How a cancelled 2020 season impacts Yankee decision making.
Looking down the road and factoring in the current Coronavirus shut down of professional sports, many unanticipated and unique issues will present themselves to executives in the professional sports industry, particularly in Baseball.
On the top of that list is the contractual status of players in their walk years, and their value to their current teams.
The Yankees will have to maneuver through difficult waters if the season is cancelled, or even abbreviated to a significant degree, and will be forced to make important decisions, without the proper data. Something that they have never had to do in the past.
The fact is, important players on the current 40 man roster are in their walk years.
How important? How about two starting pitchers and arguably 2019’s best player.
Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and D.J. LeMahieu are all free agents at the end of 2020.
The Yankees are also in a position to extend some of their core younger players and buy out their arbitration eligible years, and 2020 was going to be the baseline of the analysis.
Under normal conditions, evaluating a player’s on field performance in the walk year is a critical factor all front office executives use when evaluating value and longevity.
In addition, looking at the pipeline of talent is also a factor. If a prospect looks ready to assume a position at the big league level, resources can be used to strengthen other areas of the team, by letting a veteran move on.
A full season of play is a large sample size to remove from the formula. Without it, evaluating future needs becomes somewhat of a gamble, and with the salary structure at an all-time level, the stakes are high.
Age, development, and health are the main issues that will need to be analyzed and considered before extensions are offered, and before players are put on the 40 man rosters.
This year’s rule 5 draft may be the most interesting one to date.
Let’s begin with the Starters.
Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton will both be 32 when their contracts expire. 32 years old is not an optimum age for a starting pitcher who wants their current organization to commit and invest in them with a high value contract.
Tanaka has pitched with a partially torn UCL for most of his Yankee career. Which means it’s not unreasonable to consider his injury history and health while evaluating a new contract and projecting future value and performance. However, you have to also add to the analysis the fact that over the last four years, he has been relied on to make 30 or more starts three times.
Seeing how he performed at his age 31 season would have gone a long way to assessing his future performance.
Remember, during spring training (which seems like a year ago) he reintroduced his cutter to his repertoire with great success, allowing 14 hits in 17.0 innings, striking out 23 and surrendering 3 home runs.
Evaluating how he adapted to pitching at 31 would have been another valuable asset for the Yankees, as well as Tanaka.
Could he engineer another solid season and post season to earn a multi-year deal and possibly become a lifetime Yankee? Or would he display signs of aging and breaking down, making him unessential to future plans, and provide some of the younger prospects their chance to take a spot in the starting rotation?
Unfortunately, there is a very good chance Brian Cashman will not get those questions answered in 2020.
The latter scenario leaves the Yankees and Cashman with an extremely tough dilemma, particularly with the young core players approaching big-money extensions in the near future.
When you start to evaluate James Paxton and his future, there are even more questions with him than there are with Tanaka, especially when you consider his injury history, and that he has never pitched more than 160 innings in a single season.
Right off the bat, Paxton needed back surgery before pitchers and catchers reported to camp this year, and he was projected to miss the first couple of months of the season.
Prior to his 2020 surgery he has had to deal with injuries most of his career.
2019 – A knee injury shelved him for a month during the regular season. He also had to manage a sore glute later in the year, it was considered a day-to-day matter for Aaron Boone.
2018 – Spent time on the disabled list with a back injury.
2017 – Spent time on the disabled list with a strained pectoral muscle.
2015 – Spent time on the disabled list with a strained tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand.
2014 – Spent time on the disabled list with grade 2 lat strain.
Paxton’s 2020 season could have provided the Yankees and Brian Cashman with many answers regarding his health and if he was worth a multiyear contract extension. Paxton has the ability to be a very good 2 or 3 starter, I never saw him as anything close to a number 1, despite the Yankees claims otherwise.
However, his left arm and repertoire are enticing, but at some point you just cannot overlook the history of injuries, his durability, and the fact that he will be 32 when the season ends.
It would have been a very important season for assessment, and to perform a risk vs. reward analysis for Cashman and his staff.
Without having 2020 to use in their equation, Cashman will have to roll the dice to determine Paxton’s future in the Bronx.
Whether 2020 is cancelled or significantly reduced it is also going to make Cashman’s job very difficult with respect to evaluating and assessing the development of the younger arms in the system, such as Clarke Schmidt, Michael King, Deivi Garcia, and Jonathan Loaisiga.
When you add to the mix Jordan Montgomery and Domingo German, the Yankees have a very nice group of talent. Talented pitchers that could have made substantial advances in 2020 and potentially prevented the Yankees from overspending to retain one or even both of the veteran starters.
Devoid of an opportunity to evaluate the younger starters the Yanks may take an overly cautious approach and sign Tanaka and/or Paxton to deals that would keep them in pinstripes until the next troop is ready to move forward and take the baton.
Looking at the other side of that coin, the majority of the starters missed some time last season due to injury stints on the DL and one big costly suspension.
Paxton does have value when healthy. Healthy being the operative word. Last year in his first with the Yankees he went 15-6 with 186 strikeouts and had a whip of 1.28.
Since they Yankees brought Tanaka over in 2014, he has arguably been the ace. During his five years in the Bronx, he’s been the best starter in the postseason, with the team going 5-3 with a 1.76 ERA.
Whatever plays out in the uncertain coming months of 2020, it is not out of the realm of possibility that when Tanaka and Paxton become free agents Cashman seriously considers bringing both back to help keep the rotation intact. Remember Severino will not be back until mid- season 2021, and who knows what he is going to be like after a shoulder injury cost him 2019 and Tommy John surgery cost him 2020.
The young guys will be given a chance, no doubt about it, but it’s too risky to have the core intact, and not surround them with a solid rotation of proven winners.
It’s just a shame that 2020 cannot be used as a measuring tool for them.
From a position player perspective, and moving along to another pending 2020 player in his walk year, DJ LeMahieu seems like slam dunk to bring back.
He brings to the game everything the Yankees want and need.
A throwback player fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game. A leader and a clutch hitter, and a player that proved he can handle the bright lights of NYC.
In 2019 there is not much more to say other than he was incredible. Putting together a .327/.375/.518 slash line. Making the All-Star team, winning the Silver Slugger Award and finishing in the top-five in MVP voting, added to his great season
And who can forget his 9th inning home run vs the cheating Astros?
Chances are very good they re-sign him to an extension and he will return to play second base in 2021 and beyond. In contrast to the Tanaka and Paxton situations, a cancelled or abbreviated 2020 (which I am sure they do not want) might actually benefit the Yankees in an odd way. If he had another great season in 2020, his value would sky rocket.
Nevertheless, LeMahieu will be 32-years-old by the end of the 2020 season and the length of the contract he may be looking for might exceed the years Cashman is willing to go. I would say it’s a pretty good investment at 3 years.
The whole 2020 scenario for the Yankee executives presents a challenging game of chance for 2021. They have built a team ready to not only win, but dominate in 2020 and continue to contend for the foreseeable future.
A solid core of Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Giancarlo Stanton is in place. Second tier players like Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman and Miguel Andújar supplement the starters very well and provide excellent depth.
That core group, like all other core groups, will have a shelf life, and the Yankee should not risk the prime years of their careers with mediocre pitching, like they did in the 1980’s.
The biggest problem in that regard is that the 2020 revenue will take a hit. The question for the Steinbrenner family will become; do we spend more, or try and recoup our losses?
I say keep all three and try and win it all in 2021.
Hang in there everyone!