My phone buzzed Thursday afternoon with some surprising and slightly ominous news for Major League Baseball, its players and fans. The league, reeling from lost revenues due to a pandemic-shortened season played in empty ballparks, was signaling very strongly that “business as usual” remains far off in the distance; that there would be very little warmth to enjoy from the hot stove.
It was a message from my brother:
“Indians waived Brad Hand!!!!????”
Two thoughts went through my mind in quick succession. The first was a mix of “wow” and “that’s ridiculous.” Hand, a 30-year-old southpaw, has established himself as one of the game’s elite relievers. In his last three seasons with Cleveland, he’s posted a 2.78 ERA (2.62 FIP) with 156 strikeouts and 35 walks in 107 innings. Cleveland had already decided they wouldn’t be picking up Hand’s $10 million option for 2021 and placed him on waivers in the hope that another team would assume his contract, relieving them of the burden of paying a $1 million buyout. No one bit.
The second thought was this: what a lousy time for the Yankees to rein in spending, as many expect, when there are going to be so many useful players to vacuum up at bargain prices.
It’s not just Hand, of course. Over the last week, MLB teams declined options on a number of players that would’ve seemed unlikely just a year ago. The Rays sent Charlie Morton back into the free agent pool; the Rangers bid adieu to Corey Kluber; lesser lights, but still good players like Kolten Wong, Sergio Romo and Darren O’Day, will be job-hunting.
A quick perusal of MLB transactions shows that 187 players have become free agents in the last few weeks. At this time last year, there were 150 such players and the year prior it was 157, which puts this year’s figure roughly 20 percent higher. The flood of free agents will likely do what team owners around the league hope: drive down prices for a league that still doesn’t know what next season will look like in terms of schedule and fan attendance.
It’s not clear what tack Hal Steinbrenner and the Yankees will take, but the speculation is the team will aim to get back under the $210 luxury tax threshold after racking up what would have been an approximately $250 million payroll in 2020 had the team played a full 162-game season. Steinbrenner reportedly said recently that the Yankees lost more money in the last year than any other club. (MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred claimed the league-wide losses total around $3 billion.)
So yeah, cash on hand appears to be limited across the board. But coming off a disappointing postseason performance, after a season that exposed issues with the team’s depth, the Yankees could really take advantage of what promises to be a bear market for free agents to aggressively address areas of need.
Looking for high-end bullpen depth? There’s Hand, Liam Hendriks, Blake Treinen, Alex Colome and Kirby Yates. Want some lower-end value plays? How about Romo, O’Day, Brandon Kintzler, Trevor May or Jake McGee.
Among starting pitchers on the market are big fish like Trevor Bauer and the aforementioned Morton. But there are also guys like Kevin Gausman, Taijuan Walker, and Rich Hill that could provide valuable innings in a rotation that currently features Gerrit Cole and several question marks.
The Yankees may even find it easier to re-sign their own free agents, like DJ LeMahieu or Masahiro Tanaka, to favorable short-term deals if their markets don’t develop as they’d have hoped.
Sure, it’s easy to spend other people’s money. But coming up with cash shouldn’t be an issue for a $5 billion organization like the Yankees, whether it’s through borrowing or, as it’s been speculated, going public on the stock market.
The point is the Yankees have a chance to be sharks when other clubs are hesitant to even get in the water. They should seize the opportunity.