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On the Yankees’ “rivalry” with Steve Cohen

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The only competition that exists between the two franchises exists in the Subway Series.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The national sport of Canada may be lacrosse, but the true national pastime is pointing out all the ways we’re different than the United States. Some of those differences may be quite consequential — we have universal health care — and most are far less important, like the fact that we have Kim’s Convenience and you don’t. Of course, the great irony is, most Americans don’t think about Canada, at all.

In a lot of ways, this inferiority complex competitive needling mirrors aspects of the relationship between Yankees fans and Mets fans. Mets fans, I think, build a lot of their Mets Fan identity around the ways they’re different from Yankee fans, while Yankee fans just don’t spend much time thinking about Mets fans, at all.

Do note that I’m talking about fans of the team, not the teams themselves. A lot of folks, on both sides of the Yankee/Met fan division, thought the recent sale of the Mets to hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen would incite some kind of rivalry or arms race between the New York clubs, as Cohen would now be the richest owner in baseball and flex that financial muscle.

Now obviously we’re only a couple of months into Cohen’s tenure as owner, so we can’t really say what his impact on the franchise will be over the next decade or two. So far, he’s behaved pretty much exactly the same as every owner — installed a new front office, landed James McCann on a fine but not earth-shattering contract, and been connected nebulously to a number of free agents available.

There is, I think, a real opportunity for Cohen to make his wealth work, because you don’t have to spend that much to be one of the bigger players in baseball. From 2000 to 2010, the average player salary went up 60%, and the top spending team in the game saw total payroll more than double. In the ten years since, the average MLB salary has increased 42%, and the biggest spending team saw payroll increase by 10%. Players are, by and large, getting cheaper, and teams aren’t using payroll as a means of competition.

This means that the team willing to eat a marginal dollar, or defer those marginal dollars, can take advantage of this plateauing trend in spending. This is basically how the Nationals assembled a World Series winning rotation, even though the actual financials of paying Max Scherzer $42 million in one season might make modern front offices wince. Cohen’s unique financial positioning could allow him to do something similar in adding necessary pieces to a club that’s pretty much the definition of a bubble team.

But Yankee fans shouldn’t expect their team to try and “answer”. There isn’t a rivalry between Hal Steinbrenner and Steve Cohen, or Brian Cashman and Jared Porter. One of the crucial traits of Cashman especially is that he doesn’t really do personal rivalries — after the Red Sox roared through baseball en route to the 2018 World Series, Cashman didn’t pounce on Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. He signed DJ LeMahieu for $24 million and traded for Gio Urshela as minor league fodder. Obviously those moves have worked out better than we could have ever expected, but neither one was an “answer” to what the Red Sox had just done.

In fact, that 2019 season was largely, strategically, used as a means to get under the CBT threshold ahead of a strong run at Gerrit Cole in the offseason. The relative lack of Yankee interest in premium FAs this season could very well mean Cashman is trying to do the same thing this winter, completely independent of whatever Steve Cohen’s vision for the Mets is.

Mets fans may think that they have a real rivalry with the Yankees. Canadians may think that Americans care about them, at all. A change in ownership isn’t going to introduce a new era of direct competition between the two New York clubs, largely because of the management style of the Yankee GM, and the hands-off approach Hal Steinbrenner has largely taken in player acquisition. George Springer, Trevor Bauer and DJ LeMahieu can all sign with the Mets, and the Yankees wouldn’t make a single move to “answer” them. The Subway Series every summer is a blast, but it’s also the only time the Yankee brain trust compares itself to the club in Queens.