LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If not for the Babe Ruth of Japan, the New York Yankees' new version of Mantle and Maris likely never would have been formed. It was 23-year-old Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, not Giancarlo Stanton, who had been the Yankees’ obsession for years, and it was Ohtani whom they hoped to woo to the Bronx this winter.
The team had a presentation planned in which Ohtani would have been told he could pitch and DH for the Yankees. But Ohtani never even let the perceived favorites make a pitch in person. He ruled them out before they could really come to bat.
And because of Ohtani’s decision, now Stanton and Aaron Judge, two outfield behemoths, are teammates, putting together potentially the most devastating home-run-hitting combination in baseball history. The transaction to make Stanton a Yankee mostly transpired in a 48-hour whirlwind on Thursday and Friday of last week, but it actually was years in the making.
If it weren’t for Stanton's foresight and fortitude -- staring down former Miami Marlins team president David Samson during his original contract negotiations for his 13-year, $325 million contract, and then not blinking in the face of threats by the Marlins' new Derek Jeter-led regime to keep him in South Florida against his will for the next decade -- he never would have slipped on his No. 27 pinstripe jersey on Monday.
Meanwhile, if GM Brian Cashman hadn’t cleaned up the Yankees’ payroll, while rebuilding the team into a potential dynasty, owner Hal Steinbrenner’s decision to add a 10-year contract would not have been as easy. The Marlins’ ineptitude, labeled a “circus” by Stanton on Instagram, made him desire a place to win, stability and a big league atmosphere. Stanton had earned the right to be choosy, and the Yankees had put themselves in position to be his eventual choice.
It all created the perfect storm that potentially will rock baseball for the next decade. Like when Alex Rodriguez became a Yankee -- after new Yankees manager Aaron Boone ruined his knee in a pickup basketball game in 2003 -- there was 30 for 30-level intrigue that brought the 28-year-old reigning National League MVP to the Bronx.
In the end, for Stanton to find his way to the news conference Monday, it took two young stars to make their feelings known. Ohtani turned down the Yankees, while Judge -- whom Cashman called prior to completion of the deal -- gave his seal of approval for one of the most fascinating trades in the game’s history.
TO UNDERSTAND HOW Monday’s news conference happened, you first need to rewind three years to 2014. Stanton was in negotiations with the Marlins about buying out his free agency and giving him the richest contract in baseball history. Not only did Stanton want the financial security, he wanted to win.
The contract was heavily backloaded in an effort to allow then-Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria to spend. Of the $325 million, $218 million was due Stanton in the final seven years. Still, Stanton knew whom he was negotiating with and refused to do any deal unless there was a full no-trade clause and an opt-out. He did not want to put himself in position to languish in Miami or be sent somewhere he didn’t want to go if Loria sought to tear down the walls around him.
Stanton refused to sign any paper without an opt-out after Year 6 and a no-trade clause throughout. Stanton's agent, Joel Wolfe, said Samson lamented that Stanton could walk away over an opt-out or a no-trade. Stanton didn’t budge. This strong stance came in handy when Jeter and Bruce Sherman bought the team for $1.1 billion this spring and immediately planned an “everything must go” sale.
“He predicted it,” Wolfe said. “He’s like a baseball Nostradamus.”
It didn’t have to be this way. If Jeter and Sherman had a more positive plan, Stanton was keen on staying in Miami. Stanton made his case that the Marlins were fifth in the league in runs scored and just needed to add some pitching to be contenders. Jeter wanted to go a different way and tear down the franchise, resetting its finances in an effort to improve the club’s overall talent from top to bottom.
“We are trying to fix something that is broken,” Jeter said.
Soon after, Stanton and Wolfe informed the Marlins they would accept a trade to four teams, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Stanton’s hometown team, the clear No. 1 choice. After that, the Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros were up.
Still, the Marlins decided to work up trades with the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. They were franchises Stanton respected, but not ones on the cusp of winning. Stanton wanted to be a player to push a team over the edge or return them to glory, not to be part of any type of rebuild. The Marlins, though, wanted Stanton to play by their rules, according to Wolfe.
When the Marlins had deals with the Giants and Cardinals, Wolfe said they told Stanton to choose one or the other or he would be stuck in Miami for the length of his contract, which includes an opt-out after 2020.
“You can’t say that and expect me to jump at what’s there, if that’s not the right situation for me,” Stanton said. “So it doesn’t matter what the dynamic was, you’re not going to force me to do anything, regardless of what the situation is.”
Stanton took meetings with the Giants and Cardinals, but never was he close to leaving for those destinations.
