As long as Josh Hamilton is available on the free-agent market, some reporters, analysts and fans are going to attach him to the New York Yankees.
It's just too good of a match. The Yankees need an outfielder. Hamilton is the best one out there. He's the sort of star player that George Steinbrenner would have lusted after when he was running the show in the Bronx, and money would not have been an obstacle.
Financial considerations are handcuffing the Yankees this winter with principal owner Hal Steinbrenner's mandate that the team payroll be under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold for 2014. As a result, general manager Brian Cashman has conducted business like a small-market club, rather than an MLB superpower.
But Hamilton is still out there, waiting for a team to meet his asking price. And the Yankees still have an opening in right field, maybe in left field as well. That leads reporters such as ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand to assert that the Yanks can't be ruled out as a contender to sign Hamilton.
However, signing Hamilton couldn't be done on its own. Not with ownership tapping the 2014 luxury tax limit with a stick, ready to whack anyone on the wrist who suggests that the Yankees exceed the threshold and incur a 50-percent tax on every dollar over $189 million.
For both financial and baseball reasons, current center fielder Curtis Granderson would have to be traded to accommodate Hamilton.
Granderson is set to be paid $15 million next season after the Yankees picked up his 2013 option. That money would obviously go toward Hamilton's salary.
But $15 million alone wouldn't be enough to get Hamilton unless Cashman and the Yanks' front office got creative with the contract, backloading the deal while still managing to stay under the luxury tax limit.
The Yankees offered third baseman Kevin Youkilis a one-year, $12 million contract to fill in at third base while Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery. Rodriguez is expected to be out until July.
No word on where Youkilis would play once A-Rod returns. Presumably, he would still play third while Rodriguez works back to full strength and give Mark Teixeira a break at first base when needed.
But if the Yankees signed Hamilton, would they be able to afford Youkilis? Or would that $12 million combine with Granderson's $15 million to give Hamilton the annual salary of $25 million or more that he's reportedly seeking in a new contract?
According to Cot's Contracts, the Yankees are currently down for a $171 million payroll for next season. That includes Granderson's 2013 salary. Add Youkilis' $12 million and it's up to $183 million.
The Yankees are also set to re-sign outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. The report didn't include how much Suzuki would sign for, but it will surely be for less than the $17 million he was paid this season.
This doesn't even include all of the players whose contracts have to be renewed or go through the arbitration process, such as Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson.
However, Youkilis and Suzuki would sign one-year deals that allow the Yankees to avoid the luxury tax at the beginning of the 2014 season.
The Yankees' payroll has exceeded $200 million for the past five years and figures to do so again for 2013, though Steinbrenner surely would prefer it be lower. But paying the luxury tax is a foregone conclusion, so the Yankees are apparently prepared to bite down and take it.
Granderson would almost certainly have to be dealt for prospects to keep costs low, unless he yields a handful of reserves that could help out in the outfield, at catcher or even in the starting rotation.
Teams that would likely be interested could include the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. Perhaps the Texas Rangers are a possibility as well. As a Chicago native and a need for a center fielder on the North Side, Granderson could also intrigue the Chicago Cubs.
If Hamilton were to join the Yankees, he would likely take over for Granderson in center field. However, he could play left if the Yanks decided Brett Gardner was the better defensive choice in center.
That would leave the Yankees' lineup heavy with left-handed batters, but that would obviously be a problem if Granderson comes back next season. Hamilton would actually be an improvement against left-handed pitching. Granderson batted .218 with a .762 OPS in that matchup this year, while Hamilton hit .291 with an .853 OPS versus southpaws.
Cashman would still have to bring in a right-handed outfielder that could sub in for Gardner or Suzuki against left-handed pitching. That player would surely also substitute for Hamilton on occasion, as the former AL MVP has averaged 123 games over the past four seasons.
As with any of the teams showing interest in Hamilton, the question with the Yankees would be how much they're willing to offer in terms of years and annual salary.
Given Hamilton's injury history and age (31), no club wants to offer him more than three years in a contract. The team that includes a fourth year would likely win the bidding (Hamilton reportedly wants a six- or seven-year deal, but it's clear that he's not going to get that kind of offer).
Rosenthal reported that Hamilton and the Seattle Mariners were talking about a three-year offer, perhaps worth up to $75 million.
With the Yankees' concern about the 2014 luxury tax, the team could conceivably front-load the first year of his deal—with a $30 million salary, for example—and then pay him $45 million over the next two seasons. Maybe the Yanks could pay him even more up front if it meant relief in those final two years.
Other options that could help the Yankees sign Hamilton and avoid the luxury tax might include something like a signing bonus or deferred money, though Hamilton surely wouldn't go for that.
Clearly, these are not the Yankees we're used to seeing when it comes to dealing with free agents. Hal Steinbrenner's way of doing business—and Cashman along with him—is far different from his father's preference of shelling out loads of cash for the best players.
But as long as Hamilton is out there, writers and broadcasters will try to figure out ways to connect him to the Yankees. They'll get creative in doing so, too. However, it's the Yankees front office that might have to get truly clever in making this pairing happen. Still, the opportunity is there.
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