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Hal Steinbrenner has open mind about closer Aroldis Chapman

Aroldis Chapman Melissa Mark-Viverito Getty Images / Joe

Aroldis Chapman Melissa Mark-Viverito Getty Images / Joe Robbins Craig Ruttle Photo Credit: Getty Images / Joe Robbins

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Saying Aroldis Chapman is “inno cent until proven otherwise,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner praised the team’s controversial trade Wednesday at Major League Baseball’s owners meetings.

The Yankees sent four minor leaguers to the Reds last month for Chapman, one of the sport’s most intimidating closers, despite the fact that he’s currently under investigation by the Commissioner’s Office for allegations of domestic violence.

“Any big trade where I’m giving up four prospects — a couple of which are really decent prospects — I put a lot of thought into it,” Steinbrenner said. “But I’m not going to get into the [domestic violence] aspect of it because there’s obviously an investigation going on.

“But I guess what I would say is, in this country, when allegations are brought against a person, that person is completely innocent until proven otherwise. Not the other way around. I think we should keep that in mind right now. But the benefit for the organization, as a player, if you just look at the baseball side of it, there’s tremendous upside, needless to say.”

Chapman is expected to be suspended for the start of the season under MLB’s new domestic violence policy, which was implemented toward the end of last year. But Joe Girardi already has named him the Yankees’ closer for 2016 — bumping Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances into setup roles — amid a public outcry from New York politicians and women’s advocacy groups.

“I understand it’s a very sensitive subject, as rightfully it should be,” Steinbrenner said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

After weighing the “touchy subject” matter, Steinbrenner approved the Chapman swap with an eye on keeping the 2016 payroll in the $220-million range and still protecting a starting rotation that was not upgraded this winter. The Yankees refused to get involved in the free-agent bidding for David Price ($217 million) and Zack Greinke ($206 million) but instead made more modest additions in trading for second baseman Starlin Castro and outfielder Aaron Hicks.

While Brian Cashman repeatedly has stressed the team’s financial limitations this offseason, Steinbrenner explained Wednesday that he’s waiting for significant money to come off the books before reinvesting it in the future. After the 2016 season, the Yankees shed $38 million from the salaries of Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran. CC Sabathia’s $25-million option for ’17 automatically vests if he doesn’t miss significant time with a shoulder injury, so the Yankees would then have to wait until 2018 to dump the additional $46 million combined with Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez.

That’s a red-letter year for MLB free agents, and an especially good time for the Yankees to be flush with cash as Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Fernandez, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Clayton Kershaw and Matt Harvey are all on schedule to hit the open market after the ’18 season, to name a few. For now, the Yankees have been trying to get younger, holding on to their top prospects while running out the clock on their pricier, older players.

“Everybody knows the next two years we’ve got significant amounts of money coming off the payroll,” Steinbrenner said. “But we’re going to do what we can to put as much of that back into the team as we possibly can. There’s money coming off and that’s going to give me a chance to do a lot of things. Give me a lot of flexibility that I just haven’t had the last two years.”

In the meantime, the Yankees are trying to remain competitive for a World Series title, even though they missed the playoffs twice before last season’s wild-card loss to the Astros. Steinbrenner refuses to even hint at a rebuilding period for the franchise, and insists they can make a run at No. 28 if the roster stays mostly intact from wire to wire.

“We’re definitely a better team,” Steinbrenner said. “I think we’re a bit younger. What we did at second base I’m very excited about. We were certainly struggling there last year. So we’ve improved some position. I think we’ve got a great bullpen. I think we’ve got a good starting rotation — if they can stay healthy. And any given year, I think health is one of the biggest factors anyway.”


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