DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees celebrates his first inning home run...

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

The Yankees’ winter blueprint a year ago was fairly straightforward: give Gerrit Cole whatever he wants.

It worked, of course. Cole figured to be the last remaining piece for a championship roster, so a smiling Hal Steinbrenner happily forked over a record nine-year, $324-million deal.

Simple, right? Only everything that followed the Cole signing became historically complicated by a once-a-century pandemic. Long story short, the Yankees didn’t win title No. 28, saw their yearly revenue shrink by more than $400 million, and now reportedly find themselves $25 million apart from retaining DJ LeMahieu, the team’s MVP the past two seasons.

But the Yankees’ issues extend beyond LeMahieu, and reside mostly in the rotation, where Cole is the only healthy starter with a trusted track record. There’s Luis Severino, still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, followed by a bunch of others with presumably high ceilings: Jordan Montgomery, Domingo German, Deivi Garcia, Clark Schmidt, Jonathan Loaisiga, Nick Nelson, Michael King -- just a few of the names manager Aaron Boone mentioned Tuesday during his Zoom conference with reporters.

It’s hard to believe -- impossible even -- that the Yankees would start the 2021 season without adding a significant upgrade to that group, whether it’s bringing back Masahiro Tanaka on a team-friendly deal or maybe trying for the next potential Japanese star, Tomoyuki Sugano, who was posted last week by the Yomiuri Giants. Here in mid-December, there are plenty of options, at varying costs.

But as the Yankees look to stay under next year’s luxury tax threshold of $210 million, a drop in payroll of more than $30 million from 2020, all of their plans are tied to LeMahieu’s future. Unlike with Cole, LeMahieu can’t be considered the key to another World Series. A must re-sign for sure. But the Yankees have more work to do, regardless of how much money they intend to spend.

"I don’t know that I feel unsettled," Boone said Tuesday. "I certainly in my mind -- whether they’re big moves small moves -- I still feel like there’s a handful of things that will unfold that will bring things into clarity and OK, this is where we’re going and what we have. Obviously, DJ is a big, big first step in that -- do we have him? don’t we? -- and then things will start to fall into place once that situation settles itself."

At this stage, Boone doesn’t want to entertain any scenario without LeMahieu wearing pinstripes, and he repeated his hopes Tuesday for the batting champ’s return. Beyond that, there were other question marks to address. Gary Sanchez getting some DH reps in the Dominican Winter League, GM Brian Cashman’s critique of Gleyber Torres’ physical readiness for spring training 2.0, and the uncertain status of German coming off his suspension for domestic abuse.

Then again, the Yankees have seen their best-laid plans implode time and time again from spring training through the regular season, destroyed by an annual rash of injuries that keep occurring with inexplicable frequency. As a result, it often seems like they’re in a constant state of flux, relying on reserves of young talent that now need to be deployed at the major-league level. Much of that has been used to patch the rotation, and that’s all Boone has right now on paper.

"Well, it may have to be enough," Boone said. "I’m certainly excited about the people we have behind Gerritt Cole from a depth standpoint, from a number of young guys getting opportunities to pitch this year and showing a lot of promise. We still have a couple of months for the offseason to unfold and I know Cash is working hard to try and add pitching where he can. But you never know how in the end that’s going to flush out so you’ve got to be prepared to go in with what you have."

And if the Yankees do re-sign LeMahieu (which I’m still convinced will happen) the question then becomes how much money will be left for the rest of the roster. If Cashman is to be believed, that answer is likely to be very little, so it helps explain why these negotiations with DJ’s camp are stretching longer than were anticipated. Whatever can be saved on LeMahieu’s contract is then available for the pitching fund. It’s a belt-tightening strategy we didn’t expect to come so soon after throwing cash at Cole a year ago at this time, but that’s how the Yankees are dealing with their new economic reality.

Whether LeMahieu is back or not, Cashman will need to get creative in fortifying the Yankees for a deeper October run with a leaner payroll. Just writing a check for Cole didn’t go as planned in 2020, but neither has anything else since then.

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