TAMPA, Fla. — General manager Brian Cashman from time to time relays a sobering message to his players: His job is to find players better than they are.
He agreed to a one-year, $4 million contract with incentives based on plate appearances that are worth up to $500,000.
So, whereas Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were given the chance to flourish or flop last season when expectations were modest, such an opportunity seems less likely for two promising prospects — Gleyber Torres and Tyler Wade.
Torres, the organization’s top prospect, is hitting just .130 this spring as he works to return from Tommy John surgery on his left, nonthrowing elbow. Wade has hit better, at .292, and run the bases with verve, but his fielding at second base — a position he is still learning – has not always been smooth.
Behind those two, the Yankees had brought veterans Danny Espinosa and Jace Peterson to camp on minor league contracts, but both are hitting below .170, along with utility infielder Ronald Torreyes. Espinsoa was released after Walker’s signing.
Manager Aaron Boone did not want to delve deeply into what the acquisition of Walker could mean, since it was not yet official when he spoke Monday afternoon. But when asked if it was a sign that Torres and Wade were not quite ready, Boone said: “No. I think that’s reading into it a little too much.”
Still, in the 32-year-old Walker, the Yankees are clearly getting a proven commodity — they pursued him last season at the nonwaiver trade deadline, they had repeated discussions with earlier this winter, and he posted a .801 on-base-plus slugging percentage with the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers around a stint on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.
Though Walker is a switch-hitter, he has been significantly more effective as a left-handed hitter — during his career and last season. He posted a .842 OPS batting left-handed last season (compared with .601 hitting right-handed) and all 13 homers came from the left side. He could also spell Brandon Drury, who has hit left-handers and right-handers at about the same rate, at third base and Greg Bird at first base.
If Walker is not in the lineup on opening day, it would likely be a result of his late start to spring training. Cashman said the Yankees did not want to rush him.
“He has been told that he’s a hungry player, he’s an everyday type guy,” Cashman said. “We’re not going to douse his competitive spirit.”
The signing of Walker — at such a discounted rate — is another sign of the depressed market for free agents this winter. He made $17 million last season after accepting a qualifying offer from the Mets.
Walker’s agent had spoken with the Yankees primarily about being their primary third baseman. But his hopes of landing in New York appeared to evaporate three weeks ago when the Yankees swung a deal for Drury, whose major league minimum salary required a more modest financial commitment. The Yankees, who are striving to stay below the $197 million luxury tax threshold, now have about $15 million to spend on starting pitching or other reinforcements this season.
Walker, who had been working out recently at a camp for unsigned free agents in nearby Bradenton, Florida, was seeking a multiyear contract but until Saturday did not have an offer.
“You think about some of the guys that are still out there and some of the guys that kind of had to grind out the offseason, they’re all very similar stories,” said Walker, who wanted an opportunity play for a winning team. “I knew it was a matter of time.”
It is fitting perhaps that Walker arrived in time to watch the Yankees exhibition game Monday night against the Minnesota Twins, who have also taken advantage of the shrinking market for veteran free-agent talent. The Twins have added designated hitter Logan Morrison ($6.5 million), starting pitcher Lance Lynn ($12 million) and relievers Fernando Rodney (4.5 million), Addison Reed ($8.25 million) and Zack Duke ($2.2 million).
While the Yankees appear to be done shopping before the start of the season, what appeared to be an either/or choice not too long ago — Drury or Walker — became both.
“All I can tell you is if we see something that makes sense, then we’ll get aggressive on it,” Cashman said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.