The Yankees locked up Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks, but they still have several contract extension candidates

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A long-term contract agreement was reached Monday morning, but no, it did not involve Bryce Harper. He remains a free agent. Instead, the New York Yankees signed center fielder Aaron Hicks to a seven-year extension worth $70 million. The deal includes an eighth year club option. Hicks would’ve become a free agent following the 2019 season.

The Yankees signed ace Luis Severino to a four-year, $40 million extension two weeks ago. He was four years away from free agency, so that contract is more about gaining cost certainty over his four arbitration years as a Super Two. Spring training is typically extension season — Aaron Nola, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco have also signed extensions in recent weeks — and the Yankees have certainly embraced it.

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Interestingly enough, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner recently cited the team’s need to lock up their core as a reason to pass on Manny Machado and Harper. From the Associated Press:

“I have to look at the big picture, and it is my responsibility — that my family expects, my partners expect — not just to look at the present but to look at the future, too,” he said. “Three, four, five years from now we get a lot of homegrown kids that we love, our fans love, that are going to be coming up for free agency.” 

Hicks was coming up on free agency and Severino was coming up on an arbitration hearing — hearings can be contentious and create bad blood, so both sides try to avoid them — and now the Yankees don’t have to worry about either long-term. They’re locked in for the next several years at salaries that are, frankly, below market. Players are starting to jump on extensions given the state of free agency, it seems.

Even with Hicks and Severino locked up, the Yankees still have several other core players who are candidates for a multi-year extension. Some are closer to free agency than others, of course, but they’re all extension candidates. Here are the players who the Yankees could target for their next long-term deal, listed alphabetically.

Miguel Andujar, the Rookie of the Year runner-up a year ago, authored a .297/.328/.527 batting line with 27 home runs last season. His 47 doubles tied Fred Lynn’s AL rookie record. As productive as he was last year, Andujar does not figure to be a top extension priority right now. He is five years away from free agency and concerns about his defense make him a likely first baseman or left fielder (or DH) long-term. The Yankees have two more years of Andujar at something close to the league minimum salary and they’ll likely use them to evaluate his defense and determine his long-term position before discussing an extension.

Possible contract benchmark: Odubel Herrera (five years, $30.5 million with two club options) and Gregory Polanco (five years, $35 million with two club options) both signed deals at Andujar’s service time level.

Although he is prone to bouts of (extreme) wildness, Dellin Betances has been one of the best relievers in baseball the last five seasons, going to four All-Star Games and becoming the first reliever in history to record 100-plus strikeouts in five straight years. Reports indicate Betances, an impending free agent, is a top extension priority for the Yankees:

The Yankees clearly value a strong and deep bullpen — they added Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton to Betances and Aroldis Chapman over the winter — and retaining Betances is a no-brainer. He is a native New Yorker and homegrown success story. Plus he’s very good and would be difficult to replace. This could be a deal that gets done sooner rather than later, as in before Opening Day, especially since Betances is already 31.

Possible contract benchmark: Ottavino (three years, $27 million) and Jeurys Familia (three years, $30 million) more than Britton (three years, $39 million) is my guess. Being a Proven Closer still pays.

Tommy John surgery has presumably thrown a big wrench into contract talks between the Yankees and Didi Gregorius. A perfectly healthy Gregorius would’ve been an obvious extension candidate. He’s gotten better and better in each of his four seasons with the Yankees, culminating with a .268/.335/.494 batting line and 27 home runs in 2018. Gregorius blew out his elbow in the ALDS, however, and will miss the first 2-4 months of the season as he rehabs, according to the team’s estimate.

On one hand, now might be the best time for the Yankees to get Sir Didi at a discount. The free-agent market stinks and he might jump at the financial security while rehabbing from a major surgery. On the other hand, the Yankees might want to wait just to make sure Gregorius is the same player post-elbow reconstruction. Chances are he’ll be fine, but what if he loses arm strength and/or accuracy and has to play second base rather than shortstop going forward? That would certainly change how teams value Gregorius long-term. Seems to me the Yankees are in wait-and-see mode right now.

