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Difficult decisions await the Yankees regarding a pair of top bullpen arms

Will the Yankees issue any extensions or ultimately bid adieu to these stalwarts?

Arizona Diamondbacks v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The baseball gods can be cruel sometimes. It doesn’t seem quite right that the joy of acquiring (literally) Juan Soto must be so tempered by the fact that the Yankees only have him for one year before free agency beckons. That’s why he was acquirable for a package headlined by Michael King, of course. I suppose the anxiety comes with the thrill.

It’s not just the fact that it’s one year, unfortunately. Probably more important than that is Soto’s representation: the one and only Scott Boras, whose presence more or less forecloses on the possibility of agreeing to a new deal before next winter. Of Boras’ numerous star-powered clients in recent memory, only Jose Altuve has signed a pre-free agency extension, and needless to say, his relationship with the Astros is not the same as Soto’s with his third team in as many years — no matter how long he’s been dreaming of hitting dingers at Yankee Stadium. He also doesn’t turn 26 until sometime during the World Series, and ought to be in a position to push Mike Trout’s position-player salary record. Free agency is a near-foregone conclusion.

That alone is enough to hang a cloud of uncertainty through the season about the direction the next Yankees offseason. Nothing will be more critical than retaining Soto into 2025 and beyond, but however they approach that won’t be the only interesting decision they’ll need to make. The team seems somewhat prepared to deal with the impending loss of Gleyber Torres, perhaps depending on the kind of season he has, but the key decision might be whether they can say the same about the back of the bullpen.

Clay Holmes and Jonathan Loáisiga are both scheduled to reach free agency at the end of the 2024 campaign. It seems like only a blink of an eye ago that Loáisiga was a 23-year-old spot starter from the low minors, and that some fans were bemoaning the loss of Hoy Park in exchange for Holmes, but here we are.

That being said, neither Holmes nor Loáisiga are represented by Boras, and an extension for either might not be out of the question. But we do need to look at what kind of contract they might command.

Unless he takes his dominance to yet another level in 2024, Holmes won’t be asking for prime Edwin Díaz/Aroldis Chapman money, or whatever Josh Hader is likely to get. We might consider Holmes at or near the top of a closer tier that includes recent free agents like Raisel Iglesias, Craig Kimbrel, and Kenley Jansen, who all got paid in the vicinity of $16 million per year.

Holmes might be hampered by only having a two-and-a-half-year record as a closer, but assuming another year in line with who he’s been since joining the team, his closest comparison might be current free agent Liam Hendriks, whose track record as a closer was even shorter when he signed with the White Sox for four years and $54 million. Holmes hasn’t quite been as good as Hendriks was — if the latter had an extra year before free agency, he might have commanded a Chapman-esque deal — but his performance and experience ought to be enough to land him in that same mid-teens salary range.

The issue is that, given how they’ve operated recently, it seems likely that a $16 million closer on the wrong side of 30 isn’t where the Yankees will want to allocate their resources in 2025. Keeping Soto is priority number one through nine, and his new salary will probably start with a four. That would likely push the payroll north of $230 million. Let’s also not forget that they’re quite likely to give a multi-year deal — and possibly a large one — to a starting pitcher this winter. Now we’re blowing past the first luxury tax threshold of $241 million, with Torres, Holmes, Loáisiga, Alex Verdugo, and probably Anthony Rizzo to replace.

I’m not one to worry about luxury tax thresholds, but it’s impossible to know to what degree, if any, Hal Steinbrenner feels the same. Some combination of Oswald Peraza and Everson Pereira and Spencer Jones and Jasson Domínguez and Austin Wells ought to pan out well enough to fill some of those holes. But probably not all of them. If Hal can take a gulp and push himself into Steve Cohen-spending territory, then sure, they can pay Holmes free market value. If he’s not, though, then it’s hard to see a world in which the Yankees will pay him what he’s worth in 2025.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

That leaves us with Loáisiga. His next deal is more or less impossible to pin down, as it’ll probably depend entirely on whether he can make it through this coming season both healthy and without the crummy batted-ball luck that spoiled his ERA in 2022. For this reason, a Loáisiga extension seems unlikely, perhaps more so than Holmes.

Nonetheless, 2024 will be Lo’s ninth year in the organization, and if both sides are interested in continuing the partnership, a deal can find a way to come together quickly. Given his injury history, I’m not sure he’d be offered more than three years in free agency, even with another solid season. If the team has already made the calculation that Holmes will require too much of a commitment, I can see a world in which the two sides find common ground on a deal before the season is out. Merely tacking on an extra year to his upcoming contract to avoid arbitration is a possibility as well.

I’m not betting on it, though. The Yankees show as much confidence in their pitching development as any organization in the game, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they simply make the determination that they can replace both back-end relievers without blinking too hard. It would just be a risky proposition. Beyond those two, there’s not a single reliever on the roster who’s ever been both healthy and good for two seasons in a row.

I’m sure that by the time 2025 rolls around, the Yankees will have developed another batch of nasty relievers whose names I don’t even know yet. As of now, though, 2023 was the first time since 2014 the Yankees didn’t roster a highly-paid reliever, and 2024 is shaping up to be the same. Whether they feel they can compete while pulling that off for three consecutive years remains to be seen.

Hopefully 2024 brings us many good things. One thing it seems certain to bring us is one of the more interesting, and hopefully compelling, Yankees seasons in recent memory. By the time it’s over, we should have a clearer idea of just how easy or hard these decisions are going to be.