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Trying to decipher the Yankees' future plans

The Yankees are staying quiet this winter and a look at recent history shows that might not change anytime soon.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Hal Steinbrenner dumped another pot of cold water on Yankee fans still holding out hope that their team will make a run at a front line starting pitcher. He told reporters he’s satisfied with his rotation and with the job Brian Cashman’s done this off season. Though he maintained that these are still the Yankees and that anything can happen, Hal’s comments seemed to lean more toward the idea that what you see on the roster now is what you’ll get on Opening Day. If you’re someone who just can believe the Yankees will start the season with Chris Capuano in their starting five – just like you couldn’t believe they’d settle for Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli at catcher in 2013, or for Brian Roberts at second base in 2014 – it may be time to start believing.

If the Yankees 2014-15 winter plan is now complete – if the pillars of getting younger and better defensively were really what they were after and not just talking points because that’s what they were able to find – if they’re okay with could compete instead of will win – then you have to wonder what their goals are for the future. Steinbrenner’s been steadfast that you don’t need the game’s highest payroll to win championships, but it’s not like the Yankees have significantly sliced their budget or are pulling a Mets by trying to run a small market style franchise in the nation’s largest metropolis. Their projected payroll for 2015, once their arbitration cases are all settled, sits at $209.6 million according to Baseball Reference, which is second in baseball by a wide margin. For that investment you’d think they’d want more than a club whose ceiling is probably high-80’s wins and a hard-fought playoff berth.

One theory that’s been brought up a lot is that the Yankees have entered a financial holding pattern while they wait current albatross deals that are tying up their budget to expire. The guaranteed money on their ledger will dip from $182.8 million in 2016 to $120.6 million in 2017 when deals like Mark Teixeira’s and Carlos Beltran’s expire, and they’ll be down to $93.6 million once Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia are gone in 2018. In the recent past, the Yankees most prolific spending sprees have followed the termination of major commitments. In 2008, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu and Mike Mussina departed and cleared $51 million in payroll space, which promptly went toward Teixeira, Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, among others. Post-2013, Robinson Cano, Andy Pettitte, Curtis Granderson and Kevin Youkilis tore open a $52 million cash crater that was filled by Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka.

In the years between their major re-tools, the Yankees have behaved a lot more conservatively. During the four off-seasons from 2009 to 2012, the largest deal they gave to an out-of-house free agent was Rafael Soriano’s $35 million. In the two winters before their ’08 spree, the team went all out to keep its own stars like A-Rod, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, but their most notable open market acquisition was Kei Igawa. They’ve spent $88 million on mid-tier players in Chase Headley and Andrew Miller this year, but their pattern of operation over the past decade points to the Yankees staying quiet on Max Scherzer and James Shields, and on David Price, Zack Greinke and Ian Desmond if they shake free a year from now.

There are benefits to the "every-few-years" strategy, the most obvious of which is cost continuity. If you’re replacing big contracts with big contracts instead of adding new ones, you’re not expanding your expense sheet the way the Yankees used to do routinely. Even as MLB revenues have ballooned exponentially the Yankees’ Opening Day payrolls have grown by only around eight percent since 2006's $194 million figure while remaining within a $30 million margin from highest to lowest. Compare that with the 123 percent rise in player salaries from 2000 through 2005, which included an increase of at least twelve percent each season. The luxury tax has had a lot to do with it, but it’s clear that Hal’s made a much more forceful effort to limit things than his father did. Spending in spurts also lightens the burden of lost draft picks. The Yankees gave up their first, second and third round picks in 2009 in exchange for Teixeira, CC and Burnett and their first and two comps in 2014 for Ellsbury, McCann and Beltran, but that beats coughing up consecutive first rounders to sign big name free agents every year.

The downside to the Yankees apparent approach, though, is that by keying up to spend heavy in certain years, they're limiting themselves to what’s available at those specific times. In ’08-’09, the Yankees dove into a free agent class that included baseball’s best pitcher and its eighth best position player according to fWAR. Those signings, in part, delivered a World Series title and four straight playoff appearances. But after letting Cano walk in ’13, the Yankees did their investing in a lesser caliber of free agent and this past year’s results reflected that. Looking forward, the 2016-17 free agent crop could include names like Alex Gordon, Carlos Gomez and Stephen Strasburg, but two years is an eternity. Players get hurt, they decline, and they sign early extensions more commonly than ever. In 2016, 2017, 2018 or whenever the Yankees feel ready to go nuts again, they may end up with a wad of cash in their pocket and no one worthwhile to spend it on.