Crazy times, is what baseball people are telling us about the game’s current financial state. The Yankees and Red Sox are frozen in place, refusing to splurge, while the Marlins and Angels have blown through their retirement funds. Even the Rangers couldn’t help themselves, coughing up $51 million just for a conversation with Yu Darvish.
If anything speaks to a leveling of the playing field, it’s the fiscal restraint being exercised at the top. Look at the Bombers, who have made their fans nervous by turning down every opportunity to improve their roster this winter.
Why? Because in the post-George Steinbrenner era, the money simply doesn’t flow as freely (or recklessly) as it once did.
“The days of waking up on Christmas morning and finding an expensive new toy under the tree are over,” said one senior official. “We’re trying to be smarter about how we spend.”
There are two factors in play here. The first has to do with Hal Steinbrenner’s desire to save money, as opposed to his father, George, who funneled most of the Yankees’ profits back into the payroll. Peel away the layers of Yankees rhetoric, and what the younger Steinbrenner wants is to make money and win championships. In that order.
That plays into the second co-efficient: Just how much does a team have to spend to rule the world? The Yankees used to be obsessed with assembling a nuclear roster — a superstar at every position, if that’s what it took.
But what did that philosophy really yield? The Yankees have won only one World Series since 2000, nearly $2 billion in outlay for one ring in 2009. It’s a horrific return on investment, a revelation that finally hit home this past October.
The Yankees led the American League with 97 wins, spent more than anyone else with a $203 million payroll, yet were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
“And it wasn’t just us,” said a team official. “Look at the Phillies.”
Indeed, the Yankees point to Philadelphia’s failure to win the pennant in the past two years — despite adding Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay — as proof that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Not anymore.
“You’re looking at probably the best team in baseball since 2010, and they couldn’t even win their own league,” said the Yankee insider, referring to the Phillies’ back-to-back defeats in the National League playoffs. “It makes you re-think."
That explains why the Yankees aren’t exactly chasing Hiroki Kuroda, never lifted a finger for C.J. Wilson during free agency and made only a half-hearted bid on Darvish. Instead of writing another check, the Bombers intend to lean on such prospects as Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, one or both of whom would have had to be dealt when the Oakland Athletics were dangling Gio Gonzalez.
If nothing else, the Yankees figure they’re good enough to win 95 games right now, even with A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes in the same rotation. That puts them in the playoffs. Once there, remember what Billy Beane once said about October’s crapshoot. The Cardinals’ stunning success in 2011 has only steeled the Yankees resolve to hold the line on payroll.
There’s no need — no point, actually — in building a 110-win roster, especially since that regular-season dominance counts for nothing in the postseason.
“The idea now, for all of us, is just get there,” said a rival GM.
There’s one more reason for the Yankees to renounce their old ways — the new collective-bargaining agreement now has strong incentives for staying under the luxury-tax threshold. Doing so even once in the next five years will drastically reduce the penalty for future splurges.
The threshold for the next two years is $178 million; The Bombers concede they have no chance of downsizing that quickly. But 2014, when the ceiling is raised to $189 million, is another story. By then, Burnett and Rafael Soriano will be playing elsewhere. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera likely will have retired.
In fact, the Yankees could have $75 million coming off the books, which means their chances of coming in under $189 million are excellent. If so, they’ll reduce their tax liability from 50 percent to 17 percent if they zoom back up to $200 million in 2015 or 2016.
The savings is the first half of a one-two punch designed to tame the Yankees’ appetite for spending. The second carrot is the rebate of revenue sharing that will be awarded for teams that stay under the tax threshold.
Starting in 2013, the top 15 franchises will no longer be eligible for handouts. That means instead of cash flowing into the coffers of, say, the Blue Jays and Nationals — both of whom are on the list of 15 — the money will be returned to the payers in proportion to how much they’d been putting in.
“There’s just too much (rebate) money on the table to ignore,” said one major league official. “I think we’ve seen the last of the Yankees spending $210 million a year.”
That’s what general manager Brian Cashman has been telling his peers for the past six months, that he has no more money to spend, not with commitments already close to $200 million for 2012. The new order of the day is, do more with less, or at least hold the line. Just last week, with one final chance to sign Carlos Beltran — who really did want to end up in pinstripes — Cashman said no.
Why? Because the Yankees didn’t trust Beltran’s knees. And, second, because Cashman didn’t want to ask Hal Steinbrenner for the extra $3 million Beltran would’ve cost as an upgrade over Nick Swisher.
Granted, the Yankees are hardly on food stamps, but you have to wonder what the Boss would think of his win-or-else edicts. Today, that fire-breathing mantra has morphed into a much saner advisory: Save for tomorrow.