Would you play for the Yankees?
Of course you would. Stupid Question.
But let's imagine for a moment that you aren't you. You're a Major League Baseball player - a pretty good one at that, approaching free agency. You're not from New York - you're from Cowville, Ohio or Surfer Dude City, California or San what's-his-face, Dominican Republic. You admire the Yankees for what they did when you were a kid, but you have no other connection to them. Would the Bronx be high on your list of possible destinations?
It wasn't long ago when the Yankees seemed to have their pick of the litter every year when it came to free agency. From the end of the '90s championship era through the early 2000s, grandiose press conferences complete with lavish buffet-style spreads to introduce some new perennial All-Star or future Hall of Famer became an annual winter rite of passage at the stadium. From Mike Mussina to Jason Giambi to Hideki Matsui to Gary Sheffield to the troika of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, stars were paraded out before the masses year after year, lured by mammoth eight and nine-figure contracts and the beckon call of championship contention.
Over the past few years, something's changed. The Yankees have begun to feel the unfamiliar sting of being spurned by some of their free agent targets. Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies for fewer years and guaranteed dollars than what New York was offering. Role players like Nate Schierholtz and Jeff Keppinger reportedly went elsewhere for more playing time, and Cuban import Jorge Soler picked a slightly larger deal from the Cubs despite the Yankees' best efforts.
What's different? Clearly the Yankees free-spending ways have faded into a much more budget-conscious approach centered around the infamous ‘189 in ‘14' manifesto. MLB teams have handed out 27 contracts worth $100 million or more since 2010, and the Yankees are responsible for just one of them - Sabathia's opt-out extension, which really just tacked on a year and a vesting option year to his existing deal. To catch big fish, you need big bait (from what a quick Google search tells me about fishing, that is). If the Yankees are no longer offering up mega deals, mega-free-agents obviously won't get towed in.
But there may be more to it than just money. According to a pretty unsubstantiated Daily News report last week, Alex Rodriguez has advised Robinson Cano to go elsewhere when he hits free agency this winter. True or not, it would be hard to blame A-Rod for feeling that way. Despite being the ninth most productive position player in Yankee history, according to WAR, in over 2,800 fewer plate appearances than anyone else in the top ten, Rodriguez's tenure in the Bronx has been met mostly with animosity from a media and fan base fueled by insanely unrealistic expectations.
A-Rod was persona-non-grata even before being exposed as a PED user in 2009, and this year, CC Sabathia has felt the burn, too, despite having just completed one of the best four-year stretches of any Yankee pitcher ever. Mired in the midst of a poor season, CC's been booed off the mound more than once. He's been called ‘finished' and a burden going forward by more than one media outlet, and he's even had the Yankees' lead play-by-play man suggest on the air that he's struggling because of his offseason weight loss. If you don't live up to a completely absurd and arbitrary standard of being a "True Yankee", New York is a city that will rip you to shreds once you begin to decline.
New York has always been a tough place to play, and it's getting harder, thanks to an increasingly fickle crowd at a new stadium known for exorbitant pricing. In the past, players were willing to take on that challenge in exchange for a regular chance to win. They knew that, as Yankees, they'd play amongst a bright cluster of superstars, thanks to an owner who valued winning above all else. When Cano makes his decision, he'll have to realize that he isn't going to be supplemented by much new talent, at least not until existing contracts expire. He'll also be aware that if he doesn't perform up to the standards of his next contract, which he absolutely won't, the Yankees may end up not-so-privately exploring ways to void it in a few years. They're allegedly doing just that with A-Rod now, as they did, unsuccessfully, with Jason Giambi's deal back in 2005.
The Yankees are by no means a bad club to play for. Players are treated to clubhouse amenities that rival five-star hotels and they get to wear a logo that carries a ton of cache. Oh, and they get paid lots and lots of money. Still, with more teams around baseball slinging fat stacks thanks to revenue sharing and massive TV deals, it's easy to wonder whether prime free agents still consider New York the place to be.