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Why the Yankees Will Never Again Be the Steinbrenner Yankees as We Knew Them

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Why the Yankees Will Never Again Be the Steinbrenner Yankees as We Knew Them
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Never mind what George would do.

George Steinbrenner is gone from this earth, and you can tell he's gone just by looking at his old team. The New York Yankees have changed, becoming more conservative and more business-minded than they ever were under The Boss.

This is not a bad thing. It's just a different thing.

Fans who lament the disappearance of the "Steinbrenner Yankees" aren't really lamenting the disappearance of a dominant baseball power. The Yankees ceased being a dominant baseball power many years before The Boss' death in 2010, as they've won only one World Series in the last 11 years. Teams in San Francisco, St. Louis and (gasp!) Boston have done better.

No, what fans who lament the loss of the Steinbrenner Yankees are really lamenting is the fact that the Yankees are not baseball's biggest bully anymore. They still have limitless resources, but they no longer have the Steinbrennerish boldness to acquire whoever they want at any cost.

The Yankees will surely prove to still be capable of boldness in the future. But as long as Hal Steinbrenner is in charge, they're going to be cold, methodical and calculating more often than not.

And this entails...

 

They're Not Going to Make a Move Just to Make a Move

The Yankees enjoyed another tremendous regular season in 2012, winning 95 games and their third AL East title in the last four years. It all ended horribly, of course, as they bowed out of the postseason via a four-game sweep in the ALCS at the hands of the Detroit Tigers.

It was a disappointing finish, to say the least, and we all know how much George Steinbrenner hated disappointing finishes...and how he tended to react to them.

The last disappointing finish The Boss saw in his lifetime was the Yankees' first postseason-less year in over a decade in 2008. That winter, the Yankees signed CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett and traded for Nick Swisher. The end result was championship No. 27.

A similar superstar tractor beam probably would have been installed this winter if The Boss was still alive. With holes to fill in their outfield and starting rotation, the Yankees surely would have gone out and signed Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, and perhaps Anibal Sanchez and B.J. Upton as well.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Better the Angels than the Red Sox, one supposes.

Instead, silence. Hamilton ended up on the Angels, Greinke ended up on the Dodgers, Sanchez ended up on the Tigers and Upton ended up on the Braves.

In the case of Hamilton and Greinke, the Yankees didn't miss out because they got beat. They missed out because they were never interested in the first place. Wallace Matthews of ESPNNewYork.com wrote that the Yankees brass had "serious doubts" about Hamilton's ability to play in New York, and Ken Davidoff of the New York Post (via Hardball Talk) wrote as far back as July that they weren't enamored with Greinke's ability to play in New York either.

“I guess times really have changed," a veteran scout told the New York Daily News. "I never thought I’d see the day. But you can’t tell me that Hamilton wouldn’t be a Yankee if George were still alive."

Indeed, there was no tyrannical higher power screaming down at the club's front office people to ignore their better instincts. There were certainly fans yelling at them to do something, but they ignored them (always a smart idea).

The Yankees' better instincts even kept them from making smaller-scale, smaller-risk signings as well. They didn't want to commit more than one year to Torii Hunter despite the fact he was a perfect fit for their lineup and their hole in right field. They also shied away from A.J. Pierzynski, who would have worked as a stopgap solution at catcher after Russell Martin bolted for Pittsburgh.

Their reasoning, according to Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com:

The Yankees' analysis of Pierzynski was dead-on. He has a career Defensive WAR of 7.7, and he hasn't had a dWAR higher than 1.0 in any of the last five seasons. He was a poor fit all along for the club's desire to prioritize defense over offense at catcher.

A flawed plan? Perhaps, but that's not the point. The point is that the Yankees formulated a plan and stuck to it even while people like Joel Sherman of the New York Post were practically begging for them to sign Pierzynski.

Such is the key lesson the Yankees have taught everyone this winter: They're going to come up with specific plans, and they will not be swayed by impulse. Those days are over.

The Yankees' plans, of course, aren't restricted to what they think will and won't work on the diamond. They have business plans too, and they're much, more more measured than any of the business plans the Yankees had under The Boss.

 

Good Business Will Be More of a Priority

Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees haven't been cheap this offseason. Their payroll is right about at $205 million, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Their Opening Day payroll last year was right at $210 million, so the Yankees have barely taken a step back this winter.

So don't call them cheap. If you want to call them conservative...well, yeah, you could do that.

