Will 2021 be Yankees’ year? What’s D.J. LeMahieu’s deal? Reporters break down issues

The new year is here finally, and about time, right? Too bad we don’t know for sure yet if spring training is right around the corner. Fingers are crossed that the pandemic goes away and baseball in 2021 is closer to what it was in 2019, at least by the end of the season

Time will tell.

As we wait to see if camps open in mid-February and if there will be a full 162-game season after settling for 60 last year, the Yankees still have a lot of work to do constructing next season’s roster, assuming general manager Brian Cashman eventually does do some adding to make up for all of the probable subtractions.

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What can we expect?

Here’s a take from NJ Advance Media baseball writers Brendan Kuty and Randy Miller, who address some of the Yankees’ biggest offseason questions:

Q: Is it surprising that it’s 2021 and D.J. LeMahieu is still on the market?

Kuty: Yes and no. Mostly no. I’m not surprised because there’s no impetus for either side to make moves yet. Nobody knows what 2021 is going to look like. The owners and the players both want to hold out for the best deal possible, and that goes for LeMahieu. While the Yankees know what LeMahieu is worth to them, and he wants to get every buck he can out of them. If it requires him falling a few bucks short perhaps when all is said and done, he’ll still have pushed as hard as he could. The Yankees also are waiting because they need to know how much money they’ll have to spend outside of LeMahieu. They understand that his market could control a lot of other markets.

Miller: I’m not surprised. I’ve been hearing that owners are purposely moving slowly this winter so that players will panic in January and take less money, and I believe this is happening. I was sure that the Yankees would re-sign LeMahieu when the market opened after the World Series, and I still feel that way even though we’ve heard the sides have been more than $25 million apart and other teams now are in the mix. The Yanks made an offer, and they’ll probably stick to it — or close to it — until they have to add years and money, which won’t happen until they actually believe another team is a real threat to sign LeMahieu. The Yankees realize that they need LeMahieu at the top of their lineup. They need him playing second base, because he’s a tremendous in the field, too. They need his work habits and leadership, especially if Brett Gardner isn’t back. Also, the Yankees put themselves out there saying LeMahieu is their top priority. I can’t remember them ever doing that in the past for anyone. I don’t even think they said that when Derek Jeter was a free agent near the end of his career. What message would that send to fans if LeMahieu signs with the Dodgers, Blue Jays or anyone else? It says, ‘We failed.’ I know the Yankees lost tens of millions last year, as did every team, but LeMahieu signing elsewhere would look very bad on ownership. LeMahieu was their best player two years in a row. He’s not looking for Gerrit Cole money or Gerrit Cole years. San Diego lost money last year and just made two trades and a free agent signing in a span of 24 hours to add two aces and a Korean slugger. The Padres can do that, and the Yankees can’t re-sign one of their own free agents? Not all. Not two or three. Just one. Remember: The Yanks already will be saving a lot of money by not bringing back the likes of J.A. Happ, James Paxton, Tommy Kahnle, Jonathan Holder, and maybe Masahiro Tanaka and Gardner, too. I don’t see the Yankees screwing this up with LeMahieu. But if they do, boy oh boy, it’ll be a public relations nightmare.

Q: Which team ends up with LeMahieu if he doesn’t return to the Yankees?

Kuty: You hear the Dodgers entering the fray now. I’ve always thought the Dodgers made sense. Why sign Justin Turner when you can give that money to LeMahieu to play third base? Aside from the Dodgers, I don’t believe the Blue Jays are a real threat. I also don’t think the Mets really want him LeMahieu more than they want George Springer or a top-caliber starting pitcher.

Miller: The Dodgers have had meetings with LeMahieu, and that should scare the Yankees because LA is a big-market team coming off a World Series title season that needs a third baseman. We’ve been hearing all winter that the Dodgers want Turner back, but he supposedly wants a four-year deal for good money and 36, almost four years older than LeMahieu. If the Dodgers decide to go all in on LeMahieu, it’s going to be interesting to see how the Yankees counter. Will they give LeMahieu a fifth year? Will they reluctantly go in another direction, which could lead to Didi Gregorius returning to play shortstop and Gleyber Torres going back to second. As for LeMahieu’s other options … I don’t see him signing with the Blue Jays, who played their home games in Buffalo last season and might do so again this year. The only way Toronto gets LeMahieu is by overpaying by a lot, which I don’t see happening. The Mets? They have a need a second base with Robinson Cano suspended and I’ve thought all along that signing LeMahieu would be Steve Cohen’s way of making a big statement to Mets fans that he’s not afraid of angering the Yankees. The Mets reportedly have offered more than $100 million to George Springer. I’m a Springer fan. He’s one of the best outfielders in baseball. But I’d take LeMahieu over Springer any day, especially if I had needs at second base and the outfield, as the Mets do. Most people think the Mets will sign two top free agents this winter. My choices would be Trever Bauer and LeMahieu.

