The Yankees were having difficulty getting the ball to Mariano Rivera, namely with Kyle Farnsworth auditioning to be a three-alarm blaze. Eric Gagne was available from the Rangers and seemed ideal to lock down the eighth inning. The Yankees were in trade talks, but didn’t want to part with a significant prospect for a reliever who was about to become a free agent.
Not only were the Yankees eight games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, but also they would not have been in the playoffs at all if the season ended that day. So, when Boston snuck in to get Gagne — the best seemingly getting much better while keeping the ideal piece from their No. 1 foe — I essentially told a group of Yankees officials that they had blown it.
Yankees assistant general manager Jean Afterman — level-headed champion of the world then and now — took it in and said, “We’ll see.”
The Yankees actually had the majors’ best record from there onward and earned a wild card. The Red Sox won the World Series, but Gagne nearly undermined it with how terribly he pitched. The trade actually was a net positive for the Yankees.
I have reflected on that outcome often over the years to try to modulate my feelings when I wonder if a team blew it in real time. I think of it now because part of this Yankees season is going to be played with Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman looming over it.
The Yankees were in both markets for the best two-way shortstop and first baseman available in free agency. But by the time their prices dropped to the area at which they signed, the Yankees already had moved on. So rather than the kind of stars that would have won the back pages and who knows how many games, the Yankees’ most significant financial commitment this offseason — at least to date — was to take on the two years at $50 million owed Josh Donaldson.
And the only reason the Yankees did that was to gain access to an inexpensive, defense-oriented shortstop (Isiah Kiner-Falefa) and catcher (Ben Rortvedt). They then re-signed Anthony Rizzo to a two-year, $32 million pact. So Rizzo, not Freeman, will be at first, and Kiner-Falefa (backed up by Gleyber Torres), not Correa, will be at short.
As of Saturday morning there was still one member of the best free agent shortstop class ever available: Trevor Story. The Yankees were staying in touch with his agency, and perhaps if his price drops to a comfort zone, they will act. They like Story and his athleticism.
The Yankees, and pretty much every club, however, have been concerned over whether Story’s erratic throwing last year was due to an elbow injury that might need a procedure. In that case, if a team signs Story to even a one-year contract and he is hurt, that team essentially would be paying salary for nothing, plus. Because Colorado made Story the $18.4 million qualifying offer, the Yankees would lose their second-round draft pick if they signed him, plus $500,000 in international pool money.
And unless the Yankees had a counter-move to redirect Donaldson elsewhere, their payroll for luxury-tax purposes would swell over the third threshold ($270 million). And Hal Steinbrenner rather tentatively approved going over the second tier ($250 million).
Ultimately, Steinbrenner didn’t budge to go that far on better alternatives.
With Freeman, the Yankees were still hearing six years in the $180 million range last weekend. There were competing narratives formed if Freeman’s camp gave the Braves a one-hour ultimatum last Saturday for five years at $165 million or six years at $175 million. Atlanta was at five years, $135 million and might have gone to $140 million. Whatever happened last weekend, the Braves decided not to wait on Freeman. They aggressively acquired Matt Olson by including the two prospects the A’s had to have — catcher Shane Langeliers and pitcher Ryan Cusick.
Could the Yankees have jumped in? Perhaps not. Once it was not Atlanta and Freeman got over the sting, his desire was to go home to Los Angeles. Freeman accepted a six-year, $162 million pact with the Dodgers that if you factor in state tax rates between California and Georgia and deferrals in the contact, the final present value was not far off what the Braves offered in one fewer year. By then, though, the Braves and Yankees had picked other options.
For much of the post-lockout Correa negotiations, agent Scott Boras was selling his client as an iconic player, which translated to a realm of Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million) and Francisco Lindor (10 years, $341 million). But the market would not go there.
On Saturday, he let a group of teams, including the Yankees, know Correa would take four years at record-per-year infield prices (more than $35 million), but with opt-outs to get back in the market after the first two seasons. A four-year concept was at least floated to the Yankees. But Donaldson already was on the books, so Correa went to the team that cleared out Donaldson’s dollars, the Twins, on a three-year, $105.3 million deal with opt-outs after Years 1 and 2.
So, definitively Freeman and Correa will not be Yankees in 2022.
We’ll see about Rizzo and Kiner-Falefa, plus those shortstop prospects the Yankees crow about as reasons not to lock themselves in long-term at shortstop with a veteran.
Did Rizzo’s case of COVID-19 really explain his late-season plummet? Healthy, can he nudge his OPS over .800 for the first time since 2019? Can the leg kick that Kiner-Falefa worked on in the offseason with Justin Turner help him get the ball in the air for greater impact?
Anthony Volpe is the most beloved Yankees prospect within their walls since Derek Jeter. Will he validate those expectations? Will Oswald Peraza prove worth all of his fanfare too?
Will all those players who take up so much salary toward that $250 million-plus payroll and offer injury or down 2021 concerns be worth the dough? Hello Donaldson, Joey Gallo, Aaron Hicks, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.
You can have a feeling on March 19 about opportunities not seized. Sometimes you are right. Sometimes Eric Gagne happens.