On August 20, 2013, the Yankees convened a meeting in Tampa that will likely be in the first chapter of whatever book is written about this era of the Yankees. In said meeting, Hal Steinbrenner brought together his staff to discuss the dismal state of the farm system, which had exposed the 2013 team to an extent many fans try to forget today, a team that was forced to employ Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, and Chris Stewart as everyday players. The goal was to establish a system that would increase the number of young and talented players in the farm system, ultimately making the team able to both compete and get under the $189 million luxury tax limit.
And here we are almost four years later, and I guess you can say this venture has been a success. Dellin Betances, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, and Luis Severino are all products of the farm, and there are definitely more on the way. This is largely thanks to Brian Cashman and the scouting and player development team, right? It is. This team is going to be good, and Steinbrenner is going to try to take credit for that meeting and subsequent “changes” he made. Don’t believe him.
I’ll just get this out there: Steinbrenner, like his father before him, knows nothing about baseball. While his father was willing to plunk down money for anyone deemed the best, his son is some weird technocratic Frankenstein’s monster version of his father as owner, combining that same massive amount of wealth with no clear direction, and inconsistent priorities. There are a few instances, from that Tampa meeting to the present, where Steinbrenner’s priorities stuck out in a less-than-stellar way. Let’s step through them:
The Tampa meeting itself
That first 2013 meeting was the first red flag that Steinbrenner was relatively clueless from a pure baseball perspective, and was better off leaving the “rebuild” to baseball operations. He states that they were “going to hold people accountable at this meeting.” In what way, exactly? Mark Newman may have been forced into retirement, but there were no significant changes other than Gary Denbo being added to the player development staff. Damon Oppenheimer is still in charge of the system, and Brian Cashman is still (rightfully) the general manager.
And secondly, that was the point where the farm system was considered unbearable, and that raises an undeniable truth: Steinbrenner’s priority is cost-to-profit ratio, which informs the rest of the timeline here. He wanted the farm system to be better not because he wanted better results, but because he felt like it would deliver a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario of lower overhead with similar results to the dynasty years. He could have had this discussion years prior, but they chose to address it the exact moment the wheels fell off. It was predictable, but they couldn’t predict it.
Free agent signing strategies
So, inconsistent strategy is a big part of this. If the Steinbrenners’ plan was to completely rebuild, then they would not have spent significantly at all. However, in the 2013-14 offseason, they spent over $300 million on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. They... weren’t great signings. The following season, the Yankees signed Chase Headley and Andrew Miller (which made more sense). After not signing a single free agent going into 2016, they turned around and signed Matt Holliday (a good idea), and spent $86 million on Aroldis Chapman (a bad idea).
So of these signings, really only a few signings make sense in retrospect. And once again, you see this cost-to-profit ratio at work: how much money are they forced to spend to make sure the team is presentable, but nothing more than that, putting the Yankees in the peculiar scenario of spending an inordinate amount one year (in a bad free agent year, no less), and then pinching pennies, and then the biggest subsequent signing is Chapman, based on this flawed logic:
“‘They love him,’’ Steinbrenner said. ‘There are so few baseball players that I feel can really get fans to buy a ticket and brings their kids to their game, and he’s one of them.’’”
It’s the same kind of thinking that led to the puzzling Ichiro Suzuki extension, meaning that Steinbrenner cares about payroll and spending, unless there’s some dumb and non-baseball-related reason they think the salary will pay for itself. This is opposed to, say, establishing the budget and letting Cashman make those decisions.
The 2016 trade deadline
This is my favorite. Last year’s team was a team going absolutely nowhere. Here’s where they were right before the deadline:
Here is when Steinbrenner decided to sell, according to Newsday:
“Cashman now is presiding over the franchise’s first makeover since the 1980s, a process he hinted was kick-started by getting swept by the Rays over the weekend. Because every trade requires Hal Steinbrenner’s approval, Cashman suggested his superiors were swayed by the team rolling over days before the deadline.”
Anyone watching that team knew they were going nowhere, but Steinbrenner couldn’t stomach selling until days before the deadline. Carlos Beltran was traded just minutes before the deadline. Even Cashman himself proposed they tear down as early as June, which I believe is cause for concern: when someone without baseball acumen is interfering with good baseball decisions, it’s not a good sign.
Let me be clear: this has been a successful rebuild, and there are things Steinbrenner did right. For example, the international signings in 2014 were a really good sign. Another good thing has been allowing the kids to actually get their reps at the big leagues, something his father rarely did.
If anything, this is all a warning, a canary in the coal mine. This may have worked out so far, but ownership has the deadly combination of unilateral power and absolutely no baseball knowledge. It’s more inconsequential when it’s obsessing over Chapman, but it becomes deadly when it’s possibly nixing deals that involve Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier. The rebuild is in full swing, not because of ownership, but in spite of it. When the checkbooks supposedly open, Steinbrenner will have a large role in selecting free agents, and this theme will rear its head again.