We all know the complaints about Hal Steinbrenner, or with the new regime of Steinbrenners in general. According to detractors, they just don't have the same desire to win as their father did, and they're just concerned with their bottom line. It's a bit more complicated than that, I'd like to think. When Hal took over full control of ownership, he made it clear to Brian Cashman and his front office that he wanted to do business differently. They weren't going to spend haphazardly, they were going to try to get younger, and they were going to spend money, but only when it made sense.
While George had the commitment, they would say, he made a lot of reactionary moves that were incredibly detrimental. He responded to every jab from the Red Sox, he wanted to trade every prospect who didn't immediately prove himself, and he fired coaches on a whim. So while one can argue all they want that George would have done things better, it's just not how the Yankees want to do business in the 21st century. They want continued, sustainable success, and they want it at a budget that's reasonable and relatively consistent.
But, on the other hand, their plan has wavered, and it isn't as consistent as they would purport. Well, let's start with things they did do right. They focused on youth: Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, and Masahiro Tanaka are part of a new youth movement that has injected upside into the organization over the last few years. For the first time in a while, "the wrong side of 30" complaint wasn't applicable to every player. They spent money on players like Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Andrew Miller–players under relatively reasonable contracts for a fair price. They made savvy trades for Gregorius, Brandon McCarthy, Eovaldi, and Headley.
And, of course, they did things spectacularly wrong. They didn't open the checkbook for foreign players prior to Tanaka like with Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish–while their prices were still reasonable–and they only spent wildly when they were desperate to get back into the postseason after a miserable 2013, as they signed the likes of Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury, who have had moments of greatness but also a decent amount of inconsistency. They held on to their plan to stay under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million in a very unreasonable fashion, and then didn't stick to the plan all the way through.
Now, the Steinbrenners have made it clear that they're going through these motions again. In a radio interview on the Michael Kay Show, Brian Cashman stated that the Yankees likely wouldn't be major players in the free agent market, and that they would explore various opportunities on the trade market. This, in my mind, is a terrible idea.
This free agent class is one of the most loaded in recent years, and this is probably more of an anomaly than a regularity. There are premium players on the market like
Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes; and there are lower priced players–who are still good–like Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, Wei-Yin Chen, and Jeff Samardzija. That kind of variety in price and player-type isn't an every-year occurrence, and the Yankees are just going to pass it up, apparently.
The Yankees, as many know, don't have much money coming off the books. They already have $184 million committed without even counting arbitration prices, and they have to wait until next year for the contracts of Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira to expire. But, honestly, are they going to wait around for contracts to expire to sign players? USA Today published a report that the Yankees would be paying $26 million in luxury taxes, so I can understand where they're coming from, because they're basically paying that money to other teams for nothing. It's dead weight. But at the same time, this situation doesn't get better if they wait.
Even though they only have $120 million committed for 2017, the free agent crop, to be frank, is horrendous. The best second baseman available is Neil Walker, the best pitcher available is Stephen Strasburg, and the best outfielders available are Jose Bautista, Carlos Gomez, and Josh Reddick. You can look at the list here, and there seriously isn't much beyond those players. And not only that, but the bidding will be harder! It won't be like this year when each team can focus on one player; we all know every team will probably bid on Strasburg, for example, and the prices will be higher due to inflation. Oh yeah, and the class for the following year is even worse.
I do not seethe with rage in respect to the Steinbrenners like other fans do. I think they're pretty smart people, and they want what all business owners want–to have their cake and eat it too. They want to have a reasonable budget with predictability from year to year, and they want enough success that they can reap the benefits of playoff appearances. At the same time, though, they already do. Revenue has increased a significant amount since the creation of the YES Network, the new Yankee Stadium, and postseason appearances from 2009-2012 and 2015. They have only increased their payroll $5.1 million since 2005, well before the massive free agent inflation of the past few years.
I obviously don't begrudge–I think they have every right to spend wisely while also trying to win--but their strategy has limits. If they're going to be frugal, they need to stick to it. They can't skip out on a free agent class like this one, and then go on a $500 million shopping spree on a lesser crop when they get desperate.
This could just be grandstanding, of course. Cashman is known to make moves out of nowhere, and he doesn't like to give the market a signal they're getting involved so they don't inadvertently increase the prices. The Steinbrenners, as well, could still be mulling over payroll increases in the weight of these considerations, so I shouldn't say they can be counted out altogether. But if they are indeed serious about staying away from the top free agents, it'll be another year of trying to duct tape together a playoff team–which Cashman is obviously good at–but that's hard to do in back-to-back years. And when the day comes that the payroll finally comes down to what is deemed an acceptable level, there may be no one to use that money on. At least for this offseason, the Steinbrenners should suck it up and write some checks.