With Brian Cashman’s stated goal of restoring Yankee Stadium as the “mecca” of baseball, trading for Juan Soto got him only halfway closer to that goal.
Signing Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto would be the clincher.
From a competitive standpoint, Cashman has other Plan B options to bolster a starting corps drained by the four-pitcher package (along with Kyle Higashioka) he shipped to San Diego for Soto. The top end of the free-agent market, namely Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, is being held up by Yamamoto’s decision (though we highly doubt Monty is up for a Bronx reunion), and there are a number of quality arms available via trade.
None of these names, however, are global phenoms.
Yamamoto is a 25-year-old superstar who brings the adoration of another baseball-loving country into the mix, just as Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka did when they arrived in the Bronx. That type of generational player greatly enhances the Yankee brand worldwide, along with turning on the spigot of additional revenue streams.
In Matsui’s case, how could one of Japan’s most celebrated sluggers possibly turn down a chance to play in The House That Ruth Built? Or later Tanaka, who was swayed by a recruiting pitch that included Matsui but also the allure of the pinstripes — a “world-famous team,” he said — and a record $155 million contract that was the fifth highest for a pitcher in MLB history at the time.
Cashman declined to say whether either of those players has been involved in the Yankees’ pursuit of Yamamoto, who is scheduled to meet with them Monday. But Matsui currently is employed by the team as an adviser and lives in the New York metropolitan area, so it’s a safe bet he’ll be involved in some capacity.
Based on the Yankees’ successful efforts to land Matsui and Tanaka, they were stunned when Shohei Ohtani didn’t even include them among his seven finalists in 2017 before choosing the Angels. The initial reason given was geography — Ohtani supposedly preferred the West Coast — and that obviously was something beyond the Yankees’ control.
There’s no such obstacle with Yamamoto, who has the Mets and Yankees among his top suitors, but it’s unclear what the determining factor will be in picking his next destination.
The Mets conveyed their level of commitment last week with owner Steve Cohen and president of baseball operations David Stearns flying to Japan for a meeting with Yamamoto, but they were unsure if a follow-up would take place this week at Citi Field. One thing is certain: Cohen — the sport’s richest owner — likely won’t be outbid, so if Yamamoto’s choice is strictly financial, the Mets will be difficult to beat.
The Yankees are counting on Yamamoto to need more than money. He’ll be offered plenty of it — Hal Steinbrenner has shown he’ll lay out the cash when necessary — but Cashman & Co. will lean hard on the Yankees’ brand as a selling point, especially after significantly improving the team by trading for Soto only a few days ago.
“Ultimately the culture we have with the Yankees, that we project constantly, is our intent to win,” Cashman said the day after the deal for Soto. “We’re in it to win it. So that’s messaging that’s constantly being reinforced.”
The Yankees are used to racking up Ws in the winter, but they’ve needed them this offseason more than any other in recent memory. As Cashman has mentioned, acquiring a perennial MVP in Soto — a rare get, particularly at such a young age — was about the Yankees’ staying true to the Steinbrenner legacy. But truly paying homage to The Boss requires pulling out all the stops, going the overkill route, to stock up on as many All-Stars or Sawamura Award winners (Japan’s Cy Young Award — Yamamoto has three) as they can squeeze into the home clubhouse.
“We certainly want to try, under the Steinbrenner leadership, to make this the mecca of baseball,” Cashman said. “And also make this an amazing and enjoyable experience for players and their families. If we take care of stuff like that, the recruiting effort becomes somewhat automatic.”
Steinbrenner also doesn’t skimp when the Yankees identify a must-have player. Sometimes it works out, such as giving Gerrit Cole a record nine-year, $324 million deal or holding on to Aaron Judge, though it’s a bit early to render a verdict on his $360 million contract. Picking up that $265 million on Giancarlo Stanton in the 2017 trade with the Marlins, however, has been a regrettable investment to date.
Still, acquiring Stanton — who was coming off an MVP season — speaks to that “mecca” mentality Cashman described. The Yankees were angered by the Ohtani snub that December and wanted to make up for it. Ohtani had yet to play in the majors and Stanton seemed like a decent Plan B back then, or maybe even a better pivot. We’ve come to learn that was not the case.
But now the Yankees are in blockbuster mode again, looking for the next CC Sabathia-Mark Teixeira offseason that could help set up the next championship. Soto is a great start. But Yankee Stadium won’t be quite the mecca it should be if Yamamoto ends up elsewhere.