Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 9, 2021

The Winter Of Yankees Fans Discontent

Winter is coming.  If the calendar was insufficient evidence of that, the morning temperature the past few days has provided an unwelcome confirmation.  For fans of the Great Game, this time of year would normally mean regular checks of various sports websites for the latest news – or lacking that, the juiciest gossip – about free agent signings and offseason trades.  Come December, baseball fans have long relied on the sport’s aptly named hot stove as an essential tool to keep the frost at bay.  This year is profoundly different, thanks to the lockout of players instituted by MLB’s thirty billionaire owners as soon as the old collective bargaining agreement with the MLBPA expired on the first of the month.  For now, and likely right up until and very possibly past next February’s Spring Training reporting date, the hot stove has gone out.

But fans and sportswriters are both resilient and resourceful, so the mere fact that teams and players are barred from having any contact has barely diminished the familiar level of speculation and commentary in various journals and, of course, on social media.  Just as MLB’s bizarre and poorly justified scrubbing of players’ likenesses from team websites has not resulted in fans of say, the Angels, forgetting what Shohei Ohtani or Mike Trout look like, so the absence of any offseason activity worthy of a leak, much less an actual transaction, has not prevented anyone from opining on the deals that got done in the late November flurry just before the prior CBA expired, or speculating on what teams should do whenever owners and the union finally settle on terms of a new agreement.

As has been previously noted in this space, for all the clamor about free agent contracts worth a whopping $1.7 billion that were inked in November, most over the final days and even hours before the lockout began, nowhere near all thirty MLB franchises gave their fanbases much to celebrate.  Just three clubs, the Rangers, Mets, and Tigers, accounted for more than $1 billion of the spending, over sixty percent of the total.  Fans in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Oakland had nothing to talk about, and many other clubs inked only minor deals.

One team in that latter category was the Yankees, which was news all by itself.  After confirming the obvious, that finishing tied for second in the AL East and playing a postseason that lasted all of nine innings meant the roster needed improvement, GM Brian Cashman identified shortstop and center field as particular priorities.  But Cashman was a spectator as Starling Marte, the top free agent center fielder, signed with the Mets, and the slick fielding, left-handed hitting Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager agreed to a multi-year contract with the Rangers, signing the largest deal in that franchise’s history. 

The only pre-lockout news coming out of the Bronx was a one-year contract with reliever Joely Rodriguez.  But while that was hardly worthy of a headline, the terms of the deal spoke loudly about the franchise’s priorities under owner Hal Steinbrenner.  Rodriguez came to New York just before last summer’s trade deadline, an add-on to the trade that brought outfielder Joey Gallo to Yankee Stadium.  His existing contract had a team option for 2022 valued at $3 million.  New York first declined that, instead paying Rodriguez a $500,000 buyout.  Then the Yankees announced the new deal, which pays him $2 million for next season, meaning Cashman kept Rodriguez in the New York bullpen while saving Steinbrenner half a million dollars.

As fans in Atlanta were still celebrating their team’s World Series victory, many of their New York compatriots were lamenting the Yankees’ decision to retain manager Aaron Boone.  When Boone’s new three-year contract was announced, Steinbrenner said “As a team and as an organization, we must grow, evolve and improve.  We need to get better.”  A month, a flurry of free agent signings, and a lockout later, New York has done nothing to act on that directive.  Perhaps, on the other side of the abyss in which major league baseball now finds itself, Cashman will figure out a way to do so.  Lacking any November activity to crow about, scores of pundits and fans have pointed out in posts, tweets, and old-fashioned calls to sports talk radio programs, that the offseason is not over. 

Shortstop Carlos Correa, in the eyes of most analysts this year’s top free agent, is still unsigned.  Yes, he is the unapologetic spokesperson for the cheating 2017 Houston Astros, and yes, unlike Seager he would be one more right-handed batter in a lineup that already skews heavily away from hitters who can pull the ball toward the Stadium’s short porch down the first base line.  But he would still be a vast improvement at a position that was a black hole for the Yankees last year.  While there is no longer a strong free agent candidate for center field, one can always hope that Aaron Hicks comes back from two seasons lost to injury and proves worthy of the seven-year contract he signed prior to the 2019 campaign.  Outside the positional needs identified by Cashman, fans salivate over the fact that first baseman Freddie Freeman wasn’t locked up by Atlanta before that team’s longtime star was locked out, or speculate about why Justin Verlander’s return to Houston’s starting rotation was reported but never officially announced.  And the Yankees can always look beyond free agents, with Oakland first baseman Matt Olson a constant topic of discussion on social media as a prime trade target.

But there remains a less pleasant alternative for New York fans.  Perhaps, as signaled by the Rodriguez deal and the lack of other news from the Yankees, Steinbrenner is more interested in profit than a season-ending parade down Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes.  Fans hoping, or even worse assuming, that the franchise will flex its massive financial muscle once the lockout finally ends may well be in for a rude surprise.  For if Steinbrenner’s priority is just to fill seats, with the occasional deep playoff run or accidental championship a bonus, he can certainly do that without opening his checkbook.  Gotham is a tourist town, and there will always be plenty of visitors willing to buy tickets for an afternoon or evening at the Stadium, whether the team is in first place or fourth.  But if that is the goal, then the club that has stood as the exemplary franchise in all of sports since the days of Ruth and Gehrig, becomes just another team. 

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