Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Yankees Miss Their Target...


Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto

Yamamoto decides to join Shohei in LaLa Land…

When it was announced that Shohei Ohtani had deferred all but $2 million annually of his record $700 million contract for the next ten years, it seemed inevitable the Los Angeles Dodgers would do what it takes to sign Shohei’s fellow countryman Yoshinobu Yamamoto despite speculation the Yankees were the frontrunners to sign the talented free agent Japanese pitcher.

I never bought into the belief the Yankees would get their man. I wanted it to be true, and I would have loved to have seen Yamamoto wearing number 18 in Pinstripes, but sadly, the Dodgers had the advantage, and they knew it. My only hope was that Yamamoto would want to be “the” Japanese star on his new team despite knowing there is comfort in playing with a teammate without the need for an interpreter. Shohei Ohtani will be THE STAR in Los Angeles. Whatever Yamamoto can do, Ohtani’s star will shine brighter. But Yamamoto has a chance to celebrate championships with one of the greatest players to ever play the game. I do not blame him for his choice. I wish the outcome would have been different, but I wish no ill will to the pitcher, and I hope he has a spectacular Major League career.

The Yankees made a fair offer to Yamamoto. According to multiple sources, the Yankees offered a 9-year contract worth $300 million. The Dodgers offered 12-years at $325 million which is the same figure presented by the New York Mets. The Yankees’ deal offered a greater average annual value, but it was clear that Yamamoto wanted to play in Los Angeles.

There is no doubt it would have been a spectacular offseason if the Yankees had been able to acquire both Juan Soto and Yamamoto. It certainly would have heightened the optimism for the 2024 season. As it stands, the Yankees will need to pivot to find another starting pitcher. It will be hard to replicate the potential Yamamoto would have provided, but a front two of Gerrit Cole and say Corbin Burnes (currently with the Milwaukee Brewers) would be exciting. The downside is the talented prospects it will take to acquire another frontline player. The Yankees could sign Jordan Montgomery or Blake Snell for only money, but neither of those pitchers will significantly upgrade the starting rotation. Burnes or Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox seem to be the best options to slide behind Cole in the starting rotation. It is a hard pass on Cleveland’s Shane Bieber for me given his injury history in recent years. Miami’s Jesus Luzardo is also an option.

The Yankees do need help for the starting rotation. If 2024 success is dependent upon good health for Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes, Jr., the Yankees are doomed. They need a dependable top starter that they can pair with Cole. I wanted the Yankees to sign Rodón last year, and I still hope that he can be the pitcher he was in San Francisco, but it is not a bet I would want to make. The Yankees must lessen the “need” for Rodón so that anything we get can just be icing on the cake.

I am hopeful that someone emerges from the Yankees’ top pitching prospects to claim a spot in the rotation. An earned claim, not just giving a spot to a pitcher to see what he can do. Chase Hampton, Will Warren, and Clayton Beeter come to mind, along with a healthy Luis Gil. Most might be destined for the bullpen, but it would be nice if one emerged as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter or even as a strong fifth starter.

Pitching aside, the next order of business should be signing Juan Soto to a long-term extension. I know that his agent, Scott Boras, is not known for extensions but under the right circumstances, he has done it. The Yankees need to put their best foot forward to secure Soto so that he is not a one-and-done rental player for the Yankees. The announcement of a huge contract extension during Spring Training would be incredible. It would set the tone for the season and would bring the certainty Soto will remain an integral part of the lineup moving forward. It would be great to see Soto on the grounds of Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, surrounded by teammates, friends, and family, celebrating a long-term deal to keep him in the famed Pinstripes for the next decade. The Yankees were willing to give Yamamoto $300 million, knowing they would have to pay Soto. There is no reason the organization cannot pony up the money it will take to keep Soto and entice him to forego the free agent market. It will be a $500 million plus contract, for sure, and without the “Dodger” deferrals. The Yankees can afford to keep one of baseball’s greatest players in New York, and more specifically, in the Bronx.

Juan Soto

As much as Soto may enjoy New York during the upcoming season, I think it would be a mistake to let him hit the open market next offseason. He does not have long-time ties with the organization like Aaron Judge did. Being a Yankee is special, but money is better. If Soto is a free agent, it is a certainty Steve Cohen and the New York Mets will go hard after him. Every winter, there seems to be at least one Major League owner with stupid money. The potential to lose Soto in free agency is far greater than it was with Judge. Even if the Yankees must pay more, the talent of the player has proven his worth. With escalating salaries, the Cole and Judge contracts are beginning to look like bargains. If the Los Angeles Dodgers can afford to pay over a billion dollars for two Japanese players, including one who has never thrown a pitch for a Major League baseball team, the Yankees can afford to pay Juan Soto.

