The New York Yankees signing Kyle Davies in the same week they passed on James Shields shows just how far they’ve come from the days in which every high-priced free agent could go to the Yankees to either use them as a bargaining tool or get the highest bid to come to New York.
While they were finally serious when they said they were opting for fiscal sanity and an actual plan they would adhere to, the dichotomy between the players they signed then and now is more than a simple matter of looking at their strategies of the past and present and accepting them at face value. If ever there was a simultaneously practical and atmospheric change in the way the Yankees do business, it’s now. Although the current landscape dictates that they had to do something different and the adjustments they’re making are justified, that doesn’t mean the new plan and holding true to it will revert the team back to the one it was in the 1990s and early-2000s. Similar to the change the team had to make from the way they built their clubs from 1920 to 1965 to the era of drafts and free agency, it might take some time and more than a little luck to return to contention, let along dominance. Back then, it took a decade. It took 15 years for them to get back after the Yankees of Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage ran its course.
Five years ago – even one year ago – is there any doubt that at least two to three of the big name free agents or available names on the trade market would somehow, some way have ended up with the Yankees? Draft picks and prospects be damned, they would have taken on the entire contract of Troy Tulowitzki; signed Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and/or Shields; and tried to trade for Chase Utley and Cole Hamels. While these deals were destined to create splashy headlines, sell season tickets and placate a spoiled fan base, history has proven that they would not, under any circumstances, have guaranteed a championship. After last year, it became clear to the Yankees that it wouldn’t have been enough to guarantee a playoff spot. In fact, they weren’t even legitimate contenders in 2014 for any reason other than the parity permeating baseball and that they overachieved thanks to the yeoman work done by manager Joe Girardi.
They’re changing their tactics, but not in the old way. George Steinbrenner used to come up with various plans of attack and abandon them, firing everyone in sight, if they didn’t yield immediate dividends. That strategy worked in the late 1970s to the very early part of the 1980s and then it stopped working as other teams wised up and adapted. The Yankees were no longer a trendy destination as they discovered the money and lore of the pinstripes couldn’t mitigate a poorly run, bad team with a terrible reputation. As the Yankees empire collapsed in the late-1980s, it was only Steinbrenner’s second suspension from baseball that allowed general manager Gene Michael to rebuild the club from the bottom up drafting, signing and developing the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte. He sprinkled in players who fit into what he and Buck Showalter were trying to build with power and on-base skills combined with fiery competitiveness.
After the team had been rebuilt and the foundation was in place, they were able to flex their financial might to surround their young core with established veterans. As the years passed, the developmental train stopped and they became a star-studded entity that was more interested in signing the biggest names on the market in lieu of finding players who fit into the template. They were beyond fortunate in the longevity and health of that core group and that, more than money, was why they maintained contention and didn’t fade.
Now they’re all gone without major league-ready replacements, so they’re resorting to patching and rebooting. To make matters worse, the Andrew McCutchen-type, in-his-prime star player who would have ended up with the Yankees because of finances is choosing to sign a contract extension to stay with his current club, the Pittsburgh Pirates. No longer are teams like the Pirates the equivalent of a big league farm team for the Yankees. The new economics in baseball with cash-cow ballparks, revenue sharing and lucrative television deals has given many clubs the money to sign their players instead of trading them away. New statistics, analytical evolution and implementation has also minimized the financial advantage the Yankees had as teams find players for a fraction of the cost the Yankees are paying the likes of washouts like Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran for the same, if not better, production.
The Yankees have set about either planting new seeds or replacing them with recognizable names. They tried the latter in the past several seasons as one star player after another departed and it failed. Now they’re in the midst of repeating what Michael did and shunning the big name free agents that George Steinbrenner coveted to players who are cheaper, fill needs and, perhaps most importantly, don’t cost them picks in the amateur draft – an area that was neglected for far too long.
While it’s laudable and, again, justified that they’ve closed the vault, it’s not because of an understanding of how the game must be played today to build a consistent winner, but because Hal Steinbrenner looks at teams like the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays and Pirates and wonders why he has to spend $220 million a year to field a competitive team while those clubs are hindered by payroll constraints and revenue streams that, combined, probably don’t match those of the Yankees and they’re consistently better. He’s not changing because he’s finally convinced that the use of new metrics, development and wiser spending instead of lavish buying sprees are better. It’s because he doesn’t want to spend the money anymore and that’s something that never would have happened with his father.
What should disturb Yankees fans and leave them more concerned than ever as to where this club is heading isn’t simply that Hal Steinbrenner is not authorizing the spending he did a year ago, but that general manager Brian Cashman is trying to mimic Michael not because he’s his mentor and not because the Michael methods worked, but because Cashman wants to receive credit for being more than a checkbook GM. In a New York Daily News column, Bill Madden said as much with the following:
Cashman, who has always privately detested being viewed as nothing more than a checkbook GM, took pains this winter to eschew the big-ticket free agents like Scherzer, Pablo Sandoval and even James Shields and set about remaking the Yankees in his own image.
Career fulfillment and pride in one’s accomplishments are fine as long as they’re not getting in the way of doing one’s job. Since baseball is now being seen as a business and not a fun diversion for the ultra-rich, it has to be placed into that context. Does the day-to-day boss of IBM have the right to care if his way was the successful one when there are shareholders making demands? Or is he or she supposed to run the business in a successful fashion with ego shunted off to the side?
If Cashman is seeking credit at the same time he’s trying to build a winner, don’t you see the clash between how he’s going to put the team together and what is needed? Who really cares what Cashman detests and doesn’t? The business model for each team is different and the Yankees’ financial strength is one of the main reasons they’ve won as much as they have in their history. Why walk away from that because of selfish desires?
Cashman was hired and retained to run the Yankees, not bolster his resume and compensate for the perceptions he sees as sullying a self-crafted image of a builder on a level with the people who are considered “top” GMs and organizational architects. He’s never been known as a GM whose talent recognition skills and player assessments have been noteworthy unless he’s buying the CC Sabathia-type – the star in his prime. Why would anyone believe he can become something other than what he’s been for almost two decades as a GM?
In truth, there’s nothing wrong with running a team with the checkbook. When an individual’s ego becomes involved with how the job is done, that’s the real problem. It’s not the strategy. On some level, he too is justified in saying that what worked before with spend-spend-spend isn’t working, but that doesn’t mean the hoarding of draft picks, new focus on saving money and avoiding the big ticket items is going to work.
That, more than anything else, should be what concerns Yankees fans as they go dumpster diving for Davies, Scott Baker and other “why not?” signings that were once non-roster invitees who would catch a brief glimpse of Jeter, Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina in the spring training clubhouse before receding into oblivion. Now they’re actually hoping these players can contribute.
This new strategy is reminiscent of 1982 and 1989 rather than 1993. The reasoning behind it, the architects and the implementation are the problems. Unless those factors change, the Yankees are in danger of plunging to depths that the most arrogant and spoiled fans, media members and even club officials could never have envisioned.