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Was the Yankees’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto pursuit a signal, or an aberration?

The Yankees’ pursuit of Yoshinobu Yamamoto showed they were willing to break the bank. Was that an aberration?

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Aaron Judge Press Conference Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

At the beginning of the offseason, there were rumblings that the Yankees could be on the precipice of a historic winter. It’s not easy to gauge general sentiment, but a casual perusal of the headlines from November and December captures the idea that was floating out there, that the Yankees might be on the edge of something big. Joel Sherman wondered in November if Hal Steinbrenner was about to authorize a spending spree much like the ones the Yankees went on after the 2008 and 2013 seasons. “The Yankees are back” led Zack Kram’s piece at The Ringer after the Yankees reeled in Juan Soto. If you spent any time on Yankees Twitter/X, you surely saw fans dreaming, or even predicting, a spending spree.

But the centerpiece of a would-be offseason bonanza was to be Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The Yankees reportedly offered the Japanese phenom $300 million over 10 years with an opt-out after five, a lucrative and competitive offer, but not the one the right-hander chose. Had Yamamoto picked New York, this winter would be talked about in the hushed same tones as the winter that once delivered CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira to the Bronx, not to mention the offseason that brought Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltrán, and (to less acclaim) Jacoby Ellsbury.

A Yamamoto signing also would have signaled something from Steinbrenner and the Yankees, a true return to form as the evil empire. Guaranteeing $300 million to a player who’s never thrown a pitch in MLB, and in doing so likely committing to paying the league’s most stringent luxury taxes for years to come, would have represented a financial commitment to winning above what the Yankees have shown in recent years.

Which now begs the question; was Steinbrenner’s willingness to break the bank on Yamamoto emblematic of a renewed desire to spend like the Yankees of old, or did Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman view Yamamoto as a unicorn, a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure a 25-year-old ace for nothing but money? In short, was the Yamamoto pursuit a signal, or an exception?

2023 World Baseball Classic: Semifinal Team Mexico v. Team Japan Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

To be clear, signing Yamamoto at the terms the Yankees offered would have been as strong a maneuver as we’ve seen from the club. Doing so would have put their luxury tax payroll near $320 million before having made any other signings or additions. Yamamoto’s proposed $30 million salary also would have put the Yankees over $200 million in committed money for 2025, meaning that after accounting for arbitration-eligible players, the Yankees likely would be well into the tax, without having considered a Juan Soto extension, retaining other impending free agents like Gleyber Torres, Clay Holmes, and Anthony Rizzo, or contemplating any of next winter’s free agent stars, like Zack Wheeler and Pete Alonso.

A massive splash for Yamamoto would have been just that: massive. It would have represented a renewed commitment from Steinbrenner, pushing the Yankees’ payroll to heights it had never seen. The Yankees certainly haven’t run low payrolls the last few years, as the team has paid luxury tax in each of the last two seasons, but likely committing to a $300+ million payroll and tax payments for years to come would have been next-level from Steinbrenner.

The Thursday signing of Marcus Stroman, however, makes it seem as though Steinbrenner’s Yamamoto push was more aberration than signal. This is by no means a criticism of Stroman’s signing! As Estevão wrote this weekend, Stroman is a good player that fills a key need at a fair price, a completely solid piece of business by Cashman and Co.

But the move also seemingly crystallizes the Yankees’ plan for this winter. Short of signing Yamamoto after trading for Soto, the club never intended for this offseason to be like those 2009 and 2014 winters. The current buzz has the Yankees mostly out of the running for the top starters on the market with Stroman in the fold. Settling for Stroman and, say, another bullpen arm or two leaves this winter far short of offseason sprees of old. Rather than aiming at the top of the market in Yamamoto, and then moving down the list for other top free agent targets once Yamamoto landed in LA, the Yankees pivoted away from a spending spree and toward more subtle moves and signings.

And to be fair, that might just be OK. As frustrating as it’s been in recent years to watch the Yankees use some but not all of their financial might to try and win games, it’s hard to entirely fault their strategy in this particular winter. They correctly identified Yamamoto as a unique piece at the top of the market and went hard to make him and Soto the centerpieces of their winter. Failing that, they’ve thus far reasoned that the drop-off from Yamamoto at the top to secondary free-agent stars like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery is too steep to warrant the long-term investment.

The Yankees have contented themselves with solid moves on the margins (to go along with that Soto fellow). Importing solid-average players like Alex Verdugo and Trent Grisham does loads to improve the depth that so wounded the team last year, and Stroman’s addition gives the club a chunk of innings it desperately needs in the middle of its rotation.

The offseason is also far from over, and the Yankees could still have another major move coming (recall that in the 2014 winter, Tanaka didn’t sign on until late January). But if Stroman proves to be their last higher-profile import, two things can be true: the Yankees have markedly improved their roster over the last two months, and they also did not go all-in to maximize the window they have in 2024.

In light of the Stroman signing and the scuttlebutt that the Yankees aren’t interested in the market’s remaining top players, I think it’s fair to conclude that the Yankees viewed Yamamoto as a special case, and that they were never wedded to the idea of recreating epic offseasons of yore. It’s of a piece of how the Yankees operate in this era, as they’ll identify special players (Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, Yamamoto) and throw the book at him, while otherwise drawing a hard line with other free agents, refusing to spend for the sake of spending. Again, that can work just fine, as long as the moves they make on the margins are good. We’ll see soon enough if that’s the case this time around.