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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The Youkilis And Ichiro Signings Fit The 2013 Yankees—And That’s The Problem

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Gone are the days when the Yankees acted decisively, swiftly and, if need be, expensively to fill all their gaping or perceived holes that cost them a World Series the year before. In 2009, when they did win their lone World Series over the past decade, they were still looking for ways in improve by making bold changes in letting World Series MVP Hideki Matsui depart as a free agent, trading away another post-season hero Melky Cabrera, reacquiring Javier Vazquez, and acquiring Curtis Granderson.

Some worked, some wound up being a wash, some were disastrous, but at least they were doing something for the short and long terms and at least they were done in the Yankee fashion of money being no object in the interests of getting better.

The new Yankee template has nothing to do with getting better. It has to do with getting cheaper; spackling over holes because they’re too expensive to repair correctly; dropping nuggets into the media to keep them relevant or provide cover stories (the Josh Hamilton talk and GM Brian Cashman not being allowed to spend money at the winter meetings); and signing players not based on what they can do, but to placate the fans. They created this dynamic with the image of a first class organization and budgetless wheelbarrows full of cash from the Steinbrenners and the World Series or bust concept that anything less than a championship was deemed a failure. Now they’re facing the consequences of that business model and the desire/need to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014.

Two more short-term signings have been made to fill a hole (Kevin Youkilis) and to make the fans happy (Ichiro Suzuki). Youkilis agreed to a 1-year, $12 million contract and the details of a contract with Ichiro are reportedly being finalized, but he’s returning.

The Youkilis signing makes plenty of sense and fills the chasm created by Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery and apparent absence until the summer. The Ichiro signing, if it’s done in the interests of him playing regularly, is a bad one. In years past, the Yankees would’ve thanked Ichiro for his help from August onward and moved along with someone younger and better. But they can’t afford anyone better. They can’t trade for a young third baseman like Chase Headley because they no longer have the prospects, so they had to sign Youkilis. They can’t dive into the free agent market for a Hamilton. Agents and players aren’t going straight to the Yankees safe in the knowledge that if the Yankees want the player or are desperate enough, the money will be a secondary issue because it’s plainly and simply there as a matter of course. That world doesn’t exist anymore.

They’re left with this: signing a useful player like Youkilis who doesn’t fit in with the Yankees clubhouse but, as a short-term fill-in, was the best option for their shockingly limited resources. There’s a possibility that Youkilis will either be a toned down version of himself or be advised how to act like a “Yankee” and not a “Red Sox.” This might affect his play on the field moving forward. Bear in mind that Youkilis isn’t the player he was in his Red Sox heyday.

Ichiro on the other hand, became a fan favorite because of his solid play after being acquired from the Mariners in late July. He played his usual solid defense, was a part of the landscape rather than the diva he’d become with the Mariners, and seemed rejuvenated by playing on a contender. None of that means he should’ve been re-signed or that he would’ve been re-signed as a regular contributor if prior Yankees’ incarnations were still the order of the day.

Here are the facts about Ichiro: he’s a declining 39-year-old player who batted .322 with a .340 on-base percentage and a .337 BAbip in 240 plate appearances as a Yankee. Even at the height of his powers, the split between his batting average and OBP has always been quite low because he doesn’t walk. He looked good for the Yankees because the balls he was hitting were finding a spot between the fielders, but in reality he wasn’t much better for the Yankees on the field than he’s been for the Mariners in the past two seasons. He’ll steal a few bases, show good glove work, and maybe have what looks like a good year with the bat. Good doesn’t necessarily mean productive. That’s the player they’re getting and if he’s asked to contribute for 400 at bats, it’s abundantly clear how far the Yankees have fallen in the hot stove competition and are destined to fall when the real competition begins in April of 2013.

They’re trying to save money as an end unto itself expecting the pinstripes and Yankees lore to be enough of an attraction to bring fans to the park no matter the state of the team. The implication of damaging the brand is not without merit. The on-field product will be cheaper, no doubt, but they’ll also be bringing in less money because of a lack of interest. They’re signing veterans past their sell-by date and hoping they have a small spring of baseball life left to “experience” their way into the playoffs. It’s a hard sell and it shows—not in a good way.

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Benching and Dumping A-Rod Doesn’t Fix This Mess

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For Alex Rodriguez, the only conceivable way this gets worse is if it’s discovered that it was in fact him who was fooling around with a woman during a September game in a filthy stadium toilet and that his attempts to conceal himself by wearing a CC Sabathia shirt worked for a short period of time before the truth eventually came out. Of course it wasn’t A-Rod, but that’s not the point.

The point is the truth or some perception of it.

Nestled among the generic, semantically fueled denials uttered by Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman is the truth, but you’ll have to dig to find it and also need to accept that it wasn’t the words that he said, but the manner in which he said them that conveyed the reality.

Like a politically-minded frontman whose power has ebbed; whose reputation is disintegrating like an old T-shirt; and whose job might be on the line, Cashman took the hit for the club when he denied the reports that the Yankees are looking to trade A-Rod and are willing to either swallow an exorbitant sum of money to do it or take another team’s head (and stomach, and backside) ache such as Heath Bell to make it happen.

