Hal Steinbrenner’s primary concern about the Yankees’ title shot remains the starting rotation and he insisted Wednesday the sport’s most severe luxury-tax penalties would not prevent him from adding a top-caliber arm for the pursuit of a 28th championship.
Steinbrenner took some heat over the winter for passing on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, even though the Yankees’ offseason upgrades — coupled with last weekend’s trade for Edwin Encarnacion — have pushed their 2019 payroll (for tax purposes) over $226 million, the tier above the minimum $206-million threshold.
The next, and final frontier is $246 million, and in passing that the Yankees would be taxed at a 62.5 percent rate (for their expenditures above $206 million) and their top draft pick for next year would be dropped by 10 slots. Brian Cashman said the club’s desire to stay below that mark stopped the general manager from outbidding the Braves on Dallas Keuchel this month, but Steinbrenner now claims that he’ll give the OK to cross that highest threshold for the right upgrade.
“If I really felt we needed that deal, that it takes us over the top, then yes, I would,” Steinbrenner said Wednesday at the Major League Baseball owners meetings in New York City. “But we still have a decent amount of cushion. I’m not concerned about that. It’s a decent cushion.”
That “cushion” looks to be roughly $15 million, enough to trade for front-line rotation help and keep Steinbrenner out of the top bracket. Unless, of course, the Yankees made a push for Max Scherzer, whose tax hit for the next three seasons averages nearly $29 million, according to Cot’s Contracts. Madison Bumgarner ($12 million) and Marcus Stroman ($7.4 million) would appear to be more accommodating salary-wise, and Steinbrenner did allude to possibly fortifying the bullpen by the July 31 trade deadline as well.
“Pitching is still a concern,” Steinbrenner said. “It has been with me for a while. Having said that, we’re still six weeks away from the deadline, so there’s not a whole lot happening right now. Things will start to heat up and we will have conversations, and if we feel we need to improve ... we’ll be right in the middle of it.”
Steinbrenner did concede that the luxury-tax thresholds are “on his radar,” and confirmed that Cashman’s wariness about spending too much on Keuchel was legit. But the Yankees’ rotation has two starters pitching on bad knees, and Luis Severino isn’t anywhere close to returning from his shoulder/lat muscle issues.
“I’m willing to do what I can to improve the team,” Steinbrenner said. “If we feel we need another starting pitcher, or even more help in the bullpen, we’re going to look at it. But that is on my radar, that threshold is on my radar, and was on my radar. I’m not going to say it wasn’t. It is.”
One of the Yankees’ top trade chips for any of these potential deals is Clint Frazier, who was demoted Sunday to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. While Frazier performed well at the plate during this 53-game stay, hitting .283 with 11 homers and an .843 OPS, his defense was an issue, as well as his skipping out on a postgame interview, then airing his grievances with the media.
Frazier, 24, also pushed his 72-hour window to report to Scranton, something that even veteran players rarely do, never mind rookies without a full season in the bigs. Steinbrenner was asked Wednesday if he had been following Frazier’s bumpy tenure, and did he view him as an important part of the Yankees’ future?
“I think he’s got a great career ahead of him,” Steinbrenner said. “He’s got a lot of talent. ... Everybody has ups and downs. We’ve seen what he can do offensively.”
A few moments later, after complimenting Frazier’s work ethic, and his efforts to get better in the outfield, Steinbrenner added, “He’ll be a big part of this team going forward. He certainly has the capability of doing that.”
As for his dust-up with the media, and maturity issues, Steinbrenner shrugged those off to some degree as growing pains. The Yankees acquired Frazier from the Indians in July 2016.
“Look, he didn’t come up through our system, OK,” Steinbrenner said. “These are some of the issues you’re talking about — and I know what you’re talking about — we work on from Day 1 when these kids are 16 years old. Maybe more so than other organizations, because other organizations don’t play in New York City. The maturity in many respects is there. But we all become more mature every year of our life, so there’s going to be improvements in all areas. I have no doubt.”