When George Steinbrenner was alive, the New York Yankees’ mission statement was simple: win, no matter what the cost. World Series or bust. Steinbrenner even apologized to fans when his team failed to capture a championship.
After the Yankees saw their string of 13 straight postseason appearances snapped in 2008, “King George” embarked on a spending spree that immediately resulted in the team’s return to championship glory. Among the moves made that winter was the signing of the top two available free agent starting pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Although the rotation has remained an ongoing concern, that was also the last time the team went out and signed the top available starter. Sure, the Yankees landed a pair of talents in Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka, but the club has repeatedly passed on top-shelf aces and the big money contracts they command.
When former Red Sox ace Jon Lester hit the open market following the 2014 season, the Yankees were nowhere to be seen. Lester signed a seven-year deal with the Cubs, and produced 5.6 WAR during their curse-breaking title run two years later.
That same offseason, Max Scherzer became a free agent. While the Yankees sat on the sidelines, Washington inked him to a seven-year contract. Scherzer compiled a major-league leading 29.0 WAR over the last four years, easily out-producing runner-up Corey Kluber (24.2).
The following winter, coveted former Tampa Bay ace David Price finally became a free agent. But again, the Yankees were absent. Price signed a seven-year pact with the Red Sox, helped them win three straight division titles, and posted 4.4 WAR as they won it all this year.
In 2017, the Yankees stood pat while perennial Cy Young Award candidate Justin Verlander was acquired by Houston for three middling prospects during Detroit’s salary dump. No one was surprised when he won nine straight decisions, and was named ALCS MVP after beating the Yankees twice. After all, Verlander was coming off a second-place finish in the Cy Young balloting, had already compiled 4.7 WAR when the Tigers traded him, and had amassed an impressive postseason resume that included two prior trips to the World Series.
The Yankees passed on all those aces for one reason: they didn’t want to spend the money. Getting under the CBT threshold has been an objective since the Steinbrenner heirs took control of the club. Ownership finally accomplished its goal this year.
The Red Sox also had a stated goal: win the World Series. But the team’s owners placed no financial limits on the effort, the Red Sox paid the luxury tax as the team with the highest payroll in the majors, and the goal was achieved. Boston became the team of the millennium, while the Yankees play catch-up.
Boston now boasts four championships in the last 15 years, the Giants have three, and seven other teams made multiple appearances in the Fall Classic. Yet the Yankees have won the same number of pennants as the Mets and Rays: just one.
Following the latest Red Sox triumph, Yankees principal owner Hal Steinbrenner quickly announced that the team remains committed to winning a championship. But what does that mean? Will saving money remain the franchise’s number one goal? Or is ownership prepared to lift the self-imposed salary cap and pursue a title without limits, as the Red Sox have done?
New York possessed arguably the fourth-best starting rotation in the American League last year, but it wasn’t good enough. Although there are other reasons why the Yankees were eliminated by Boston during the Division Series, continuing to lag behind the Red Sox, Indians, and Astros in this critical area is not a recipe for postseason success. A rotation upgrade is needed.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix readily available. This winter’s top available free agent produced only one really good campaign during his six-year career. Patrick Corbin pitched to an excellent 137 ERA+ during his walk year, compared to his merely above average 109 career mark.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman could take a chance on Corbin, hoping that the 29-year-old uses his 2018 success as a launching pad to stardom. Maybe he becomes an elite ace, maybe he doesn’t. But as of this moment, Corbin doesn’t have the credentials that all those other elite arms possessed at the time the Yankees passed on them. Those missed opportunities hurt.
Some would argue that a 100-win season isn’t a failure. That’s true, but nobody remembers teams that fail to reach the Fall Classic. Why should they? Yankees fans demand more. They have grown accustomed to a winning culture since Babe Ruth joined the team in 1920. It’s the whole reason the team put pinstripes on the uniforms to begin with, to inspire the business-like approach to winning evoked by pinstriped suit-wearing Wall Street bankers.
The Yankees were once the gold standard in professional sports, and the organization still does some things exceptionally well. I love the unprecedented parade of young talent coming out of the farm system. Cashman has proven a wizard with the amateur draft, international signings, and trades. That the club voluntarily surrendered one of its biggest weapons — financial clout — remains puzzling, disappointing, and frustrating.
The decision to pinch pennies instead of landing top-shelf starting pitchers over the past several years could continue to haunt the club in at least the near future. While I previously wrote that the Yankees should pursue an ace starter on the trade market, there is no guarantee that they find a willing partner and succeed in outbidding the competition without diminishing their major-league roster. There are much more accomplished starting pitchers due to hit free agency over the next couple of winters, so we may have to wait a bit longer to see if the Yankees are willing to spend in this area of need.