Series team. Cashman acknowledged as much at the GM meetings. 

“He’s going to finish off his rehab and he very well might be our starting center fielder, but again I’m going to be open-minded and evaluate all opportunities,” Cashman said. “We just want to make sure we put the best team out there. There are no guarantees right now, for anybody. … Aaron Hicks was hurt, so he’s been off the board. He might play some winter ball, we’ll see. In the meantime, center field was an area of concern this past year because of his injury.”

Here are four options:

Starling Marte, free agent: He’s heading into his Age 33 season, but Marte still is a great player. He led the majors with 47 stolen bases despite playing just 120 games combined for the Marlins and A’s, and he posted a career-best on-base percentage (.381) and OPS+ (131), plus a bWAR of 4.0 or better for the sixth time in his career. He’s also an outstanding defensive center fielder. A three-year deal with a relatively high AAV seems reasonable. 

Chris Taylor, free agent: Playing center field is just one of his many talents. The Yankees could sign him with the idea that he’s the starting center fielder, but they’d also be getting a replacement third baseman if Gio Urshella gets hurt, a replacement shortstop if the new shortstop gets hurt, a replacement second baseman if Torres goes down and he could probably catch, too, if Gary Sanchez gets hurt (OK, not the last one, but you get the picture).

Joey Gallo, on the roster: The Yankees could decide to keep this one in house, with Gallo — yes, he’s a large human but he’s an excellent defensive outfielder who has played 55 games in center in his career — as the fallback option if the club decides that Hicks is ready to take the full-time role this spring. 

Brett Gardner, free agent: Yep, Gardner could possibly come back, even after both sides declined their options this offseason. Another year of “hope Hicks is healthy, but at least we have Gardy” might not be the most appealing, but if the Yankees spend big at shortstop and in the rotation, that could what winds up happening.

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