The Yankees upgraded their 40-man roster on Friday with the signings of DJ LeMahieu and Corey Kluber. Fans have witnessed the extent of LeMahieu’s abilities firsthand over the last two seasons, while Kluber will be seeking to return after a series of injuries derailed his 2019 and 2020. To make room for them on the current roster though, the Yankees have some decisions to make.
Kluber’s presence deepens the Yankees’ options on the pitching staff. Question marks faced the team’s rotation after seeing Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and James Paxton head to free agency. There may be more moves to come, but for now, the Yankees will line up Gerrit Cole, Kluber, and Jordan Montgomery for three spots in the rotation. That will leave Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Domingo Germán, and Mike King to compete for the last slots to begin the season.
García, Schmidt, and King are still unproven in limited major league experience. Germán is returning from a full-season suspension in addition to an uneven performance during the Dominican Winter League that saw him finish with a 7.16 ERA. Luis Severino is not expected to return from Tommy John surgery until the second half.
If healthy, Kluber takes some of the pressure off the Yankees to start the season with both García and Schmidt in the rotation. The highly-rated prospects flashed potential but also displayed the struggles typical of young pitchers during their first exposure to the major leagues in 2020.
The return of LeMahieu also gives the Yankees flexibility with their infield. Initially signed to be a three-position utility option, LeMahieu has spent most of his time at second, but has also seen his fair share of games at third base with the Yankees. The combination of this fact and Gio Urshela’s strong grip on the position likely means that Miguel Andújar is further down the depth chart as a third base option. Andújar continued to spilt time between the hot corner and left field this winter while playing in the Dominican Republic. His defensive struggles will likely see him pushed to the outfield in a more permanent role.
Playing time and rotation competitions will be sorted out in the spring, but the Yankees have an immediate 40-man roster crunch to address. The trade for outfielder Greg Allen last week filled the last remaining open spot on their roster, and they will now need to clear two players to make space for their free agent signings.
The most vulnerable players on the Yankees’ roster are ones without a defined role who might create inflexible situations. Allen was in the process of being designated for assignment by the Padres when the Yankees swung a deal for him. Given that he’s a bench outfielder at best, his position on the 40-man is far from secure. Right-handed pitcher Albert Abreu is another case for the Yankees to consider, as he is out of minor league options. He has been in the Yankees system since 2017 and has yet to carve out a role on the MLB roster. Chance Adams found himself in a similar crunch last offseason after the Yankees signed Cole, and he was ultimately DFA’d and traded to the Royals.
Thairo Estrada and Ben Heller are two other names that the Yankees could risk moving off the 40-man. Estrada has produced a mere 65 OPS+ in 121 plate appearances over the last two seasons. He struck out 37 percent of the time in 2020 and the Yankees showed a clear preference for Tyler Wade in the utility role, especially when it came to handling the defensive challenges of shortstop.
Heller will turn 30 in August, and has been up and down with the Yankees since being acquired in the same 2016 trade that brought Clint Frazier to New York. He has performed steadily during his time in the Bronx, but has only given the team 31 1⁄3 major league innings during his career. With power arms like Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, and Luis Gil approaching the majors, the Yankees could deem Heller expendable.
Keep in mind that if any of these fringe candidates are designated for assignment, it won’t necessarily mean the end of their Yankees careers. In past offseasons, Brian Cashman has occasionally elected to bring recently-designated players back on minor league deals and invitations to spring training. They will, however, be free to test the market.
One factor the Yankees could also be considering is their roster construction. Right now, they lead the major leagues with six players who have yet to appear above High-A ball. Three of these prospects — Roansy Contreras, Oswald Peraza, and Yoendrys Gomez — were not at the Yankees’ alternate site last year and likely do not figure into the plans of the team for 2021. While these minor leaguers will certainly not be DFA candidates, the Yankees could test their value on the trade market in an attempt to continue improving the roster.
Rumors are already floating that the Yankees have their eyes on another major rotation piece in Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo. That would be a massive acquisition which would likely tap both the Yankees’ projected major league roster and their prospect depth. Even if they don’t acquire Castillo specifically, they could certainly end up swinging a less splashy trade to cull a couple names from the 40-man.
The Yankees absolutely upgraded their team by bringing LeMahieu and Kluber aboard. The additions have implications on numerous members of the roster, though, and will also force further moves as the Yankees seek to create roster space for their latest acquisitions.