PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Yankees took considerable heat last year by trading for Aroldis Chapman, and Hal Steinbrenner inadvertently stepped back into that fire Thursday when he talked about the team’s motivation for signing him to a five-year, $86-million free-agent contract in December.
Steinbrenner initially was asked about Chapman’s first stint with the Yankees and how that led to the club’s decision to re-sign him with a record deal for a relief pitcher. After serving a 30-game suspension for domestic-violence allegations, which included firing a handgun into a garage wall, Chapman was a dominant closer for the 2016 Yankees with 20 saves, a 2.01 ERA and a 12.6 K/9 ratio. He was flipped to the eventual world champion Cubs before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline in a trade that brought elite shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres to the Yankees.
Having Chapman on the Yankees, after a spotless stay in the Bronx, didn’t sound as difficult for Steinbrenner the second time around — at least until a 15-minute interview session at the MLB owners’ meetings.
“Quite frankly, it was manageable the minute he got here last year,” Steinbrenner said Thursday afternoon. “He was great. Look, he admitted that he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life. He did everything right. And said everything right when he was with us, as far as I’m concerned.”
Steinbrenner’s use of the word “forget” turned that sentence into an inflammatory statement. But when reached later Thursday evening by Newsday and told of the outrage on social media, Steinbrenner insisted that he said “forgive” — not “forget” — and was surprised that the quote initially had read that way. It was not what he had meant at all, he said.
“I thought I said ‘forgive,’ ” Steinbrenner said. “We forgive. That’s what we do — forgive.”
As Thursday’s exchange showed, the Chapman case, even a year later, remains a sensitive and potentially volatile situation, one the Yankees cannot disregard based solely on the passage of time. Chapman helped the Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908, without any off-field incidents, and the Yankees were determined to bring him back with a huge financial commitment.
“Obviously, he’s a special player,’’ Steinbrenner said. “It’s a lot of money for a reliever. A lot of money for a hard-throwing pitcher, given injury histories and all that. But he doesn’t have an injury history and he’s about as strong a guy as you’ll come across.”
With the Yankees in a transitional phase, trying to develop a Core Four 2.0, Chapman serves two purposes: pairing with Dellin Betances to create a formidable back end of the bullpen and turning the stadium radar gun into must-see TV. With a fastball that regularly sits above 100 mph, Chapman drew gasps from fans at Yankee Stadium with almost every pitch last season.
“They love him,” Steinbrenner said. “There are so few baseball players that I feel can really get fans to buy a ticket and bring their kids to the game, and he’s one of them . . . He’s going to be great. The fans are excited. This is a good place for him.”
Chapman did not face charges stemming from the October 2015 domestic dispute with his girlfriend. The incident, however, prompted the Dodgers to back out of a proposed deal for Chapman and opened the door for the Yankees to trade for him in December 2015. Chapman was suspended last March under MLB’s domestic-violence policy, which was introduced in the summer of 2015.
While the Cubs viewed Chapman as the final piece to their championship puzzle, Steinbrenner has more modest expectations for the 2017 club. Rather than push the “World Series or Bust” motto of years past, Steinbrenner hedged some Thursday when asked about whether this group is capable of reaching the postseason.
“I always think I have a playoff team,” he said. “Now having said that, we have to stay healthy, as always. A lot of things have to go right. I get it. But I think the potential’s there if things do.”
The Yankees haven’t won a division title since 2012, but they are moving closer to one of Steinbrenner’s goals, and that’s to get the payroll in a more reasonable neighborhood for luxury- tax purposes. After topping out at $225 million last season, they’re currently at $184 million (according to Cot’s Contracts) with an eye toward possibly staying below the new tax threshold of $197 million for 2018.
Steinbrenner mentioned three players coming off the payroll after this season — CC Sabathia ($25 million), Alex Rodriguez ($21M) and Matt Holliday ($13M) — to free up more space going forward.
“We’re going to put a lot of that back into the club like we always do,” Steinbrenner said. “But it’s going to allow me to get down to where I think any team should not have to be [higher] than to win a championship, which is right around the threshold. I’m going to continue to try to and these young players are going to have to pan out. That’s going to be part of the equation.”
As for the annual rumblings about the Steinbrenner family possibly putting the Yankees up for sale — the club has been appraised at roughly $3 billion — he couldn’t have been more clear Thursday about their intentions.
“We’re not selling,” Steinbrenner said repeatedly. “We all feel my dad did so much for all of us that he would want this, and we love doing it. A family business is not always the easiest thing in the world — it has its blessings, it has its difficulties. But we all work together and we ain’t going anywhere.”