By Ken Davidoff
CHICAGO — Soon, Hal Steinbrenner will learn the new number that will define the Yankees’ financial objectives. No matter what, though, the primary objective won’t change.
“We’ll know the [luxury-tax] threshold,” Steinbrenner said Wednesday, at the Major League Baseball quarterly owners’ meetings. “But even if it stays the same, goes down, we’re going to continue lowering payroll. I think now that we finally have some, what looks like, good young players, it’s going to give us some flexibility that we just haven’t had.”
So much flexibility, in fact, that as Steinbrenner espoused the development of his young players and their increasing importance in the franchise’s success, he also spoke enthusiastically of going outside the organization to improve one facet of the 2017 team. That enthusiasm should make Aroldis Chapman quite enthusiastic himself.
“For me, the bullpen is my priority,” Steinbrenner said, emphasizing “my.” He proceeded: “Because I think we’re probably going to have a young pitching staff, and I think if we can shorten the game for them by really strengthening the bullpen, that’s going to be to our advantage.”
Though Steinbrenner runs his team quite differently than his father did, in that general manager Brian Cashman sometimes learned about player moves at the same time as the rest of us did during George Steinbrenner’s reign, Hal Steinbrenner historically has pushed for certain acquisitions — reliever Rafael Soriano stood as the most prominent example — and worked with Cashman to get those done.
Chapman, of course, came to the Yankees last offseason and excelled as the team’s closer before getting traded to the Cubs and helping them to their first championship in 108 years. Now the 28-year-old is a free agent, and the Yankees have reached out to him. Their familiarity with the athletic left-hander, as well as the fact that signing him wouldn’t cost a draft pick, work in Chapman’s favor. The Dodgers also like Chapman, who will obliterate Jonathan Papelbon’s record deal (four years, $50 million) for a closer.
“Any time you can get a guy that’s already proven he can play in New York — you guys know as well as I do it’s a tough place to play,” Steinbrenner said. “If you get a guy who’s proven he can play there, then that’s a plus in the column.”
The Yankees also have spoken with the representatives for Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
Steinbrenner sounded less enthusiastic about going after a high-end free-agent outfielder. Jose Bautista and the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes are among those available. Instead, the Yankees’ boss endorsed the youngsters from whom he hopes to get that payroll flexibility.
“As far as Aaron Judge, I’m looking for him to be the guy,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ve got [Aaron] Hicks out there as well. [Tyler] Austin. [Rob] Refsnyder can play there, as well. We’ll see.”
Judge, who struggled in his initial big-league voyage, “[has] got some work to do, clearly, on his swing, and he will,” Steinbrenner said. “He’s going to be in Tampa in a few weeks for a while along with a couple of our hitting coaches.”
The luxury-tax threshold stood at $189 million each of the three prior offseasons, and the Yankees memorably took a run at getting under that, an act that would have reset their tax rate from 50 percent to 17.5 percent. They memorably failed to do so, signing Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka to big deals after the 2013 season.
Steinbrenner spoke of $100 million he had coming off the payroll “with four guys,” referring to retiree Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million), traded outfielder Carlos Beltran ($15 million) no longer on the books now and the released Alex Rodriguez ($21 million) and active CC Sabathia ($25 million) departing the ledger next year; A-Rod’s figure counts as more for luxury-tax purposes. Steinbrenner’s clear hope is that a) he can pocket some of those savings; and b) the luxury-tax threshold will increase from $189 million, giving the Yankees more breathing room. The threshold historically has increased and figures to do so again.
In other news:
- lThough he hasn’t spoken with A-Rod about it, Steinbrenner said he expects to have the apparent retiree in spring training as an instructor.“He was great in Instructional League,” Steinbrenner said. “He was there three or four days, working with [Gleyber] Torres, working with [Jorge] Mateo.”
- Asked whether he regretted trading reliever Andrew Miller to Cleveland, given Miller’s success with the Indians, Steinbrenner said, “My family wouldn’t talk to me for a couple of weeks. That was a sensitive one. … That was a tough call. But when you have the ability to get the four players that we got, of that caliber … it has to be a deal that good to consider getting rid of a guy like that.”