Q: Will the Yankees make any other significant moves if they re-sign LeMahieu?

Kuty: Absolutely. They need starting pitching. Brian Cashman has to maintain for negotiation purposes that he believes in the rotation options he has right now, but you know that’s not totally true. Specifically, he needs more innings … more innings that you can count on. How often was it that you were wondering last season whether Jordan Montgomery would go five innings? It’ll be the same way next season when they’ll also wonder whether Domingo German can go five, especially after his awful winter league showing. The Yankees will add starting pitching. I think they’ll find a buy-low candidate on the trade market. Think Brandon McCarthy from 2014. The Yankees also could use bullpen help, but this is where I think they’ll use some of their young arms … Brooks Kriske, Nick Nelson and Jonathan Loaisiga. I think those are arms that you’ll see in the bullpen next season.

Miller: The Yankees have to add one veteran starter who has at least a decent resume. They can’t go into spring training with Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo German in the rotation along with two kids, Deivi Garcia and maybe Clarke Schmidt. I know Luis Severino probably will return from Tommy John surgery around midseason, but there will be injuries and they better prepare for that , I also think it’s in the Yankees’ best interests to start Schmidt out in Triple-A. He has all the arm, stuff and makeup to be a very good big-league starter, but he’s pitched just 25 1/3 innings above A-ball counting 6 1/3 with the Yanks last season. I still think Tanaka has a decent shot of coming back regardless of what happens with LeMahieu. I’ve been hearing that Tanaka wants to play for the Yankees, and if not, he may play in Japan next season. I don’t think Tanaka is concerned about money as much as a lot of other players at this point in his career. He’s in his 30s. He’s made $150 million. He wants to pitch in a World Series. The Yankees have a realistic shot at getting there every year even though they haven’t won a pennant since 2009. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tanaka gives the Yankees a big hometown discount to return, which is what he’ll have to do because Cashman, due to luxury-tax concerns, might have only $15 million or so left in the budget if LeMahieu re-signs. I can see Tanaka returning on a one-year deal for around $10 million to $12 million.

Q: Are Brett Gardner’s days with the Yankees over?

Kuty: I don’t think so. My prediction is Gardner takes an extremely team friendly deal to stay with the Yankees. I don’t think he wants to retire. I don’t think he wants to play in front of different fans. I do think he wants to end his career with the Yankees. Plus, you saw Gardner turn it on late last season when he really hit well in September and in the playoffs. So you can’t even factor him out of regular playing time, especially when you wonder whether Mike Tauchman is the hitter than he was in 2019 or 2020.

Miller: I expect Gardner to get an offer, but it might be as low as one year for $2-to-$3 million. Will that offend Gardner? Would he go elsewhere if someone offers more? I’m not sure. I recently spoke to his agent, who made it clear that Gardner wants to play in 2021 and he hopes to stay with the Yankees. It’s going to come down to money and maybe playing time. There are good reasons for the Yankees to bring back Gardner. He’s more than a leader who has played his entire career in pinstripes. Even though he’s older, he’s been more reliable the last few years than injury-prone outfielders Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. And when Hicks goes down, Gardner is the best option to play center field, because I don’t think the Yanks are ready to count on prospect Estevan Florial. The only team that I wonder if Gardner would go to is the Braves. Atlanta isn’t far from Gardner’s home in South Carolina, so playing there would be great for his family and hometown friends. Also, the Braves are an NL power that has won their division three years in a row, and they’ll be a threat to win it all in 2021. Also, the Braves could offer Gardner a starting job in left field. Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, Atlanta’s left fielders last season, are both free agents, as is fellow 2020 Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis.

Q: Are the Yankees the favorite in the AL East due to the Rays dumping aces Blake Snell and Charlie Morton?

