DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees follows through on his first-inning home...

DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees follows through on his first-inning home run against the Phillies at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 3. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There’s a big difference between losing money and being broke. So just because the Yankees watched more than $400 million disappear with last season’s gate revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t mean that the vault at Fort Bronx is empty. There will be no plausible excuse if DJ LeMahieu isn’t back in pinstripes for 2021.

Along with Masahiro Tanaka, for that matter, or some other rotation help.

Brian Cashman abhors having the Yankees used by free agents as leverage in their negotiations, so he works extremely hard at cloaking his winter movements in an effort to avoid being manipulated to raise the ante.

In the case of LeMahieu, however, Cashman doesn’t have much choice. He’s been the Yankees’ No. 1 priority since the final out of the Division Series loss to the Rays, and the team’s entire offseason plan hinges on the MLB batting champion’s future.

Cashman has said as much during his rare public comments, without tipping his hand on how far he’s willing to go to bring LeMahieu back.

All of that puts the Yankees pretty much at LeMahieu’s mercy — a good place for him and a not-so-great spot for Cashman, who’s left without an exit strategy should the versatile infielder’s price tag far exceed their valuations. Citing the team’s pandemic-related losses is not going to fly.

LeMahieu already has stated numerous times, on the record, that he wants to return to the Yankees and loves playing in New York. Given that the fan favorite has been the team’s MVP the past two seasons, Cashman basically needs to pay him whatever he wants, but he is trying not to go to quite that extreme.

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka walks on the field before...

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka walks on the field before Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series against Cleveland on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland.  Credit: AP/David Dermer

Reports suggest LeMahieu is now up in the five-year, $100 million range, well beyond what the Yankees probably budgeted for him.

At this time a year ago, Hal Steinbrenner authorized Cashman to go to nine years and $324 million for Gerrit Cole, the club’s top offseason target and supposedly the last piece to the championship puzzle. LeMahieu isn’t anywhere near the same investment, of course, but the Yankees can’t afford to start pleading poverty now.

"We will be the No. 1 payroll regardless of anything that happens," Cashman said this past week during an interview with YES. "Ultimately, we have a team that we feel can compete for a world championship. It does need some additional help with that. That would include DJ’s return, we hope, along with some other opportunities."

Losing LeMahieu, say to the Dodgers or the nightmare scenario of the Mets, would set up Cashman to easily pivot to some of those other opportunities, such as a trade for Francisco Lindor or pushing harder for another front-line starter such as recently posted Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano. Based on Cashman’s YES comments, it sounds as if he’d also be ready to move Gleyber Torres back to second base if LeMahieu winds up elsewhere.

"We’ll just have to wait and see," Cashman said of LeMahieu. "There’s a lot of things in our favor, but ultimately it comes down to the financial opportunity that we provide as it’s measured to the financial opportunities others are providing. That’s the big unknown."

Typically, as with Cole a year ago, it’s the Yankees’ financial clout that decides these matters. And despite last season’s ocean of red ink, we expect that to happen again. But agreeing on a price can take time, even when the destination seems clear.

Big hire on Broad Street

The Phillies went with a proven commodity to head their front office in hiring Dave Dombrowski to be their first-ever president of baseball operations. Dombrowski, 67, is the architect of two world champions in Miami (1997) and Boston (2018) and twice got the Tigers to the World Series (losing in 2006 and 2012).

But Dombrowski’s reputation for spending big (and sacrificing prospects) to earn those titles will be put to the test with the Phillies, who reportedly were shopping Zack Wheeler in an effort to shed payroll. Phillies owner John Middleton denied that was the case — “If they offered me Babe Ruth, I wouldn’t trade him,” he later told ESPN — but claims of financial hardship persist on Broad Street, which would appear to put any chance of J.T. Realmuto’s return in doubt.

“There’s flexibility to do things, but I think we’ll look at each and every move in an intelligent fashion, and if something makes sense, we’ll react to that,” Dombrowski said Friday during a Zoom conference. “But I don’t by any means come in here and think we have an unlimited amount to spend, and I think you have to be careful.

“I know what sometimes people say and expectations are, but I think you make moves to try to win when you think they make sense and you add payroll when they make sense to make a difference. And depending on where you are as organizations, those things come at different time periods.”

Dombrowski went on to say that he doesn’t see the Phillies — who signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract before the 2019 season and Wheeler to a five-year, $119 million deal last winter — as being one player away from winning. The Phillies’ relief corps was the primary reason for their implosion last season, and their bullpen is in desperate need of upgrades.

“In general, most good clubs have a guy who closes the game. I still believe in that,” Dombrowski said. “I do think you need more depth than you used to. The negative part is that our bullpen needs a lot of fixing. We have some holes. The positive part is that it’s an opportunity. If you’re a reliever and you have a choice of A or B, and A has a pretty good bullpen and B is us and it’s not good, hopefully people are choosing us because there’s opportunity here, so we need to make sure we’re aggressive for that.”

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