Owning a professional sports franchise in New York has it’s advantages. The city sells itself to free agents, making a general manager’s job that much easier to attract talent. But free agency isn’t always the route to success in sports.
The New York Yankees have perhaps been the most active franchise when it comes to free agency, a staple in baseball since the dreaded reserve clause went the way of the dodo in the mid-1970’s. Free agency has been a huge part of their business model and it has served them well for the most part.
But that was back when the Boss, George Steinbrenner, was in charge. He had little patience at times and set his team back by throwing good money after bad way too often. Those days in the Bronx are a distant memory with George’s youngest son, Hal, at the helm.
Hal has brought some sanity to an organization that had spent wantonly for decades. He even has entertained the notion of selling the team, something his father would have never done, which tipped his hand that winning at all costs was no longer the team’s major objective.
The Yankees paid over $303 million in competitive luxury tax penalties between 2003-2016, almost three times as much as the next team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who paid $113 million. Turning a profit has been difficult, even for the Yankees, who are arguably the strongest brand in American sports. Hal knew he had to put a tourniquet on the spigot of cash flowing out of the club’s deep coffers.
The decision was made easier after the team saddled themselves with some untenable, inexplicably high contracts entered into by GM Brian Cashman that pushed them over the luxury cap threshold and hamstrung them financially. Huge deals to C Brian McCann and OF Jacoby Ellsbury, along with the George-sanctioned megadeal to Alex Rodriguez, strapped the Yankees – and continue to do so to a degree- for the foreseeable future. Something had to change.
McCann was traded to Houston last year and Rodriguez “retired” to take another position within the organization, but the Yankees had to eat the rest of their contracts in order to rid them from the roster. McCann will cost them $5.5 million this year and next while ARod is due to collect the last installment of the 10-year, $275 million deal he negotiated with the late George over a decade ago.
Ellsbury is another story. The Yankees are stuck with the remainder of his ridiculous seven-year, $153 million contract that will pay him $21 million per year the new four seasons. Even with his contract, the Yankees payroll will drop from $175 million in 2017 to $98 million in 2018 and then down even further to $69 million in 2019.
Hal and Cashman have managed to get the Yankees out from under the thumb of luxury cap hell by adroitly trading away veteran players in deals that returned prospects and young players with tons of upside. They plan to mix these players in with their own homegrown prospects and supplement them free agent signings where needed. Just like small market teams do.
Cashman has used the trade market to his advantage. He dealt away top relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller to the Cubs and Indians, respectively, last summer for a chunk of young talent then signed Chapman back after he became a free agent after the season. He also made scores of other deals over the past three years that gotten the Yankees younger and much less expensive to maintain. They finally have leverage in their corner. The only major free agent moves Cashman had to make other than bringing back Chapman were the signing of OF Matt Holliday and 1B Chris Carter.
They will still need some veterans to play up to snuff. Ellsbury, Chapman, RP Tyler Clippard, OF Brett Gardner, 3B Chase Headley, RP Adam Warren, INF Starlin Castro, OF Aaron Hicks and starting pitchers Mashiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia all have to produce for the Yankees to challenge this year.
The plan appears to be working. The Yankees are 10-5 to start the season and are an exciting team to watch again. The young players may not match their “Core Five” of the mid-1990’s (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams) but they could come close. They began their renaissance with several home grown products to build around.
OF Aaron Judge is wowing the crowds with tape-measure home runs. Starting pitcher Luis Severino is poised to come into his own. Then there is Greg Bird, who is off to a slow start after sitting out last season with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He is the Yankees’ future at first base.
Catcher Gary Sanchez, currently sidelined, hopes to improve on his breakout rookie season last year, when he blasted 20 HRs in 201 at-bats last year. Jordan Montgomery, a fourth round draft pick back in 2014, has shown promise as a left-handed starter and made the Yankees’ rotation out of spring training.
Throw in RP Dellin Betances, who is a three-time All Star and SS Didi Gregorius, Jeter’s successor who was acquired last year from Arizona and has played much better than anyone anticipated, and the Yankees have a decent core to build around.
This is what the roster looks like now and that’s before any of Cashman’s latest booty from last year’s trading bonanza begins to bubble up:
• Traded C Brian McCann to Houston for RHPs Albert Abreu and Jorge Guzman.
• Traded RP Andrew Miller to Cleveland for OF Clint Frazier, LHP Justus Sheffield and RHPs Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen.
• Traded RP Aroldis Chapman to Chicago NL for Warren, SS Gleyber Torres, OF Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford.
• Traded OF Carlos Beltran to Texas to Texas for RHPs Dillon Tate, Erik Swanson and Nick Green.
Time will tell if the Yankees hit a home run with any of these trades but several of these prospects are highly touted. Their farm system has leapfrogged to No. 2 overall as per MLB.com and Torres and Frazier are among baseball’s top overall prospects.