Kuty: You have to consider the Yankees at the top, but the Rays always find a way to surprise. They always find a way to compete. I don’t think you can count them out. Side note: What’s the point of being a Rays fan when you can’t keep someone like Snell for the kind of money he was making? Anyway, you have to look at the Yankees as No. 1 in the division just from sheer attrition, though the Blue Jays are a team to be reckoned with, as well, with that young offense there. Toronto is really turning the corner.

Miller: The Blue Jays are certainly trending upward. They’re a fun team to watch with their youthful talent, but they still need a lot more quality pitching — starting and relief — to win playoff series. I expect the Yankees to run away with their division next season. I admire what the Rays have done through the years contending frequently as a small-market franchise that always sells off their stars, but I’m expecting a fall from glory in 2021. The Rays’ lineup is nothing special and now their rotation is weak other than Tyler Glasnow. A lot of things went the Rays’ way last season. I doubt the baseball Gods are as kind to them in 2021 because breaks usually even out in time. It’s funny, we’ve been talking about the AL East without mentioning the Red Sox, who won the World Series just three years ago. Boston egressed in 2019, then was terrible in 2020 and probably will be bad again in 2021. Baltimore is getting better, but won’t be a factor next season. The Yankees, with or without LeMahieu, have the best AL East team on paper by a lot, and they could get a lot better come July or so if Severino returns and pitches like he can when he was a 19-game winner in 2017.

Q: Will 2021 be the Yankees’ year to finally get back to the World Series?

Kuty: I think so. I thought it would happen in 2020 before the world started to end. Their offense is still supremely talented. You’re still waiting for a healthy season from Judge and Stanton at the same time. You’re getting back Severino. What is there not to like about the Yankees, outside of the fact that they haven’t signed DJ LeMahieu yet and haven’t added to the starting pitching and have questions in their bullpen? OK, fine, there are so many problems, but they’re also so fixable that you have to feel good about the Yankees, provided they just do their jobs.

Miller: With the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and other big-money teams more concerned about luxury taxes in this age of baseball, there is no perfect team. The Yankees are the closest thing. They have one of the best aces in baseball at the top of their rotation. They’ll have a great lineup with or without LeMahieu, with or without Gary Sanchez rebounding in a big way. Also, there aren’t many clubs that have three high-leverage relievers like Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman. The White Sox are certainly a team to beat in the American League, but the Yankees are the team to beat. The Dodgers, Braves and Padres are National League powers, but I still would pick the Yankees to beat all of them in the World Series if they have LeMahieu playing second base, everyone is healthy and Kyle Higashioka is catching. By October, Cole and Severino could be the best 1-2 rotation punch in the playoffs. The key for the Yankees is avoiding a third season in a row with most of their best players being hurt for a bunch of games. They’re due for some better luck … if indeed bad luck was the cause.

Biggest 2020 takeaway?

Kuty: Don’t wait to do things. The world got shut down. Maybe you had so many plans that just never came to fruition because for months and months and months, you couldn’t go anywhere, or do anything without the fear of getting sick amid a global pandemic. When they talk about what’s going to happen, this truly shows you that you never know what’s going to happen. So if there’s something happening in your life that you really want to do, just go for it because nobody saw a global pandemic coming. What’s next? Aliens?

Miller: I never got used to watching baseball games with no fans. Every time there was a foul ball and you’d see those cutouts in the stands… It was funny at first, but a constant reminder that maybe it was better off scrapping the whole year. It was numbing when about half of the Miami Marlins tested positive to COVID-19, resulting in a bunch of missed games. I didn’t think the season would be completed. My favorite baseball memories of 2020 came during the shutdown when MLB Network showed a lot of old games. My birthday present as an eight-year-old in 1974 was a right-field upper deck ticket to the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. Watching that whole game many years later was fun. Watching Fernando Valenzuela pitch his no-hitter in 1990 with the great Vin Scully calling it on Dodgers TV was fun. Hopefully, we return to normalcy at some point in 2021 with full ballparks, cheers, boos, the smell of cheese steaks, hot dogs and popcorn, and wide-eyed little kids sitting in the stands wearing their gloves rooting for a souvenir foul ball, a home run and a win. Hopefully, America’s game becomes America’s game again in 2021.

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Randy Miller may be reached at rmiller@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RandyJMiller. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.