Lately, it seems like we are living in some sort of alternate baseball universe, where the Dodgers are spending enough money to rival the gross domestic product of some small nations, while the Yankees scrimp and save every penny. The result? The loss of players like Russell Martin (to the Pirates?!!), Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones (to Japan, but still that’s beside the point). Meanwhile, unexpected spark-plug players like Raul Ibanez and Ichiro Suzuki wait in the wings, waiting for the financial dust to settle. Further, reports out of last week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville say that general manager Brian Cashman was telling agents that he didn’t have the authority to make deals without ownership approval, as Hal Steinbrenner’s determination to get below the $189 million luxury tax threshold. It’s clear that the Yankees are being more fiscally conservative. All of this news culminates in a veritable panic in Yankee-land over growing concerns about the team’s standstill thus far this offseason. And while YGY’s Matt Hunter may be right that the Yankees are in trouble, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the lack of movement on the free agent or trade front. The Yankees are in trouble for other reasons– and they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves.
I assume that everyone remembers that offseason after the 2008 season, when fans were screaming for Joe Girardi to be run out of town after failing to lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since the mid-1990’s, and Cashman was being excoriated for his lack of deal-making to help the team. What followed? An almost $300 million spending spree which served as an early Christmas present in the Bronx, bringing CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira to the Bronx, merely one season after ownership re-upped Alex Rodriguez to a $275 million deal. In case you’re keeping score that is over $500 million on three players alone – not to mention the money owed to Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, etc.; so round up to about $600-ish million, to be conservative for that 2009-2012 period. (Burnett did get traded, and Posada came off the books, but let’s use round numbers.)
Not a problem, especially considering the Yankees’ deep pockets, right? Financially, it’s not a problem. The Yankees can afford to go over $189 million mark, and have long-since held the payroll to be around $210 million. Additionally, there was a fresh infusion of cash earlier in the fall when a huge chunk of the YES Network was purchased by News Corp. (Moreover, if the Dodgers, who are a storied team but haven’t been relevant for years can spend like their printing $100 bills, the Yankees can, in theory, certainly keep pace with their massive and lucrative brand.) Money isn’t the problem. Similarly, failing to spend money isn’t the problem, either. The actual problem isn’t going to be fixed by spending $3 million on Chavez that I am sure can be found in a couch cushion on River Avenue.
The issue is that the Yankees have close to $500 million tied up in players who are all older than 31 years old, and have many of them locked up for at least four to five years. That championship the Yankees won in 2009? I sincerely hope everyone enjoyed that, and the spending spree before it. Because that behavior- that reactionary overspending- is exactly what got the Yankees into this mess. You simply cannot commit to such contracts when committed to getting below a self-imposed $189-million dollar cap, particularly when the AAV of each contract is so high, making the players absolutely untradeable (with approval, in cases of no-trade) as they move into more advanced age. Sure, they’ll still be able to tee off on bad pitching. Yes, they’ll be able to hit home runs. Absolutely, they will be able to have hot streaks. But increasingly, they’ll also be playing like they did in the 2012 ALDS – badly, slowly, with more strikeouts and more tired arms. There will be more pulled hammys that take forever to heal. In other words, the Yankees will endure all the things associated with older players that cause baseball teams to not play at a high level.
All of which begets an entirely new problem for the Yankees, which isn’t really a new problem at all: aging, expensive and performance-declining players. This isn’t a new development. Randy Johnson. The return of Roger Clemens. Kevin Brown. Gary Sheffield. The current production of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Effectively, what the Yankees have done following the Dynasty Years, in an apparent attempt to regain their former glory from 1996-2000, was attempt to buy championships. And it failed, bringing them one championship from 2001 to 2012.
Why? The Yankees pay players in free agency at 30 years old for production of 25-28-year-olds, stats that are extremely unlikely to ever be produced again. And as those older players get even older, what does everyone think is going to happen? They’re going to get better? Wishful thinking. Age and workload is already taking tolls. Teixeira has been a disaster at the plate outside of belting 30-ish home runs with an abysmal batting average and a huge strikeout rate since 2010. Sabathia’s expensive left elbow is having bone spurs, barely one year into his current contract extension. A-Rod is now dealing with another torn hip labrum. Rivera is 43 and coming off an ACL tear, while Jeter is closing in on 40 and nursing a broken ankle. There is no promise that these players, who will likely be adversely slowed in their healing by their age, will return to full capacity, (even at their ages) due to these injuries. Two out of the five starters are over 36-years-old in Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda, and while they were great in 2012, you almost feel like the Yankees are playing with house money with their success. As a team, the Yankees are simply not as spry as the younger teams in the league, not as fast, or fresh, or really – the giant elephant in the room that everyone isn’t really saying – that good anymore.
That isn’t something spending $3 million on a bench-depth utility player is going to fix. That is a substantial problem, as the core around which the team is built is no longer among the best players at their respective positions, which is fine. This isn’t a fantasy league in which one can just draft the best player at each position. But the players they Yankees have now aren’t even the best versions of themselves, either. Unable to produce to the levels of the contracts they earn, or unable to produce sufficiently, period, the Yankees are an old team with expensive players, who are no longer capable of playing the best baseball they can. And that is why the Yankees are in trouble. Which is why they’re not re-signing Nick Swisher, and why there is merit to the argument of taking a step back on Robinson Cano when he becomes a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, or why trading away 40 home runs in Curtis Granderson for a package of young talent makes sense.
The holes the Yankees fill will likely be sorted out sooner rather than later. Brian Cashman is among the best GMs in the game, for reasons other than his ability to write a check (which seemingly has been cut off at this point), and Yankees fans should expect him to strengthen the team as much as possible. But the real weaknesses don’t lie in losing depth players, or failing to re-sign a particular player. The weakness is in the overall construction of the team. As we look ahead to the conclusion of the 2013 season, it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do. Will they stay the course, eschewing the old and trusted veterans for younger, cheaper options should Rivera and Pettitte choose to continue to play? Will the Yankees do something they’ve never done with Cano — let a home grown superstar simply walk away because of the years and dollars he’s asking for? Will this period of austerity signal a one-year change, or a new mentality of refusing to overpay for past performance in free agency, with a renewed focus on internal player development? All of these things remain to be seen, and it is hard to read the tea leaves. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Yankees are in trouble, all of their own doing, but this has nothing to do with the lack of action this off-season. The strategy — wooing big, expensive and aging free agent players – is coming home to roost. While that 2009 championship was the immediate result, the lasting effect might be even worse — that championship team was the last for a good, long while.