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What the Yankees must do to be title contenders again

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The New York Yankees‘ 2023 season effectually ended in the final week of September, when they were eliminated from postseason contention following another loss. But the club had known for several weeks that it wasn’t a true contender. The Yanks ultimately lost 80 times, the franchise’s highest mark in a full season since 1992. They missed the playoffs — and closed out the year playing meaningless baseball — for the first time since 2016. Their owner called it unacceptable. But that was, by all accounts, a nice way of putting it. Miserable would be more accurate.

This is the backdrop of the Yankees’ upcoming season, one that is, at the moment, covered in not only hope but lofty expectations and urgency after the club injected Juan Soto into its lineup. He might don the pinstripes for just one year before hitting free agency next winter. This team’s window could already be closing, anyway. Aaron Judge will be 32. Gerrit Cole is 33. Anthony Rizzo is 34 and in the final year of his contract, barring a team option next season. Giancarlo Stanton is 34, too. That puts immense pressure on the Yankees to build the strongest, holeless, injury-protected roster possible, and reach the Fall Classic in 2024.

So, have they done enough this offseason to satisfy those World-Series-or-bust expectations? Trading for Soto was enormous. Signing Marcus Stroman to an inexpensive two-year deal was good business. Adding Alex Verdugo should finally insert stability to the revolving door in left field. Still, there appears to be little depth for a team with multiple injury issues. Carlos Rodón has everything to prove. Nestor Cortes threw just 63 innings last year and his durability is questionable. Brian Cashman is apparently just waiting for Stanton to get injured. If Judge gets hurt again, or Soto, this lineup looks pretty average.

That could explain a recent San Francisco Chronicle report listing the Yankees as suitors for third baseman Matt Chapman. The Scott Boras client slashed .240/.330/.424, hit 17 home runs and posted a 110 wRC+ for the Blue Jays last year. Chapman can provide steady production to a Yankees lineup that ranked 25th in runs scored last season, and he’s an obvious upgrade at the position. The Yanks have DJ LeMahieu at the hot corner, and on team payroll for $15 million annually for the next three seasons. But it’s been tough for LeMahieu to stay on the field and get back into form after sustaining a problematic toe injury in 2022. That being said, third base is not the club’s biggest concern right now.

The Yanks still have other holes and could especially use another starting pitcher. He doesn’t have to be an ace — that’s what they’re betting Rodón’s bounce-back season will resemble — but even a No. 3 or 4 rubber-armed starter would go a long way. They could use a relief pitcher, as well; a high-leverage option good enough to be a backup closer. Lucky for them, there are still a number of difference-makers available for the taking. They’ve always had the financial might. For Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees, it’s a matter of how much he’ll flex that muscle. There is at least one major trade they can (and should) swing, either now or by July’s trade deadline. 

Dylan Cease is an optimal candidate. The right-hander is a strikeout machine, owning the ninth-best rate (29.8%) in MLB since 2021. He does walk a lot of batters, but he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs. He’s a solid pitcher, and in many ways one of the best starters remaining on the market. Perhaps the best part about Cease is his durability. Over the past three seasons, no pitcher in baseball has made more starts (97) than Cease. Cole is right behind him with 96. Pairing Cease’s dependability with Cole’s Cy-Young excellence would provide breathing room and security in New York’s otherwise questionable rotation.

Alas, the White Sox are reportedly looking for a flashy trade package in order to give up their 28-year-old ace. He’ll likely fetch multiple top prospects given his production and the fact that he doesn’t enter free agency until 2026. Acquiring a top starter in his prime and keeping him under team control for two years is costly, but the Yankees have every reason to be bold. Instead, they appear content with waiting until the summer to pursue Cease, if he’s still available, while letting the season play out with a rotation of Cole, Rodón, Stroman, Cortes, and Clarke Schmidt, with righty Luke Weaver as depth.

But if the Yanks end up going for Cease, Oswald Peraza could headline such a package. His future in New York is unclear. Gleyber Torres is manning second base, Anthony Volpe is entering Year 2 at shortstop, and LeMahieu is under contract through 2026 at the hot corner, though he could shift across the diamond if Rizzo departs in free agency next offseason. As things stand, Peraza will be a utility infielder in 2024, essentially replacing Isiah Kiner-Falefa on the roster. Over 248 big-league plate appearances, Peraza has struggled at the plate but also been given the runway to grow. Though his trade value has never been lower, the 23-year-old has excelled at every minor-league level and the White Sox could give him the playing time he might need to really break out. 

Why Marcus Stroman is a perfect fit in the Yankees’ rotation

As for relief pitching, the Yankees are said to be pursuing Hector Neris. Such a move might seem odd on the surface since the Bombers repped the best bullpen in baseball last year. Steinbrenner would also face more luxury tax penalties by signing Neris, who is reportedly seeking $8 million-plus annually. Cot’s Contracts projects the Yankees to exceed a $300 million competitive balance tax payroll this year, a value that would represent a franchise first. The third and final tier of luxury tax penalties is set at $297 million in 2024. New York already paid $34.4 million in tax money for exceeding the final luxury tier last year, per the Associated Press. 

But this isn’t the time for the win-now Yankees to hold back in spending. Neris would be a notable addition and is more than affordable. As of now, the relief corps advertises Clay Holmes, Tommy Kahnle and Jonathan Loaisiga as late-game, high-leverage arms. They could reunite with Wandy Peralta or add another bargain-bin reliever, which would help some, but signing the feisty Neris would make for a splashier move, one that could recast that back end of the bullpen into a serious threat. Adding Neris, who boasted a career-best 1.71 ERA across 71 relief appearances for the Astros last year, would also create some insurance for the Yankees’ aforementioned unpredictable, built-on-hope starting rotation. 

The Yankees have come a long way since their sour ending to the 2023 season. By now, they’re certainly better than they were last year, good enough on paper to get into the playoffs. Fangraphs has the Orioles pegged as the favorite of the loaded AL East, but with the Yanks projected to win about 90 games, that could still earn them their 59th postseason appearance in franchise history. They want more than that, of course. They want their first World Series appearance since 2009. They want title No. 28. They want to become the Evil Empire again. And if they want all that, they need to continue filling holes and erasing question marks. They need to make at least a couple more moves. 

They need to go all-in.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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