Yankees Belt-Tightening, Part II—the Aftereffects of Austerity

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In normal circumstances, the words “austerity measures” would never be linked with “$200 million payroll,” but that’s where the Yankees currently are.

With that $200 million payroll and the upcoming strict penalties on franchises with higher payrolls, the mandate has come down from ownership for the Yankees to get the total down to $189 million by 2014. This will supposedly save as much as $50 million in taxes and they’ll be able to spend again after 2014.

I wrote about this in detail here.

But what will the team look like by 2014 and will players want to join the Yankees when they’re no longer the “Yankees,” but just another team that’s struggled for two straight years and whose future isn’t attached to the stars Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte who will either be gone by then or severely limited in what they can still accomplish?

To illustrate how far the Yankees have fallen under this new budget, the catcher at the top of their depth chart is Francisco Cervelli who couldn’t even stick with the big league club as a backup last season. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez. The latter three, they wanted back. They couldn’t pay for Martin, Chavez and Ibanez? What’s worse, they appeared to expect all three to wait out the Yankees and eschew other job offers in the hopes that they’d be welcomed back in the Bronx.

What’s worse: the ineptitude or the arrogance?

If George Steinbrenner were still around, he’d have said, “To hell with the luxury tax,” and qualified such an attitude by referencing the amount of money the team wasted over the years on such duds as Carl Pavano, Javier Vazquez, Kevin Brown, Steve Karsay, Kyle Farnsworth, Pedro Feliciano and countless others, many of whom were total unknowns to George, therefore he wouldn’t have received the convenient blame for their signings with a baseball exec’s eyeroll, head shake and surreptitious gesture toward the owner’s box, “blame him, not me,” thereby acquitting themselves when they were, in fact, guilty. But now, the bulk of the responsibility falls straight to the baseball people. He’d also be under the belief that the Yankees brand of excellence couldn’t withstand what they’re increasingly likely to experience in 2013-2014 and that the money would wind up back in their pockets eventually due to their success.

Are there financial problems that haven’t been disclosed? A large chunk of the YES Network was recently sold to Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. In years past, that money would’ve functioned as a cash infusion and gone right back into the construction of the club, but it hasn’t. They’re still not spending on players over the long term with that looming shadow of 2014 engulfing everything they plan to do. Every improvement/retention is on a one or two year contract: Kevin Youkilis—1-year; Hiroki Kuroda—1-year; Ichiro Suzuki—2-years. It’s hard to find younger, impact players when constrained so tightly and the players they’ve signed are older and/or declining which is why they were available to the Yankees on short-term contracts in the first place.

The Yankees don’t have any young players on the way up to bolster the veteran troops.

It takes inexplicable audacity for GM Brian Cashman to trumpet the pitching prospects the club was developing under stringent rules to “protect” them, then to dismiss their failures leading to a release (Andrew Brackman); a demotion to the lower minors to re-learn to throw strikes (Dellin Betances); and injury (Manny Banuelos). The reactions to the injuries to Banuelos, Jose Campos and Michael Pineda are especially galling. Banuelos’s injury—Tommy John surgery—was casually tossed aside by Cashman, pointing out the high success rate of the procedure as if it was no big deal that the pitcher got hurt. But he got hurt while under the restrictions the Yankees has placed on him—restrictions that were designed to simultaneously keep him healthy and develop him, yet wound up doing neither.

Campos was referenced as the “key” to the trade that brought Pineda; Campos was injured in late April with an undisclosed elbow problem and is now throwing off a mound and expected to be ready for spring training. That he missed almost the entire 2012 season with an injury the Yankees never described in full would give me pause for his durability going forward. The 2013 projections for Pineda to be an important contributor are more prayerful than expectant, adding to the uncertainty.

There’s a streamlining that may make sense in the long run such as the decision to drop StubHub as an official ticket reseller and instead move to Ticketmaster. They sold that chunk of YES and are in the process of slashing the payroll.

Any other team would be subject to a media firestorm trying to uncover the real reason for the sudden belt-tightening with the luxury tax excuse not be accepted at face value. Is there an underlying “why?” for this attachment to $189 million, the opt-out of the StubHub deal, and the sale of 49% of YES? The potential lost windfall of missing the post-season and the lack of fans going to the park, buying beer and souvenirs, paying the exorbitant fees to park their cars and bottom line spending money on memorabilia is going to diminish the revenue further.

Perhaps this is a natural byproduct of the failures to win a championship in any season other than 2009 in spite of having the highest payroll—by a substantial margin—in every year since their prior title in 2000. Could it be that the Steinbrenner sons looked at Cashman and wondered why Billy Beane, Brian Sabean, Andrew Friedman, and John Mozeliak were able to win with a fraction of the limitless cash the Yankees bestowed on Cashman and want him to make them more money by being a GM instead of a guy holding a blank checkbook? In recent years, I don’t see what it is Cashman has done that Hal Steinbrenner couldn’t have done if he decided to be the final word in baseball decisions and let the scouts do the drafting and he went onto the market to buy recognizable names.

Anyone can buy stuff.

Cashman’s aforementioned failures at development show his limits as a GM. It’s not easy to transform from the guy with a load of money available to toss at mistakes and use that cash as a pothole filler and be the guy who has no choice but to be frugal and figure something else out. Much like Hank Steinbrenner saying early in 2008 that the struggling righty pitcher Mike Mussina had to learn to throw like the soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer, it sounds easier when said from a distance and a “Why’s he doing it and you’re not?” than it is to implement.

