On Sunday, the Yankees posted a Yankees On Demand video previewing their 2019 season, in which the team interviewed owner and managing partner Hal Steinbrenner. In it, Steinbrenner gave an explanation for their seemingly penny-wise ways:
“Look, we have Stanton, [whom] we just brought on board a year ago. I’m not against long-term deals. Clearly, there are concerns about the ending years of those long-term deals. But what I try to do every offseason is just figure out what our biggest area of need is. This year, it was not an infielder and not an outfielder. It was pitching. That’s what we immediately addressed. We went after what was available and what we liked and what we felt would be a good fit here. We leave no stone unturned. Proposals are always coming my way from the baseball ops people and I’m going to consider every single thing that they suggest or throw my way.”
The thing any fan (me among them) of the Yankees will remember about this offseason is the ridiculous and ill-fated pursuit of Manny Machado and (not even a pursuit at all) of Bryce Harper.
It’s not like they didn’t make additions, so I’ll start with that. They added DJ LeMahieu, who looks to add something like a win or two while Didi Gregorius is out, as well as Troy Tulowitzki. They traded their best pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield for James Paxton, and they signed Adam Ottavino, and re-signed Zach Britton, to shore up the bullpen. That leaves them with a FanGraphs projection of 95 wins, which is nothing to scoff at.
That’s not why people are rightfully mad, of course. The Yankees currently have a revenue over $600 million, and their current payroll sits around $218 million. In 2005, for example, they had a payroll of $208 million with an associated revenue of $277 million. Sure, they have the $92 million debt service payments for the new stadium in place, but the numbers are there in plain English: the teams spends a lower percentage of their revenue on salary then they probably ever have under the Steinbrenners.
Which is why the justification that they essentially swapped a Machado/Harper contract for Giancarlo Stanton falls very flat. I would personally prefer “we just don’t feel like it” over “we can’t afford it” because at least it’s true, but this justification is being used around the league at a time where free agent salaries are falling, and for a team that just got washed by their rival in the Divisional Series, one that chose to blow past the tax and get the talent they needed in 2018, it should be a warning seen in flashing, neon lights.
Because, on paper, this is a fantastic, exciting team that will continue to draw crowds, win more than 90 games, and will most likely win a playoff spot. They have similar strengths and have added on to them: they still have the best or second best bullpen in baseball; they added a pitcher similar in caliber to Luis Severino, who was just signed to a team-friendly extension, and they added to their infield depth.
Which is why you can almost to a degree understand why Hal Steinbrenner is perplexed that fans are mad. They’re at a certain point on the win curve where each marginal win is less valuable, and they have put together, at its heart, a nearly perfect ball club.
The problem, though, is that an equally great one just won the World Series in the division, and they are the New York Yankees with a Machado-sized hole in their wallet. If they win the World Series, they assuage the fears of everyone and can confidently say they know how to technocratically manage a ball club, perfectly setting projected profit alongside projected wins in a tidy way that benefits ownership and the fans.
Yet if they lose, either in the postseason in a crushing manner because they lacked some punch, or they lose the division by a game or two and then get bumped in the Wild Card game, fans will wonder whether it was worth it to sit out on the stars that could have put them in more comfortable territory considering stars like Aaron Judge, Stanton, and Severino come around in a single group maybe once in generation.
In the last generation, and it was the late George’s main redeeming quality, he did not let the moment slip away. If the carefully constructed plan falters and fans watch the New Core slowly fade into the distance, they’ll wonder whether it was all worth it, and fans will see this moment as a turning point.