That's the first word that comes to mind when you consider the length of the contracts the Yankees have given out this winter. With an assist from MLBTradeRumors.com:

Player Pos. Years Amount Returning?
Matt Diaz OF 1 Minor No
Travis Hafner DH 1 $2M No
Dan Johnson 1B 1 Minor No
Hiroki Kuroda SP 1 $15M Yes
Andy Pettitte SP 1 $12M Yes
Juan Rivera OF/1B 1 Minor No*
Mariano Rivera CL 1 $10M Yes
Ichiro Suzuki OF 2 $13M Yes
Kevin Youkilis 3B 1 $12M No

*Rivera came up with the Yankees in the early 2000s.

Final tally: 10 contract years for nine players, four returnees and five new additions. Of the new additions, three will have to work hard to even make the club, so this list could potentially yield only two new additions to four returnees.

Yes, the Yankees have played it safe this winter. It was either that or go all-out in free agency, and that was a no-brainer of a choice for the Yankees.

It was a no-brainer partially because, according to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Yankees didn't like the options available to them. Hard to blame them for that given how shallow this year's crop of free agents was, and they, of course, had their own ideas for what they wanted.

But the bigger reason not going all-out in free agency was a no-brainer for the Yankees was because doing so would have compromised their payroll plans for the 2014 season, and everyone knows by now exactly what those entail.

Nobody has to approve of the club's plan to get under the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014. The business logic of the idea, though, is certainly sound.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Hal Steinbrenner views the Yankees as a cash cow rather than a toy.

As Joel Sherman outlined in November, there are two primary benefits of the Yankees going under the luxury tax threshold. One is that they would reset their luxury tax status, which would result in them paying a 17.5 percent tax if they were to go over the threshold again rather than a 50 percent tax.

The other is the luxury tax rebate program, which is as complicated as Inception would be if viewed underwater without sound or subtitles. The short version is that the Yankees stand to receive millions of dollars in luxury tax rebates if they stay under the tax threshold.

Not paying more than you have to? That's good business. Saving money? That's good business? Making money? That's the best business, and that's what Hal Steinbrenner is all about. 

But Hal is also practical. He understands that there's pressure on the Yankees to win every year, and he's admitted that he could change his mind about the team's payroll if he doesn't see a championship-caliber team before his eyes.

But he's also said this to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com: "I believe that you don't have to have a $220 million payroll to win a world championship, and you shouldn't have to."

Well, let's see here.

2012 Giants: $131 million Opening Day payroll

2011 Cardinals: $109 million Opening Day payroll

2010 Giants: $118 million Opening Day payroll

2009 Yankees: $201 million Opening Day payroll

2008 Phillies: $98 million Opening Day payroll

2007 Red Sox: $143 million Opening Day payroll

2006 Cardinals: $89 million Opening Day payroll

2005 White Sox: $75 million Opening Day payroll

2004 Red Sox: $128 million Opening Day payroll

2003 Marlins: $45 million Opening Day payroll

Shoot, not even the Yankees had a $220 million payroll when they won it all in 2009. So based on this data, Hal is 100 percent correct. 

The question begging to be asked: If the Yankees are going to spend less, how are they going to win more?

That's easy. They'll win the same way they won back when they were still a dynasty.

 

Player Development Will Matter Again

Under George Steinbrenner, the Yankees won four World Series in five years between 1996 and 2000. It was one of the great dynasties baseball has ever seen.

But this dynasty didn't come to be because The Boss breathed life into it. It came to be because the baseball people kept him from screwing it up:

From page 20 of Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty:

In the 1980s, Steinbrenner had bullied his general managers into making deals he wanted, or simply negotiated the deals himself, and driven the team to the bottom of the American League East standings, a decline for which he was widely mocked. But in the '90s...Steinbrenner won back a measure of appreciation from the Yankees' fans, and he seemed reluctant to put himself at risk again.

His executives had made that success possible by holding on to prospects like [Bernie] Williams and [Mariano] Rivera and changing the competitive dynamic of the organization.

Simon Bruty/Getty Images
Jeter and Pettitte in 1996. In related news, you are old.

Player development is what made the Yankees great. In addition to Williams and Rivera, they developed Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte into stars, and enjoyed the services of quality homegrown role players like Shane Spencer and Ramiro Mendoza. They used their powerful financial might to augment their homegrown core, not to build a core to be augmented with further spending.

Eventually, things got all backward. The Yankees became less about player development and more about superstar accumulation. They began to use their money to build rather than augment, and they've only gotten one championship in 11 years for the hundreds of millions of dollars they've spent. Considering the investment, that's a very disappointing return.

The lack of homegrown players is catching up with the Yankees now, as they have an old, overpaid roster of players on top and a weak crop of minor leaguers below. The only true impact player the organization has developed since 2005 is Robinson Cano.

