Yankees Need to Find a Middle Ground in Plan to Build a Title Contender

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 25, 2015

New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, far left, Dellin Betances, second from left, Brett Gardner, second from right, and Chris Young, right, watch from the dugout against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning of the American League wild card baseball game, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015, in New York. The Astros won 3-0 to advance to the American League Division Series. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

A few years back, a general manager of a limited-budget team shook his head while talking about the New York Yankees.

"Sometimes it seems like they're trying to operate like us," he said. "If we had their money, we wouldn't operate like us."

The Yankees are far from having a limited budget, with a payroll that has exceeded $200 million in seven of the last eight years. While the Dodgers outspent them each of the last two seasons, the Yankees have ranked first or second in total payroll every season since 1994, according to USA Today.

So the GM wasn't calling the Yankees cheap or frugal. He was just saying some of their decisions on how and when to spend didn't make a lot of sense.

He could easily have been talking about this winter.

The Yankees, by their own admission, are looking for starting pitching. The free-agent market is unusually deep in starting pitching and even includes at least two legitimate aces (David Price and Zack Greinke).

If you're going to need starting pitching anytime soon, this is the time to shop. The biggest name available next year is Stephen Strasburg—not exactly a Price or Greinke.

So what are the Yankees doing? By all indications, they're planning to stay away from the top of the market, and maybe even the whole market. They're hoping to find value in a starter they can get in a trade, perhaps by unloading the $37.5 million left on Brett Gardner's contract.

Hal Steinbrenner wants to win, but he'd rather not spend $200 million to do it.
Hal Steinbrenner wants to win, but he'd rather not spend $200 million to do it.LM Otero/Associated Press

They're not going to spend big, they say, until they see some of their existing big-money contracts expire. Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran have deals that run out next year, and they'll be done with CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez the year after.

"A couple years from now, the payroll situation will be different," Hal Steinbrenner told reporters (including Erik Boland of Newsday) at the owners meetings last week. "I will have flexibility, we will be active on the free-agent market."

In other words, Hal isn't willing to spend tomorrow's money today, even if what's on sale today won't necessarily be there tomorrow. Even with a team that has played one postseason game since 2012, he's willing to be patient.

In a way, that's admirable. It's the same way many other franchises operate, with a real budget.

It's not the way we expect the Steinbrenner Yankees to operate.

Hal isn't George, though. The goal in the Bronx is still to win the World Series. But under Hal, it's paired with (or perhaps even secondary to) winning without spending too much.

"All I know is what I've always said: I shouldn't have to have a $200 million payroll to win a world championship," Steinbrenner told the reporters at the owners meetings. "It's been proven over and over again."

The Kansas City Royals spent a little more than half that to win this year's World Series. The San Francisco Giants never had an Opening Day payroll above $150 million in any of their three championship seasons (but spent $173 million on an 84-78 team that missed the playoffs in 2015).

The Yankees rode down the Canyon of Heroes in 2009, after spending big on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. They haven't spent like that, or won like that, since.
The Yankees rode down the Canyon of Heroes in 2009, after spending big on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. They haven't spent like that, or won like that, since.Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Under Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman, the Yankees have been trying to do what other (lower-spending) teams do. They've embraced analytics and prospects, but without ever retreating so far that they would earn a high draft pick.

Perhaps it will work. The Yankee kids look promising, from 21-year-old pitcher Luis Severino and 23-year-old first baseman Greg Bird (who debuted in 2015) to 22-year-old catcher Gary Sanchez (who impressed scouts in the Arizona Fall League).

If they're good enough, and if the Yankees can then use their financial power to add some free-agent stars around them, this team can be a powerhouse again. They'll do it not by imitating everyone else, but by making their own way. They'll do it with kids, but also with their financial might.

They won't do it by shying away from opportunity the market provides and trying to operate like a limited-budget team.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball. 

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