You can read the updated story reported here by Keith Olbermann on his MLBlog. (Keith linked yours truly near the end of the original posting when talking about Yankees’ PR hatchet man Jason Zillo—my piece was about Zillo’s attempts to hinder NY Times Magazine writer Michael Sokolove from pursuing a piece about age and Derek Jeter.)

I believe that the reports are accurate and that the Yankees—with or without Cashman’s tacit knowledge—are greasing the skids to get A-Rod out of town no matter what. In addition to denying that A-Rod was being discussed in trades, Cashman also stated that his benching is purely baseball related.

Is A-Rod out of the Yankees’ lineup because of his hitting struggles? Is it because the club has had enough of him and his sideshow and is punishing him for the transgression that he supposedly asked for the phone number of an Australian model after he’d been removed from game 1 of the ALCS? Or is it a combination of everything that’s gone wrong with him since he was acquired in 2004?

A-Rod looks overmatched at the plate and it’s up to the club to determine whether it’s a slump or if they’re simply better off benching him because the players they use to replace him can’t do much worse. As for the allegation that he tried to get a date during the game—so what? It happens all the time and that it’s a point of contention with factions of the organization speaks to the elasticity of propriety. If it was 2009 and A-Rod did the same thing in Anaheim during the ALCS when he’d been pulled for a pinch-runner, no one would’ve said a word because he was killing the ball. In fact, the old-school Steinbrenner sons likely would’ve shook their heads as their father did at the antics of David Wells and other players who did “guy stuff” in what they perceive as a man’s world and laughed at A-Rod just doing what A-Rod and other men do when they spot a pretty girl. The stark contrast being that unlike 99% of the planet, A-Rod has the ability to try to get a date and make it happen.

If the Yankees are benching him as a punitive act, it’s somewhat laughable considering that Cashman himself had his own issues with a woman he met and dated because he’s the GM of the Yankees. If Cashman hadn’t had a card that said Executive VP and GM of the Yankees and instead worked as an usher at the stadium, he wouldn’t have gotten the time of day from the woman. She certainly wasn’t with Cashman for his ratty looks and dully monotonous vocal tones.

Cashman’s behavior was in fact far worse than A-Rod’s because it was Cashman who wrote a letter of reference for the woman with whom he was involved and did so on Yankees stationery. All A-Rod did was happen to be wearing a Yankees uniform when he supposedly put the moves on the model.

And looking at the picture below, can you blame him?

Players do this more often than the public realizes and it’s not a big deal for any reason other than that it’s A-Rod and he’s not hitting, so all is magnified and the piling on of reasons to get rid of him.

As for the supposed trade talks, Cashman’s denials ring hollow and the entire listening audience, if they’ve been paying attention over the past decade-and-a-half of Cashman’s reign, saw right through it. In his desperate attempts to spin the story, it would’ve been more honest and believable if he sat with his head tilted, gesticulated with his hands in a “yeah, yeah, yeah, even I don’t believe this BS fashion,” and literally said:

“A-Rod, blah blah blah. He’s not being discussed in trades, blah, blah, blah. No Marlins, bleh. Not benched because of off-field stuff or the model thing, yadda yadda yadda. This is a team and the team’s not playing up to capability, blahblahBLAHblah…”

At least it would’ve been honest.

I do expect A-Rod to be dealt this winter, but they’re not going to pick up the entire contract unless they’re getting good, useful pieces in return. Apart from that, it would be the Yankees picking up a chunk of the contract (that owes him $114 million from 2013-2017) and taking someone else’s nuisance and similarly bad contract such as Bell. But getting rid of one player doesn’t solve all the Yankees problems. The bottom line is that they’re not losing because of one player independent of salary, all-time great career numbers, and controversies on and off the diamond.

This entire mess began due to A-Rod’s slump and that he’s the easiest target, but none of the Yankees have hit and, unlike Robinson Cano, at least A-Rod hustles and appears to care. Unlike Nick Swisher, he’s not whining about the fans. And unlike Curtis Granderson, the 37-year-old A-Rod is not supposed to be in his prime as he’s seemingly striking out every time he steps into the batter’s box.

There’s no doubt that A-Rod’s a distraction, but in this case he’s one of convenience to shift the blame from the rest of the team being as bad or worse than him. If they get rid of him, they’ll still have a bucketful of age, expense, and decline to deal with and no singular object of revulsion to take the brunt of the ridicule. Then it will be piled onto the front office concerning what they’ve done to let this team decay. Then the underlying holes will be revealed and they’re not as easy to fix as paying someone off to leave.

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The Genius Will Return…In 2015

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It’s almost biblical or a tenet of faith for any religion or cult.

According to the actions of Billy Beane along with whispers and reports from sources in the MLB front office—MLB Trade Rumors—the Athletics are likely to receive approval to build a new ballpark in San Jose. They’ll have to pay the Giants to relinquish their territorial rights, but they’re expecting to get their new park.

