Brian Cashman sounds like he’s preparing for a do-over. Believing that the 2020 Yankees ultimately fell short of their potential, partly due to injuries, the GM is ready to run it back with basically the same roster for this coming season -- as long as he can re-sign DJ LeMahieu.
"We have a lot of really high-end pieces in place," Cashman said Wednesday during a Zoom conference with reporters. "I'm not going to run through the roster but we have players at all positions that that we really like, that we think are average to well above average, and which formulate a really strong offense."
The GM isn’t wrong. And he went on to praise the young guns in the rotation as well, singling out the expected comebacks of Luis Severino (TJ surgery) and Domingo German (domestic-violence suspension). But is Cashman really sold on the Yankees in their current state or does he not have much of a choice, due to the financial parameters given to him by Hal Steinbrenner?
As far as we can tell, Cashman isn’t authorized to spend much else this winter beyond his pursuit of LeMahieu, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for him just yet, other than reports suggesting he’s already seeking a contract in the $100-million range. Should the Yankees lose out on LeMahieu, it would certainly allow Cashman to use that allotment for any number of upgrades, but that’s strictly a Plan B at this stage.
But how much money do the Yankees actually have at their disposal? If they intend to be anywhere around the $210-million competitive-balance tax threshold, not a heck of a lot. According to Spotrac.com, a web site that breaks down payrolls in very specific detail, the Yankees -- if you include arbitration estimates -- are sitting at roughly $209 million for tax purposes, so you have to figure Steinbrenner is more concerned with limiting the 12 percent surtax attached to exceeding it by $20-$40 million, as a LeMahieu signing would certainly put them over the threshold.
Cashman wouldn’t reveal his budget for 2021 when asked Wednesday, other than to say he was operating under the financial directives given to him by Steinbrenner. And judging by Steinbrenner’s openness in talking about the team’s revenue losses from the pandemic-affected 2020 season, it’s safe to assume he has a somewhat tighter leash on Cashman’s spending this winter.
"I feel confident that we will again have the highest payroll regardless," Cashman said. "And so our commitment to fielding a tremendous team is still going to be intact and our payroll commitment can’t really be questioned. I’m aware from ownership what I can and can’t do, and what I will be allowed and won’t be allowed to do, and I’ll leave it at that."
Cashman did make a passing reference to "decisions of the past that led to the present," which came off as a nod to Giancarlo Stanton’s hefty contract. Stanton and Gerrit Cole will earn a combined $65 million for this upcoming season, meaning that 31% percent of the current payroll is tied up in 8% of the major-league roster. Once you tack on the $20-plus million AAV for LeMahieu, those three players could wind up costing more than the entire payrolls for a handful of teams.
But there’s no walking any of that back now. Cashman plotted this course and the only way to justify it is to deliver a championship, which the Yankees haven’t done for 11 seasons. If LeMahieu returns, and Stanton hits like he did in October, and the Yankees can do a significantly better job staying healthy than they have the past three years, maybe some modest upgrades to the rotation will be sufficient, given their bullpen strength. But Cashman is banking on a number of arms that are still mostly potential at this early stage of their careers.
"Of course I would like to add to it if I can," Cashman said. "But as a fallback, if everything breaks right -- which I don't want to rely on -- but if everything breaks right [the rotation] has a chance to be really good. And so we'll see. I'd like to reinforce it if we can, but the fallback is if we don't, that's what we're gonna go with."
Here in mid-December, that’s a big leap of faith. Cashman still has plenty of time to come up with some outside solutions, but the longer it takes for the LeMahieu situation to be resolved, the tougher that task becomes for the GM. For now, Cashman said he’s willing to let those other opportunities get away as he concentrates on LeMahieu. Fortunately for him, not many have come off the board yet.
"There’s no comfort in the unknown," Cashman said.
And as much as the Yankees have tried to buy their way out of it, they’re right back there again.