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Are the Yankees playing it safe or just playing it coy?

The Yankees haven't been part of free agent headlines so far. Have they changed their philosophy or are they waiting for the right time to strike?


In the early stages of the 2014-15 MLB offseason, it seems like we're hearing a lot more about who the Yankees aren't planning to pursue than who they are. Jon Lester and Max ScherzerNot according to Mark Feinsand and Bill Madden of the Daily News. Pablo SandovalBrandon Kuty of says no. Hanley RamirezAnother negative from Feinsand. Moving down this year's free agent list, the answer seems to be the same. International standouts like Kenta Maeda and Yasmani Tomas are reportedly off the radar and homegrown bullpen ace David Robertson is likely a goner if someone meets his alleged Papelbonian asking price. The only notable free agents the Yankees have been seriously linked to are mid-rangers who were on the team last year - Chase Headley and Brandon McCarthy - and even in their cases they only seem interested in team-friendly deals.

It's hard to recall an off-season when fans and media who follow the Yankees had lower expectations in mid-November, and our little corner of the internet is no exception. In last week's staff free agent predictions, only four of our writers had the team signing one or more of the top five free agents on the market.

It's not as if the Yankees aren't going to spend a few dozen Brinks trucks worth of money next year. They're already locked into twelve guaranteed contracts at a total cost of $174.8 million, according to Baseball Prospectus, and their six arbitration eligible players will add another $11.8 mil per MLB Trade Rumors' projections. They'll need to fill out the rest of the roster somehow. Even if Headley and McCarthy are the only notables they come to terms with, the opening day 2015 payroll will land somewhere in the $215 million range, placing it significantly higher than the 2014 edition and in range of the second highest in club history.

But these are the Yankees, are they not? Their entire marketing strategy for the entirety of this century has revolved around a relentless and sometimes completely irrational demand for excellence. Bringing back a roster essentially the same as the one that stumbled to 84 wins last season and missed the playoffs for the second year will be seen as an abandonment of that philosophy. That may not go over well with a fan base that's eyeballs-deep in the World Series every year mantra, and it certainly won't help with ticket sales or regional cable ratings. There's no Jeterpalooza to fall back on this year. Cirque du Rodriguez might draw some stares from the slow down to look at that car wreck crowd, but if A-Rod doesn't hit and the Yankees don't win, that attention won't last long.

As obvious a path as it may be for the Yankees to start chucking cash at their problems until things get better, you have to wonder what Hal Steinbrenner was thinking as he watched two eighty-something game winners battle it out for a championship this October. He probably asked himself "why am I paying $50 to $100 million more than these guys - and padding their pockets with my luxury tax and revenue sharing dollars - to not get what they're getting?"

It's not hard to understand where Hal's coming from. With more teams involved, producing increasingly scatter shot results in the playoffs, the Yankees can remain a legitimate contender with incremental, rather than monumental improvements. Why break payroll records to field a team that - if it even makes the postseason - could easily get wiped out in three games...or one?

Maybe it's not a shift in organizational strategy that's keeping the Yankees out of the headlines...perhaps they're just not impressed with the talent that's presently available to them. This year's free agent class is certainly speckled with warts, even at the very top. Lester and Scherzer are on their way to contracts that could be the second and third largest of all time for pitchers, and starting pitching really wasn't the Yankees' problem last year, even as their rotation was decimated by injury. Hanley Ramirez comes with a medical rap sheet that reads like a Tolstoy novel. Sandoval's conditioning is infinitely in question, and we saw how paying a premium for postseason prowess worked out with Carlos Beltran a year ago. MLB free agency takes place on Fifth Avenue, not at the outlet mall. The Yankees may not like what's being sold at the price it's being sold for.

Then there's a third possibility - one where the Yankees are just playing it cool for now and fully intend to go bananas once the market develops. Historically they've often telegraphed their off-season objectives, but it doesn't always go that way. Bernie Williams was about to step on a plane bound for Boston before George Steinbrenner won him back with a last minute seven-year offer. The Yankees touted Bubba Crosby as their starting center fielder in the fall of '05 before getting in on Johnny Damon. They spent weeks in 2008 denying their interest in Mark Teixeira before sweeping him up - again edging past the Red Sox with a $180 mil bid. At this time last year, Jacoby Ellsbury wasn't really on anyone's mind, but he'll don the pinstripes through 2020. There may very well be a top-tier free agent who the Yankees are secretly drooling over. Jon Heyman speculated yesterday that it could be Scherzer, though there are several other payers New York and Scott Boras could have discussed during their brief conversations since the GM meetings.

Call me old fashioned, but I'm not ready to believe we've entered an era where the Yankees reply to failure with inactivity. We're still near the beginning of a long off-season that will see four or five nine-figure contracts handed out by MLB teams. I'm willing to bet that by the time pitchers and catchers report to Tampa, the Yankees will be on the hook for one of them.