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Time to Cut Back in the Bronx

by Chris Hilk
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Why the Yankees should consider dumping payroll

The joke around New York is that the baseball season ended last week, and it’s officially time for football. But these New Yorkers who refuse to look further west than the Meadowlands are missing quality postseason baseball played in the middle of the country by mid-market teams. The Brewers, Cardinals, Rangers and Tigers do not have the luxury of throwing money at any player who catches their eye; instead they pick and choose, often saying “no” to the prized free agents while building well-rounded teams that excel on the field. So now it’s time for the radical suggestion: maybe the Yankees should give this strategy a try.

Looking back at the last 10 years, the Yankees reached the playoffs nine times (all but ’08), made the ALCS four times (’03, ’04, ’09, ’10), got to the World Series twice (’03, ’09), and won it once (’09). For every other professional team in any other sport that would be an unbelievable 10-year stretch, for the Pinstripes it’s bordering on a drought. Disgruntled fans will look at the last 10 years and try to convince themselves it’s been a good run, but everyone knows there’s one goal for the Bronx Bombers—to win the World Series—or the season’s a bust. Their 27 championships are what make them the most celebrated team in sports, why little kids from across the country dream of wearing the pinstripes when they grow up. However, the rate of rings has slowed; since moving to New York the Yankees have averaged one title every four years. Just to keep pace while using this current philosophy of throwing money at players, the Yankees must win the Series in 2012 and 2013. So, Yankee fans, are you ready to try something new, or do you want to stick with the current plan?

According to USAToday.com, since 2002, the Yankees’ Opening Day payroll has been at least $15 million more than the next highest team. Find me one year when, on paper, New York was head-over-heels better than every other team in the league. There is no debate that, each year, the Yankees are amongst the elite, though never a juggernaut. The Bombers bank on big name guys like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to take them to the promised land. These players put up great numbers, but for whatever reason there has only been one parade down Broadway during that span. Instead of giving nine-figured contracts for an immediate fix, it’s time to get creative, test out an underrated farm system, or sign a guy who needs a change of scenery.

The remaining playoff teams are littered with key players these teams developed in the minors. The Brewers’ biggest bats, Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, are homegrown, as is Tigers ace Justin Verlander. The Cardinals are relying heavily on farmhands Jon Jay and David Freese, not to mention a guy named Pujols who St. Louis will try like crazy to bring back this off-season. Most of the Texas Rangers roster spent time in the team’s minor league system. During last year’s playoff run, the eventual World Series Champion Giants went with a starting rotation that was completely homegrown.

Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and David Robertson all came up through the Yankee system, as did Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson and Diamondbacks ace Ian Kennedy, all key contributors to their respective teams this October. This group is a solid mix of veterans and youth, pitching and position players, stars and role guys. The question becomes: why did the Yankees give up Jackson and Kennedy for Curtis Granderson? No knock on Granderson, who is a terrific player and had an MVP-type season, but Kennedy was the elusive starting pitcher the Yankees were looking for all season, and Jackson, though a downgrade from Granderson, is a young stud who could easily find himself playing for the Commissioner’s Trophy next week. Plus it would have saved the Yankees around $15-20 million. But, after their last title, the Yankees saw a star on the market and pounced.

The quick fix looks great at the time of the trade or signing, but it is no way to create a dynasty. Kennedy and Jackson could have joined Cano as the next wave of Yankees while Jeter, Posada and Rivera ride off into the sunset. Instead, the Bombers added another shiny convertible to a garage filled with fancy cars. Same goes for the A-Rod trade before the 2004 season and the Teixeira signing in 2008. Teams need stars, but they also need a balance. The Philadelphia Phillies won the Series in 2008 because of their homegrown talent that included Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels. That year they ranked 12th in payroll; since then they gave big deals to marquee guys like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay and now the Phils have one of the highest payrolls and no titles to show for it.

Refraining from signing the top players would result in years when the Yankees miss the playoffs, something that the fan base would (somehow) have to accept, in order to set the team up for later success. Seven of the last nine World Series Champions missed the postseason the year before they won it, and of the four teams remaining, the Rangers were the only playoff team in 2010. To figure out a winning formula, it takes time, something that the current group of Yankees does not have a lot of. The Yankees have reached the point when they need to begin the process of cutting payroll and getting younger—hold on to top prospects Jesus Montero, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances and give them a legitimate shot to prove themselves. Accumulate some draft picks by letting guys go a season or two before their decline, rather than after. Join the rest of baseball again and be known for making smart decisions. It’s easy to throw $275 million at A-Rod when no one else can do that. But now there are six years and $143 million left on his contract, and the Bombers will have to sign another third baseman once he starts to decline, or let him play with his diminished skill set, either way absorbing his salary.        

This will be a multi-year process, since the Yankees have already devoted a lot of money to the next couple of years. Over $150 million is already committed to next year’s team (not including options or arbitration), and about $125 million is on the books for 2013. A-Rod, Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are scheduled to make a combined $186 million between the four of them (that is, if Sabathia does not opt out of his current contract in hopes of getting more money). During their 3-peat from ’98-’00, the Yankees were the top spenders in ’99 and ’00 but only by a couple million dollars, and were (Gasp!) second in payroll in ’98. Only three of the past nine World Series winners’ payrolls exceeded $100 million (BOS ’04 & ’07, NYY ’09) and the remaining four range from $85-105 million this year.

Money does not buy championships; it’s a fact the Yankees need to learn. Six of the past ten Champions, including whoever this year’s winner is, did not rank in the top ten in payroll that season. Winning is about making savvy moves, ones that might not make the front page but will propel a good team to greatness. Teams can’t rely solely on the home run, and spark plugs don’t usually come in the form of $20 million dollar superstars. This is not supposed to deter the Yankees from combing the free agent market—just be prudent about it, no more Carl Povano’s or A.J. Burnett’s or Kei Igawa’s.  Look for a low-risk, high-reward guy like Lance Berkman was for the Cardinals this year. Don’t trade a top prospect just because he acquires some value. The Yankees can remain one of the top-five spenders but have a mid-market team’s mindset with a little extra cash. Avoid the quick fixes and establish a blueprint that will lead to flexibility in the front office and lasting success on the field.

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