Until then, the apparent entreaty to suffering A’s fans is to endure; do penance; be patient; follow the great leader and put faith in him, trusting that he’ll show the way.

Support a team that’s going to be stripped down to its bare bones (again) in the hopes that someday, someday, someday the “genius” that is their overrated and propagandized GM will reappear and the team will rise to prominence.

Of course it won’t hurt that the A’s are going to have money to spend on players similarly to how the Marlins are now.

In 2015.

But for now, it’s a housecleaning.

Again.

I don’t care one way or the other what Beane says and does—I see right through him and his nonsense—but when is the mainstream media going to stop kowtowing to this man and see him for the snakeoil salesman that he is?

Since the last time the Athletics were relevant for reasons other than a celluloid bit of dramatic license or a crafty bit of creative non-fiction, Beane is on his third manager and second rebuild with one season of 81-81 since 2006 to show for it; they haven’t been contenders in spite of various attempts to recreate some semblance of competitiveness. That competitiveness from the early part of the 21st Century was based more on having three All-Star starting pitchers and stars at key positions than it was for finding “undervalued” talent and “genius” in doing so.

It’s a circular proclamation based on a lie and there’s nothing to replicate. He’s not a card-counter—he’s flinging darts at a dartboard while blindfolded. It’s partially his fault; partially due to circumstance; partially due to an attempt to maintain that veneer of brilliance that was never accurate to begin with.

Regardless of the positive analysis of the packages of young players Beane’s received in trading Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez (and presumably what he’ll get for Andrew Bailey and whatever else isn’t nailed to the floor), why does he have to tear apart what’s already in place in anticipation of whenever the new park is going to be open for business?

Is that the shining light off in the distance now? The new park?

The A’s spent years cultivating the young core of pitchers; they’re all in their mid-20s and the types of arms around whom a club should be built. Twice he’s tried to bring in veteran bats to augment those young arms and they’ve failed both times; but that’s a reflection on him and bad luck than it is a failing of the concept of keeping the young pitchers and trying to find someone, anyone who can produce offensively.

In 2009, he made what turned out to be a disastrous trade for Matt Holliday in which he surrendered Carlos Gonzalez; signed a shot-as-an-everyday player Jason Giambi and an out-of-place Orlando Cabrera.

It didn’t work.

In 2011 he signed Hideki Matsui, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour and traded for Josh Willingham.

It didn’t work.

So now it’s another teardown? Another reconstruction? How many does he get? Three? Five? Ten? Thirty?

A normal GM judged on his accomplishments gets maybe two rebuilds—and that’s if he’s got a track record of success a la Pat Gillick.

Can Beane be mentioned in the same breath as Gillick?

Gillick’s in the Hall of Fame; Beane’s in the Hype Hall of Fame.

Or the Gall of Fame.

Is he Connie Mack or Branch Rickey where he can do whatever he wants with impunity based on success that was fleeting and had a limited connection to anything he actually did? Success that’s perceived to be more than it was because of that book and now a movie in which he was portrayed by the “sexiest man alive”?

He’s fired managers for reasons and non-reasons. He’s blamed others and used his image and roundabout excuses to shield himself from the ridicule he deserves.

Now it’s the new ballpark that will save him.

His drafts have been mostly atrocious and the rebuilding of the farm system by trading his established players for the crown jewels of other organizations smacks of desperation.

But he’s got a plan in place. They’re loading up the farm system with power arms and bats that hit homers and get on base. And they’re not done.

The new park is the key.

Then he’ll be on the right track.

Then he’ll put a team together that’s going to win.

But it’s not going to happen until the new ballpark opens.

“We may not be much now, but you just wait boy!! Wait until we have that new park and—guess what?—will be able to spend money to buy established players. Then we’ll show you.”

Believe it if you want. Compare the A’s situation to other clubs who needed a new park, got it and became powerhouses.

But you can’t compare the A’s to the Marlins because the Marlins, in spite of a terrible 2011 season of their own amid unrealistic expectations and capricious, Steinbrenner-like behaviors of their owner Jeffrey Loria, had a foundation of young pitching and bats that the Athletics didn’t; ballpark or not, the Marlins were pretty good because they have a gutsy baseball management team that is skillful at talent recognition and does something that Beane has been shoddy at doing: finding players.

Apart from being able to spin doctor his way out of anything and manipulate the media with deft use of the language, reputation and an intimidating bullying nature, what has Beane done to warrant the pass?

Nothing.

2015 is plenty of time for Michael Lewis to plan and complete a sequel to Moneyball with a new plot.

“Billy Saves Christmas”?

“Selig’s Choice”?

What will happen when they have the new park and the latest strategy fails?

Will there be increased scrutiny on what he is and what he’s done rather than the unfounded and illogical belief the he knows what he’s doing? That it’s all part of one grand scheme to rule the world?

Salesmanship is a form of genius and the people keep buying it.

I suppose that’s something to hold onto when everything else comes undone.

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I’ll be a guest later today with former MLB player Les Norman on his baseball show Breakin’ the Norm on the ESPN affiliate 810 WHB in Kansas City. I’ll link the appearance and post it here.

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