Friday was a busy, yet productive day for the New York Yankees. Besides settling on arbitration cases with their biggest stars, the Yankees re-signed DJ LeMahieu to a six-year, $90 million deal and added Corey Kluber to a one-year, $11 million deal. Bringing back LeMahieu has locked down the Yankees’ middle infield for years to come, whereas acquiring Kluber gives the Yankees a legitimate number two starter behind Gerrit Cole. Thus, these two signings have instantly improved several weaknesses on their roster.
These two deals should provide relief to Yankee fans, especially after missing out on acquiring Lindor and Carrasco. Last week, when the Mets acquired the two former Cleveland baseball team players, the Yankees missed out on fixing their middle infield and rotation problems. At the same time, DJ LeMahieu felt “dismayed” with how the Yankees handled contract negotiations and allowed other teams to have more serious talks about his services. Fortunately, the Yankees made sure to keep LeMahieu in pinstripes and brought in a two-time Cy Young award-winning starter. Therefore, the Yankees effectively compensated for missing out on Lindor and Carrasco.
Nonetheless, with every good compromise, no side can truly be happy with the outcome. LeMahieu wanted a contract at five-years, $100 million, and other reports saying that LeMahieu wanted a five-year, $125 million contract. On the other hand, the Yankees originally offered a four-year, $75 million deal to LeMahieu, and were trying to prevent LeMahieu from adding on the fifth year. Ultimately, the Yankees saved between $5-$10 million by retaining LeMahieu because of the lower average annual value (of $15 million), but have locked up the incumbent second baseman until he is 38 years old. Although the former might end up hurting the Yankees, especially because LeMahieu’s baserunning and defensive metrics are on the decline, his bat should age well considering his elite contact skills, and he should at least be an above-average player on the front end of his contract.
Kluber can also be considered a high-risk, high reward acquisition. Even though the Yankees added Kluber to a one-year, $11 million deal, his deal may prevent the Yankees from pursuing starters such as Masahiro Tanaka and Jake Odorizzi, who have a higher floor and have been more durable the past two seasons. Indeed, Kluber has made just eight starts in the past two seasons because of a fractured arm after being hit by a line drive in 2019 and tearing his right teres muscle in 2020. Luckily, those two arm injuries are not as serious as tearing a UCL and needing Tommy John surgery. Albeit, given these two injuries, and considering Kluber will be entering his age-35 season, there is no telling what type of pitcher Kluber will be in 2021.
Conversely, when Kluber has been healthy he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball. From 2013-2018, Kluber compiled the fourth-most fWAR (33.2) and the second-most innings pitched (1238.2) among all MLB pitchers. There is reason to believe that Kluber can be an ace again, especially with the help of Yankees Director of Player Health and Performance Eric Cressey and Pitching Coach Matt Blake. Cressey worked with Kluber at the highly touted Cressey Sports Performance facility, and Blake, who has worked under Cressey’s tutelage and was the pitching coordinator with the Cleveland Indians, will be able to interact with Kluber once again. After an impressive showcase earlier this week, there is widespread speculation Kluber could return to his former degree of excellence, which would give the Yankees might two of the best starters in baseball (the other being Gerrit Cole).
Moreover, Kluber’s presence boosts the rest of the Yankees’ rotation. The Yankees’ current rotation consists of Cole, Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, and Deivi García with Luis Severino set to return from Tommy John surgery mid-season. Since Kluber has joined the rotation, the Yankees may rely less on Mike King, Jonathan Loaisiga, Clarke Schmidt, and Chad Green to start in 2021. Even though Montgomery, Germán, and García all have a limited amount of MLB experience, they all have the potential to be impact starters; Montgomery’s 3.47 FIP in 2020 indicates a much better 2021 campaign, Germán was an 18-game winner as recently as 2019, and García showed flashes of brilliance in his first cup of coffee last year. The Yankees’ rotation may still be one of their bigger weaknesses, but because of Kluber, they now have a much higher ceiling.
If there is one caveat to the additions of LeMahieu and Kluber, it’s that the Yankees may not be able to flex their financial muscles again this offseason. According to Spotrac, the Yankees are estimated to be $4.8 million under the luxury tax threshold thanks to the Kluber and LeMahieu acquisitions. Of course, the Yankees want to avoid paying any luxury tax, and once a team goes under the threshold (which is $210 million in 2021) the penalties are reset. Unfortunately, for the Yankees, they have exceeded the luxury tax in both 2019 and 2020; if they exceed this threshold again in 2021, they will be subjected to a 50 percent luxury tax. Certainly, the Yankees will be overly cautious about who else they can add this offseason.
The Yankees are taking into consideration their financial situation in the upcoming years as well. Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Chad Green will be free agents in 2023, whereas Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, Luke Voit, and Gleyber Torres will be free agents in 2024 (Luis Severino can be a free agent in 2023 or 2024 depending on whether the Yankees pick up his 2023 club option). The Yankees have a talented young core and would like to hang on to many of these listed players. As a result, the Yankees should start to think about contract extensions, and limiting themselves to short-term deals over the next few years.
Of course, the Yankees would still like to upgrade their roster heading into the 2021 season. The rotation has little depth out of their starting five, and after Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green in the bullpen, the Yankees hardly have any relievers they can rely on. If the Yankees plan to stay under the 2021 luxury tax threshold and only have an estimated $4.8 million left to spend, they should look towards signing a starter such as the ancient, yet still effective Rich Hill, or a swingman such as Brad Peacock. As for a reliever, potential steals include Brandon Workman and Oliver Drake that found success as recently as 2019. The Yankees may not be able to add a quality starter or reliever, but they have enough room to add another starter or reliever while staying under the threshold.
However, the Yankees may be wise to go a little over the luxury tax threshold. As long as the Yankees do not exceed the luxury tax by $20-$40 million, they will not face an additional 12 percent surtax. In this scenario, the Yankees would have approximately $24.8 million to spend this offseason, which allows them to make more crucial transactions for a deep playoff run. That being said, going over the luxury tax would give the Yankees a lot more options.
For example, perhaps the Yankees could re-sign fan favorites Masahiro Tanaka and Brett Gardner. They could even try to sign more low-cost, high reward starters such as former All-Star Jake Odorizzi, the post Tommy John surgery Garrett Richards, or innings eater Jose Quintana. As for adding a reliever, the Yankees could look towards 2020 saves leader Brad Hand, ex-White Sox closer Alex Colome, or reunite with former Yankees David Robertson or Kirby Yates. Indeed, going over the luxury tax may burden the Yankees, but given the plethora of options on the free-agent market, and the team’s capability of going over budget in the past, this is a risk worth taking.
Above all, the Yankees salvaged their offseason by bringing in LeMahieu and Kluber to the Bronx. They have once again asserted themselves as the American League’s best team. Best of all, by solidifying several areas of concern, the Yankees now can add more player depth and can make a more informed decision about how to approach the rest of the offseason financially.
fWAR: Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. fWAR an all encompassing statistic that determines how much better a player is than a replacement player (0.0 fWAR).
FIP: Fielding Independent of Pitching. FIP is considered a truer version of ERA because it only takes into consideration what the pitcher can control: walks, homers, and strikeouts. MLB average: ~4.20 FIP.