No matter how it’s quantified, this Yankees team is reliant on the past production of these veteran players without the money that was there in the past to cover for them if they don’t deliver.

The fans aren’t going to want to hear about the “future.” They’re going to want Cashman and the Steinbrenners to do something. But given their inaction thus far in the winter of 2012-2013, it doesn’t look as if they’re going to with anyone significant.

This time, they don’t have a prior year’s championship to use as a shield. The Yankees were subject to a broom at the hands of the Tigers. That’s not a particularly coveted memory. In fact, it might have been a portent of what’s to come, except worse.

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American League East—Buy, Sell or Stand Pat?

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You’ll see all the “rumors” floating around, published in newspapers and discussed on blogs, websites and shows. Most of them are fabrications, blown out of proportion or strategically placed factoids by owners, GMs, player agents, players, media members and anyone else with a stake in getting a story out there.

Starting with the American League East, here’s a realistic analysis of what teams should do at the upcoming trading deadline and which players might be available.

New York Yankees

Of course the Yankees are buyers, but what they’re buying and are willing to sell is still unknown. GM Brian Cashman has said he’s not going after any big name starting pitchers. Is that because they don’t want to trade prospects or because their prospects have lost luster throughout baseball?

The Yankees have crafted a case study in diminishing the value of their lauded minor leaguers. They managed to sell their one big asset—Jesus Montero—for a lemon in Michael Pineda and a bent “key” Jose Campos. (Still no updates on the condition of Campos’s elbow, by the way. Have they buried him somewhere?)

Manny Banuelos is also injured and Dellin Betances was demoted from Triple A to Double A because he couldn’t throw strikes.

Teams would take both, but not as the centerpiece for a notable veteran player. As part of a package? Absolutely.

They’d be foolish not to at least check in on Cole Hamels. They’re a more likely suitor for Ryan Dempster. I’d steer clear of Jason Vargas and Wandy Rodriguez (not good ideas for Yankee Stadium); Matt Garza is intriguing buy costly.

They need bullpen help with Grant Balfour, Rafael Betancourt, Brandon League and Joe Thatcher targets to consider.

If I were Cashman, I’d call Diamondbacks’ GM Kevin Towers (a former Cashman assistant) and tell him to hold off on trading Justin Upton in-season because the Yankees will want him over the winter to replace Nick Swisher.

Baltimore Orioles

They should stand pat making only negligible and cheap additions.

While it’s a great story that the Orioles are 45-40 and the doubters of some of the moves made by Dan Duquette have been proven wrong (Jason Hammel has been one of the great, under-the-radar pickups this season), they have to weigh the chances of a playoff spot vs surrendering too much to get mid-season help.

Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy are off the table in trades.

If they can get a starter and an outfielder simply by taking on salary and not giving up much to get them, they should do it. Carlos Quentin for the outfield and Joe Blanton to eat innings. Apart from that, they shouldn’t go crazy for a longshot.

Tampa Bay Rays

It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for the Rays this year. They’re banking their hopes on Evan Longoria’s return—whenever that’s going to be. The starting pitching that was supposed to be an embarrassment of riches that the rest of baseball envied has fizzled. I expected B.J. Upton to have a massive statistical season in his contract year, but he’s continued being B.J. Upton: aggravating, inconsistent, lazy with flashes of brilliance.

Comebacks such as the one they pulled off last September don’t happen very often.

They should stand pat and listen to offers for Upton.

Boston Red Sox

Fan demand might force them to do something drastic and it’s not going to sell if Ben Cherington and Larry Lucchino pull the old Theo Epstein trick of being in on ginormous deals that never come to pass. The media and radio talk shows are going to want something significant done.

They need to ignore the pleas and stand pat.

This team, bottom line, isn’t very good. They’re dysfunctional in the clubhouse; there’s a leadership vacuum in the front office with multiple voices vying for influence; and their veterans haven’t performed. Trading prospects for a rental starting pitcher or even one that they’ll be able to keep in Garza makes no sense.

Toronto Blue Jays

There’s talk that they’re buyers. There’s talk that they’re sellers. There’s talk that they’re both.

GM Alex Anthopoulos is in on everything and they have the prospects to do something major. Desperate for starting pitching and holding out hope for a late-season playoff run, it’s something to consider when making a move on Garza or Wandy Rodriguez. They’re not far away from being a legitimate contender now and definitely in 2013 and beyond.

But they’ve been on that verge multiple times for the past 10 years and nothing’s happened.

I don’t get the impression that the Brewers are all-in on cleaning house and dealing Zack Greinke. In fact, I’m thinking that unless they totally come apart over the next three weeks, they won’t move him. They Blue Jays would probably be better off shifting focus toward a Randy Wolf or bringing Shaun Marcum back because they’re cheaper.

I’d try to get rid of Adam Lind now that he’s hitting again.

Edwin Encarnacion’s name popped up as being in play. He’s having his career year and still makes mental gaffes that can aggravate the most patient manager. If someone is willing give up a pitcher for him, then do it in a mutually advantageous deal. The Pirates have extra pitching and could use a bat, but I’d be concerned about messing with their current chemistry.

I’d buy or sell within reason with nothing too explosive.

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