With the major piece of their offseason to-do list now checked off, the Yankees face a somewhat interesting conundrum.
They committed $360 million to making sure Aaron Judge wouldn’t leave them, but right now that money is more about retention than improvement. The Yankees paid that exorbitant fee to bring back the biggest reason for their 99 wins last year, not to get any better. All they’ve done to this point is harm reduction by making sure things don’t get astronomically worse. There is still much work to be done, as the last few seasons have shown time and time again that what the Yankees have internally is not good enough to win or even make it to the World Series.
Of course, they had to do this. As many fans can attest to, mapping out a Yankee lineup without Judge in it quickly becomes an exercise in trying to figure out how this team would even crack .500. Now that they can rest easy knowing Judge is back, the question should be how this front office can fill some of the glaring holes still remaining on this roster. Judge is certainly not going to be able to replicate last year’s once-in-a-generation production either. The club should be realistically expecting something closer to 42 home runs than 62, and he only got to 62 after finally putting together an injury-free season, something that is also no guarantee as he ages into his thirties.
What’s yet to be seen is how this nine-figure contract affects the Yankees’ pursuit of other free agents. Considering that Judge was playing last year on a $19 million salary — which was agreed upon to avoid what would have been a very embarrassing arbitration hearing — the time to pounce was last offseason. A huge financial move like this should not preclude the Yankees from bagging another flashy free agent or two, because they are the Yankees and can afford whoever they want, but recent history has shown that they don’t party like they used to.
An offseason that nets Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew Benintendi, and, say, Carlos Rodon, would be a wonderful one for any team. But if the Yankees are content with just having those first two in tow, and cling to their money rather than use it as a tool to keep going, they essentially are running it back with a team that nobody in the five boroughs seemed satisfied with.
Turning our eyes to the field, we can pencil Judge, Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton in some order at the lineup’s top four spots. Gleyber Torres, as long as he doesn’t get traded by Opening Day, probably hits fifth. Jose Trevino will be the starting catcher and one of the bats in the bottom third of the order. That leaves three more places on the lineup card, and unless the Yankees shock the entire world by signing a shortstop, one of them will go to whoever emerges from the Oswald Peraza―Oswaldo Cabrera―Isaiah Kiner-Falefa group.
Those two available spots would look great with Benintendi and Brandon Nimmo’s names written next to them. How realistic that is — especially with Nimmo coming off a spectacular season, being repped by Scott Boras, and wanting $100 million dollars — depends on how hard the Yankees want to go for this. One would think that having Judge around for the next nine years is enticing to other free agents. The move shows both that the Yankees will reward their own players when they ball out, but also that playing in the Bronx isn’t as bad as it’s sometimes made out to be. Judge chose to stay, after all.
If that pitch doesn’t work for Benintendi, Nimmo, Rodon, or whoever else they may have their eyes on, this winter gets something close to a B-grade. The Astros are an inevitability, Tampa Bay’s whole job over the last decade is to bother the Yankees, and the Blue Jays, Guardians and Mariners are all coming off playoff appearances with something the Yankees plainly do not have: a young, talented core already excelling at the major league level. Unlike in the increasingly distant past, the American League is not the Yankees’ to lose. Even worse, the rest of the league isn’t scared of the Evil Empire anymore.
It is great for the Yankees that they got this done early. Waiting around only creates panic or “have to” moves. That’s how the team got stuck with Josh Donaldson last year when they finally admitted that Gary Sanchez wasn’t working out, though the timing of that spring training trade was affected heavily by the lockout. With a Judge-sized step of the plan now taken care of, the Yankees should still be shopping well beyond Christmas. The pieces are in front of them to continue getting better. Whether that’s marginally — via something like reunions with Benintendi and Adam Ottavino — or significantly by dropping a bag of money at Nimmo, Rodon or Kodai Senga’s doorstep, they have plenty of time to do so and no real excuse not to at least try.
So much of the MLB landscape is in flux right now, which theoretically gives the Yankees a chance to re-assert themselves as the sport’s predominant bully. It’s been years since they’ve felt truly dangerous (they had the juice for the first half of 2022 before injuries and regression proved that to be a mirage, and the 2018 and 2019 teams both reached triple digit wins but couldn’t crack the playoff code) and they have room to get creative.
It’s still a bit unclear what the Yankees think they are. They swear they’re trying to get away from all slug, no singles, but the two faces of the offense are enormous sequoia trees that love clobbering the ball. Several available hitters on the market can help them get away from that and raise the collective floor of this team.
If the Yankees do not see that — or worse, if they choose to ignore it in the interest of saving money — it’s hard to see how this team is any better than the other teams of the Aaron Boone era, which have been characterized by good but not greatness. Judge is just one guy, and admittedly, maybe the best in the world right now, but he alone does not turn water into wine. That’ll take a much grander effort, some extra man power and most importantly, some gumption from general manager Brian Cashman.
Look around, Brian. The AL is flush with teams that, like the Yankees, are trying to figure out how to go from playoff contender to World Series champion. The way for the Bombers to separate themselves is by pushing their chips into the middle, not being content with the team that rolled over last postseason, and adding some more thump to the roster.
Should they go a different route, hopefully their preferred late-October vacation destinations have a loyalty program.