- Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
- Analyst/reporter ESPN television
- Author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty”
TAMPA, Fla. — New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner values his relationship with slugger Aaron Judge and asks the new captain about various team-related issues, such as possible renovations of the team’s spring training facility. Recently, he picked Judge’s brain about Anthony Volpe, the dynamic prospect who is competing to be the team’s shortstop.
“I’ve heard from other players, including Aaron Judge, that [Volpe] conducts himself in a very professional way for somebody his age,” Steinbrenner said Wednesday morning, “and that’s good, because he’s going to need all of that, to play where we play.”
Judge famously turned down the Yankees’ offer of $213.5 million last spring before he had one of the most productive seasons of all time, breaking the AL record of 62 homers. After the season, Steinbrenner got personally involved in the negotiations with Judge — and, as Judge neared his decision, Steinbrenner increased his offer from $320 million to $360 million in an overnight call with the Judge. And he named Judge to be the franchise’s first captain since Derek Jeter.
“Judge and I have a good relationship,” Steinbrenner said. “I asked him about a lot of things. We’re getting ready to look at some renovations of [the spring training] stadium, he’s involved with that. Yes, I ask him about different players.”
Steinbrenner also addressed the team’s recent wave of injuries; the Yankees’ payroll; and the spike in salaries for the high-end free agents. In light of the offseason deals for superstar players such as Judge, Steinbrenner offered an amendment to his years-old statement that you shouldn’t have to have a $200 million payroll to win a World Series. The more appropriate context in this era, Steinbrenner suggested through a wry smile, is that you don’t need a $300 million payroll to win a championship. The Yankees’ projected payroll is just shy of $300 million.
“Times have changed, I acknowledge that,” Steinbrenner said.
Earlier this spring, Pirates owner Bob Nutting said that parts of the new collective bargaining agreement, forged between MLB and the players’ union just a year ago, do not work for the Pirates, just the latest indication of the growing unhappiness among some small-market teams. Steinbrenner said, “Why are we talking about this right now? We’re one year into a labor deal. We’ve got all of these great rules changes that are going to make the game even better and more exciting. Right in the middle of spring training, right before Opening Day — I’m not focused on (the CBA).”
The Yankees have already lost pitcher Carlos Rodon, center fielder Harrison Bader and catcher Jose Trevino to injuries this spring, along with a half-dozen others.
“I guess I could be glass half-full and say ‘Get them out of the way now’ rather than deal with what we had last year, in July and even August … That was a bad case scenario. I don’t want to do that again,” Steinbrenner said.
“For the first half of the year last year, we had one of the most dominant — if not the most dominant — teams in baseball,” he continued, “and then the injuries hit us. That team, for the most part, is intact. Most of them are back. The one question we asked ourselves was, is our starting rotation good enough to beat certain teams in the American League, and we reached the consensus we needed more — and that’s why we got Carlos [Rodon].
“Do I think we’re good enough to win a championship? Yes. But we’ve got to stay healthy.”
Rodon was diagnosed last week with what the team termed a “mild” elbow strain, and this will sideline the left-hander through the start of the regular season. Steinbrenner said he spoke with Rodon in the trainer’s room this week, and that the pitcher’s range of motion has already improved markedly. “I think he’s going to be great for us,” Steinbrenner said.
Soon, the Yankees will make a choice about who to install at shortstop at the start of the season. Earlier this week, Isiah Kiner-Falefa — the team’s regular shortstop last year — began taking fly balls in the outfield, perhaps preparing for a transition into a utility player. Executives from other teams say Kiner-Falefa is available in trade, with some rival evaluators going so far as to say they believe the veteran will be dealt soon.
The Yankees seem to be headed toward a choice between Oswald Peraza, who made his major league debut last year, or Volpe, who has been one of the team’s best performers this spring, batting .321 with four doubles, two homers and three steals. Volpe, 21, was the 30th overall pick in the 2019 draft, has greatly impressed veterans with his demeanor and confidence. There is a widespread belief in the organization that if Volpe opens the year in the big leagues and struggles early in his career — and that is not uncommon for a young player — that he has the mental strength to cope with some failure.
In one spring game, Volpe stole second base and then third base on consecutive pitches — a moment that impressed the owner.
Steinbrenner acknowledged that sometime in the next week, the team’s staffers will assess the shortstop competition, and that Steinbrenner will be involved in those discussions. In recent decades, some teams have chosen to suppress elite prospects in the minor leagues to manipulate their service time. Steinbrenner said that service time would not be a factor in the shortstop choice. The final decision belongs to general manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone, Steinbrenner reiterated, but Volpe “is obviously having a great spring … He’s certainly shown, at least on this spring training stage, that he can handle it, play well and do a lot of different things.”
The team’s young players, Steinbrenner said, have stood out to him this spring, from Volpe to Peraza to outfielders Oswaldo Cabrera and Jasson Dominguez, the powerful young outfielder.
“It’s exciting for me, personally, because I’ve followed these kids for years,” Steinbrenner said. “For me, it’s always exciting, particularly when it’s someone’s first spring training, like Volpe, that they perform and that they perform well, and that they impress guys like Judge, which is what they’re doing.”
Steinbrenner was booed at Yankee Stadium last year by fans who are impatient for another championship. Fourteen years have passed since the Yankees won a World Series in 2009, and fans often invoke the specter of Hal Steinbrenner’s hyperaggressive father, George Steinbrenner, in criticizing Hal.
Failing to reach the World Series, Hal Steinbrenner said, bothers him “every year. It bothered my dad for 18 years or whatever it was. It’s what our fans expect. The best we can do is to field a team that can win a championship, and that’s what we try to do every year.”
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