There was a time in the 2020-21 offseason that Yankees fans could have accused team management of passivity. That time has come and gone. The team has since re-signed DJ LeMahieu, and picked up two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber (coincidentally “The Machine” and the “Klubot”).
Nonetheless, this offseason hardly lives up to Bronxian standards of decadence. LeMahieu’s deal doesn’t even crack the $100 million mark. And Corey Kluber can hardly be counted as a blockbuster signing when he is two years removed from his athletic peak.
The Yankees’ commitment to staying under MLB’s luxury tax threshold has led fans to long for the Yankees of old: a team that splashed cash around with the hope of buying a championship. But in league as competitive as MLB, is this strategy even feasible ?
In recent memory, three offseasons demonstrate New York’s willingness to line their roster with baseball’s biggest prizes. These three offseasons led to three very different results; one was good, one was bad, and one was ugly.
2008-09: The Good
If Yankee fans are nostalgic for big spending, 2009 is a key reason why. In 2007-08, the Yankees opted not to go after Johan Santana, and instead intended to rely on touted rookie pitchers. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. In 2008-09, by contrast, the team signed the three biggest free agents available and cruised to a World Series win.
If any Yankee season illustrates the possibility of buying a championship, it’s 2009. But, strong as those Yankees were, even their results had some nuances.
Of the three big names the Yankees signed, none improved upon their past year’s performance; only trade acquisition Nick Swisher did. CC Sabathia regressed from phenomenal to merely very good (7.4 to 5.8 FanGraphs WAR), as did Mark Teixeira (6.9 to 5.2). A.J. Burnett regressed from very good to merely decent (5.0 to 2.8).
The 2009 Yankees were certainly a product of big-spending philosophy, but their success also showed that Death Stars are not built in a day. The team’s best player was not Sabathia or Teixeira, but the homegrown (albeit, still expensive) Derek Jeter.
2013-14: The Bad
The 2013-14 offseason looked a lot like 2008-09. The Yankees were coming off a
rare non-playoff season. They had also failed to acquire big name players in the offseason prior. With an interesting array of free agents available to sign, the Yankees had to show they were willing to invest in success.
Superficially, management rose to the challenge. The Yankees signed Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. They also successfully bid for the services of Japan’s best pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka.
But 2013-14 was not exactly like the Evil Empire offseasons of the past. George Steinbrenner was gone, and even as his sons were willing to invest in talent, they decided their purse strings had limits. So while the Yankees signed big names, they allowed their own, even bigger name — Robinson Canó — to sneak off to the Mariners.
While the 2013-14 Yankees looked more threatening on paper than they had a year prior, none of their new signings could be the spark that Sabathia and Teixeira were in ‘09. But maybe this should have been expected. Brian McCann was two years past his prime when he signed. Ellsbury, meanwhile, was a decent player who had had one phenomenal season. That phenomenal 2011 wasn’t too distant a memory in 2013, and thus proved deceptive.
2003-04: The Ugly
The 2003-04 offseason was like few others. The Yankees acquired four players who, at the time, could have been called future Hall of Famers: Gary Sheffield, Kenny Lofton, Kevin Brown and Alex Rodriguez. They also traded for accomplished young ace Javier Vazquez.
Unfortunately, all of those players regressed from their performances of a year ago. Gary Sheffield’s WAR dropped from 7.3 to 3.8. Kenny Lofton spent a substantial portion of the year injured, posting a mere 0.3 WAR. Kevin Brown’s WAR dropped from 6.2 to 2.3. He also broke his hand punching a wall.
Javier Vazquez imploded in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. I recall frustratedly listening to a radio broadcaster (I believe it was either Charley Steiner or John Sterling) joking that “Javier Vazquez is Spanish for Jeff Weaver.”
Alex Rodriguez still posted an MVP worthy WAR of 6.6., but he wasn’t nearly as impressive as he’d been in his MVP-winning, 9.2 WAR 2003 campaign.
It doesn’t make sense to call the 2004 Yankees bad. They won 101 games, and were one historic comeback short of the World Series. Alas, the historic comeback that got in their way came from the reviled, curse-breaking Boston Red Sox.
Is there a lesson?
From a non-emotional perspective, two of these three offseasons were successes. Two produced dominant teams that showed they could win a World Series. The 2003-04 team stands out for running what could be called a spending blitz.
By throwing their money in all directions, the Yankees were able to get some really good pieces (A-Rod, Sheffield, and to an extent Kevin Brown), even as some of their other signings were real disappointments.
But imagine that blitz if it didn’t include its last and biggest splash. Of the five stars that team acquired, A-Rod alone was a major success.
2013-14 shows how difficult it is to duplicate a 2003-04 style blitz. Not only do you need a free-spending ownership, but you also need to have your established stars under team control, and have a broad roster of talent to choose from. The value of the free agents the team lost (Canó, Curtis Granderson and David Robertson) would prove to be 8.5 WAR. The four stars New York signed only made the team 1.2 WAR better (and, in practice, the 2014 Yankees ended up one win worse than they were the year before).
There are various explanations as to why 2008-09 was the most successful offseason of the three. For one, all of the free agents the Yankees signed were under 35, so they were not particularly likely to regress.
Secondly, the team had obvious weaknesses that it covered. When CC Sabathia signed, he was the only sure-bet, star pitcher on the roster. And Mark Teixeira made up for departed first baseman Jason Giambi’s defensive limitations at first base.
In theory, buying the best players should secure a team a championship. A team that consists solely of Mike Trouts and Jacob deGroms will undoubtedly win the World Series. But the odds of buying such a team is difficult to say the least. For every 2008-09 CC Sabathia there’s an equally promising 2003-04 Javier Vazquez (seriously, look up how good the guy was when he wasn’t a Yankee).
The New York Yankees played plenty of instant classic postseason games during their 1990s dynasty, winning four World Series in five years.
It seems that the spending-blitz Yankees are a thing of the past. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. If the Klubot indeed revives his career, I’ll be more than happy to see him do it in the Bronx.