Possible contract benchmark: Tough to pin down due to the Tommy John surgery. Would the Zack Cozart deal (three years, $38 million) work as a starting point? My hunch is Gregorius, who just turned 29, could get a fourth year at a similar annual salary, even after Tommy John surgery.

Over the last two seasons Chad Green is third among all relievers in WAR (5.0) and seventh in strikeouts (197), yet it’s not crazy to think he might only be the fifth best reliever in New York’s bullpen on a rate basis. As good as he is, the Yankees don’t figure to be in a rush to extend Green. Middle relievers don’t get expensive through arbitration — Chris Devenski has an All-Star Game selection to his credit and his first year arbitration salary was $1.525 million this winter — so there’s no real reason to assume the risk. The Yankees can go year-to-year with Green, and if he gets hurt or his performance dips, they could move on with no strings attached. Harsh, but that’s the business.

Possible contract benchmark: There is none. Relievers never get extended at Green’s service time level. Would he take five years and, say, $15 million? Green was a late-round draft pick who did not receive a large signing bonus. He might jump on the guaranteed payday given the inherent volatility at this position.

Now we’re talking. The Yankees still have Aaron Judge at a near league minimum salary as a pre-arbitration-eligible player in 2019, but the sooner they sign him, the bigger the discount. That’s how these things work. Judge will go into arbitration next year with at least a unanimous Rookie of the Year award and a second place finish in the MVP voting. By time the season ends, he should be over 100 career homers (83 now) and will possibly have another high finish in the MVP voting to his credit.

Kris Bryant ($10.85 million) currently holds the record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible player with Francisco Lindor ($10.55 million) and Mookie Betts ($10.5 million) close behind. That’s the kind of money Judge figures to seek next offseason, when he becomes arbitration-eligible for the first time. At his current pace, his arbitration salaries could go from $10 million to $20 million to $30 million from 2019-21. Judge could very well set new arbitration salary records. His case is that strong.

That all said, Judge is a difficult player to project. He was a bit of a late bloomer — he didn’t play his first full MLB season until age 25 — and who knows how he’ll age at that size (6-foot-7 and 282 lbs.). Judge is a great athlete and a quality right fielder. Running around the outfield at that size can’t be good for the knees though. He might be a full-time first baseman or DH in three or four years. The Yankees could ride out Judge’s final cheap pre-arbitration year in 2019 before getting serious about a long-term deal.

Judge confirmed last week he hasn’t heard from the Yankees about an extension yet — “I am focused on the season. I haven’t heard anything,” he said to George King of the New York Post — though I imagine that’ll change soon. He is the face of the franchise and again, arbitration salary records could be looming. The Yankees have the money to pay those raises though, and it could be the discount won’t be large enough to assume the added risk with a player of nearly unprecedented size.

Possible contract benchmark: Well, Mike Trout signed a six-year deal worth $144.5 million at Judge’s service time level, so that’s one possibility. Buster Posey got eight years and $159 million at the same service time level. Those deals seem more relevant than, say, Kevin Kiermaier‘s (six years, $53.5 million) or Matt Carpenter‘s (six years, $52 million), though Trout and Posey both had won an MVP at the time of their extensions. Judge hasn’t.

Could six years and $100 million be the compromise? That’s quite a bit more than Kiermaier and Carpenter but also less than Trout and Posey and their MVP awards. The 2019-24 salaries could be structured like so:

  • 2019: $1 million plus $2 million signing bonus (pre-arbitration year)
  • 2020: $10 million (arbitration year)
  • 2021: $15 million (arbitration year)
  • 2022: $20 million (arbitration year)
  • 2023: $25 million (free agent year)
  • 2024: $25 million (free agent year)
  • 2025: $27 million club option with $2 million buyout (free agent year)

The Yankees get cost certainty over Judge’s potentially historically expensive arbitration years as well as buy out two free agent years with an option for a third free agent year. That covers his age 27-32 seasons with an option for his age 33 season. Judge trades his maximum earning potential through arbitration and free agency for the guaranteed nine-figure payday. Whatever the contract, Judge’s extension case is very unique. There are few comparables out there for a player of this caliber.

