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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' shortstop pursuit likely to have Gerrit Cole-like feel

Hal Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees, talks

Hal Steinbrenner, principal owner of the Yankees, talks with reporters during MLB baseball owners meetings, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Credit: AP/John Raoux

The last time the Yankees had a very specific need atop their winter shopping list, Gerrit Cole wound up with a nine-year, $324-million contract, the richest ever for a pitcher.

It dispelled the narrative that Hal Steinbrenner wasn’t willing to buy his way back to the World Series, or pay a pile of luxury tax in the process. Now that people are once again doubting Hal’s resolve, based on the Yankees skating below the $210-million threshold this season -- en route to a wild-card game loss to the Red Sox -- he has another chance to at least be an offseason champion again.

The glaring hole this time is at shortstop, and Steinbrenner is lucky in one respect: the position is chock full of free-agent talent. Pricey, sure. But the Yankees are sitting on a golden opportunity to make a similar Cole-type purchase, without having to worry about any Spider Tack surprises down the line.

The top two names on the market are Carlos Correa -- Cole’s former Astros teammate -- and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, with Trevor Story, Javy Baez and Marcus Semien rounding out the upper echelon. Astros owner Jim Crane recently talked about the possibility of retaining Correa, and his comments made it sound like that possibility was virtually zero.

"We’re going to give him something we think fits into our formula," Crane told MLB.com, "and hope it fits into his formula."

Without even mentioning numbers, here’s what Crane must already know. When you’re a free agent of Correa’s caliber, you don’t fit into anyone’s formula. You force teams to bend to your contract demands, and they choose whether or not to re-adjust to that new financial reality.

It’s not a stretch to say that Correa could challenge Francisco Lindor’s record 10-year, $341-million contract awarded by the Mets last April. That certainly didn’t follow any formula -- just new owner Steve Cohen throwing some money around after his $2.45-billion purchase of the franchise.

The Yankees’ pursuit of Cole jumped any rational boundaries as well, with GM Brian Cashman chasing his white whale with Ahab-like fervor. When the Yankees want something bad enough, they’ll get it -- and the bet here is that Steinbrenner will sign off on the next megadeal in the coming months.

Cashman hinted at the Bronx vault opening again when he spoke Tuesday at the GM meetings in Carlsbad, suggesting the Yankees have "some latitude" when it comes to spending this winter. Complicating matters, however, is figuring out how to write some big checks when no one has any idea what the game’s new economic rules will look like yet.

The Yankees didn’t have that problem in 2019 with Cole. They just applied the full-court press during their SoCal courtship and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. No other team really had a chance. Steinbrenner understood he was headed well north of the luxury-tax threshold and still plowed onward.

This time around, everyone is just guessing until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, with the current one expiring at midnight on Dec. 1. The expectation is that the sport will be shut down as negotiations stretch into 2022, effectively suspending all transactions, with the chance high of a rapid-fire free-agent signing period in the weeks leading up to spring training.

It’s tough to tell how that would affect the Yankees’ offseason strategy. The sport is open for business right now, and Cashman hasn’t shied away from November deals in the past. But the top end of the free-agent class typically prefers to play things out, let the market forces go to work, and have competition drive the prices up. Can teams get much beyond conversations before Dec. 1? Spending $300 million without knowing the potential penalties of doing so just doesn’t seem like a risk any owners would take, especially with plenty of them still claiming COVID-related losses over the past two years.

Cashman has referenced Steinbrenner’s own financial hit from the pandemic, and it’s unclear when attendance in the Bronx will surge back to pre-COVID levels. But there are some winters when Steinbrenner is more obligated to ignore the bottom line and go throttle-down to chase No. 28. This offseason feels like one of those again, and changing the narrative is easy for Hal when all he has to do is use his checkbook.

"I don’t know what the price points are and how it potentially fits with everything we’ve already got," Cashman said Tuesday. "So that’s currently what I’m going through — to see what’s realistic, what’s not realistic."

What’s real is the perception that Hal’s Yankees aren’t committed to doing whatever it takes to end this 12-year World Series drought. Steinbrenner needs to erase that doubt, even amid this winter of labor uncertainty.

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