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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Masahiro Tanaka victim of Brian Cashman looking at Yankees' bottom line

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees reacts on the

Masahiro Tanaka of the Yankees reacts on the mound during the fourth inning against the Rays at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 18, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Masahiro Tanaka, among the most popular and consistent Yankees in recent memory, wound up being a casualty of Brian Cashman’s bargain hunting this winter.

Specifically, the general manager saw an opportunity to get two pitchers for the price of one Tanaka to shore up the Yankees’ questionable rotation. And when those two pitchers are Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, both coming off significant injuries, at a total cost of $13.25 million for the 2021 season, it’s obvious that the Yankees are making some decisions these days with an eye on the bottom line rather than the Commissioner’s Trophy.

"Ultimately we feel like this was the best course as we move forward here in the 2021 season and we’ll see how it plays," Cashman said Friday on a Zoom call with the media. "Fitting in two for — in theory — the price of one was maybe a better strategy."

It could turn out that way. But given the Yankees’ track record with injuries, rolling the dice with a pair of pitchers who totaled 18 pitches last season (Kluber 18, Taillon 0) is a riskier gamble than other potential Tanaka replacements. Or just bringing back Tanaka.

Cashman said Friday that he had a few discussions with Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, but it sounded as if those talks fizzled out very early.

Cashman probably told Close that the Yankees were spending just about all of their offseason war chest on DJ LeMahieu, who ended up with a six-year, $90 million contract. When Cashman was asked Friday why it took so long to wrap up LeMahieu — the player said he didn’t see why it couldn’t have gotten done two weeks after the season ended — the GM talked as if he had been forced to empty his pockets on the negotiating table.

"I mean, it’s a lot of money," Cashman said. "It’s not easy in a pandemic crisis to be jumping into contract commitments of 100 million or more and we’re approaching that, so we had a long, drawn-out negotiation."

A year ago, the Yankees agreed to give Gerrit Cole a nine-year, $324 million contract on Dec. 11. Considerably more dollars, a lot less time to talk it over. But that example just shows you how much has changed in the past 13 months, including the Yankees’ mindset when it comes to money.

They’re not alone in that thinking, of course. The entire industry has pulled back, wounded by last summer’s lack of gate-related revenues, but it’s rare for the Yankees to be so obvious.

We thought Hal Steinbrenner’s mandate to get under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018 in order to reset the Yankees’ rate was a one-shot deal, particularly when the payroll soared back over $240 million after the Cole signing.

Because of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, the Yankees paid out only a fraction of that — roughly $83 million — while taking a revenue hit of more than $400 million with the absence of spectators in the Bronx.

With more uncertainty ahead, Cashman wouldn’t say Friday if he again was directed by Steinbrenner to get below the threshold — now at $210 million for 2021 — but that’s where the Yankees currently are sitting, approximately at $201 million, according to spotrac.com, a site that tracks payroll spending.

They didn’t get there by accident, and Cashman sounded a little uncomfortable Friday talking about how he had to unload Adam Ottavino on the Red Sox in order to gain the "payroll flexibility" of saving his $8 million.

"I preferred not to have the Boston Red Sox provide that flexibility," Cashman said. "But the prospect going to Boston was a lesser version than the prospect demand that I had going elsewhere, so it pushed me to the Red Sox. I thought it was a smart play by [GM] Chaim Bloom; he gets to import a player that’s going to have a bounce-back year, I’m sure."

Cashman went on to praise Ottavino for everything he did for the Yankees and what he might do for the Red Sox, and he reemphasized his hesitancy to "put him in the hands of our competitors." By the end, however, it dawned on him that all of his rationalizing wasn’t a great look.

"Hopefully my fan base understands, too," he said. "Why we’re doing what we’re doing. No one’s going to care if we’re successful, and that’s the ultimate goal."

It’s clear why the Yankees are operating this way. That’s not hard to comprehend in this rough economic climate. But he’s essentially bringing back the 2020 Yankees, praying for health and hoping they get a few of the breaks that didn’t go their way last October.

Is that enough to end an 11-year title drought? Or at least get past the Division Series this year?

"I can’t tell you I’m satisfied because satisfaction is only going to come with success," Cashman said.

The Yankees could use more of that this year, even after spending less.

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