The free-agent paths Yankees may follow when MLB lockout ends


At some point the MLB lockout will end. That’s not much of a prediction. I assume owners and players are not ready to transition to becoming Uber drivers.

When the gates reopen, there will be a frenzy on multiple fronts, notably in the first few days as clubs will (among other items) have to complete rosters via free agency and trades.

I believe the Yankees essentially have three doors in that arena:

1. Sign one of the big shortstops, Carlos Correa or Trevor Story.

2. Sign Freddie Freeman or trade for Oakland’s Matt Olson.

3. Spread money around in multiple areas to deepen the roster.

If I had to bet today, it would be on Door No. 3.

Going into the lockout, the Yankees showed no desire to spend big on a shortstop, in part because they feel they have two good ones nearing the majors in Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe. In part because Hal Steinbrenner was showing no tolerance for another huge contract, especially with Aaron Judge entering his walk year and the owner’s desire to keep their best current player long term. Also, in the case of Correa, there is still organizational animus about his ties to the 2017 sign-stealing Astros and with Story about the health of his arm.

Maybe Steinbrenner will spend big on a shortstop and was merely stalling before the lockout, waiting to learn what is in a new collective bargaining agreement — notably around the luxury tax. Yet, I still think a larger outlay is more likely on Freeman or multiple players. For better or worse, the Yanks believe in their two young shortstops. Thus, bulking up around them with Freeman or multiple pieces feels more probable.

MLB
Carlos Correa
Getty Images

Freeman will cost less than Correa. The most likely scenario is that he remains a Brave. But it didn’t happen before the lockout, and if Atlanta remains frozen in not wanting to go beyond five years nor approach $200 million, could Freeman feel disrespected enough to leave? After all, he is the face of a revenue-rich franchise that just won a title with him on a team-friendly deal.

The Freeman camp will have to know quickly at the end of the lockout which way Atlanta is going since camps will be opening. At that point do the Yankees, Dodgers, Blue Jays or others step up at the higher dollar figure (imagine the same teams plus at least Atlanta on an Olson trade)?

Freeman and his lefty might (or that of Olson) would allow the Yankees to more comfortably stop-gap defensively at short while waiting for Peraza/Volpe. Still, I will believe Freeman in a different uniform at the press conference.

If Freeman remains a Brave (or doesn’t go to The Bronx) that would move the Yankees to Option 3. Even that presumes Steinbrenner is going to willingly inject $30 million-$40 million more into the 2022 payroll. I think that is more likely with door No. 3 and several deals, none beyond two years in commitment (remember that Steinbrenner approved a one-year, $25 million offer for Justin Verlander).

Braves
Freddie Freeman
AP

Steinbrenner should feel pressure. Of one title this century. Of one division title in the past nine years. And of a shadow — no, not of his late father, George, but from Steve Cohen across town. He might just take the Mets’ payroll to $300 million. Steinbrenner could act like he would be indifferent to the attention that would draw. It would be that: an act.

The Yanks, as they currently stand, need an injection of depth (minimum) to be viewed as a surer contender. At this point, they will have to believe that Judge and Giancarlo Stanton remain as sturdy/productive as last year, DJ LeMahieu’s down 2021 was about the need for hernia surgery, that Gleyber Torres will rebound now liberated from shortstop, that Joey Gallo will be more comfortable in his second year with the team, that switch-hitting Aaron Hicks will return from a lost season to offer lefty diversity with power and patience, and that Gary Sanchez is 25 homers and not a physical/mental drain as a receiver.

In that scenario, the simplest solution to complete the positional group would be Anthony Rizzo at first and Andrelton Simmons at short through free agency. Both offer high-end defense. Rizzo provides a lefty bat and big-game pedigree. Gio Urshela is around as a regularly used utilityman who could, when necessary, hit late for Simmons, then play short. Of the 159 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances between 2019-21, Simmons’ 71 OPS-plus is the second-worst.

MLB
Andrelton Simmons
Getty Images

As opposed to Correa, who delivers elite offense/defense (hence his asking price), the secondary shortstop market is going to be much more tilted toward defense, like Simmons. In that realm, the best trade option would be Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who would be available now that Corey Seager and Marcus Semien are the Rangers’ double-play combo, and touted third-base prospect Josh Jung is nearly ready — not to mention the Yankees sent three close-to-ready infield options to Texas last July for Gallo. Kiner-Falefa offers the glove, versatility, some stolen base acumen and bat-to-ball skills at the plate.

Next after Simmons on that poor OPS-plus list is Oakland shortstop Elvis Andrus, also very available, Kiner-Falefa is ninth and Arizona’s Nick Ahmed (also gettable) is 12th.

Does a combination of Rizzo and one of the defensive shortstops give the Yanks financial wiggle room in Steinbrenner’s budget to address a center-field security blanket for Hicks (does any Yankees fan want to hear that Brett Gardner is probably the best, cost-effective option)? A reliever (if anyone is scoring at home, I’m a Collin McHugh fan, in part because of his ability to provide multiple innings when innings out of the rotation could be a factor)? Perhaps starting pitching depth? Do the Yanks swing big on a one-year deal for Carlos Rodon, who is talented but late last season was physically beat up? Matt Boyd, who could be back from flexor tendon surgery around June? Or do they give up significant prospects in a trade for someone such as Oakland’s Frankie Montas?

The Yankees, whose only major league free-agent signing so far this offseason was retaining Joely Rodriguez for $2 million, will have a lot to do once the sport becomes unlocked. Which door will they pick?



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