Rany Jazayerli sums up the current state and future of the Yankees and does it perfectly -
For years, the Yankees have acted as if the luxury tax was just the cost of doing business. But George Steinbrenner died in 2010, and his maniacal focus on winning seems to have gone with him. His sons, Hank and Hal, like winning just fine, but they would prefer to win and make piles of money. So, although they’ve been willing to maintain the team’s payroll well above the current luxury-tax threshold of $178 million, they haven’t increased payroll in eight years.
The Steinbrenners’ unwillingness to raise payroll has made it more difficult for the Yankees to bring in fresh veterans to replace the worn-out ones. As a result, the team has stuck with its old guys even as they turned into really old guys — last year, the offense averaged 32.7 years old, the oldest in franchise history and the third-oldest in baseball history.
The newest CBA, agreed to after the 2011 season, included two key changes [PDF] to the luxury tax. The first is that the highest tax rate (which, of course, applies to the Yankees) was increased from 40 to 50 percent. The second change is that, should a team avoid the luxury tax even once, its tax rate will drop back to the lowest level (17.5 percent) the next time it exceeds the threshold, and rise incrementally from there.
In other words, if the Yankees can get below the tax threshold just once, they won’t just save millions of dollars that year, they’ll also save millions for the three subsequent years even if they jack up their payroll again.
The Yankees aren’t shy in disclosing that this is their strategy — they’ve been talking about it publicly for more than a year. The threshold increases to $189 million in 2014, and the franchise plans to get its payroll below that mark next year. Which would be its lowest payroll in a decade.
It would be almost impossible to drop $30 million worth of salaries in one offseason, particularly with so many long-term contracts (which tend to escalate over time) on the books. To get payroll under control for 2014, the cost-cutting had to start this year. A franchise that had essentially never lost a free agent it wanted chose to let three of them get away this winter.
The Yankees don’t have anyone better because of the deterioration of their other great weapon: In the 18 years since the Core Four debuted, the Yankees haven’t developed anyone to replace them, with one exception. Robinson Cano came up in 2005, and to the surprise of just about everyone, he developed into the best second baseman in baseball. But aside from Cano … bubkes.
A look at the team’s top prospect as ranked by Baseball America every year is instructive. After Jeter topped the list in 1994, their top prospects include Ruben Rivera (three times),4 Eric Milton, Nick Johnson (three times), Drew Henson, Jose Contreras, Dioner Navarro, Eric Duncan, Phil Hughes (twice), Joba Chamberlain, Austin Jackson, and Jesus Montero (three times). Hughes is the only player on that list who was neither a bust nor traded for established veterans early in his career.
And at some point, the players who debuted in the majors the year ESPN launched its website are going to decline. Granted, aside from the retired Posada they haven’t yet, which is insane. But Derek Jeter turns 39 in June. Andy Pettitte will be 41, and he already retired once. Mariano Rivera is 43 and coming off knee surgery.
For the first time in 20 years, the Yankees are not a good team, and that won’t cut it in an AL East that figures to be as competitive as ever. The Red Sox have their own issues but still possess the talent to be dangerous. The Rays have reloaded their offense and feature a freakishly good 1-2-3 in their rotation. The Blue Jays are probably the most improved team in the majors, and the Orioles — well, I suppose it’s possible they’ll go 29-9 in one-run games again.5
If everything goes right, the Yankees can win 90 games again and contend for an AL East title. But for the first time since before the strike, the Yankees need everything to go right. And it never does. Things are already going wrong, with a third of the projected lineup on the DL. They don’t have the depth to replace Granderson and Teixeira; other players will get hurt, and they won’t have the depth to replace them. Players will underperform, and they don’t have anyone in the minors who can step up. (The Yankees have a pretty good farm system, but their top five prospects — Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin, and Jose Campos — have combined for two games in Double-A.)
So long as the Yankees stick to their guns and aim to get their payroll under the threshold next year, they won’t be able to purchase help from outside the organization. The team’s streak of 87 or more wins is in mortal danger, and so is its streak of 20 winning seasons in a row. If the old guys show their age all at once and another key player goes down — particularly Sabathia — they could collapse like last year’s Red Sox.
And 2014 will be worse. The Yankees only have four players under contract for next year, but they owe those players — Rodriguez, Sabathia, Teixeira, and Ichiro — more than $78 million. Cano will be a free agent, and with the Dodgers trying their best to out-Yankee the Yankees, it’s no guarantee he’ll re-sign in the Bronx.
Cano is just the tip of the iceberg. Other free agents next winter include Granderson, Kuroda, Youkilis, Pettitte, Hughes, Hafner, Joba Chamberlain, and Boone Logan. (Jeter has a player option.) As much as 40 percent of this year’s roster will be available to the highest bidder next winter, just as the Yankees will be cutting payroll. The news that Rivera plans to retire at the end of this season is a further blow to the Yankees’ chances. Rivera is not only the best reliever in major league history, he might be the most consistent — since moving to the bullpen in 1996, he has never had an ERA higher than 3.15. For the last 15 years, the Yankees haven’t had to worry about the ninth inning. Next year, they will.
Assembling a complete roster with no immediate help from the minor leagues and precious few pre-arbitration major leaguers will be an immense challenge. It’s no wonder that GM Brian Cashman has been skydiving recently — he probably wants to get intimately familiar with the sensation of free-falling. But as he found out, falling isn’t the hard part; landing is.
For anyone who has watched baseball over the last two decades, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Yankees as a toothless franchise. But when you build around old, expensive players, the reckoning coming up in your side mirror is — like the dinosaur in Jurassic Park — closer than it appears. (Just ask the Phillies.) So it’s time to proclaim the truth that everyone has danced around so far this year:
The Evil Emperor has no clothes. Even the Yankees are capable of down cycles. This looks like the start of one.
I would love for someone in the media to present all this to Brian Cashman and/or someone else high in the Yankees front office and ask them to respond to all these points made…but, it will never happen.