NASHVILLE — The GM who put a handful of Japan’s biggest stars in pinstripes sounded confident Tuesday about adding another when discussing the free agency of Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
And why not? Brian Cashman has plenty of experience in this department, whether we’re talking about the mega-signings of legendary slugger Hideki Matsui and strikeout artist Masahiro Tanaka or trading for the iconic Ichiro.
Not only that, the Yankees’ edge involves more than money. It’s about the brand, and don’t think for a second that a relative youngster like Yamamoto, a 25-year-old pitching prodigy, doesn’t value the prestige in following those other NPB giants to the Bronx. Maybe the interlocking NY is tarnished a bit these days, and that 27th title is a distant memory. But these are still the Yankees, playing on the brightest stage, and that still has a gravitational tug for international stars.
Cashman’s trump card doesn’t always work, of course. Shohei Ohtani dismissed the Yankees early in his selection process back in 2017 — despite their exhaustive recruitment efforts — before picking the Angels, partly due to his preference to play on the West Coast. The GM can’t do much about geography. But when it comes to everything else, the Yankees rarely lose their top targets. And with Cashman’s track record over the last quarter century, he doesn’t flinch easily, even with baseball’s richest owner setting up shop across town at Citi Field, perusing the same free-agent shelves.
It’s no secret that the Mets, backed by Steve Cohen’s $18 billion fortune, are also gunning for Yamamoto, desperate to bolster a rotation left bare by trading away six Cy Young awards at last season’s deadline. When confronted Tuesday with Cohen’s threat, Cashman paid his respects to the worthy adversary. But he couldn’t sell us on the underdog vibe. The Yankees can’t pull that off.
“I don’t know if anybody can compete with Steve Cohen,” Cashman said. “He’s obviously a titan of industry that’s had a lot of success and built an empire, which has allowed him to do things like the Mets. So good for him and his family. But I think we can just concentrate on what we’re going to concentrate on. It’s a player of interest and we’ll compete for him, see where that takes us.”
We’ve witnessed how far Cohen is willing to go. He gave Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander record $43 million salaries en route to spending $377 million on the highest payroll in the sport’s history last year. Since the Mets’ midseason fire sale, both Cohen and the team’s new president of baseball operations David Stearns have tried to temper expectations to some degree, but that doesn’t apply to their aggressive pursuit of Yamamoto.
This isn’t Cashman’s first rodeo, however. When the Yankees choose to flex their financial might to go along with their pinstriped lore, it’s usually a winning combination. And Hal Steinbrenner has shown he’ll pony up when pushed, as his $360 million extension for Aaron Judge — completed around this time last year — was personally greenlighted by the owner at the 11th hour, on a late-night phone call from Italy.
That took some perceived nudging by the Giants, and having the Mets hanging around Yamamoto is the best thing that could’ve happened for his agent Joel Wolfe in these negotiations. With Yamamoto’s price now expected to soar into the $250 million neighborhood, that could tack on more than $35 million in posting fees, but the Yankees’ urgent need to make a huge splash — and change the narrative after missing the playoffs — should prompt Hal & Co. to go full Boss mode.
Plus, in Yamamoto’s case, Cashman has gone the extra mile — or the nearly 7,000 he flew to watch Yamamoto pitch a no-hitter for the Orix Buffaloes back in September. While the GM said he didn’t learn much more watching him in person from his front-row seat at Zozo Marine Stadium outside Tokyo, that wasn’t necessarily the point of the visit.
“It was with the perspective that he might be posted,” Cashman said. “We didn’t want to leave any stone unturned and we wanted to make sure we go over there and pay our respects. And he knew we were there . . .”
The Yankees know the formula. Cashman wouldn’t disclose whether alums like Matsui and Tanaka have helped in the recruiting push for Yamamoto, but he’s comfortable that the Yankees’ allure remains legit for a Japanese star of his caliber, as long as the check is big enough. And at this critical juncture, the franchise needs Yamamoto as much as any other free agent in recent memory.
The last time Cashman spoke publicly, he struck a defiant tone during the GM meetings in Scottsdale, sparring with reporters. On Tuesday, at the Opryland Hotel, Cashman’s mood was more chill, as if he were holding a winning hand.
He’s played these cards before.