TAMPA — Reggie Jackson wanted to live in Los Angeles when he became a free agent after the 1976 season, but the Dodgers were slow and tepid in their pursuit. He became a Yankee.
Late in spring training 1996, George Steinbrenner convened a meeting to discuss concerns about their rookie shortstop and debate whether to send Derek Jeter to the minors and trade Mariano Rivera to the Mariners for Felix Fermin. The Boss was talked out of that one.
The Yankees made a late charge during the 2003-04 offseason to try to outdo the Red Sox and land Curt Schilling from the Diamondbacks. Boston acquired the ace.
These sliding-door moments led to championships (plural) for the Yankees or their main nemesis. Imagine Reggie as a Dodger, Rivera as a Mariner and Schilling as a Yankee. How different is the history of the Yankees and the sport?
Shohei Ohtani spurning the Yankees after the 2017 season is beginning to have this enormous sliding-door feel.
The Yankees felt confident about their chances to land the two-way star. Except Ohtani did not even make the Yankees one of his finalists. The Yankees quickly pivoted to Giancarlo Stanton, a decision with ramifications (mostly negative for the organization) that show no signs of abating.
Stanton is injured once again, this time a calf strain. He is becoming a bigger, stronger, more expensive Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees are going to have to continue to build rosters that assume his regular absence and do it with a payroll elevated by his contract. They have won 203 regular-season games and postseason rounds in Stanton’s two seasons. So winning is possible, but also more complicated — and this is before the aging decline of the 30-year-old Stanton.
Remember what made Ohtani so attractive. He was not just a potential ace (even as he now recovers from Tommy John surgery), but the kind of lefty power bat the Yankees so lack. But he also entered on the major-league pay scale, so even here in Year 3 he will make about $750,000 and not be arbitration eligible until next offseason.
The way the Yankees were configured with Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge, if they had obtained Ohtani to DH they would not have been able to also add Stanton because the overflow outfield was going to get the brunt of the DH at-bats.
But once Ohtani slipped away, the Yankees lost the discipline that has generally served them so well in this era. Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year contract finally ended in 2016 and Ellsbury’s seven-year pact already was turning rancid. There had been internal vows to avoid these kinds of pacts in the future.
But Stanton was a shiny object that returned them to their Boss DNA. He had just hit 59 homers and won the NL MVP. The Marlins were desperate since Stanton had used his no-trade clause to reject deals to the Cardinals and Giants. The Dodgers, like with Reggie, were Stanton’s preferred destination. But they dabbled at the margins in trade talks. The Yanks were close to a last option, so the desperate Marlins kicked in $30 million, took on the $22 million left on Starlin Castro’s contract and accepted two lottery-ticket prospects.
The Yanks felt like they had undressed frenemy Derek Jeter, then the new Marlins owner. Except even with Jorge Guzman just 16th in Fangraphs’ ranking of Marlins prospects and Jose Devers 27th, this still stands as by far the best move of the Jeter administration because they so badly wanted Stanton off the books and he has spent so much time in New York breaking down.
The Marlins’ policy was not to make their other major assets available until they offloaded Stanton’s deal, such was the priority to do that. But if the Yankees had held tight even after losing out on Ohtani would they have been best positioned to pluck Christian Yelich because those advising Jeter had come from the Yankees and knew that system best? Instead, Yelich was dealt to the Brewers and succeeded Stanton as the NL MVP in 2018.
And the Yanks still have eight years at $244 million of Stanton. He was never opting out after this year, in part because he loves being a Yankee, but the latest injury reiterates he is staying. So is the $22 million toward the luxury tax annually through 2027.
If that wasn’t there last year — if say the Yanks were paying Ohtani the $650,000 the Angels did in 2019 — would the Yanks have budged to six years to sign Patrick Corbin? The Yanks already are projected $10 million over the highest luxury tax threshold of $248 million for 2020, so will they be more hesitant to add salary at the July trade deadline or lose out on something in the future for financial constraint reasons exacerbated by the presence of an expensive player whose health and ability to hit in October are already issues?
The doors keep on sliding.