Saturday, January 27, 2024

The Call of Spring Awaits...


Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, Florida

Spring Training Less Than 3 Weeks Away…

The New York Yankees are finished with the off-season’s heavy lifting, and we will only see minor roster tweaks, if anything, between now and the Valentine’s Day reporting date for pitchers and catchers.

It is hard to say that a team with a payroll of $300 million has not done enough to close the gap between them and the AL contenders, but I guess we will find out. I am appreciative of Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner’s willingness to spend. The only complaint would be how those dollars have been allocated. This is certainly not an indictment of Gerrit Cole or Aaron Judge as both men perform to the expectations of their respective contracts. For every solid deal, there is a Josh Donaldson type of decision that befuddles the mind (the original decision to add him and his hefty contract; not the later decision to part ways despite the cost).

I get frustrated when the Yankees take on a bad contract and then use it as an excuse not to pursue elite younger players. It is always as if there is a Jacoby Ellsbury on the roster blocking the addition of good to great players.

There is also a concern with the guys who are now on the ugly side of their contracts like Giancarlo Stanton where age has deteriorated the player below his compensation level. Sure, Stanton looks great this offseason and I hope it equates to a bounce-back year for him. Yet, time is not his friend. Stanton is thirty-four and while that age is not “over-the-hill,” he is closer to the end of his career than the start of it. A good year or two can still be in the cards, and maybe this year will prove fruitful for him after his offseason focus to improve his performance. If the Yankees could find a way of offloading Stanton, they should do it. I would prefer to keep the designated hitter slot open for Aaron Judge or other players on a rotation basis. So long as Stanton is a Yankee, I will pull for him and I honestly hope for a strong season, but I would absolutely have no problem if the Yankees decided it was time to move on. You know that day is coming. Eventually, the team will decide the player is not worth it when the remaining balance of the contract becomes a sum that they can knowingly absorb without any further contribution from said player. It will not be 2024, but I think the Stanton ‘Designated for Assignment’ Watch can begin in earnest next year, particularly if his 2024 season mirrors last season.

Giancarlo Stanton (Photo Credit: @giancarlo818 via Instagram)

The other player that concerns me is DJ LeMahieu. I have always liked DJ. I lived in Denver, Colorado during his final years as a Rockie, and he was one of my favorite “local” players. He has performed well as a Yankee, but like Stanton, Father Time has caught up with him. LeMahieu will be thirty-six in mid-July. His best years have passed. He can be an admirable player, a complimentary player, on a playoff team, sure, but he will not be one of its driving stars. I am not sure what I think about LeMahieu as the starting third baseman. I suppose it is a better situation than first base so long as Gleyber Torres is the second baseman. LeMahieu will become the de facto first baseman should anything happen to Anthony Rizzo, however, if Rizzo stays healthy, I do like the consistency of one primary position for DJ, instead of bouncing around the infield.

I have seen the talk that the Yankees are interested in free agent third baseman Matt Chapman which seems more like ‘agent-speak’ than genuine interest from the team. I like Matt Chapman, but he is not the answer. Maybe not the player so much as the dollars it would take to sign him. The Yankees have made it obvious that long-term plans at third base will not feature Oswald Peraza. If not Peraza, then LeMahieu does seem to be the most logical candidate for the position. I wish there were a better contingency plan in place. It is possible that Peraza comes to camp and makes a statement that he is ready to ascend to the game’s highest level. Anthony Volpe was the golden child during last year’s camp. This year it can be Peraza since Jasson Dominguez will not participate while he recovers from offseason surgery, although Austin Wells is the player that I want to see in Tampa on a mission. With no other options, I begrudgingly accept LeMahieu as the third baseman, but it is a position that bears watching should LeMahieu suffer any setbacks. I am hopeful Anthony Rizzo stays healthy this year to minimize the need for LeMahieu to play first base. Plus, the Yankees need Rizzo and more specifically, the player at the level of play before he suffered the head injury last season.

I am confident in most of the other position players. Austin Wells and Jose Trevino should form a strong catching tandem, with Wells having the potential to take most of the playing time if he takes his game to the next level. I am glad the Yankees did not trade Gleyber Torres and he is my second baseman until he is not. Last year at this time, I wanted Oswald Peraza as the starting shortstop, but the Yankees have made the commitment to Anthony Volpe…as they should. I expect offensive improvement from Volpe for his second year in the big leagues. He has the talent and ability to succeed. Manager Aaron Boone must figure out the correct outfield alignment with Aaron Judge, Juan Soto, Alex Verdugo, and Trent Grisham (not to mention Giancarlo Stanton occasionally). It appears Judge will be the centerfielder, Soto will take right field, and Verdugo, a right fielder in Boston, will move to spacious left field. Trent Grisham will see plenty of time as the Yankees will look at ways to bring his defensive prowess into tight games. I am sure that Boone, with help from new bench coach Brad Ausmus, will fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

