Matthews: With Didi Gregorius needing Tommy John surgery, Yankees should go all-in on Manny Machado
By Wallace Matthews
Special to the Daily News|
Oct 12, 2018 | 4:25 PM
For the Yankees, the bad news did not end when their challenge of Gleyber Torres’ groundout in the ninth inning Tuesday night was rejected, ending ALDS Game 4 against the Boston Red Sox and with it their dream of getting back to the World Series.
It turns out the trouble was only beginning.
About 40 minutes into Aaron Boone’s post-mortem press conference at Yankee Stadium on Friday, the Yankees dropped another bombshell: Didi Gregorius, their standout shortstop, had suffered a torn UCL in his throwing elbow early in the ALDS and would undergo Tommy John surgery.
For a pitcher, that normally means a year of recovery time, meaning the Yankees would be without Gregorius for all of the 2019 season. Since a shortstop rarely makes more than a half-dozen throws a game, the Yankees are hopeful Gregorius will be back a lot quicker than that.
But what it does mean is that now, there should be no reason and no excuse for the Yankees not to go all-out in their pursuit of Manny Machado this winter, even if it means blowing up Hal Steinbrenner’s dream of keeping his team’s payroll below the luxury tax threshold.
There is no guarantee the Yankees would get him; as general manager Brian Cashman pointed out, the Yankees are no longer the only big checkbook in town.
But if ever there was a time for Hal Steinbrenner to open his up, now is that time.
“His last name is Steinbrenner and he’s acted accordingly, always,’’ Cashman said.
But his given name is still Harold Z., not George M. The old man never described himself as a “finance geek’’ and although The Boss operated in an environment in which the rich didn’t have to share their wealth with the peons, it’s hard to imagine him not ordering his GM to bring back a player like Machado at any cost.
Cashman, however, operates under different rules than his dozens of predecessors. Since Hal became the new Boss, baseball has been a numbers game at Yankee Stadium, and not just in Cashman’s analytically-minded front office. His mandate this season was to keep his payroll below the threshold of $197 million, over which the Yankees would be taxed as much as 50 percent of the overage, which would then go into a pool to be divided among baseball’s have-nots.
For years, Hal Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine have considered this a particularly objectionable form of corporate welfare, and on Friday, Cashman parroted their main talking point.
“I don’t speak for Hal but my general feeling is he does not want to line the pockets of others and let them utilize that against us,’’ Cashman said. “But he’s a very open-minded person. We provide him with the information and he makes informed decisions. He takes his time doing so. I don’t think he’s going to limit anything from his consideration. He’ll set the tune and we’ll dance to it.’’
The information Cashman and his staff should be providing him is the following: Machado will be 27 on his next birthday, which does not come up until July. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged 35 home runs with 96 RBI, and in 2018, he posted a career-high .905 OPS. And like Bryce Harper, he is that rare free agent whose best days will still be ahead of him, not in the rear-view mirror, when he finds his pot of gold.
And a big pot it will be; some estimate it will take a 10-year contract worth as much as $400 million to win the Manny Sweepstakes this winter.
But the reality of Gregorius’ injury is that he will miss at least the first half of the season, and maybe more. It should be noted that Torres underwent Tommy John last July on his non-throwing elbow and was out eight months. By that yardstick, Gregorius is likely out until the 2019 All-Star break at minimum.
And the Yankees’ in-house options are not great. They could move Torres over to shortstop and retain Neil Walker as the everyday second baseman, or try to muddle through with Adeiny Hechavarria, a defensive wizard with a balsa-wood bat, until Gregorius comes back.
Or they could make the bold move, the one that perhaps puts them over the top – they still need starting pitching of course – and the move that George would have made without question.
“We’ll do what we always do,’’ Cashman said. “We’ll plan to improve this club in any way, shape or form we can. I don’t know what the budget is going to be, but we’ve navigated a lot of different things this year in a very successful way financially.’’
That seems to indicate that there could be some flexibility in the budget, as well as a chance that Hal Steinbrenner could bend the luxury-tax rule a bit, especially since with the Yankees remaining under for 2018, the clock resets, and if the Yankees go over in 2019, they would be taxed at the first-year rate of 20 percent. The rate then escalates to 30 percent for a second consecutive overage and a whopping 50 percent for every year thereafter.
Next year, the threshold rises to $206 million. Right now, with the Yankees in a position to shed nine free agents, they are committed to $86 million for four players: Giancarlo Stanton ($26 million), Masahiro Tanaka ($22 million), Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.4 million) and Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million). The rest are under team control and only nine are arbitration eligible.
That could allow Cashman the financial flexibility to make a competitive bid on Machado. And just a reminder, Gregorius becomes a free agent in 2020, which was expected to present the Yankees with a tough call. If they sign Machado, that becomes an easy call.
“Ownership has always been very supportive of this franchise and I don’t see that ever changing,’’ Cashman said.
No doubt he will present his case to Steinbrenner when the front office convenes for its annual postseason organizational meetings in Tampa in the coming weeks.
The news about Gregorius was one of the few things Cashman and Boone spoke definitively about in a 90-minute press availability. The others were that CC Sabathia, who is a free agent, underwent cleanup surgery on his troublesome right knee on Thursday, and that Sonny Gray, who has been a bust in pinstripes, is almost certainly not coming back.
“It hasn’t worked out thus far,’’ Cashman said. “We’ll enter this winter unfortunately open-minded to a relocation.’’
As for Gregorius, the Yankees believe he suffered the injury making a throw from the Fenway Park outfield in either the first or second game of the ALDS. The Yankees were aware that he had a partially-torn UCL when they acquired him from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 but were satisfied that he was asymptomatic. Whatever he did on that outfield throw is a sobering reminder of the fragility also of Masahiro Tanaka, who has been pitching for the past four seasons with a partial UCL tear that, according to the Yankees, is also asymptomatic.
But Cashman called two throws by Gregorius that bounced to first in Game 4 “very un-Didi-like,’’ and the first clue that something was very wrong.
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, I wonder if we have a real problem here,’’’ Cashman said.
Turns out he did. But there is a way to rectify that problem, a way that a previous generation of Steinbrenners would have handled the old-fashioned way: By throwing money at it.
“The Yankees are about championships.’’ Cashman said. “Whether anyone believes it or not, we’re doing everything in our power from ownership on down to find a way to be what we’re not going to be this year, which is a world champion.’’