Despite losing Robinson Cano to the free agent market, the Yankees are doing what they always do—spend. Neil Cohen explains why they don’t really have a choice.
In 2008, the New York Yankees won 89 games but failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1995, ending a thirteen-year span that included four World Series titles. The so-called “evil empire” had finally come crashing to its knees.
But like any self-respecting dark lord of the Sith, following defeat you just build a bigger and better Death Star. The empire reloaded in 2009 by signing the top free agents on the market: pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira. They won the World Series in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees were back. . . or so they thought.
While the Yankees made the playoffs the next three seasons, each one ended in disappointment as the team got older and more injury-prone. Most importantly, their farm system had become barren of any elite (or even really good) prospects that could replace their aging veterans on the cheap. There would be no Mike Trout or Bryce Harper coming anytime soon.
This past season the Yankees won only 85 games—one less than the Kansas City Royals!—and missed the playoffs again. Attendance was down nearly 3,000 fans per game and ratings dropped by a third. Even worse, their fierce rivals, the Boston Red Sox, staged a miraculous year-to-year turnaround, winning the World Series with the type of chemistry not seen in Beantown since 2004.
With the cloud of Alex Rodriguez’s PED suspension and countless lawsuits hovering over the organization, questions concerning Derek Jeter’s health, the retirements of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, and fast declining superstars like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, one could only ask whether it could get any worse? The answer is yes.
Going into the 2013 offseason, the Yankees had question marks at nearly every position except perhaps center field (more on that later) where Brett Gardner—one of the only Yankee players in his prime—had just come off a solid-to-good year free of his usual injuries. No question mark loomed bigger than whether to re-sign star second baseman Robinson Cano, the top free agent on the market, who started negotiations with a 10-year, $300+ million contract demand.
But Cano may not have been the Yankees biggest problem. Until the last few weeks the Yankees were trying to be something they aren’t. Over the past few years they desired to be the big market team that acts like a small market team, kind of like, ummm, the Boston Red Sox.
The Yankees, led by GM Brian Cashman, wanted to use their farm system to build their team from the inside, saving millions of dollars; they didn’t want to give long-term mega contracts to players whose best years are behind them, like Josh Hamilton or dare I say Cano; they had visions about Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings to replace Derek Jeter; and most of all they dreamed about saving something like $100 million by coming in under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for the 2014 season.
But here’s the good news for baseball fans: it’s just a dream, it’s not going to happen. As noted by Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees are penalized more than most teams from a revenue perspective when they don’t win. Therefore, pretending to be the New York Mets and building from within while providing their fans with losing seasons until they rebuild is not a viable option. Without a farm system and few tradeable pieces, the Yankees have finally realized that their best—really only—course of action is to be true to themselves and spend, spend and spend some more. They don’t really have a choice.
This past Thursday, the Yankees formally introduced their new catcher, former Atlanta Brave Brian McCann, and his 5 year/$85 million contract. Next up was former Boston Red Sox (ouch) center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury who signed a 7 year/$153+ million con
tract. While Ellsbury is a very good, oft-injured player, who adds youth, speed and defense to the line-up, his signing is generally seen as a massive overpay for a player who is not nearly the caliber of Robinson Cano. Speaking of Cano. . . uh oh.
The Yankees and Cano, along with his agent, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, and others, were engaged in a massive game of chicken. Cano was threatening to ship himself off to baseball Siberia and play for the Seattle Mariners—a place no one thought Cano would ever consider due to legacy issues and considerably fewer marketing opportunities—if the Yankees wouldn’t meet his demand for a 10-year contract for something north of $225 million.
The Yankees, however, had no plans of going above around 7 years, $175 million, even after paying Ellsbury $153+ million, a lesser player than Cano. Perhaps the Yankees were scared of another A-Rod contract or perhaps they saw WAR data on how many star second baseman decline after their age 34 season. Or perhaps egos just got in the way as Cashman has a history of pissing off his star free agents (see Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada) for no good reason.
Whatever the reason, Cano called the Yankees’ bluff, signing a mega 10-year, $240 million contract (same as Albert Pujols and see how well that’s working out) with the Mariners on Friday. At $240 million any real Yankee fan should be glad the team did not match the offer, no matter how badly they need him.
So if you just lose your star second baseman and prize free agent, what’s a team like the Yankees to do? Why spend, and then spend some more. Word hit late Friday evening that the Yankees have signed outfielder Carlos Beltran to a 3 year/$45 million contract for the 36 year-old outfielder. This came on the heels of an agreement with starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda for 1 year/$16 million.
But even with McCann, Ellsbury, Beltran and Kuroda now in the fold, the Yankees need so many additional pieces it’s hard to imagine they can field a team without going over the $189 million, luxury-tax threshold—a “race” that has captivated the baseball world (see here and here).
The Yankees still only have three starting pitchers and even then there are questions whether Ivan Nova can be consistently good and Sabathia can find his old form. They need a closer, a lefty specialist and a few other relief pitchers since they only currently have two relievers. And they will need a third baseman once Alex Rodriquez loses his arbitration case.
Expect to see the Yankees make a big run at Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka if he becomes available, Eric Chavez (3B), Fernando Rodney (closer), Joaquin Benoit (rightly reliever), JP Howell and Eric O’Flaherty (lefty specialists), Michael Morse (1B/OF/DH) and maybe even Roy Halladay (they’ll take a flyer on him).
But second base now needs to be a priority. The Yankees signed utility infielder Kelly Johnson this past week to a 1-year/$3 million contract but one can’t imagine the plan was for him to play everyday at second or third. Hopefully, Cashman picked up the phone this past Friday morning and called the Cincinnati Reds to ask them what they’d like in return for Brandon Phillips and the $50 million remaining on his contract.
Perhaps the Yankees—now with a surplus of outfielders after signing Ellsbury and Beltran—can use Brett Gardner in a trade for an infielder or starting pitcher, though given the age of Beltran and Soriano, the more prudent course if the Yankees want to win the World Series next season is to keep him.
As with all things Yankees, while it might start with Cano, it will end with the real dark lord of the Sith, Lord A-Rod himself. If the Yankees truly have any hope of building a winning team while staying under $189 million, they must root against their own player and hope A-Rod is suspended for all of next year.