DURING THE GM meetings a month ago, Cashman, in passing, told Marlins president Michael Hill to keep him in mind when it came to Stanton. The Yankees never discount acquiring any player and they thought Stanton might be available from the day Jeter and Sherman bought the team.
Still, Ohtani was the first order of business, and any Stanton chase was on the back burner. It was looked upon as unlikely.
Though the Yankees envisioned Stanton as an outfielder, they knew they needed to give regular DH at-bats to him and Judge to make it work. Ohtani would have blocked those at-bats.
“Once Ohtani declared that everything east of Mississippi wasn’t in play, then we pivoted and engaged further,” Cashman said.
Cashman delivered the word that the Yankees were out on Ohtani in the midst of his annual rappelling off a building during a holiday festival on Dec. 3, a Sunday.
The following Wednesday, Boone was introduced as the Yankees’ new manager, but Cashman still was pessimistic about licking the Ohtani wound with Stanton.
“I felt it was not something that was going to happen,” Cashman said.
After meeting with the Giants and Cardinals to see if Stanton’s mind could be changed, the Marlins were stuck by the middle of last week. By Thursday, the Marlins aggressively engaged the Yankees for a trade.
Though Jeter firmly protests, claiming the Marlins took the best deal offered to them, in reality, it was the only one they were in position to accept. Stanton owned the leverage because of the stance he took three years ago with his no-trade clause.
With Ohtani out of the picture, the Yankees now were fully engaged, but they already had a hulking right fielder and did not need Stanton. Since the GM meetings, Cashman had kept owner Hal Steinbrenner abreast, though a trade still seemed unlikely.
By this point, though, Steinbrenner was willing to do a deal because he felt the Yankees could barter without harming their goal of falling under the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Steinbrenner wants to reset the Yankees’ tax, which currently sits at 50 cents on every dollar over the threshold.
With the Dodgers, Cubs and Astros not really involved, the Yankees knew they were in a position of strength. Jeter had nowhere else to turn. At that point, Stanton was sold on the idea of being a Yankee. He has desired to play in front of packed stadiums and with a chance to win.
At first, the Yankees hoped the Marlins would take Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is entering the fifth season of his seven-year, $153 million contract, which is destined to go down as the worst free-agent deal in Yankees history. Ellsbury is a backup outfielder, one Miami wanted no part of, so the Yankees never even asked Ellsbury whether he would waive his own no-trade clause.
By later Thursday, Cashman and Hill traded ideas before it started to become clear that if the Yankees included Starlin Castro and the Marlins sent $30 million back in the trade, then for luxury-tax purposes Stanton would account for $22 million, essentially the same as what the Yankees paid Castro and DH Matt Holliday in 2017.
By Friday, the Yankees ran the numbers and checked with Major League Baseball to make sure they were right.
“This deal allowed us to accomplish the goal of still being under the threshold,” Steinbrenner said.
Steinbrenner was hesitant to take on a 10-year commitment, but did so because he felt it could help them win, and the deal -- because of the excitement it would generate -- might pay for itself in ticket sales by having a modern-day, giant-sized Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris combo in the lineup.
Before pulling the trigger, Cashman wanted to make sure Judge was on board. Cashman had lived through the frenemy drama of how Jeter reacted to Rodriguez joining the Yankees before the 2004 season. In the old Yankee Stadium, there was a memorable staged picture after the trade of Rodriguez and Jeter in which Jeter couldn't have looked more indifferent. The Yankees didn’t win with Jeter and A-Rod until five years after Rodriguez showed up, and not until there was a bit of a thaw in the star duo’s relationship.
In 2017, the Yankees came within one game of the World Series with a team built on young talent, but also a strong chemistry. Judge, though just 25, is a leader of the squad, which is why Cashman reached out to him before agreeing with the Marlins.
Cashman told Judge, “Hey, my job as general manager is to constantly look at every opportunity that may present itself, and this is one that is staring me in the face here that I have some interest in. I want to get your feedback on it, and just how it could fit between DH, right field and left field and the cast of characters we have.”
Cashman said Judge was pumped about the idea of teaming with Stanton. The deal was agreed upon. The Yankees needed a physical, which Stanton had over the weekend in Tampa. He was introduced as a Yankee on Monday. But it all came together only because Ohtani said no, Stanton didn’t budge and the Yankees were in position to pounce.
“They’re winners,” Stanton said. “They’re young and they’re in good position to win for a long time, and I lost for a long time. So I want to change the dynamic and be a winner.”