If Stanton and LeMahieu are my primary concerns among the position players, Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes, Jr. probably give me the most consternation among the pitchers. Both can be excellent pitchers. We saw it in 2022. Conversely, both pitchers were unable to stay healthy last season and there is no guarantee that 2024 will not be more of the same. When both pitchers arrived at training camp last season, they were healthy and ready to go, yet both missed considerable time with subsequent injuries. We should probably be thankful that Luis Severino is no longer a Yankee given his health concerns (I say that despite how much I enjoyed Sevy as a Yankee, at least the healthy version).  Gerrit Cole is not a concern, nor is newly signed Marcus Stroman despite his bout with injuries last August when he was first diagnosed with inflammation in his right hip and subsequently a rib cage cartilage fracture. Clarke Schmidt showed continued improvement, and there is no reason to believe that his progression to a middle-of-the-rotation starter will not continue. It seems like a near certainty that we will see Major League starts by Clayton Beeter, Cody Poteet, Cody Morris, and perhaps Luis Gil if all does not go according to plan. I wish the Yankees were bringing Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell to Spring Training along with Stroman, but it is crazy to think how much a pitcher like Montgomery would cost when you factor in the luxury tax penalties for exceeding the highest tax tier (basically he would cost double the face amount of his annual contract).  I am anxious to see the ascension of Chase Hampton, but he will not be ready for his Major League debut until late in the season at the earliest. He needs time at Triple-A to finish off his development.

Chase Hampton

While the bullpen still needs work, I am confident the Yankees will piece together another strong bullpen unit based on their history of successfully doing so. Call it the Tampa Bay Rays approach. Relievers can be so volatile from year to year. The next Ian Hamilton is just waiting for an opportunity. No need to spend top dollars for a guy like Josh Hader. I would like to see the return of Keynan Middleton, even more so than Wandy Peralta, although I would gladly accept both back. Although there has been some talk of Hector Neris, it seems like that ship has sailed even if Neris has not yet signed anywhere. The Rays are good at throwing a bunch of no-names together to form a strong bullpen unit, starting over from scratch every year.

I wish I had no concerns about the 2024 Yankees…that every position is filled with an elite All-Star player, carrying no question marks. Sadly, that is not a world that anyone lives in. Even the Los Angeles Dodgers have questions despite the huge financial outlay to bring in several of the game’s brightest young talents and featuring an abundant farm system that continually churns out above-average talent.

I guess this is why they play the games.

Bring it on. The Yankees may not win the 2024 World Series, but they will be better than the most recent team that posted eighty-two wins. So long as we have a competitive Yankees team that wants to play in October this year, it will be a better season for all of us. The Yankees are our team. As much as I would like to say Championship or Bust, and I know that has been the Bronx mindset, I think any of us would sign up for the intensity of the 2017 or 2019 Yankees even though those teams did not win the ultimate prize. If the Yankees leave everything on the field in terms of effort, missing a championship is more palatable than a team that simply gave up. No question a championship would reignite the excitement we had when the Yankees won the World Series under Manager Joe Torre in 1996 after an eighteen-year championship drought. It has been far too long since 2009.

I am ready for the 2024 MLB Season.

This Week’s Transactions

To make room for the recent signings of Marcus Stroman and Luke Weaver, and the waiver claim of Diego Castillo, the Yankees had designated three players for assignment. Infielder Jeter Downs and outfielders Oscar Gonzalez and Bubba Thompson. All three players were claimed off waivers by the Yankees earlier this off-season. Downs and Gonzalez went unclaimed after their placement on waivers by the Yankees and will remain in the organization. They have been sent outright to Triple-A.

The speedy Thompson departed the organization as the Minnesota Twins claimed him. I know Thompson would have been an asset late in the season and potentially in the playoffs with his speed, however, the Yankees have greater concerns and needs to fill. I wish Thompson the best in Minnesota. It does seem like he will have a stronger path to Major League playing time with the Twins. It would not be fun to spend the off-season as a thirty-ninth or fortieth player on a 40-man roster.

The Yankees also signed catcher Luis Torrens, a former Yankees prospect, to a minor-league contract.

Luis Torrens (Photo Credit: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Yankees signed Torrens as an international free agent in 2012. He was taken in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, who immediately traded Torrens to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. The player-to-be-named turned out to be infielder/outfielder Josh VanMeter who also signed a minor league contract with the Yankees this offseason. The Padres kept Torrens on the Major League roster for the entirety of the 2017 season which kept him in their organization. A bad Padres team that was able to bury a not-ready-for-the-Majors player on the bench. After a few years in San Diego, he subsequently spent time with the Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles, and Washington Nationals organizations. Torrens was robbed of valuable developmental time, and it prevented him from becoming the player he could have been if he had been able to stay in the Yankees organization. He is now 27 (will be 28 in May). There is no question I will be rooting for him. He is not going to make the Yankees’ Opening Day Roster but regardless of whether it is with the Yankees or another team, I hope he finds a home in the Major Leagues again.

As always, Go Yankees!