The Yankees' 2020 season was a success by most measures — except for the second-place finish behind Tampa Bay. The Rays took them out in the postseason as well, which was particularly galling with a payroll that (for a full season) floated around $265M. The Rays, by contrast, fielded a payroll of around $73M. As opposed to the old days, when the Yankees' division rivalry with the Red Sox might prompt a spending spree to put them over the top, the Rays pose a new kind of threat. The Yankees cannot delude themselves into thinking their loss in 2020 has anything at all to do with money. The Yankees have to explore the possibility of doing more with less.
If there’s a model for the Yankees to mimic, it’s the Dodgers more so than the Rays. Although, considering that Andrew Friedman — the architect of these Dodgers — came from the Rays, one could argue that modeling oneself after the Dodgers is mimicking the Rays. The Yankees — lest we forget — are no slouches themselves when it comes to roster construction. Besides, it’s not any easier to become the Rays overnight than it is to become the Yankees overnight. Still, signs point to the Yankees facing a dramatic cut in payroll, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post.
Sherman suggests the Yankees will want to steer clear of exceeding the $210M luxury-tax line, which means taking a significant step back payroll-wise. Making it easier for GM Brian Cashman will be a whole slew of contracts coming off the books: James Paxton ($12.5M), Masahiro Tanaka ($23M), DJ LeMahieu ($12M), J.A. Happ ($17M), Jacoby Ellsbury ($5M) and Brett Gardner ($7.5M).
Taking into account potential arbitration raises, Sherman pegs the Yankees' current 2021 payroll to be around $171M, which leaves probably a little more than $30M in payroll space if the Yankees do intend to stay south of the luxury-tax line. Non-tendering or trading Gary Sanchez saves $5M, but they would need to fill his roster spot in that case.
Otherwise, they need a middle infielder — or to bring LeMahieu back. If LeMahieu leaves, they could explore the possibility of finding a glove-first shortstop to shore up the defense while moving Gleyber Torres to second. While it’s not fun to consider the possibility of losing LeMahieu, they could probably withstand his departure, especially with Clint Frazier looking like a viable starting outfielder. Not to diminish LeMahieu’s importance — he is the batting champ, after all — but the Yankees would otherwise return most of a crew who scored the fourth-most runs in the majors in 2020.
As much as the Yankees like LeMahieu, they have greater need in the rotation — and the money crunch is real. If Tanaka were to, say, accept a qualifying offer, their available money gets cut in half pretty quickly. LeMahieu, meanwhile, is looking at a contract that nets him $20M per season, if MLBTR readers are to be believed.
Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Deivi Garcia, Jordan Montgomery, Clarke Schmidt, and Domingo German provide manager Aaron Boone with a better group of rotation arms than many teams have, but they’re largely unproven (or coming off lost seasons in the case of Severino/German). Especially returning to a full 162-game season, depth is key in the rotation, a lesson Yankees fans know well. Without any additions, the Yankees would lean heavily on Cole for the second consecutive season. As good as he was this year, he can’t win a pennant all his own.
All that said, there could be some real bargains on the free-agent market this winter. It’s an offseason unlike any we’ve ever seen before. With teams planning to cut payroll almost across the board because of the revenue losses caused by the pandemic, it’s hard to pinpoint any specific club that’s definitely going to spend big money. New York could explore moving some of their committed money — like the $13M owed to Zack Britton and his 1.89 ERA in his final season on the books — but again, given the revenue losses all across baseball, there aren’t likely to be a lot of places to dump payroll.