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Is it already time to panic in the Bronx?

by Steve Simineri
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Flickr

Team on path to payroll mandate, but collision course with disaster…

The winter meetings have come and gone in Nashville, yet the Yankees only made headlines for not spending a wooden nickel to the bafflement of all. The most decorated franchise in professional sports has resorted to penny pinching, and you can confidently bet late legendary owner George Steinbrenner is rolling over in his grave. "Beggars can't be choosers,” Brian Cashman, general manager of baseball’s wealthiest team, said Tuesday.

Co-Owners Hal and Hank Steinbrenner remain steadfast on lowering payroll to $189 million by 2014. “I’m looking at it as a goal,” Hal said in the spring. “But my goals are normally considered a requirement. Is it a requirement with baseball that we be at $189 (million)? No, it’s not a requirement. But that is going to be the luxury tax threshold and that’s where I want to be.”

However, another thing you can surely bet on is that this wouldn’t be the case if Dad was still the one calling shots. For George winning was more than a goal, it was a philosophy, and that’s the goal the Yankees should have next year, like every other.

After purchasing the team from CBS in 1973, ‘The Boss’ put his soul into the Yankee organization and saved the franchise from its bleakest days. He took pride in owning one of the most historic teams in all of sports and was a driving force behind the extensive Yankee brand that we see today.

When he passed away in July 2010 the team was already in the hands of his two sons, as he winded down his final days at home in Florida. Sure the team remained in the hands of the Steinbrenner clan, but one now has to wonder if the goal has changed and just how much longer the team will even be in the family?

The sons of the most reckless spender in the history of professional sports have strenuously denied that they would ever sell the Yankees, but maybe they are indeed plotting their exodus, and what better way to do it than to clean up books, and quickly.

Nowadays, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the Yankees, and by next season they should be owners of the game’s highest payroll, a distinction held by New York since 1999. Yes, the Yankees will still field a massive payroll, but that’s mostly due to past mistakes, and not intelligent new spending.

Despite their bloated payroll, the Yankees have added just one World Series banner during the past twelve seasons, and in baseball, often times, money buys you nothing but a dissatisfied fan base. Despite the lavish spending, they haven’t been players in free agency since 2009, and this winter they once again sat dormant while their main competition seemingly improved by the hour.

The Blue Jays made headlines a few weeks back when they acquired Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio from the Marlins for prospects. The deal put Toronto back on the map, and they went on to add Maicer Izturis and Melky Cabrera through free agency. They are going for it and even Yankee broadcaster David Cone conceded, “I would think they’ve got to be the favorite in the AL East right now.”      

They aren’t the only team in the American League East looking to improve, as the Red Sox have been uber-aggressive this winter. They have already added Johnny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Shane Victorino, and they aren’t quite done yet. Let’s also not forget that the well managed Orioles and Rays aren’t going anywhere.

Truth is, the Yankees, at $189 million, will not enjoy the vast financial advantage that they did two or three years ago, and the gap between them and other clubs is swiftly closing. But it’s not as if the Yankees are experiencing financial difficulty though.

The franchise is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, the highest among every franchise in sports. They recently sold 49 percent of the YES Network to News Corp., the owners of FOX run by multimedia behemoth Rupert Murdoch, for $500 million, and after three years, their stake in ownership may rise to 80 percent. However, this may simply be a classic example of inviting the hen into the henhouse, and further proof of Hal not being like Dad.

I'm a finance geek," Hal said in spring training, 2011. "I guess I always have been. That's my background; budgets matter and balance sheets matter. I just feel that if you do well on the player development side and you have a good farm system, you don't need a $220 million payroll. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent."

The Yankees are the hallmark franchise in sports, and what every organization thrives to be. In basketball that organization is the Los Angeles Lakers, and they have no problem protecting their brand and winning traditions by paying millions in tax dollars.

They are already paying a bill of nearly $30 million, and next season that number should rise significantly. They already have $80 million guaranteed to eight players, which doesn’t include Dwight Howard. If their final payroll is say $105 million, they will be on the hook for a whopping $95 million in tax money.

But they’re the mighty Lakers, and the way the Buss family won’t be deterred by a luxury tax, the mighty Yankees shouldn’t be either. ‘‘I think sometimes people assume that the New York Yankees are the New York Yankees and there’s no budget constraints and there aren’t things that we want to stick to. But there are’’ manager Joe Girardi said on Tuesday.

Sensibly, as a businessman Hal wants to pocket the nearly $50 million that would come in luxury tax and revenue savings by reaching the payroll mandate, but the fans never want to wait on winning, especially in New York.

Yankee fans have been extremely spoiled to have a winning product year after year, and management willing to spend money. Because of that there is a whole generation of fans, like myself that have no idea what it feels like to lose, and I’m approaching my 22nd birthday.

To put things into perspective, since the core-four all first arrived in 1995, the Yankees have only played in five meaningless games; the final five of the 08’ season. But even then they still won 89 games, and weren’t mathematically eliminated until Sept. 23.

The Yankees are a staple of winning, but that doesn’t mean winning is guaranteed, or that it will last forever. One year, they will be bad and miss the playoffs. That’s a fact, and when that day eventually does come, one could only imagine the outcry in New York. The newspapers, the tweets, and the amount of media attention pouring down will be phenomenal.

But it’s inevitable and perhaps that day is coming sooner than we expected. “I never would have dreamed this would happen to the Yankees,” ESPN’s John Kruk said of the Bombers plan of cutting payroll. However, the alarm isn’t going off anytime soon for Yankee fans, as this is the new reality, and it’s a scary one.

A neutered Cashman is currently limited to offering just one-year contracts, and he already has $168 locked into ten players. Thus far, the only moves made have been a trio of one-year contracts for greying pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. Getting these three back in the fold is huge, but the team has many pressing issues.

Currently the catchers are all backups. The right fielder is a player to be named, third base is open for at least the first half of the season with Alex Rodriguez needing surgery on his left hip, and the bench is barren.

The team was outbid by the lowly Pirates for Russell Martin, and Eric Chavez took his services to Arizona. Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano have played their final game in pinstripes, and nobody knows when Rodriguez will be playing his next. Raul Ibanez is said to be considering going home to play for Seattle, and Ichiro is being courted by a number of teams.

This is a Yankee team coming off a four game sweep at hands of the defending Champion Tigers, who are also only getting better with now Tori Hunter and a healthy Victor Martinez. Sure, the Yankees came up only eight wins short of a Championship last year, but that’s eight less than the goal.

Despite this, the Yankees are in the process of building a team that could prove not only unsuccessful but also unwatchable, and as a fan you have to wonder if the Yankee motto has really gone from winning over everything, to profit over everything?

By taking away Cashman's authority, Hal and Hank are sending a clear signal that indeed profits come before baseball. The reality is becoming ever clearer that this is no longer George’s Evil Empire, and his sons are only known here for handing out the egregious contract to A-Rod.    

Despite being in charge when the Yankees won their 27th title, the Big Boss was still around and the title felt like one last one for George. If he was still around he would have already given his sons a brash tongue-lashing for being so foolish as to suggest the Yankees cut payroll rather than stuff the holes in the roster with freshly minted dollar bills. 

But now this $189 million crusade is on them, and they better hope it works. This team has issues short and long term, and for the first time in recent memory, they do not plan to write a large check or two to make them go away.

Sure those checks may be costly, but protecting the Yankee brand is priceless.

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