Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2014

Yankees Can’t Help Themselves; But Did They Help Themselves?

Well that didn’t last long, now did it? As the 2013 baseball season gave way to winter, Yankees’ managing partner Hal Steinbrenner made clear his determination that the franchise bring its payroll under next year’s $189 million dollar salary cap. The reasons for Steinbrenner’s directive were plain. After years of fielding rosters with total salaries well over each season’s cap, the Yankees had paid out more than $250 million in luxury tax payments under an escalating tax rate that had grown to 50% of the amount by which their payroll exceeded the cap. Just last month New York was hit with a $28 million bill for the 2013 season. If the team could get under the ceiling for even one campaign their tax rate would reset to the minimum of 17.5%.

But as appealing as those millions of dollars in savings must have seemed to Steinbrenner last autumn, in less than four months his directive went from edict to goal to recommendation to, well, just never mind. That result was forcibly established on Wednesday when word came that the Yankees had won the bidding for right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka with a 7-year, $155 million contract. The Tanaka signing was the icing on an offseason cake that included nearly half a billion dollars in new contracts.

There was $153 million over 7 years to lure center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury away from Boston, and $85 million over 5 seasons for Atlanta free agent Brian McCann to plug New York’s hole at catcher. When it became apparent that All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano wasn’t going to budge off his demand for a decade-long commitment, the Yankees let the Seattle Mariners commit that mistake and turned instead to slugging outfielder Carlos Beltran. The one-time Met is now back in New York for 3 years and $45 million.

Add in smaller amounts for left-handed reliever Matt Thornton and infielders Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson, and the newest players to wear pinstripes collectively represent a $450 million spending spree in the Bronx. And don’t forget the $20 million posting fee due Tanaka’s Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, or the raises for a crop of current Yankees; from five arbitration-eligible players to an extra $2.5 million for shortstop Derek Jeter, whose new one-year deal guarantees him $12 million instead of the $9.5 he had coming.

Despite all the spending, there is every reason to think that Steinbrenner and the Yankees were serious about their intent to get under the cap. Aside from the huge financial incentives, the managing partner himself pointed out that plenty of teams had found ways to win the World Series while avoiding baseball’s luxury tax. Actually that would be every team since the inception of the tax in 2003 except for the 2009 Yankees.

But the earnest commitment to a different approach faced certain doom from the night of last September 25th. That was when New York was eliminated from the playoffs by virtue of a Cleveland win over Chicago, even before the Yankees could eliminate themselves by finishing up a losing effort at home to the Rays. A drop in attendance and declining ratings on the team’s YES network were bad enough, but lights out at The Stadium in October for just the second time in 19 years was simply unacceptable.

Riddled by injuries and sending an astonishing 56 different players onto the field at least once, the 2013 Yankees won 85 games, ten fewer than in 2012. With a negative run differential of -21 they were lucky to do that. In comparison, the world champion Red Sox had a positive run differential of +197. Yet because of the cost of existing commitments to players in decline, from Mark Teixeira to CC Sabathia to, until his suspension was upheld, Alex Rodriguez, New York would have been hard-pressed to put an improved roster on the field this coming season while spending less than $189 million.

Skeptics will point to the 2012 Red Sox, who recovered from their debacle of a season in 2011 by making modest investments in seven different free agents. But the fact that all seven of those players wound up making significant contributions was the baseball equivalent of a poker player drawing an inside straight. Great for Boston, but utterly improbable.

Nor could the Yankees look to the minors like the Cardinals always seemed to do. In New York’s already underwhelming farm system, several of the most prized prospects regressed last year. The notion of a few lean rebuilding years might be understood in other places, but never in the Bronx, at least as long as a Steinbrenner is calling the shots.

So the Yankees have acted like the Yankees, essentially replicating their course after last missing the playoffs in 2008. That offseason they committed more than $400 million to Sabathia, Teixeira and pitcher A.J. Burnett, while also trading for outfielder Nick Swisher. Of course, even Hal Steinbrenner won’t mind and all of the spending will be deemed brilliant if confetti by the ton is falling along lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes on a chilly afternoon next November. While that’s what happened in 2009, a similar outcome this year is no sure thing.

Apart from the issue that every team faces as Spring Training approaches, namely whether their newly signed free agents will prove to be worth the investment, the Yankees face other questions. There is uncertainty at every infield position. At first base Teixeira returns from a wrist injury and surgery that limited him to just 15 games last season. At second the newly acquired Roberts is penciled in to replace Cano. But Roberts appeared in only 77 games for Baltimore last year; and that was his highest total since 2009 in a career derailed by injuries. At third the replacement for the suspended Rodriguez remains unknown. But despite the obvious decline in A-Rod’s skills, whoever does take the field for New York in his stead will be unlikely to match his contributions at either the plate or in the field.

Then there is shortstop, where soon-to-be 40-year old Derek Jeter returns from a season lost to a twice-broken ankle, and assorted other injuries. The day before the Tanaka signing was announced, Jeter made his first appearance at the team’s training complex in Tampa, beginning workouts well in advance of Spring Training as is his wont. For Yankee fans it was a sight both comforting and problematic. It would be unwise to bet against Jeter’s determination, ability, and spirit. But teams with 40-year old shortstops don’t win the World Series. Actually, generally speaking, teams don’t have 40-year old shortstops.

The Great Game’s magical day, pitchers and catchers, can now be glimpsed on the far horizon; another offseason is coming to a close. In the end, the Yankees acted like the Yankees. In the end, how could they not? But whether it will do them and their fans any good this season is still very much in doubt.

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Responses

  1. Well done!


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