So You Need Salary Relief You Say? Here’s How the Yankees Can Get Just That

By Louis Addeo-Weiss

Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings saw a flurry of moves as many teams looked to improve their rosters with hopes for successful 2020 seasons.

Whether it was the Washington Nationals opening up the checkbook for World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg at 7-years/$245M or former teammate, Anthony Rendon taking his luggage to Southern California for the same take-home pay, this piece’s introductory sentence most certainly reigns true.

Regardless of these and the bevy of accompanying moves that were made in San Diego, the biggest news came late Tuesday night when it was reported by MLB Insider Jon Heyman that the New York Yankees had caught the biggest fish at sea, inking Gerrit Cole to a record-breaking 9-year/$324M deal. 

Per CBS Sports’ R.J. Anderson, the addition of Cole gives the Yankees a projected 2020 payroll of $232 million, but after a Thursday which saw Brett Gardner, the team’s longest-serving player, return on a one-year deal for $12.5M, the team looks to open the season with $244.5 million in committed salary.

With these two signings, the team exceeds the $208 million luxury tax threshold by $36.5 million, which calls for financial penalties for the 2020 season, which now leads us to the question of how can they shed some of that payroll without hindering their chances for their first World Series since 2009?

The answer to that may lie within what now appears as a musical chairs-like starting rotation following the signing of Cole.

If the Yankees wish to trim their payroll for 2020 and beyond to ensure they remain around or even hover below the luxury tax, the name to deal here would be J.A. Happ.

Entering the second and final year of a 2-year/$34M contract he signed prior to 2019, Happ is expected to make $17 million in 2020, a number the Yankees, were you to serve a bottle of truth serum to GM Brian Cashman, would admit they’d love to avoid paying.

With Cole’s signing, the team, alongside the former Houston Astros’ ace, boasts rotation hopefuls such as Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, Luis Servino, Jordan Montgomery – who is recovering from late-2018 Tommy John Surgery – Happ, and Domingo German – who could miss time due to an ongoing investigation surrounding an existing domestic violence charge. 

Now, granted German may miss some time, one can argue the Happ, despite given his payroll commitment, still looks to be the name the Bombers will look to ship off elsewhere, but this is easier said than done.

The Yankees will merely be trading Happ for salary relief, as this looks to be among the furthest moves in regards to stockpiling the farm system – Happ pitched to a 4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP, and 1.2 bWAR – but the question is, how can they do this and do it without a problem?

Simple; trade him to the Cleveland Indians alongside Clint Frazier.

For one thing, Happ is a far better pitcher than his 2019 season lets on. From 2015-18, Happ pitched to a 3.48 ERA, winning 58 games, and a 120 ERA+.  

To say the Indians wouldn’t love to plug his 175-200 innings in their rotation is fool’s vernacular. The left-hander, something the Indians don’t currently have, would be a welcome addition to their rotation.

But the jewel, in the context of this proposed trade, would be an old, familiar face, the aforementioned Frazier, who the Indians drafted fifth overall in 2013.

Frazier, who was traded by Cleveland to the Yankees in a 2016 trade deadline blockbuster that gave the Indians Andrew Miller, owns a career 102 OPS+ in 429 plate appearances over a mere 123 games played, and while this reeks of small sample size, with the flashes of glory he’s shown in his brief major league tenure, he’d be a much-welcome addition to an offensively anemic Indians outfield.

Frazier’s 111 OPS+, albeit in just 246 plate appearances spread over 69 games, would’ve ranked second among Cleveland outfielders, trailing only Jordan Luplow, who posted an impressive 136 OPS+ in 261 plate appearances across 85 games played. 

For the Indians, a team not known to work heavily with the realms of free agency, adding a potential 20-25 homer bat and slotting him in, say, the no. 6 spot in their batting order would give manager Terry Francona a bat with severe upside, and the chance for the 25-year old Georgia-native to receive a full-time role at the big league level, because let’s face it, given the Yankees’ crowded outfield of the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, the recently re-signed Gardner, Mike Tauchhman, and Aaron Judge, finding playing time for the former first-round pick will continue to be something manager Aaron Boone is posed with looking to do.

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