SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager, first uttered the words at a season-ending news conference, and General Manager Brian Cashman has parroted them ever since.
“We weren’t a player or two away,” Cashman said this week at the general managers’ meetings in Arizona. “We were a play or two away from playing in the World Series.”
To be sure, the Yankees lost the American League Championship Series to Houston in large part because the Astros produced key hits with runners on base while the Yankees did not. But there was a subplot to the defeat: the Yankees’ lack of elite starting pitchers — and their failure to acquire some who were available.
Well, two such pitchers are free agents this winter: Stephen Strasburg, who was the World Series most valuable player for the Washington Nationals, and Gerrit Cole, who helped the Astros reach the final round. And Cashman has said the Yankees have a desire to shore up their starting rotation this off-season and are interested in Strasburg and Cole, among others. So the big question hanging over the Yankees now is: Will they go after one of those two big prizes?
The answer will most likely come down to the price tags for Strasburg and Cole. If the Yankees make no further additions, including re-signing their players who became free agents, they are looking at a projected 2020 payroll of around $210 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Teams are penalized for exceeding the luxury tax thresholds, the lowest of which will be $208 million in 2020. Repeated offenders — the Yankees were one of three teams believed to have surpassed the threshold in 2019 — receive higher tax rates. The most onerous penalties include steeper tax rates and a change in draft position, and they will be levied on teams that spend more than $248 million in 2020.
The Yankees, more disciplined than ever under the principal owner Hal Steinbrenner and Cashman, would especially prefer to avoid the steepest tax rates. So while Cashman didn’t close the door to pursuing Strasburg or Cole, he didn’t exactly kick it down, either.
“We’ll certainly have our conversations with their agent and see if there’s any traction to it or not,” he said, adding later: “At the very least have the conversation, and at the very most it’d be nice to secure one of them. But it’s a lot of ground to cover to determine that.”
Plagued by injuries and underperformance, the Yankees’ rotation finished with a 4.51 earned run average, 15th in the major leagues. Their formula involved leaning heavily on their stout bullpen and their high-powered offense. That helped the Yankees to 103 regular season wins and a division title, but playoff series are much different from the 162-game regular season.
The two teams left standing for the World Series, the Astros and Nationals, rode starting rotations stuffed with All-Stars such as Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Cole and Strasburg. And at least one Yankee — Zack Britton, a key reliever — said he thought building a team around a rotation was the best way to win, noting that his team’s bullpen had been worn down and overexposed to opponents in the postseason.
Cashman has bristled at the notion that the pitching staff cost the Yankees a trip to the World Series, insisting it was the offense instead. (He said this week that cutting down on his offense’s strikeout rate was a goal for next season.)
Cashman contended that the Yankees have “a very strong rotation” when all pitchers are healthy and available, from Luis Severino, who missed most of last season with injuries, to James Paxton to Masahiro Tanaka to Domingo German, who is widely expected to be suspended for a substantial portion of the 2020 season for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. They will get reinforcements from pitchers returning from injuries (Jordan Montgomery) and prospects waiting in the wings (such as Deivi Garcia).
Cashman conceded that ideally he would like to add starting pitchers who could go deeper into games, but said they had been “hard to get ahold of.” There are other options on the trade and free-agent markets, such as Zack Wheeler, 29, who dealt with many injuries as a Met but has potential, and Madison Bumgarner, 30, a San Francisco Giants star who has a lot of mileage on his left arm but who has impressed the Yankees.
While those pitchers would cost less, they surely aren’t as talented as Strasburg or Cole. Strasburg, 31, may prefer to stay with the Nationals even though he opted out of his contract with them. Cole, 29, grew up in Southern California as a fan of two teams that are expected to pursue him now — the Los Angeles Angels and the Yankees, who drafted him in 2008 but couldn’t persuade him to forgo his commitment to U.C.L.A.
Scott Boras, the agent for Strasburg, Cole and the free agent starters Dallas Keuchel and Hyun-Jin Ryu, said this week that the opportunity to win was more important to his clients than geography. But to lure a pitcher such as Cole, who could surpass David Price’s record contract of seven years and $217 million for a free-agent pitcher, a team will have to make a substantial financial commitment.
“If this were major league Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that would clearly want a lump of Cole,” Boras quipped.
Cashman said he had received no mandate from Steinbrenner to stay under the luxury tax threshold. Asked if he could take on a nine-figure contract this winter without subtracting elsewhere from the roster, Cashman said he couldn’t answer.
“It’s a good, strong roster as it is right now, and we have Plan B’s and Plan C’s if things don’t play out a certain way with any one individual,” Cashman said. “We’ll knock on a lot of doors club- and agent-wise and see where it takes us.”
Boras has already gone on the offensive in the hope that his clients can avoid the type of drawn-out free-agent sagas that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado endured last off-season, when the two stars did not reach deals until late February. Boras argued on Wednesday at the G.M. meetings that the collective bargaining agreement — a document of much contention throughout the game as it nears expiration in two years — should be changed to combat what he called “competitive hibernation” in the sport.
“Our previous commissioner put rails on the system because he was very concerned that owners could not control themselves,” Boras said. “Luxury taxes, restraints on free agency. Yet this current commissioner has said the owners have an evaluative system that is wonderful, great, that they’re abiding by it, that they’re more disciplined. If that’s the case, I think we remove the rails.”
Boras said he had told teams when Scherzer was a free agent, before the 2015 season, that they would have trouble winning a World Series without the star pitcher. Scherzer had few suitors that winter but eventually signed a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals. He has rewarded them with two Cy Young Award seasons and a World Series title. Boras said the Yankees’ opportunity to win a title was now.
“To the levels they want to take advantage of it, to the probabilities they want to, I can say this: I certainly have some ideas that might increase their probabilities,” he said.