A week or so ago, yours truly suggested that the Yankees would benefit the most from a two-month delay to the start of the MLB season. With Aaron Judge's tender ribs, Giancarlo Stanton's Grade 1 calf strain and James Paxton fresh off a microscopic lumbar discectomy and removal of a periodical cyst (try saying that five times), a June 1 Opening Day would have been an accidental blessing for the Bronx Bombers.
But there's a darker side to the delayed season.
Not only would the Yankees get less service time from their stars, there's a conga line of key free agents who may leave at the end of a truncated — or cancelled — MLB season, the latter happening just once when the 1994 World Series was scrubbed following a player strike. Let's assume the owners and players join in a spirit of patriotism and ingenuity, giving the middle finger to the coronavirus.
The dim, grim side of a delay, or the meat-hook reality of a nixed season, is the fact that the Yanks have a gaggle of really good players who become free agents in the fall of 2020 — including Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, DJ LeMahieu and Brett Gardner (who will be an unrestricted free agent if the Yanks decline their $10 million team option for 2021). Plus starting pitcher JA Happ has a $17 million vesting option for 2021.
Most of those players were key cogs in the Yankees machine that rolled to 103 wins last year. LeMahieu was a hitting machine (.327 BA/26 HR/102 RBI), Tanaka was a front-line pitcher on a brittle rotation — going 2-1 in last year's playoffs, has a 1.06 ERA in the ALDS and a 1.88 ERA in the ALCS — and Paxton went 10-0 with a 2.51 ERA in his last 11 starts of 2019. (Gardner, though spunky and blue-collar tough, is clearly on his last legs. And Happ is a back-end starter.)
Not that the world west of the Hudson will feel pity for the pinstripes. Indeed, the Yankees also have a small army of budding stars who aren't free agents for years. Mike Tauchman, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit aren't unrestricted free agents until 2025. Domingo German and Miguel Andujar have to plow through a forest of arbitration years until 2024. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green are under team control or signed until 2023. Relief pitchers Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle are signed until 2022.
So, if you take a wide lens to this corporate behemoth, you see the Yanks have to make some tough choices over the next few years. There's also the reality that a lost season would waste the biblical talent of prized free agent and ace pitcher Gerrit Cole, in his absolute prime, his 29-year-old talent a fatality in this tete-a-tete with a virus.
Simply, a 100-game MLB season would be clearly contoured for the Yanks, their surplus of young stars and their visceral need to exact Old Testament revenge on the Astros and, to a lesser extent, the Red Sox, over their twin-scandals of sign-stealing. It's not absurd to wonder if the Bronx Bombers would have assumed their ancestral perch above the baseball world, racking up one or two more World Series rings if not for the high-tech malfeasance from Houston and Boston.
Of course, fans will argue the Yanks have preened from an unfair perch for decades. They have more money, more resources and created the first cash-cow local cable network. Even during this 11-year World Series drought, the Yanks have won the Fall Classic 27 times in their history. The Cardinals are second, with 11. But if you recall how the Astros and Red Sox flouted the rules, won World Series and don't have a guily conscience, maybe the Yankees are exactly the team to restore world order.
So any season, played in the Bronx or Phoenix or Florida, with players sleeping at home or in a sun-blinding hotel, will do wonders for baseball fans, in particular, and Americans in general. Maybe the NFL has leapfrogged baseball as our most dominant game, but baseball is our first game, and there's no better way to break the seal on summer than for our pastime to bootstrap its way out of this physical and cultural minefield. We need games as much as we need masks, gloves and hand santizer. And yes, even more than toilet paper.