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Can the Yankees still claim to be baseball’s Evil Empire?

Payroll parity and concerns over the luxury tax have weakened the Yankees’ financial Death Star.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Last Star Wars Day, we took a dive into the history of the Evil Empire moniker for the New York Yankees. Despite its closely-knit association with the organization, the nickname is fairly new, coined by Red Sox team president Larry Lucchino in disgust after the Yankees signed Cuban defector José Contreras a week after adding Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui in December 2002. Six years later, the Yankees and Major League Baseball filed a trademark objection against Evil Enterprises, Inc., who had attempted to file a trademark for “Baseball’s Evil Empire”. Citing newspaper articles using the term to refer to the Yankees and noting the fact that the team played Star Wars music to announce the lineups, the team successfully argued that the only Evil Empire was, in the eyes of law, the New York Yankees.

Three winters ago, general manager Brian Cashman alluded to his team’s nickname by calling his front office “a fully-operational Death Star” early in the offseason. When spring training began, however, Yankees fans disagreed with that assessment. Ignoring the top of the free agent market — highlighted by infielder Manny Machado, outfielder Bryce Harper, and pitchers Patrick Corbin and Charlie Morton — the team instead focused on re-signing its own players and adding to the bullpen. The major additions to the team were James Paxton (acquired via trade from the Seattle Mariners), DJ LeMahieu (a move widely-despised at the time), and Adam Ottavino (who himself was taking David Robertson’s role). Many wondered if the Yankees’ front office, by refusing to get into a bidding war, had left exposed a thermal exhaust port that doomed the winter before it began.

That offseason turned out to be merely a single-reactor ignition, the predecessor to a major splash the following winter: Gerrit Cole and his nine-year, $324 million contract was the manifesto to the league, a reminder that the Yankees possessed the financial might to destroy a metaphorical planet in free agency. And with several contracts coming off the books, multiple potential holes (including only having two healthy starting pitchers, Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, returning), and a suppressed free agent market, they appeared to be in the position to make a second major splash in as many seasons.

As we know, that didn’t happen. Sure, the Yankees made a bunch of moves — signing Corey Kluber, Justin Wilson, and Darren O’Day, bringing back LeMahieu and Brett Gardner, and trading for Jameson Taillon — but aside from LeMahieu, they stayed away from any big-ticket signings. Instead, the Yankees preferred to stay under the luxury tax and sat on the sidelines, as the Los Angeles Dodgers added Trevor Bauer to arguably the best rotation in baseball, the San Diego Padres traded for Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, and Joe Musgrove to bolster theirs (without giving up any of their top prospects in the process!), the New York Mets pried Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco from Cleveland, and the St. Louis Cardinals robbed Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies.

It’s not just this past winter, either. Aside from Cole, the Yankees haven’t shopped at the top of the free agent market since the ill-fated 2013-2014 offseason spending splurge that saw only Masahiro Tanaka complete his contract in pinstripes (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltrán were either cut or traded before the end of their deals). Since leading the league in payroll from 1999 through 2013 — sometimes by as much as $100 million — the Yankees have been surpassed by at least one other team in every year except 2020. Moreover, they have operated in the same general payroll range (the $180-$230 region) since 2004; in that time, the median payroll had risen from $65 million to $126 million. If the Yankees’ payrolls had risen at that rate, it would be upwards of $350 million!

Whether due to a refusal to employ their financial might or because record revenues throughout the league have leveled the playing field, the Yankees no longer act like the Evil Empire of baseball, bullying small market teams with Star Destroyers filled with cash. The Yankees’ Death Star has been destroyed, and all of baseball is in an Age of Rebellion to topple the Empire.

But even so, the legacy of that Empire still casts a shadow over the sport...