Yankees: Was it a blunder to pass on Liam Hendriks?

Entering the offseason, the Yankees knew that their pitching staff (both the starting rotation and the bullpen) needed a shot in the arm.

Immediately after re-signing of DJ LeMahieu (yes, Yankee fans can exhale now) to a six-year, $90 million team-friendly contract, multiple sources reported the club’s likely signing of two-time (2014 and 2017) Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. According to sources, he will receive a one-year contract for $11 million (pending a physical).

The signing of Klubot will provide a badly needed addition to the starting rotation. However, fans shouldn’t be surprised if the Bombers acquire another starter via free agency or, if need be, via trade during the season for insurance. The Yanks still remain under the luxury tax, but not by much — needing to leave room for in-season adjustments, they may be only ~$5 million or so under the figure.

Ladies and gentlemen, most but not all the whining can now cease. The team still needs to improve its bullpen before the 2021 season to have a viable chance of getting through the playoffs and making it to the World Series.

This is the shaky bullpen situation as it now stands. Tommy Kahnle had Tommy John surgery and is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Johnathan Holder was non-tendered and is now with the Chicago Cubs.

Adam Ottavino, who pitched well in 2019, struggled during the brief 2020 season and was inconsistent on the mound. Manager Aaron Boone lost confidence in him at the end of the season and during the playoffs. It is uncertain as to which Ottavino will show up in Spring Training.

Aroldis Chapman is past his prime, and we will likely see a decline in his dominant pitching performance during the upcoming season.

The Yanks therefore need to add at least one experienced relief pitcher who can come in and regularly shut down a rally by the opposition in the later innings. As I have written, young Nick Nelson might be the guy. However, the club should still add at least one other solid relief pitcher for insurance.

Up until now Liam Hendriks was the best free-agent relief pitcher on the market. He pitched for the Oakland Athletics the last five years and became a free agent during this offseason.

Given his performance on the mound over the past two years, he was my top choice for the Yankee bullpen entering the offseason. Hendriks is a flamethrower and primarily relies on a deceptive fastball/slider combination to get people out.

In 2019 the Aussie from Perth appeared in 75 games and pitched 85 innings. He had a 1.80 ERA and struck out an average of 13.1 batters over nine innings, racking up 25 saves along the way.

In the shortened 2020 season, the right-hander had a 1.78 ERA, a 0.67 WHIP, and struck out 37 batters and only walked two in 25.1 innings pitched. He finished with an impressive 14 saves out of 15 save opportunities.

Not surprisingly, Hendriks was named the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year for the condensed 2020 season. He received a modest $5.3 million prorated salary from the Athletics this year. He will be 32 in February, and he is in the prime of his career.

Well, GM Brian Cashman, what’s not to like? While the Yanks failed to make a move, the up-and-coming White Sox swooped in and landed him a few days ago. Was this a huge missed opportunity for the Bombers, especially given the team’s desperate need to bolster their bullpen going into 2021?

Chicago was so impressed with Hendriks that they gave him Wade Davis/Aroldis Chapman-like money. According to Spotrac, Hendriks signed what amounts to a four-year, $54 million contract with the White Sox. The deal includes a $1 million signing bonus, $54 million guaranteed, and an annual average salary of $18 million. There is a club option for 2024, which includes a $15 million buyout deferred over 10 years.

Like other MLB clubs, the Yanks lost a boatload of money during the 2020 pandemic season. As we can see in the signings of both LeMahieu and (likely) Kluber, they are wisely being overly cautious about how they are spending their money right now. There is still a great deal of financial uncertainty moving forward.

Although Hendriks did not sign with the Yanks, I am happy for him. He deserves all the money he will be receiving based on his performance over the last two years.

However, I also think that the Bombers did the right thing by not signing him for so much money, probably negating the pursuit of other strategic and budget-wise acquisitions along the way. By not signing Hendriks, it made it easier for the team to re-sign LeMahieu, sign Kluber, and still remain under the luxury tax, leaving open the option to acquire yet another valuable player.

Also, between 2011 and 2018, Hendriks’ pitching record was very mixed. How sure can we be that 2019 and the shortened 2020 seasons weren’t a fluke and that he won’t revert back to his prior pitching ineffectiveness? Cashman may have felt that two years of superlative pitching (one a regular season and the other an abbreviated season) were not enough to justify paying the Aussie such a huge chunk of change.

I agree 100 percent with what Cashman has done, especially knowing the urgent need to first sign the Yanks’ best player, LeMahieu, which he thankfully did, and the desire to bring in a solid veteran starting pitcher like Kluber.