As awful as it felt to lose out on Yamamoto to the Dodgers, the pain of losing Juan Soto to free agency next Winter would be far worse, particularly if Soto has the type of season that we expect him to have in 2024. His style of play, and the results, are certain to endear him to the Yankees fan base. He will become a fan favorite in one of the safest 2024 season predictions you can make. It will rip our hearts out if he leaves.

Good thing Spring Training is still two months away. The Yankees have a lot of work to do.

Alex Verdugo, the Yankee…

I had wondered when the Yankees would hold a press conference for Alex Verdugo. I guess the days of the big press conferences at Yankee Stadium are over, but the Zoom calls with the press are nice. It helps to get insight into the players and to get their thoughts about joining the organization.

When Verdugo held his press conference this week, his comment about being mad when he heard that he had been traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees is the type of intensity I wanted to see from him. We always want the players to despise the enemy as much as we do, but honestly, they do not. They will go to whichever team is willing to show them the money. We saw David Wells and David Cone join the Red Sox. It happens. I would rather see a player dislike the Red Sox like we do. Granted, Verdugo had no love for the Yankees, but it is the passion, the intensity I respect, and I know that when he does pull on the Pinstripes, he will be ready for war. Maybe he will bring the energy the Yankees lineup has been missing. I wanted Cody Bellinger because of Bellinger’s ability to play centerfield while Jasson Dominguez recovers from offseason surgery, and first base as a hedge for Anthony Rizzo’s health. Nevertheless, if Verdugo is a Yankee when the team heads north next March, I will support him. I was not excited about his acquisition when it was first announced, but given time, I can see his value in getting on base for Judge and Soto. Whether he is in left field or center, I would have preferred elite defense, but Trent Grisham will get plenty of opportunities and will provide an excellent glove late in games.

Verdugo has chosen a Yankees number, but he did not reveal it during the press conference. He wore 27 with the Dodgers, and 99 with the Red Sox so neither of those numbers are options. Weirdly, the Yankees website continues to show Verdugo with 99 on the 40-man roster. I think that number is already taken. For that matter, they show outfielder Trent Grisham with number 2. We know that number will never be handed out again. Regardless of the number Verdugo wears, I look forward to the passion and energy he will bring to the Yankees next season. I know he has learned from his past mistakes, and he will continue to get better as a Major League player. So, I do not care what happened between him and Red Sox manager Alex Cora so long as the past mistakes are not repeated.

Alex Verdugo

Several Minor League signings…

The Yankees signed a couple of players to minor league deals this week with invitations to Spring Training. One is a former Pirates pitcher who spent 2023 in the Chicago Cubs organization, 30-year-old right-hander Nick Burdi. The Yankees enjoy reclamation projects from the Pirates, having found success with Clay Holmes, and their signing earlier this offseason of Yerry De Los Santos. Burdi has not found Major League success and has had trouble staying healthy, but he gets a clean slate with the Yankees and hopefully he can be the pitcher he has always wanted to be with his new team.

The Yankees also signed former Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants outfielder Luis González, 28. It is hard not to think of a painful bloop hit by Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez off Mariano Rivera to give the Arizona Diamondbacks the 2001 World Series Championship. “That” Gonzalez is unrelated to the player the Yankees signed, but the name (with or without the accent) will always be a painful reminder of 2001. I was in a bar outside of Arizona’s ballpark (now known as Chase Field) when the older Gonzalez forever placed his name among historical World Series achievements.

González was limited to only thirty-one minor league games last year after back surgery so he will be looking to rebound in 2024. If not with the Yankees, he can hopefully open eyes for some team to capture the continuation of his MLB dream.

Luis González

It was not a signing, but the Yankees claimed infielder Jeter Downs on waivers from the Washington Nationals. Downs was once a top prospect for the Cincinnati Reds. The right-handed shortstop, second baseman, and third baseman was traded, with pitcher Josiah Gray, in December 2018 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deal that sent Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Kyle Farmer and Alex Wood to the Reds. The Dodgers sent Downs, Alex Verdugo, and Connor Wong to the Boston Red Sox in a February 2020 trade that brought Mookie Betts (and David Price) to LA. The Washington Nationals had claimed Downs on waivers in December 2022 from the Red Sox, and a year later, Downs became a Yankee after his placement on waivers again. I'm not expecting much for the player with the impressive first name after he failed in Boston and Washington, but he is a former top prospect, so he has the pedigree. Maybe Jeter and the Yankees were always meant to be together. I wish him luck with his continued journey, and I do hope he finds success. It is kind of funny the Yankees have two of the three players the Red Sox acquired for Betts.

Merry Christmas to everyone!

As always, Go Yankees!