Why the Yankees changed course this winter, and why they had to
Yankees GM Brian Cashman tried last winter to commit to a youth movement
This winter, the Yankees have targeted several high-priced players
The Yankees have to appease a giant fan base and their many business interests
"I'm definitely fully invested in a lot of the young talent. You get attached to it."
-- Yankees general manager Brian Cashman after passing on Johan Santana, Dec. 4, 2007.
"I will be patient with the young pitchers and players. There's no question about that because I know how these players develop. But as far as missing the playoffs -- if we miss the playoffs by the end of this year, I don't know how patient I'll be."
-- Hank Steinbrenner, just 56 days later, Jan. 29, 2008
Another year, another philosophy. The Yankees blew up their "investment" in young players after only one year. Nothing like missing the playoffs just once to scare the Yankees into turning their organizational culture on a dime -- well, millions of dimes, actually.
The Yankees would rather give a medical risk such as A.J. Burnett five guaranteed years and pay a declining Andy Pettitte $10 million to be a No. 5 starter than give the ball to Phil Hughes, who has gone from the wonder child not worth trading for Santana to a spare part. Ian Kennedy? Forgotten. Melky Cabrera? Unmentionable.
The Yankees also gave thought to trading for centerfielder Mike Cameron, which would give them seven everyday players next year at ages 30, 33, 35, 35, 35, 36 and 37 -- smack in defiance of the industry-wide trend of the The Testing Era of winning with young players in the actuarial sweet spot of their careers.
Was it panic? No, more of a rush to business as usual. It was surprising to hear so many general managers on their way out of the winter meetings badmouthing the Yankees' checkbook approach to team architecture. "The Yankees bid against themselves for CC Sabathia." "The Yankees are crazy to guarantee Burnett five years." "The Yankees are bad for baseball in these economic times."
Those people should know better. The Yankees are a global operation that must run at peak capacity, which means, at a minimum, four million paying customers per year, strong ratings on their regional sports network and a postseason berth. They had $80 million coming off their 2008 payroll, and may even come in with a lower payroll for 2009 when all is said and done.
They have needed a strikeout pitcher for their rotation for about five years, and the perfect guy, Sabathia, was available. What did people expect? New York's greatest asset is not player development, but financial resources. It should be expected to use that asset.
The Yankees, as Steinbrenner foreshadowed, don't do patience well, especially when it comes to pitching. It is the only team in baseball not to get more than 10 wins from 25-and-under starters in any one of the past four seasons. Over the past five seasons, the Yankees have a total of only 27 wins from starting pitchers no older than 25, ranking them as second-worst in baseball when it comes to such young pitchers. (The worst offenders: Houston, 21. Yankees, 27. St. Louis and Milwaukee, 43.)
The "investment" became too risky. The Yankees could not risk another year of retrenching and not making the playoffs, not with the prices they are charging at their Taj Mahal of a ballpark. (On a smaller scale, the Red Sox found a similar religion when they looked at sad faces and empty seats at Fenway Park for the final two months of the 2006 season without a pennant race.)
Sabathia was a good buy for the Yankees. He gives them innings at a premium level and he misses bats, the single most important profile that has been missing from their past four teams. His contract is not so outrageous, not when he barely leapfrogged the money the Mets gave Santana -- and that wasn't even done on the free agent market. They needed to increase their bid to get Sabathia to accept it and move on to their other business. It was a smart use of resources, especially with the third-year out clause, which is the equivalent of a necessary pre-nup.
"Miserable," is how one executive familiar with Sabathia predicted how the lefty will be in New York. "He's a happy, nice guy who is comfortable in a small-town environment. He's not going to like those expectations. Look what he's done in the playoffs."
It is true enough that Sabathia's hesitation about New York is a yellow flag. New York is a great place for people who want to be there, a minefield for people who go there reluctantly. But Sabathia's talent is worth the risk, and the out clause could be a win-win for both the pitcher and the team.
In these times, the Yankees are the anomaly. Teams are laying off employees and losing corporate sponsorships. The problems are real. "I'll march any agent who doesn't think so up into our offices and show them the numbers," said one AL executive. "And they can take a look around all the empty offices while they're there."
The rest of the free agent market, especially for corner outfielders in their 30s, has been stagnant. Teams just don't have the same guaranteed money. They also realize that unathletic players in their 30s are poor buys in this era. A new sobriety has seized the market.
But the Yankees have a cushion in this economy because of their ballpark, their network, their international brand, their market, the money coming off their payroll, and especially their fans. Maybe they did give the winter meetings an ugly image because of their spending, when all around us people are losing jobs and great chunks of their retirement accounts. But their mission is to win every year, not to protect an industry image. "They operate by different rules than the 29 other teams," one GM said.
So go ahead, blame the Yankees if you wish. But understand their advantages and their mandate. And if you don't like the way they spend, you might take solace in how they continue to forfeit draft picks, pay players big money for the decline years of their careers, ignore the industry trend of going younger and more athletic, and, even if they are improving, trail other organizations in player development. The problems associated with the recession are real, as real as the advantages enjoyed by the Yankees, which only have become more pronounced in these times.