NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — You might think a $17.2 million annual salary, a new benchmark for closers, would be enough to get a five-year commitment to the Yankees from Aroldis Chapman. But that is not how free agency works.
The Yankees guaranteed Chapman $86 million in their new contract agreement, which will become official when Chapman passes a physical, but that was over five years. Chapman can opt out after three.
“Oh, I don’t like it,” General Manager Brian Cashman said on Thursday, as the winter meetings concluded here. “It’s just, at the end of the day, I know that the competition we were up against were giving opt-outs in Year 1 and 2. So at least we were able to put it in Year 3.”
Let’s think ahead to how the Yankees might look in that 2019 season, the last one that ties Chapman to the Yankees. By then, he should have another superstar teammate or two.
Two years from now, at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, the free-agent class could include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel, Andrew Miller, Zach Britton and, if they exercise opt-out clauses, Clayton Kershaw and David Price. The timeline matches neatly with the Yankees’ grand plan.
Some of the prospects the Yankees gathered last summer should be making an impact in the Bronx. Add two or three top free agents, and the 2019 Yankees could be loaded. That is when Chapman should have save opportunities deep into October.
Until then, the Yankees seem likely to be stuck in the middle — possible contenders, but lacking the depth of the dynamic young talent in Boston, Houston, Cleveland and elsewhere. Trying to win and build at the same time rarely works in the present, but we can count on a parade in 2019, right?
Young, inexpensive stars like Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge will balance out the salaries of the free agents and holdovers. Chapman will secure the final out of the World Series. That is the vision, anyway.
“They have to perform, they have to stay healthy, they have to continue to get better,” Cashman said. “Their projections lead to an exciting possibility, but this game’s difficult. There’s no guarantees. That’s why you collect as much as you can collect, and the game itself will separate the men from the boys and the best teams from the worst.
“We feel we’re on a trajectory to be joining some of the best teams in the game, and we’re taking the necessary steps to get there, and hopefully the payoff is going to come on the back end.”
The most important word in there? Collect. That is why Cashman traded Chapman, Miller and Carlos Beltran last summer, even though all were playing well. That is why he is not tempted to make major trades and letting rivals pay Tiffany prices for the exquisite items offered by the rebuilding Chicago White Sox.
“We aim high,” said Rick Hahn, the White Sox general manager, who dealt pitcher Chris Sale to Boston and outfielder Adam Eaton to Washington, with more deals likely to follow. “In order to move those types of players, you need to be motivated by what the return is going to be.”
So while the Yankees need starters, they passed on Sale. While they plan to experiment with Judge and Aaron Hicks in right field, they passed on Eaton. They are collecting, not divesting. Signing Chapman and designated hitter Matt Holliday (one year, $13 million) will not cost the Yankees a draft pick, the way a different closer (Kenley Jansen) or slugger (Edwin Encarnacion) would have.
“We’re avoiding losing the 16th pick in the draft right now,” Cashman said. “We thought that was important if we could. I’d like to continue adding and building.”
Keep adding, keep building. It is a wise strategy, but perhaps only the new, disciplined Yankees could do it while still breaking new ground in player contracts.
For years, Mariano Rivera held the record for highest salary for a reliever, at $15 million in his final seasons with the Yankees. Then Mark Melancon got a $15.5 million annual salary in his four-year deal with the San Francisco Giants this week. Chapman, the hardest thrower in baseball, commanded much more.
The Chicago Cubs traded Torres and others to the Yankees for Chapman in July, and General Manager Jed Hoyer said they could not have won the championship without him. Yet the Cubs recoiled at the idea of retaining Chapman at record prices, instead trading for Kansas City’s Wade Davis, who has one year of control.
Asked why the Yankees put such a premium on the closer spot, Cashman said he simply wanted to grab an elite player when he could.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the closer position necessarily as much as we’re looking to get some — in the scouting terminology — Group 7s and Group 8s,” Cashman said. “And if we can get as many Group 7 and 8s in certain categories, the better we are. In some cases, they’re homegrown, which is nice and cost-effective. In other cases, you have to import them from outside the organization, which isn’t cost-effective. But I think the goal of any team aspiring to be a championship-caliber team is you want to have as many Group 6s, 7s and 8s as we possibly can collect.”
So Chapman returns, another big part of the pinstriped collection. If his fastballs entertain fans for a while, and then he helps Harper, Torres and the gang win a title, he can seek even more riches and call it a job well done.