It’s an annual tradition at this point. The playoffs are in full swing, most of the league has shifted to offseason mode, and the rumor mill begins swirling as the hot stove begins to be preheated. Most questions will surround the winter’s big free agents, and inevitably, the New York Yankees are listed as a potential landing spot for pretty much all of them, whether or not they actually are a good match. It’s good business, really — the Yankees’ deep pockets make every free agent want to use them as leverage, and inevitably, the Yankees are more than happy to force their competitors to spend extra dollars on the market.
Even with the almost-certain work stoppage looming over the winter, our annual tradition has begun, and in even more earnest this year thanks to the fact that the Yankees biggest need, shortstop, also happens to line up with the deepest position in this year’s free agent market — in fact, it may even be the deepest market for the position ever. Jeff Passan said last week while a guest on The Michael Kay Show that he believes Seager will be the Yankees’ shortstop in 2022. Jon Heyman, meanwhile, sees one of Seager or Correa in pinstripes next year. Although it was in an article about Trevor Story, whom Bryan Hoch reports the Yankees have “soured on,” Mark Feinsand believes the Yankees to be a suitor for Story or “one of the other free-agent shortstops.”
Clearly, there’s smoke there, but is it any different than the smoke we typically see around the Yankees? To see, I decided to take a look at the reports from late October/early November about the last few major free agents that the Yankees were linked to in recent years: Manny Machado, Patrick Corbin, and Gerrit Cole. (Bryce Harper was originally considered for this piece, but the reports out of the Yankees’ camp were always “Not going to happen.”)
Let’s start with the shortstop/third baseman that the Yankees pursued at the 2018 trade deadline before he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Machado. As we all know, Brian Cashman opted to go for the duo of Troy Tulowitzki and DJ LeMahieu that winter rather than matching San Diego’s 10-year, $300 million contract, and while the first signing contributed just 13 plate appearances ahead of a mid-season retirement off the injured list, the latter was one of the steals of the decade. Here’s what reporters were saying about the Yankees’ interest at the time:
The Yankees are in the never-say-never business ... But at the moment, the Yankees are fixated on adding two starters. Manny Machado is a back-burner item and Bryce Harper is currently not on their wish list. -Joel Sherman, New York Post, November 8, 2018
Yankees will look into Machado, and it will depend on the price. Pitching is the priority though (and as said here, with Corbin and Happ top the list)— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 5, 2018
Clearly, Machado was never truly in the cards, with Cashman only interested if the price happened to fall sufficiently far enough that it would be absolutely foolish to pass up on a player of his caliber — similar to the Giancarlo Stanton trade. But what about his fellow free agent, pitcher Patrick Corbin, who was interested in signing with the Yankees (and the feeling was mutual) but Cashman was unwilling to give him a six-year deal. Ultimately, Corbin opted for a six-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
Despite their refusal to outbid Washington, the interest in Corbin was clear from the get-go. At the GM Meetings in early November, Cashman notably slipped up while discussing attempts to re-sign J.A. Happ, accidentally referring to Corbin’s agent, John Courtright, rather than Happ’s. Prior to that slip-up, Jon Heyman noted that the Yankees had attempted to trade for Corbin the previous winter. It sure looked like the Yankees were major players, but honestly, looking back, there’s actually not a lot linking the Yankees to Corbin beyond “it’s a natural fit” and “he grew up a Yankees fan.” Sure, they were interested, but they did not view him as someone they necessarily had to have.
That brings us to our third and final free agent, the white whale that Brian Cashman would not be denied: Gerrit Cole. On November 11, 2019, Cashman confirmed to reporters that he would be in on both Cole and Stephen Strasburg, with Martino specifically referencing the team’s quiet winter the season prior.
Brian Cashman confirms yankees will be in on Cole and or Strasburg. This ain’t Harper/Machado— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) November 12, 2019
At the same time, however, he hedged his bets, highlighting the fact that the team already had multiple high payrolls on the roster.
Cashman at the GM meetings said, yes, he will be talking to Scott Boras this winter about Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. But he also mentioned the heavy payroll commitments for next season and opportunities that could become available via the trade market. Very, very early...— Erik Boland (@eboland11) November 12, 2019
That is, unfortunately, the extent of the major discussion on Cole in the waning days of October and the early days of November 2019, although I do want to point out that Heyman did write in early December that “the dollars will be there” — i.e., that they were willing to do whatever it took to make sure Cole pitched in the Bronx.
All of this is well and good, but does this help us break down this year’s reports on Seager and Correa? Unfortunately, not really, because the truth is, we don’t really get a true sense of Cashman’s priorities until the GM Meetings, which will begin on November 9th. Everything he says before that is more a post-mortem on a season, not a discussion of future plans. That said, it does seem that, although Cashman has a well-deserved reputation for secrecy — he’s not known as “Ninja Cash” for his ability to spy on the Japanese monarch, after all — he does at least somewhat wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the top of the free agent market. Because of that, within the next two weeks, we should have at least some idea whether the Yankees’ general manager plans to fill his self-described hole at shortstop with one of the two top hitters on the market at the position.