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Have the Yankees gotten cheaper or smarter with their money?

Should we give Hal Steinbrenner more credit?


The New York Yankees entered this offseason on the heels of a second straight year without a trip to the postseason, the first time in 21 years that the Bronx Bombers missed out on back-to-back October baseball. Caitlin's post from about four weeks ago, about the different feel to this offseason compared to recent years, still rings true as we draw closer to the start of spring training. What might have once provoked a winter spending spree, and perhaps an angry Boss clearing house, instead resulted in an extension for general manager Brian Cashman, virtually no talk about the job security of the manager, and roster moves that largely flew under the radar. Where in years past we might have expected a late run at Max Scherzer in an attempt to keep up with the arms race in the American League East, this time the Yankees stayed true to their offseason agenda that involved regulating payroll.

It's worth remembering that regulating payroll here doesn't mean cutting it. Barring further moves, the Yankees will spend $214 million purely in player payroll next season. Add approximately another $12 million in player benefits and this number is now about $37 million over the luxury tax line, which means the Yankees will write a check to the league worth nearly $20 million, coupled with another check, this time for revenue sharing, for roughly $95 million, further eating into their near-$461 million in revenue. Major League Baseball may not have a salary cap, but over the last few years it has attempted to level the financial playing field on multiple fronts, now with increasing success. The Los Angeles Dodgers look set to take up residence at the top of the big-league payroll picture for the foreseeable future, and increasingly distributed television revenues have allowed previous mid-market teams to compete in the free agent market and extend their stars through their primes.

The Yankees remain, of course, the wealthiest team in baseball. It's simply becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to make that advantage count in free agency. While Max Scherzer would have improved the Yankees in 2015, should we blame Hal Steinbrenner for choosing not to push Brian Cashman into paying him $27 million a year in present value, taking the associated luxury tax hit, and having to commit to a 30-year-old pitcher for seven seasons? Even if his father might have, back when the team operated in a different economic climate? Especially when it's increasingly evident that the Yankees are in fact willing to spend money towards improving the team, even if it's not always as visible or with as much immediate impact as with the big-league payroll.

A big part of the recent need for the Yankees to add veteran talent through free agency has been the relative inability to produce talent internally. Hal Steinbrenner addressed this last offseason with an overhaul of the organizational player-development and amateur scouting. The Yankees invested heavily in multiple ways, most notably with their record spending in the international amateur market last July. As Michael pointed out recently, we should start taking the Yankees seriously when they leak that they aren't interested in a player, but considering how clearly they stated their intentions for the international market this year, we should probably take it seriously when they say they are interested as well. The Yankees have have been busy adding new teams within the organization to create more opportunities for talent to develop in the lower minors. The combined effect of all this has helped this franchise build a farm system that is knocking on the top-10 in the league, and is perhaps the deepest of any organization.

Spending so steeply in the international market this year, despite the penalties in taxes and spending restrictions over the next two signing periods, might have been an attempt to take advantage of the current system before the introduction of an international draft, something new commissioner Rob Manfred clearly intends to introduce. The franchise's financial strength is also applied by the way it approaches minor league free agency. By willing to spend significantly more than any other team, the organization regularly adds potentially useful players like Yangervis Solarte that can ultimately help the big league club.

This commitment to minor league talent might have factored into the decision to replace David Robertson with Andrew Miller. They pocketed the $2.5 million a year difference in salaries, but the extra top-40 draft pick could end up as the real prize. Meanwhile, the long-time policy of avoiding extensions appears to have been relaxed, with Brett Gardner receiving a four-year deal last year at what appears now to be below market value.

The Yankees continue to make decisions with a long-term vision towards building a pipeline of talent that builds a sustainable, annual contender. For the most part, we can expect that the players who have boosted the farm system to a potential top-10 unit will remain in the minors through 2015. On the plus side, this means the Yankees are likely to have a system pushing for a top-5 spot heading into 2016 and could be even higher with the potential addition of Yoan Moncada. The downside here is that, unusually, the New York Yankees are likely another year from contention. In the long run though, the decisions being made by Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office appear like they could well be in the best interests of the franchise. Especially if the payroll space opening up in coming years is used to extend the young talent that will hopefully be pushing through to the Bronx.

The Yankees were dangerous when they were significantly more free-spending than everyone else, but they can be even more so by remaining the wealthiest team while being run by one of the smarter and more innovative front offices. If this is Hal's goal, than I'm happy to support this organizational path.