MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Yankees have time to make signature free-agent splash

Yankees have time to make signature free-agent splash

Baseball traditionalists are taking a beating this offseason. We miss the New York Yankees being, you know, really active in the free-agent, player-acquisition portions of life.

It appears that the Chicago White Sox are playing the great-big-guy role of the Yankees this winter. And in the most notable case, that of Jon Lester, the part of the Yankees was played by the Chicago Cubs.

These are indubitably large-market clubs. But they are not supposed to be the Yankees. C'mon. The famous comedy troupe from Chicago is called "Second City." There was a brief moment when it looked like the Yankees had found their fiscal footing. That was when they signed the market's leading lefty reliever, Andrew Miller, to a four-year, $36-million deal.

At that point, admit it, you thought that the Yankees were going all Kansas City Royals with the back end of their bullpen. They were going to have Miller, hard-throwing Dellin Betances and closer David Robertson shut people down for the last three innings of every game, just the way the Royals trio of relievers did in the postseason.

But then it turned out that Miller/Robertson was an either/or situation for the Yankees. In the past they would have signed both relievers and some of their relatives if that's what it took. This time, despite how nobly Robertson had accomplished the seemingly impossible task of succeeding the immortal Mariano Rivera, the Yankees stopped pursuing him once they had signed Miller.

Robertson, of course, was signed by the White Sox for $46 million over four years. Apparently, it's a brand new ballgame for everyone involved.

On the starting pitching front, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had frequently mentioned Brandon McCarthy as a signing target this winter. McCarthy, after all, had revived his career with the Yankees in the second half of the 2014 season.

But McCarthy signed with the Dodgers for $48 million over four years, without receiving an actual offer from the Yankees. Again, really different. In the past when the Yankees said they wanted somebody, it was largely a matter of filling in the numbers on the checks.

The Yankees left the Winter Meetings with the same number of items on their to-do list as when the meetings started. They need a third baseman, and are presumably pursuing Chase Headley. They still need another reliever, preferably one with late-inning experience.

But the one area that appears most worrisome is the one area you don't want to worry about -- starting pitching.

There are question marks attached to all of the incumbent starters. Masahiro Tanaka is coming back from an elbow injury that did not require surgery. CC Sabathia is coming back from a knee injury. Ivan Nova is returning from Tommy John surgery, but probably not until well into the regular season. Michael Pineda has flashed wonderful potential, but he has mostly been unavailable, making 13 starts last season after missing two full seasons.

The eminently reliable Hiroki Kuroda may return or he may pitch in Japan or retire in Japan. The Yankees may have to turn to less experienced pitchers, such as Adam Warren and/or David Phelps for rotation help. But Shane Greene is no longer in the mix because he was part of the deal for new shortstop Didi Gregorius.

There is considerable uncertainty facing the Yankees in the one area where uncertainty should not reside. The thought persists among many observers of the game, that, as Spring Training draws nearer, and the uncertainty doesn't shrink, the Yankees could become bidders once again, this time for the biggest-ticket pitcher of the current free agent class, Max Scherzer.

Scherzer is represented by Scott Boras, who is known for maximizing his clients' value, sometimes to unprecedented levels. Boras does not specialize in the soft-sell. When asked at the Winter Meetings about the possibility of the Yankees becoming bidders for Scherzer's services, Boras responded:

"I can't predict what the Yankees are going to do. But I can tell you that a guy like Max fits into their starting rotation to develop a World Series-caliber set that is similar to what they've had in the past when they won."

It was just the blink of an eye ago when the Yankees not only led the market, they set the market. For the moment at least, they have taken what appears to be a turn toward fiscal conservatism.

But Spring Training is still more than two months away. There is plenty of time for the Yankees to act like something other than the Bronx Bystanders.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.