The Red Sox got David Price. The Cubs got Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. The Giants got Johnny Cueto. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks, hardly one of baseball's fiscal elite, went all in on Zack Greinke. The Yankees? Well, they've brought in Aaron Hicks and Starlin Castro, a pair of guys with 2015 OPS's below .725. That lack of action has some fans and media members concluding that the Yankees are no longer interested in winning - that if he knew what's become of his beloved team, late owner George M. Steinbrenner III would be "rolling over in his grave."
I'm not buying that. A reanimated Steinbrenner wouldn't be content just to roll and possibly solve the world's energy crisis - he'd be above ground firing people. When a famous person passes away, his legacy tends to accentuate the good points over those that maybe weren't so terrific. Yankee fans today mostly worship at the altar of Steinbrenner face. They remember the Boss as the benevolent godfather of winning - that kooky rich uncle who'd always get you whatever you wanted for Christmas. In some ways, he was exactly that. He believed wholeheartedly in the concept of spending money to make money, and he never put a silly thing like a budget ahead of scooping up every possible win. Once free agency hit MLB in 1975, George grabbed it by the throat and spent more than three decades signing All-Stars and future Hall of Famers with reckless abandon. In just his final five seasons running the Yankees, he brought in a cast that included Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson and Bobby Abreu, a haul that would eclipse some teams' entire histories. In 2005, the Yankees' Opening Day payroll surpassed the second place Red Sox by $84 million, or nearly 70 percent. That year, they spent more than the bottom five teams combined.
For the most part, George's approach to building a baseball team was hugely effective, even if that 2005 mega team lost in the ALDS. The Yankees won six World Championships during the Boss' reign and added a seventh in 2009 after he'd given up day-to-day control but was still in the picture. They won four more AL pennants and finished first in their division 18 times, more than half of George's 35 seasons as principal. During that stretch, a $10 million initial investment famously grew into what's now a $3.2 billion property, according to Forbes.
Yet there were more than a few points during the George Steinbrenner era when Yankee fans wanted him tarred and feathered. When it seemed like New York City would never build him a new stadium, he threatened a move to New Jersey. A fourteen-year playoff drought lasted from 1981 until 1995 and in those years, George changed managers twelve times. Back then all those major signings and trades usually didn't work out, and the Yankees parted with young talent like Doug Drabek, Fred McGriff, Willie McGee and Jay Buhner. The Boss got himself suspended for two years when he hired a reputed gambler to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. George wasn't usually one to sit on the sidelines of team-building. He made several general managers' jobs near impossible by stepping in to make deals above their heads. In the mid-2000's he thwarted Brian Cashman's efforts to sign Vladimir Gurerrero because he and Sheffield had a good meeting over burgers. When Cashman had some doubts about a 41-year-old Randy Johnson, he was shoved out of the room faster than a Red Sox fan at Stan's.
Now that he's been running the show several years, it's easy to see where Hal Steinbrenner's philosophies differ from his father's. The Yankees still have a very high payroll, but it's in the stratosphere, not in space. In 2015, they didn't employ one of the nine highest paid players and that's unlikely to change next year. Under Hal, the Yankees are more about competitiveness than winning at all costs. They believe they can do it with more modest expenditures, and they only spend big in years where money comes off the books. That's led to passing on stars the past two years despite obvious needs and letting in-house talents walk. Hal seems to be a hard limit guy and that can be frustrating because the market doesn't often agree. The Yankees passed on Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada last winter over $6.5 million. They skipped Jorge Soler in 2012 for a smaller amount. They wouldn't budge from their sub-market offer to Robinson Cano and never bothered to explore whether something more competitive might have kept him from Seattle. As Matt wrote recently, by sticking to their "only when contracts expire" credo and sitting out of free agency this year, Hal's Yankees will instead dive into a weaker market in 2016 and probably spend more for lesser players.
All that is cause for criticism, but Hal is dealing with a different set of rules than his father was for most of his tenure - rules that were designed in large part to keep the Yankees in check. The luxury tax dates all the way back to 1997, and the Yankees have been over it at least since 2002. But the tax used to be progressive to account for rising player costs and revenues. Between 2004 and 2011, the threshold went up by at least $7 million per year, meaning George had a little more room to maneuver each time around before upping his bill. In the last six years, though, the apron has only risen by a total of $11 million, even while league income and free agent prices have soared. The current collective bargaining agreement, which kicked in in 2012, installed a 50 percent repeater tax - the highest penalty ever for big spenders and one which the Yankees have paid every year since. MLB's sharing of local revenues has been at 31 percent since 2006, but beginning next year teams in large markets won't get any redistribution of that - a change that hits the Yankees harder than anyone else because of their higher revenues.
To his detriment, Hal is spending an increasingly lower percentage of Yankee income on payroll. They spent nearly 58 percent of their total revenues on payroll in 2007 and led the majors. Even if you add in their $26 million 2015 luxury tax hit to their $219 million payroll they were still only at 48 percent and in the middle of the pack this year. That doesn't account, though, for the fact that operating in New York puts the Yankees' non-payroll expenses higher than most other teams; or for the fact that since their receipts are higher, so, too are their contributions to the revenue sharing pool. Their operating income in 2014 was only $8.1 million so it's not like they've been making record profits. Could they spend more? Yeah. There's no law saying you have to show a profit, especially when you have one of the highest team valuations in sports to borrow against. It might be a good idea, since the Yankees are vested in other businesses like YES and Legends Hospitality that benefit when the team is more exiting. Still, the bridge from "could" to "should" is a long one to cross from an outsider's perspective.
It's clear that if George Steinbrenner was alive today the Yankees would look at least a little different. Moncada would probably be heading to Trenton next year instead of Portland, and Cano might still be playing second in the Bronx. On the other hand, maybe the Yankees would have closed the deal on Cliff Lee or gone after a magnificent bust of a free agent like Josh Hamilton (you know how George loved a redemption story). Among fans, views on how the team should operate are pretty polarized. On one side you have those who believe that if the Yankees aren't spending at least 20 percent more than anyone else, then they're not really trying and on the other, those who want them to build their club like they play in Pittsburgh - prospects, prospects, prospects. To his credit, Hal is trying to find a middle ground somewhere. Is George rolling? Eh...maybe just fidgeting a bit.