Former 'Evil Empire' Yankees Now Backing Down in MLB Free-Agent Money War

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistDecember 11, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)   General Manager Brian Cashman and Manager Aaron Boone #17 of the New York Yankees during batting practice before Game Four of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on October 9, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Red Sox defeated the Yankees  4-3.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the New York Yankees were the perennial bullies of the MLB offseason. The big spenders. The Evil Empire.

These days, the Bronx Bombers' bottomless budget is more fairy tale than reality. 

In the 2018-19 offseason, New York was supposed to open its wallet wide for any number of glistening free agents, including superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. But in late October, Andy Martino of SNY.tv reported the Yankees were unlikely to aggressively pursue either Harper or Machado.

The Yanks need starting pitching as well, even after acquiring James Paxton from the Seattle Mariners. However, they whiffed on top free-agent target Patrick Corbin, who signed a six-year, $140 million pact with the Washington Nationals. Per Fancred's Jon Heyman, that exceeded the five years and $100 million the Yankees offered Corbin.

They also couldn't land right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, to whom they were "shifting focus" after they missed out on Corbin, according to MLB Network's Jon Morosi. Instead, Eovaldi re-signed with the Boston Red Sox for four years and $68 million. 

Is this what it's come to? A world where up is down, the Yankees get outbid by the Nats over one extra year and $40 million and watch their Plan B go to the archrival Sox?

Even more unbelievably, is this a world where the Yankees aren't interested in generational talents such as Harper and Machado in the midst of their primes?

BALTIMORE, MD - JULY 10:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals and Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles talk during their game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 10, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Maybe the Yankees are being prudent. They won 100 games last season and set an all-time single-season record with 267 home runs. They aren't exactly a band of scrubs.

Still, they just watched Boston hoist a Commissioner's Trophy and bathe in confetti. That would normally be their cue to throw money around like a trust fund baby. 

Consider the 2008-09 offseason, when the Yankees signed left-hander CC Sabathia to a then-record seven-year, $161 million deal. They also inked right-hander A.J. Burnett for five years and $82.5 million and signed Mark Teixeira for eight years and $180 million. For those keeping score at home, that's nearly a half-billion dollars in committed payroll.

Much of that money would prove to be a drag on the back end, but the Yankees won the World Series in 2009.

In the 2013-14 offseason, New York again doled out the Benjamins, signing Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155 million), outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million), catcher Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) and outfielder Carlos Beltran (three years, $45 million). 

That almost half-billion didn't yield a title. Instead, it initiated a sped-up "rebuild" wherein general manager Brian Cashman re-stocked the farm system by shedding some veteran pieces in 2016, including Beltran and relievers Aroldis Chapman (later re-signed) and Andrew Miller. 

The Yankees have since shown a willingness to take on salary. Last winter, they acquired slugger Giancarlo Stanton and his massive contract from the Miami Marlins

They're set to meet with Harper at the winter meetings, per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan, which kicked off Sunday in Las Vegas. That's merely due diligence, though.

Maybe the Yanks are prepared to back up the Brink's truck for Harper, Machado or someone else. Or maybe not. 

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 06: Giancarlo Stanton #27 of the New York Yankees looks on after striking out swinging during fifth inning of Game Two of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on October 6, 2018 in Boston, Mass
Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

Last season, the Yankees ducked under MLB's $197 million luxury-tax threshold. It seemed as though they were hoarding their resources for this winter, when they'd go on an eye-popping spending spree with the luxury-tax threshold set to rise to $206 million in 2019.

But what if this is the new frugal Yankee way? What if they don't splurge this offseason or even next offseason, when top-tier third baseman Nolan Arenado could be available? 

"We're going to keep adding pieces that we need to add," principal owner Hal Steinbrenner told the YES Network (via Pinstripe Alley). "We're going to get to the [luxury tax] threshold, and if I'm not convinced we're at where we need to be, we will keep adding pieces."

The scion of George Steinbrenner is tepidly saying the team will spend as needed. But read between the lines, and it's clear the franchise would like to remain below the luxury-tax threshold in perpetuity. At the moment, New York ranks ninth in MLB in committed payroll for 2019, per Spotrac.

The Yankees are a legendary franchise in a massive market. They have 27-title mystique and a loaded roster. They'll always be among the highest-spending squads.

But the days when they automatically loosened the purse strings every offseason may be relegated to the era of once upon a time.

Meet the new Yankees, more stingy than the old Yankees.

   

All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball Reference

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