TAMPA — The Yankees opened spring training Wednesday, and there was no sight of a red carpet being rolled out to welcome a new hired gun.
As pitchers and catchers reported to Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees stood content with the team they’re currently fielding for 2019, even as a bevy of free agents remain jobless.
The premier free agents of this and maybe any other year are Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. On the surface, it appears neither will end up in pinstripes, though the dream of the two coming to the Bronx dates back for years.
Their dreams of breaking the bank with record-setting 10-year deals remain are unfulfilled. That doesn’t stop the rumor mill, the latest tidbit coming Wednesday when Rawlings tweeted out Machado’s custom fielding gloves for 2019 in the colors of the White Sox, the team considered to be frontrunner for Machado.
Still, the Yankees should be considered in play for Machado and Harper until you see them wearing another uniform — even when there’s not an obvious fit for either.
It looks like there’s no room in the outfield for Harper. Re-signing Brett Gardner created a logjam with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton. They Yankees already are feeding the DH spot from the outfield.
As for Machado, the Yankees signed veteran Troy Tulowitzki to fill in at shortstop for injured starter Didi Gregorius and then signed Gold Glove second baseman D.J. LeMahieu to a two-year deal. As for talk of moving third baseman Miguel Andujar to first, manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday Andujar should remain at third for now.
Yet Machado is clearly the most likely of the two megastars to land in the Bronx. He grew up in in Miami and idolizing Alex Rodriguez and enamored with the idea of being a Yankee.
The Yankees seemed invested in the courtship, until the negative attention Machado received in the postseason. He clipped Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar running through first base and prompting both dugouts to empty. He loafed out of the batter’s box on another play, then explained it by saying hustling wasn’t his “cup of tea.” Asked about the December dinner the Yankees brass had with Machado, Boone offered little insight Wednesday, saying it was a pleasant experience.
“Look, he’s a great player and I’m confident he’ll be a great player moving forward,” Boone said.
Even with a stacked roster, Boone and the Yankees are looking for ways to close the gap on the world champion Red Sox. The difference last season was significant: Eight games in the AL East standings and a 4-1 series loss in the ALDS, though two of those losses were by one run.
So back to the idea of fit: The Yankees have never worried about fit. In the past, Yankee players have yielded playing time if it meant adding a player who can put them over the top, a player like Machado or Harper.
“It’s not always the perfect fit, but if they want somebody and thinks he can make the team better, they’re going to do it,” said reliever Zack Britton, who re-signed with the Yankees after a midseason trade from Baltimore.
Britton played with Machado for years with the Orioles, and his agent, Scott Boras, also represents Harper, so there might not be a better player in the Yankees clubhouse to assess the likelihood of either playing in pinstripes.
“One thing I learned when I came over here briefly was that they will do anything to win and sign anybody,” Britton said. “There wasn’t an obvious fit for me when they traded for me. I had been closing games. Even when they brought me back this year, they knew I had a lot of opportunities to close somewhere. And this is probably, out of the teams interested, the one that wanted me to pitch in a different role than closing games.”
The biggest thing hurting Machado and Harper is the collision of their big-contract dreams and baseball’s buyer’s market, which has left a record number of free agents unsigned.
The offseason began with only a handful of teams realistically making plays for either of them, and those landing spots have dwindled. And while there’s not much clarity regarding the kind of offers they have received, everything indicates they are underwhelming in terms of years and dollars.
“These are guys who only come around once in a lifetime possibly,” Britton said. “They’re future Hall of Famers most likely. …
The fact that they’re not on a team right now is an embarrassment for baseball.”
All of this plays into the Yankees’ hands. They’ve ended the last two postseasons with losses to the eventual World Series champ. If they believe signing one of the two will put them ahead of the Red Sox, they will be tempted.
And if players like Machado and Harper are forced to settle, the Yankees offer things that other suitors can’t -- the prestige of pinstripes and a roster loaded with young stars with a chance of winning a title.
So no matter what you hear, don’t sell that short.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.