Bill Madden of the New York Daily News sees this problem as a curse put on the Yankees by none other than The Boss himself:

...not only did Steinbrenner leave a dynasty behind him, he also left Mark Newman his longtime director of minor league operations, who has done an abysmal job of player development...as the storyline about Yankee prospects has been in Newman’s reign of error, the closer they get to the big leagues, the less anyone likes them (See: Dellin Betances, Austin Romine, Eric Duncan, Drew Henson, David Parrish, et al). The sad fact of life is that, under Newman’s direction, the Yankees have still not drafted and developed a frontline starting pitcher since Pettitte or an All-Star caliber regular since Jeter. And that’s why they’re in the state they’re in.

The good news is that the Yankees are trying to go retro. While fans are busy complaining over the club's unwillingness to go big or go home in free agency, the Yankees' decision-makers are quietly trying to steer the team back towards its player development glory days when the baseball people were holding Steinbrenner's impulses at bay.

Hal Steinbrenner has said that he wants the club's younger players to "step up and get the job done" to make it easier for the team to achieve its financial goals. Talented young players are the best source of cheap talent, after all, and the accumulation of cheap talent means more funds for expensive talent. Combine them together, and you have an excellent ballclub with a long contention window.

The Yankees have some young talent now, but they know they need more. Their desire for more young talent is why they were not disappointed when Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher rejected their qualifying offers and signed elsewhere this winter.

Here's Buster Olney:

Combined with their own draft pick, the Yankees will now have three draft picks early on in the 2013 draft. The extra picks will help them replenish a farm system that has grown awfully weak.

To continue to take advantage of the qualifying offer system, the Yankees are going to have to keep making the offers with no intention of re-signing the players they offer them to. That means they're going to have to be perfectly willing to let their star players walk.

Well, if that's what it takes.

 

Loyalty May Be a (Distant) Secondary Motivation

Based on the signings the Yankees have made this offseason, the organization would seem to still be as loyal as ever. Perhaps even more so, as even The Boss probably would have thought twice about re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki.

But you have to look more closely. What other quality starting pitchers could the Yankees have signed for only one year besides Kuroda and Pettitte? Which closer on the open market was a better option for a one-year deal than Rivera? Which quality right fielder could the Yankees have signed for as little as two years and $13 million besides Ichiro?

The answers: None, none and none. Business is a bigger reason why Kuroda, Pettitte, Rivera and Ichiro will be wearing pinstripes again in 2013 than loyalty. Just as business led the Yankees to keep them, business also led them to jettison to Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher without any regrets.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Cano's days in pinstripes may be numbered.

Business will also dictate whether Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson return to the Yankees in 2014, and early indications are that the club's business interests will result in them leaving. 

Hal Steinbrenner has said that he's not interested in contract extensions, and Granderson has said that he understands this. He has also indicated that he's ready for free agency when it comes.

Cano is also probably ticketed for free agency, and there's a very good chance he'll be going to another team when he does become a free agent.

“I don’t think he’ll be with the Yankees beyond next season,” a source told Mark Feinsand and Christian Red of the New York Daily News in December. “He’s not giving them a hometown discount, and they seem to be more interested in keeping their payroll down than winning.”

It's not just their payroll that the Yankees have to worry about where Cano is concerned. Joel Sherman has suggested that Cano and his agent, the almighty Scott Boras, could demand a 10-year contract worth as much as $200 million. The last time the Yankees handed out a contract like that, it was to Alex Rodriguez in 2007.

That's not something they want to do again, especially not seeing as how Cano is only going to be a year younger next winter than A-Rod was when he signed his payroll-crippling deal in '07.

The Yankees will be left with big shoes to fill if Granderson and Cano walk, but at least they'll receive draft picks by way of rejected qualifying offers. They'll also have saved plenty of money, which they could invest in cheap(er) replacements like Aaron Hill, Omar Infante, Carlos Gomez or Chris Young.

The ultimate test of the Yankees' sense of loyalty, however, could be administered by Derek Jeter.

The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
Jeter's days may be numbered too.

As Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com pointed out in January, Jeter has a player option for the 2014 season that could pay him between $9.5 and $11 million. If he has a season in 2013 similar to the one he had in 2012, he may be unwilling to take a pay cut from his $17 million 2013 salary.

If so, then a qualifying offer worth roughly $14-15 million wouldn't do the trick either. The Yankees could be tasked with signing Jeter to either a rich one-year deal or even a multi-year deal.

They could do that, but they could also wave goodbye to Jeter, collect the draft pick and go for somebody like Stephen Drew or Brendan Ryan who could outperform a low-risk contract until they could go after Elvis Andrus or J.J. Hardy the following year.

If the Yankees were to listen to their hearts, they'd give in to Jeter's demands. If they were to listen to their heads, they'd abide by the above paragraph.

It would be sentiment in one hand, and business in the other. And you know which one of those the Hal Steinbrenner Yankees are all about.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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