The story of the offseason has not been the trades and free agent signings sprinkled throughout the days, but instead the total lack of signings altogether. We are less than one month until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and nearly all of the major free agents have yet to sign.
A lot of discussion, largely because of the lack of news, has gone into why this is. Silent collusion has been one explanation, the increase in analytics another, and the pervasive weakness of the union over the past 15 years fits in as well. Owners have been scheming to cut payroll outside of the actual, illegal collusion of the late-80’s. In many ways, it’s a mirror of society writ large: re-writing the rules to slowly vacuum up cash while keeping those near the top relatively satisfied.
The veterans have largely been paid, but this year there has been a sense that now they are the targets of the shrinking checks. According to Emma Baccellieri of Deadspin, however, this has been the case since the luxury tax as we now know it was instituted in 2002:
Not shockingly enough, the Yankees’ payroll trend looks remarkably similar:
This trend, combined with Yankees’ recent rebuild, has caused fans to reorient the way they see how a front office should operate. Here is what Jeff Passan wrote just last week:
“‘Brian Cashman has been one of the best GMs for 20 years, and this is the first year he’s really been recognized as a good GM. Why?’ one official said. ‘Because [the Yankees] cut payroll. Because he had more homegrown talent, as if that means a damn thing. And because you can’t be a genius if you spend money. You can only be a genius if your team wins through not spending money. And that’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But they’ve done a good job in conditioning the whole world to see it that way.’”
The fans endorse it, and in some ways even the writers here — myself included — will tacitly endorse it because the team truly is good. It does miss the point, though, that in the grand scheme of things, the Yankees are continuing to spend less and less and less on the ball club, all the while the franchise value and revenue increases.
This tweet, showing where each team ranked by payroll as a percentage of revenue, struck me yesterday:
Since Fangraphs released their ownership rankings recently. This is 2017 opening day payroll/2016 revenue per Cots and Forbes. League average was 44.66% pic.twitter.com/G4hQ6GYbEh— FREE KANG (@EvilNeal) January 23, 2018
The Yankees spend less on payroll per dollar of revenue than the “Moneyball” Athletics. They spend less on payroll per dollar of revenue than 22 (!) other clubs, even a few who barely creep above $100 million.
It’s much more useful, then, to think of the Steinbrenners as closer to a Bob Nutting than the free-wheeling George Steinbrenner of yesteryear. Nutting, the owner of the Pirates and the much-maligned face of their recent sell-off, said the following:
Asked Bob Nutting what it will take for #Pirates to break cycle of "develop, then sell when gets too costly."— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) January 16, 2018
Answer: "I think you'd have a fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball, that's not what we're going to have."#Pirates
It’s almost fortunate when owners say the quiet part loud, because it reveals what is their true intention. “Unless the union forces us to pay players more money,” they think, “then we’re going to spend as little as possible.” He could argue they’re unable to spend this money, but based on the above chart and their $269 million revenue, that isn’t the case.
Yet, the Steinbrenners spend similarly by percentage. I wrote recently about how the Yankees push the market in this regard. If the plan is for the owners to ultimately implement a hard salary cap, the Yankees are one vessel to do that. They have essentially used the luxury tax as a de facto hard cap, and it could push the league along.
The chart is really appalling. It’s just a total abdication of responsibility as an owner when you have minor leaguers making starvation wages and a major league payroll that continually shrinks all the while profits are nearly exponential. What it also means is that they can rectify it, and they also have a responsibility to do that.
If the argument is that they want to get under the cap right now, so be it. It will save them draft pick compensation, a modicum of tax money, and the likely benefit from the playoffs next year (if things break right), plus the $50 million check from MLBAM. That means there is no excuse not to go hog-wild in free agency next year and beyond. They have little in committed salary, a young core that will hang around for years to come, and an excited fanbase. Is that league average of 44.66% too much to ask for?
In reality it should be 50% or higher, and there is no reason why the Yankees can’t have a $250 million payroll other than self-imposed austerity. If they want to use their pulpit to argue for leanness when the team is at a nadir, I can humor them. That time is over, though, and we have the receipts. Instead of yet another yacht, give Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton a few Christmas presents next year.