There are a few things that people can be 100 percent sure of in the world. The sun will rise. The sun will set. The summer will have too many movies based on comic book heroes.
Another certainty is that if a baseball player’s contract is ending, they will go to the highest bidder who will inevitably be the Yankees. Even people who do not follow baseball know that if there is a superstar who wants the big bucks, they will be wearing Yankee pinstripes before you know it. It is a shorthand for the inequity of baseball and the greed in the game. The Yankees buy all the stars. It is a force of nature that can not be changed.
But is it still true? Are the wild budgetless spending days of the Yankees ending? Have they already ended without anyone even noticing it?
On first glance, arguing that the Yankees are no longer spending money with reckless abandon seems absurd. They still have the highest payroll in baseball, entering the season at $197 million. That is $20 million more than the second highest paid team, the Phillies. It is still more than the Astros, Athletics and Padres combined.
Alex Rodriguez is going to earn $30 million this year. CC Sabathia is a $24 million man. Mark Teixeira is going to pull in $23 million. Derek Jeter’s new deal will get him $15 million. Those four players alone would almost match the total salaries for the New York Mets.
Clearly the Yankees are not clipping coupons. Nobody will make a movie about the scrappy low budget team from the Bronx starring Brad Pitt.
But a closer look at their payroll and their recent behavior acquiring players point to the possibility that the Yankees are not spending the way they used to. Rodriguez’s deal was signed before the 2008 season. Sabathia and Teixeira were brought in after the humiliating 2008 third place finish. The three contributed to the Yankees' first championship since 2000.
Jeter’s contract came after a tense negotiation where nobody believed he was leaving but both sides postured. Since then, the Yankees have been mysteriously absent in any big free agent splashes.
Last off season, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish all broke the bank. The Yankees were not major players in any of those big contracts.
According to ESPN.com, there were 24 free-agent deals last winter more lucrative than the Yankees biggest signing. The Yankees picked up Hiroki Kuroda on a one year deal. Teams like the Pirates, Twins, Diamondbacks and even the Oakland A's spent more lavishly on an individual free agent.
The year before players such as Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee signed monster deals, and Joe Mauer and Adrian Gonzalez were locked up to long extensions. The Yankees countered with Rafael Soriano.
It could just be a hunch that the Yankees free spending days could be winding down. But take a look at the behavior of the people who would benefit the most from the Yankees behaving like Daddy Warbucks: Agents. In the past, an agent’s job would require them to get a player to file for free agency and then call the Yankees to see how much they would bid for them.
But take a look at how many players are being locked up to contracts even before they hit free agency. Two in particular would have been tailor made to help the Yankees for the foreseeable future. Joe Mauer has a left-handed bat would fit perfectly in the Bronx and is a natural pitchman whose value would go sky high in New York. And as a catcher, Mauer would give the Yankees great offense from a defensive position. He re-signed with the Twins without ever filing.
Jered Weaver is one of the elite pitchers in the game and would be the ace on most staffs. Put him along side CC Sabathia and the Yankees would be unbeatable. He re-signed with the Angels and was never a free agent.
Sure they made great money staying and Mauer is from Minnesota and Weaver is from Southern California so they get to stay home. But in the past the Yankees would have blown everyone out of the water for their services. Now they do not even get the chance. Maybe the agents have figured it out before we have. The Yankee gravy train might be drying up.
The Yankees are resembling Sylvester Stallone in the late 1980s. He still had the reputation of being a gigantic box office superstar, but in truth he was not producing any hit movies after the second Rambo film. The Yankees have the aura of being the big spenders, but last year they didn’t make a move more lucrative than Coco Crisp’s return to Oakland.
The Yankees have made noise in the past about lowering their budget and contributing less to the payroll tax. People collectively rolled their eyes and treated those statements like a drug addict saying “I swear this time I am going clean.”
Maybe they are. Maybe they are doing it in a very clever way, where they still have star power and still have the highest payroll in the game, but do not needlessly ad to it.
Maybe Yankee management saw that spending money like the world was about to end has clinched one World Series in the past 11 years. Maybe they realize that they already have the star power of Jeter, A-Rod and Sabathia to fill the new stadium and collect the profits from the YES Network. If that is the case, why subsidize the Padres, Athletics and Royals with a payroll tax?
And then there is the elephant in the room. George Steinbrenner is dead. And perhaps the Boss, or the desire to please the Boss, was the fuel that sparked the Yankees spending. Steinbrenner was the first to embrace free agency and was not afraid to import ill-fitting superstars to make a splash. The last big spending spree for the team was before the 2009 season. Sabathia, Teixeira and A.J. Burnett all joined the team. The Yankees won it all that year, giving Mr. Steinbrenner his final title.
After his death in 2010, the crazed spending ended. His sons, Hal and Hank, try to put on airs of keeping the Steinbrenner tradition alive, but so far their actions are not backing it up.
Michael O’Keeffe and Bill Madden wrote a New York Daily News piece last May about the Yankees potentially being up for sale. It was denied of course, but why wouldn’t the Steinbrenners see what they could get, even if only out of curiosity? If the Dodgers could pick up $2 billion for a franchise that filed for bankruptcy, imagine what a robustly profitable team like the Yankees could fetch.
If you were one of the owners of a team that was worth billions and the only reason you are an owner is because of your father, and your father passed away, wouldn’t you want to see if you could become a billionaire? Negotiate a deal where you get great seats for the rest of your life, have someone else deal with the hassle of the team and the media and have enough money to send George Steinbrenner’s great great grandchildren to law school. Who could resist that scenario?
Mr. Steinbrenner is gone. The Yankees are no longer the go to destination for free agents. And most other teams are outspending the big bad Bronx Bombers in the offseason.
Perhaps there is nothing we can be 100 percent sure of in this world.
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