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The Yankees and contract-year decisions (part two)

Looking back on the last 10 seasons of Yankees walk years.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another Friday is here, and we’re still waiting to hear whether the Yankees have chosen between giving Aaron Judge a Scrooge McDuck vault of money or effectively closing the Baby Bombers era with a shocking pivot elsewhere. There’s not much precedent for this anywhere, so yesterday, I took a look at some of the first notable walk-year performances and decisions that the Yankees have faced since Brian Cashman asserted more control in 2006. Here’s the last bunch, beginning with an opt-out in 2011 that we missed yesterday and leading up to the doorstep of the present.

CC Sabathia

Year: 2011 (Opt-out)

Stats: 33 G, 19-8 W-L, 237.1 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 230/61 SO/BB, 6.4 rWAR

The first of two opt-outs on this list, the odds of CC leaving the Bronx between the time he signed and the time he retired weren’t very high. But we weren’t entirely sure of that in 2011, when most considered him a lock to exercise the opt-out clause that would have put him back on the market on the heels of six straight top-five Cy Young finishes and his last elite season.

He never got there, though. Sabathia was good enough in 2011 that the Yankees didn’t even let him risk the temptation of the open market, signing him to a new deal that was, for all intents and purposes, simply an extra guaranteed option year tacked on to the same contract he had before. By the time that contract had concluded, he was in the Andy Pettitte cycle of year-by-year contracts before calling it quits.

David Robertson

Year: 2014

Stats: 63 G, 4-5 W-L, 64.1 IP, 3.08 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 96/23 SO/BB, 1.2 rWAR

Given how long he’s been journeying around the league, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Robertson was at his peak. His 12.9 rWAR is the fourth-most ever for a Yankees reliever, trailing only Mariano Rivera, Goose Gossage, and Dave Righetti. He almost certainly would have gotten a hefty contract regardless of save totals on the strength of his 1.91 ERA and 12 K/9 from 2011 through 2013, but he took his payday to a new level by seamlessly moving from Mo’s understudy to his replacement, saving 39 games in 2014 while blowing just five and flirting with his second 100-strikeout season.

Though the Yankees gave him a qualifying offer (worth just over $15 million at the time), it seems as though they were always likely to move on from Robertson. They had their next monster right-handed reliever in tow in then-rookie Dellin Betances, and the versatile Andrew Miller had already been signed for a week (at $10 million less) when Robertson inked his new deal with the White Sox.

Aroldis Chapman

Year: 2019

Stats: 60 G, 3-2 W-L, 57 IP, 2.20 ERA, 2.28 FIP, 85/25 SO/BB, 1.6 rWAR

Technically, this was actually the second of three contract years that Chapman underwent with the Yankees. He was brilliant for the Yankees in his initial free agent walk year, but that stint barely lasted 30 games, clipped on the front end by a domestic violence suspension and on the back end by his midseason trade to the Cubs. And of course, there wasn’t a whole lot of tension surrounding the conclusion of his contract after the 2022 season. In 2019, however, things could have gone a number of different directions.

It wound up as the most successful of his six full seasons in a Yankee uniform, and while it was reported that he was seeking an extension with the Yankees, his decision to opt out was an easy one. Considering the whole world knew that they were about to write a check to Gerrit Cole starting with a three and they had Zack Britton emerging from an outstanding first full season in New York, letting Chapman walk is a conversation that some likely wish had been had more seriously in 2019. Just as with Sabathia, however, talks wound up being short and relatively drama-free, and with the same result: a modest raise and an extra guaranteed season over the initial deal.

Didi Gregorius

Year: 2019

Stats: 82 G, .238 AVG, 16 HR, 61 RBI, .718 OPS, 84 wRC+, 0.4 rWAR

Even the juiced ball couldn’t keep Didi’s run of 20th-place MVP finishes going. The story is recent enough. — Gleyber Torres played shortstop for much of the 2019 season’s first half while Gregorius recovered from offseason Tommy John surgery, and with DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, and Miguel Andújar available to round out the infield, there just wasn’t any reason to not wave goodbye (with a thank you for the 72 homers between 2016-18) at the end of this injury-marred walk year.

Dellin Betances

Year: 2019

Stats: 1 G, 0-0 W-L, 0.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2/0 SO/BB, 0.0 rWAR

The latter half of Betances’ career arc has been frustrating, in a sympathetic sense. The Yankees rode Betances between 66 and 74 appearances in each of his first five years under non-free agent contracts (while going through with a testy arbitration case) before simply washing their hands when injuries derailed his career in year six. The scope of his early-career dominance is hard to understate. The only other pitchers who reached peaks of 140+ games at an ERA under 1.50 with 245+ strikeouts, as Betances did in 2014-15, are Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, and Eric Gagné. Then it’s Pete Alexander, Walter Johnson, and some guys from the Black Sox. It’s just a shame that the now-retired Betances didn’t get the chance to get paid for it like Miller and Kimbrel did.

Masahiro Tanaka

Year: 2020

Stats: 10 G, 3-3 W-L, 48 IP, 3.56 ERA, 4.42 FIP, 44/8 SO/BB, 0.7 rWAR

While it was surely a complicated decision in any case, there’s a part of me that wonders if Tanaka would still be pitching in the majors today had he had the chance to make more than 10 starts in the shortened pandemic season that severely discouraged a plurality of MLB owners from ever opening their checkbooks again. After mediocre 2017 and 2019 seasons, 2020 saw Tanaka at his best form since 2016, and had he managed to do it over a full 30 starts instead of 10, it’s very difficult to believe he would have made it all the way until January of 2021 without even receiving an offer from another MLB team, which is exactly what happened in one of the most sluggish offseasons in recent memory.

Looking at all of these numbers, it’s jarring that not a single team — the Yankees included — thought that his 2020 run on top of his career pedigree was worth the one-year, $15 million deal he reportedly sought at the offseason’s outset. It’s easy to see why a team might have been nervous. Many of his underlying metrics didn’t change a whole lot between 2019, and 2020. Still, in retrospect, it stands out as a missed opportunity, and in a normal year Masahiro Tanaka’s 2020 is probably good enough for a multi-year deal at the very least.

So after looking back on recent history, what tenor will Aaron Judge’s entry to this list take? All we can do is wait.