New York had a busy offseason and James Paxton was their prized pickup. The high-strikeout lefty is two years away from free agency but he also has an injury history, an injury history that could give the Yankees pause when it comes to a long-term contract. They might not want to assume the risk until absolutely necessary. A year ago at this time Sonny Gray, who was also two years away from free agency, seemed like a possible extension candidate. By midseason, Gray was out of the rotation and persona non grata. 

Also, the last time the Yankees traded for a pitcher and signed him to an extension before he ever threw a pitch in their uniform, it didn’t work out too well. That was the four-year, $45 million contract they gave Javier Vazquez in 2004. If Paxton goes to the Yankees and is willing to take a sweatheart deal, the team would pounce. Otherwise I reckon they’ll wait to see how he performs in pinstripes before discussing an extension.

Possible contract benchmark: Shockingly few starting pitchers have signed long-term extensions at Paxton’s service time level. Matt Harrison (five years, $55 million) and John Danks (five years, $65 million) signed extensions at this service time level years and years ago. Five years and $75 million or so may be appropriate for Paxton at this point given inflation. Also, Harrison and Danks are good cautionary tales. Injuries limited them to 0.3 WAR and 629 2/3 innings combined during their contracts.

A dreadful 2018 season likely gave the Yankees a little pause when it comes to signing Gary Sanchez long-term. He hit .186/.291/.406 and led MLB with 18 passed balls, plus he missed close to two months total with two separate groin strains, and he had shoulder surgery following the season. Ouch. If you’re making a pros and cons list, Sanchez really filled up the cons column last year.

As for the pros, we are talking about a 26-year-old who plays the toughest position to fill on the field, remember. For all the passed ball issues, Sanchez rates very well as a pitch-framer and his arm is a cannon. Since he was called up for good on Aug. 12, 2016, Sanchez has hit seven more home runs than any other catcher, and that’s despite missing close to two months last year and being pretty crummy when healthy.

The guess here is the Yankees want to see Sanchez bounce back this season, especially following shoulder surgery, before getting serious about an extension. Last year was just so bad that it’s impossible to wave it away as just a sophomore slump. Similar to Paxton, if Sanchez is willing to take a sweetheart deal right now, the Yankees would jump on it. Seems to me they want to see 2016-17 Sanchez return before committing big dollars though.

Possible contract benchmark: Jorge Polanco (five years, $25.75 million) and Max Kepler (five years, $35 million) signed extensions as Sanchez’s service time level recently. He has an All-Star Game to his credit and a higher established ceiling given his 2017 season, so something a little north of Kepler makes sense.

The Yankees will never admit it, but they manipulated Gleyber Torres‘ service time last year. His underwent Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in June 2017 and was a full participant in spring training last year, so he was healthy, yet they sent him to Triple-A for a few weeks. You say he needed at-bats following surgery, I say the injury was used as cover to push back his free agency a year. Tomato, tomahto.

Anyway, Torres finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting last year, slashing .271/.340/.480 with 24 home runs. Gleyber is a former top prospect who, at age 22, looks every bit the part of a star in the making. There is no real urgency here because Torres won’t be a free agent until the 2024-25 offseason, but there might never be a better time for the Yankees to get a super team-friendly extension than right now.

Possible contract benchmark: Scott Kingery (six years, $24 million with three club options) signed an extension before making his MLB debut while Paul DeJong (six years, $26 million with two club options) and Tim Anderson (six years, $25 million with two club options) signed with less than one year of service time. Torres was an All-Star last year, remember, so I’m sure he’s looking to push the market forward with an extension. Six years and $30 million with two club options could be the ticket.