Some time in the last few years, when no one was looking, the Yankees got cheap.
Not ‘Marlins cheap’ or ‘Mets cheap,’ but cheap nonetheless. They spoke endlessly of getting under the luxury tax threshold, they let Robinson Cano walk away, they limited themselves to low-commitment trades last offseason and they declined to spend a dime in free agency this winter.
You might consider this strategy wise and responsible, but it’s not. It’s cheap. It’s the classic case of valuing the next dollar more than the next win, the brand of attitude that gets ownership groups booed and even run out of town.
The Yankees and their owners, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner, have plenty of money. According to Forbes, the team’s revenue was $508 million in 2014, by far the highest in baseball. Forbes, known for under-valuing sports franchises, valued the franchise at $3.2 billion, again tops in the sport. Two years ago, the Yankees sold the majority stake in the YES Network in a deal that valued the network at $3.9 billion. Cash flow is no problem.
The Yankees have the money to spend on free agents every offseason. They have enough money to blow past the luxury tax threshold no matter the rates. They have the money to spend just as much as the Dodgers do and then some more on top of it. They have the money to ignore ugly contracts and proceed like they’re not even there.
But they don’t do any of those things.
Last season the Yankees had the second-highest payroll in baseball, but were closer to fourth than first. They ranked comfortably in the bottom half of the league in payroll as a percentage of revenue, based on 2014 revenue figures and 2015 payroll.
— Ben Diamond (@_BenDiamond) February 8, 2016
And this offseason the Red Sox and Tigers have closed to gap by signing expensive free agents while the Yankees have basically sat on their hands. Two or three years from now, the Yankees will almost certainly still lead the league in revenue but could rank fourth or fifth in payroll.
The weird thing about the Yankees’ increasing cheapness is that, as far as I can tell, fans don’t seem overly worried or angered. There’s little outrage that while the Red Sox are off bringing in David Price the Yankees are preparing to go begin the season with CC Sabathia in the starting rotation. No consternation that the Yankees avoid spending despite having no position player who’s a strong bet on to make the 2016 All-Star team. No worry that the only place the Yankees seem willing to devote resources is their bullpen.
There seem to be a few reasons everyone is so relaxed about the Steinbrenners slowly turning into the Wilpons.
First, fans have generally bought into the idea that the Yankees are handcuffed by deals they gave out in the past, specifically during the offseason before the 2009 season and the offseason before the 2014 season. The idea is that because the Yankees already have expensive players at nearly every position, they are stuck with those players, regardless of their performance, until their deals expire. But this is factually inaccurate. As mentioned above, the Yankees have the cash to bring in pricey players at positions where they already have big contracts. They could afford to sign Yovani Gallordo and send Sabathia to the bullpen. They could afford to bring in, say, Pedro Alvarez even if they don’t plan to play him everyday. They could afford to pay Dexter Fowler or even Justin Upton and bump Carlos Beltran to the bench, and if Beltran doesn’t like that, they could afford to cut or trade him while eating his whole salary.
The Yankees have enough money to totally ignore their previous mistakes and keep spending. They choose not to.
Another reason we’ve all basically accepted the new austere Yankees is that we equate inexpensive contracts with youth, and everyone agrees this team should get younger. But the Steinbrenners wouldn’t have to sacrifice the future to pay for a more competitive team now. Spending on a top-shelf starting pitcher doesn’t mean demoting Luis Severino or Nate Eovaldi. And if the Yankees are committed to Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird as long-term starters, they could take care not to block their positions. But trotting out near-replacement-level Beltran and Chase Headley doesn’t have anything to do with youth, nor does sticking with Sabathia in the rotation.
The final reason fans have given the Yankees a pass on their spendthrift ways is a little less concrete and requires some psycho-analysis. I think Yankee supporters remain a little embarrassed about the relative failures of the post-dynasty era. Throughout the mid-2000s and into the 2010s, the Yankees strategy was buy, buy, buy, and for a while it won them almost nothing (though that 2009 World Series title was nice). During my formative years following baseball, the Yankees spent big every season, only to lose early in the playoffs every season. Yankee fans were mocked each October for our team bowing out early despite its gaudy payrolls.
It’s hard to say to what extent the Yankees’ playoff losses had to do with the way they built their team as opposed to the whims of variance, but I would bet a lot of Yankee fans are fine with laying low in free agency because they feel like spending indiscriminately has been tried and has (mostly) failed and because that approach was a bit embarrassing anyway. It feels nice that now the Dodgers, not the Yankees, are baseball’s poster-boys of excess.
But that doesn’t mean we should sit by as the Steinbrenners prioritize boardroom success over on-field success. Hal and Hank are reaping huge profits while the team enters its fourth straight season as a borderline-playoff team. Yankee fans loved George Steinbrenner because he placed an undeniable emphasis on winning and didn’t mind investing in that cause. Now, while owners like Mark Walter and Mike Illitch follow in The Boss’s ideological footsteps, King George’s own sons have gone frugal.
No longer are the Yankees doing all they can to maximize the franchise’s short- and long-term success, and that ought to make the team’s fans just a little bit angry.