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How should the Yankees approach a hypothetical expansion draft?

The Yankees could take two very different approaches to an expansion draft.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Over the past couple of years, expansion has been widely discussed in the sports media circuit. During the height of the pandemic shutdown, MLB Trade Rumors decided to have some fun with the topic and ran polls asking its readers which players they thought each team should protect in a hypothetical expansion draft. Our very own Peter Brody, meanwhile, tackled the question himself, selecting four players (Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, Zack Britton, and Jonathan Loáisiga) to go along with the 12 players that MLB Trade Rumors decided were “automatic” inclusions.

That was more than a year and a half ago, and much has changed with the Yankees since then. After finishing in third place in the AL East with a 92-70 record — and just a 86-76 Pythagorean record, which is based on run differential — the Bronx Bombers might not be in the “go all-in” category that they were in two years ago. This means that the Yankees have a few different approaches that they could take to the draft, were one to actually happen.

The rules for expansion draft eligibility are, at their core, rather simple. Anybody in the organization, whether or not they are on the 40-man roster, is eligible for the draft, with the exception of minor leaguers with three years of minor league service time (four if signed before their 19th birthday). Teams can protect up to 15 players, which must include all players with no-trade clauses and 10/5 rights (10 years of service time, 5 with current team). Since the draft happens at the beginning of the offseason, impending free agents need not be protected, as they are technically not part of the organization.

Based on these rules, the Yankees have two players, Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton, who must be included on this list, while a few key players — Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, Aroldis Chapman, Gary Sánchez, Jameson Taillon, and Chad Green — will at this point in time be free agents, barring extensions between now and then. This leaves the Yankees with 13 spots to fill, and a lot of flexibility on how they would fill them.

No matter how the team decides to approach the draft, you don’t want your entire Major League squad to be gutted by the new teams. That means that Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery would probably be kept in order to keep the majority of the rotation intact. In a similar vein, Loáisiga, Luis Gil, Michael King, and Luis Medina would probably also merit inclusion on the list, giving the team a core of young pitchers with high amounts of upside and capable of, at minimum, going multiple innings.

Additionally, top prospect Anthony Volpe would certainly be protected if he’s eligible, although the weirdness that is 2020 makes it unclear. If the 2020 season counts towards minor league service time for expansion draft purposes, he is eligible and would need to be protected, as he would have 4 years in the minors (2019-2022); if 2020 does not count because there wasn’t a minor league season, then he would be automatically protected.

Between this core of pitchers and the two players with full no-trade clauses, the Yankees would have either six or seven spots left to protect players, and here is where they can get into a bit of strategizing. The way I see it, there are two ways the Yankees could approach the expansion draft: They could double down on their current roster, or they could hit the reset button.

With the first option, you would see the Yankees protect their primary starters who aren’t free agents. At this point in time, that would be Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Hicks, and Luke Voit; they would add to this group a couple of their minor leaguers close to the majors, such as Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera. They would almost certainly lose some minor league talent, much like they have in recent Rule 5 drafts, but this would be a calculated risk to keep the team together and make another run. Should the 2022 season go as we all hope, this is probably the strategy they would take.

But what if 2022 doesn’t go according to plan? What if Wander Franco turns the Rays into one of the AL’s superteams, or if the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff finally catches up to their electric offense? In that case, the Yankees could elect to leave LeMahieu and Hicks unprotected and instead keep more prospects from potentially leaving; the likelihood of a new team claiming those contracts may be low anyway. By gaining a little bit of payroll flexibility, the Yankees could then plan to retool around the new generation of Baby Bombers.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is just a thought exercise. There’s no real indication that Major League Baseball is looking to expand, despite the fact that it might aid in CBA negotiations by making expanded playoffs a more realistic option. Still, in the midst of the second month of the lockout, such thought experiments allow us to look at the same roster with a fresh set of eyes.