Will Yankees be a major player in free agency? Brian Cashman isn't willing to tip his hand just yet

·MLB columnist
New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman talks on his phone during batting practice before Game 4 of the 2019 ALCS series against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium. (USA Today)
New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman talks on his phone during batting practice before Game 4 of the 2019 ALCS series against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium. (USA Today)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Brian Cashman stood in a courtyard here, having changed out of the “Off Duty” T-shirt he wore hours before, addressing the coming days, weeks and months, addressing free agency and how it might relate to his New York Yankees.

In the desert, alive things look dead. Or like they’re dying. Until they’re toed into flight. Dead things also look dead, pretty much. And if recent offseasons are to insist on becoming a pattern, the middle of November will be a terrible time to differentiate between what is willing to be nudged to life and what will simply be kicked across the road.

“We gotta do that dance with the agents and clubs,” Cashman said. “That starts in Scottsdale.”

So, a winter that will offer the likes of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg looms. A thin Yankees rotation calls. And so does the sort of impatience that follows a World Series-less decade, though it only comes up every century or so. You’d have to assume these are not idle hours for them, given, for instance, they just changed pitching coaches.

Their payroll reflects about $160 million in obligations for 2020, a big number but not Yankees big. There would seem to be room for one of the two right-handers whose teams fought to the end of October, whose teams arrived there in large part because of the work of those two, one of whom — Strasburg — finished October with an MVP trophy in his arms. The last World Series MVP for the Yankees retired seven years ago.

If the 2019-20 free-agent market is about anything, it’s pitching. That, and Scott Boras clients. Beyond Cole and Strasburg (both Boras guys), there are Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu (Boras guy), Jake Odorizzi and Cole Hamels. The game changers, on their own, are the first two, particularly Cole, who is 29 and has made a habit out of 200-inning seasons.

While Cashman insisted, “It’s hard to improve a 103-win team,” and lauded a farm system that includes Deivi Garcia, their top prospect, and Mike King, and granted, “We’ve got some heavy contracts … that collectively add up to a lot right now,” neither did he deny that the way past the, say, Houston Astros might not be with one of the guys who just pitched the Astros past the Yankees, or one of the guys who just pitched his team past the Astros.

Maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers, having failed to advance out of the division series for the first time in four years and at risk of losing their own 14-game winner (Ryu) and facing the decline of their ace (Clayton Kershaw), dig in on Cole and Strasburg. Maybe the Los Angeles Angels, who have a world of improvement opportunities ahead of them and could hardly know where to begin, strike, as they occasionally do. Maybe the San Francisco Giants. Maybe the San Diego Padres. Maybe the Chicago White Sox. The Washington Nationals could replace Stephen Strasburg with … Stephen Strasburg. Some owner somewhere wakes up one morning and realizes the four-year rebuild he was promised is in its fifth year and decides it’s time to compete again. To show up and try.

Cashman, of course, couldn’t answer for all of them, just for the Yankees. Even then, it would hardly do him good to divulge his plans, or Hal Steinbrenner’s plans. Recent winters have been long and wearisome for a market that, depending on to whom one talks, runs on Boras time or collusion time. Either way, the second week in November will do little to clarify where the Yankees are headed, except to reinforce that the world runs on starting pitching and that the Yankees need starting pitching and that the Yankees most certainly can afford it.

“It’ll take some time,” Cashman said. “But that’s why we’re here.”

He did offer that he of course would be speaking to the agents for the “higher-end guys,” along with for the “surprise guys.”

“We’ll see where it takes us,” he said. “It’s hard to predict.”

Asked if he sensed the market could move faster than in recent offseasons, Cashman said, “I’m not a predictor of free-agent markets… I really have no idea where this winter will take us.”

Slow, fast, he said, “Either way, it’s usually expensive.”

He grinned. It’s the desert, after all. How much life is in these Yankees? He’d let everyone guess.

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