If they are to remain the most valuable franchise in sports and continue their history of success, team brass need to convince Hal Steinbrenner to do one of two things: (1) Nix his plan to cut payroll to $189 million next season and start shopping, or (2) Write off next season as a year to develop young players and trim payroll.
I'm a fan of Option 2, an approach that worked for the 2012 Boston Red Sox.
What the Yankees should not do is continue to parade out a collection of replacement-level scrubs and overpriced, aging former All-Stars, and pray that Joe Girardi can make the Bronx Bombers a slightly better than .500 team while making millions behind the scenes.
Last season, while team officials were negotiating a deal with CBS Radio that, according to the Daily News, will net the Yankees $15-$20 million per year, the team's starting catcher was Chris Stewart (.293 OBP, 4 HR, 25 RBIs in 109 games). While executives at Yankee Global Enterprises were managing the Yankees' billion-dollar regional sports network, Eduardo Nunez (.307 OBP, 3 HR, 28 RBIs in 90 games) played the majority of games at shortstop and Vernon Wells struggled to collect base hits and catch flyballs.
More of the same is definitely not the answer, and it doesn't seem right to fans who can't afford to visit Yankee Stadium anymore.
If the Yankees decide that they want to compete -- not just hover around the .500 mark -- next season and beyond, they cannot do it with a $189 million payroll. As of now, Alex Rodriguez is on the books for $25 million, CC Sabathia is owed $23 million, Mark Teixeira is owed $22.5 million, Ichiro Suzuki is set to earn $6.5 million, and Wells and Alfonso Soriano will each get about $3 million of their salaries from the Yankees. In addition, Derek Jeter will likely exercise his $8 million player option.
The problem isn't the $100 million left to spend on free agents and re-signing players like Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner and David Robertson, but in getting production from an aging core. A-Rod is 37 and facing suspension, Sabathia is coming off his worse season in recent memory, Teixeira -- who missed most of last season to injury -- is a giant question mark, and Suzuki, Wells, Soriano, and Jeter are in the twilights of their careers. Whether it's loss of speed, defensive range, or fastball velocity, the Bruised Bombers all showed signs of aging last season. If their 2013 numbers were bad, just imagine what their 2014 output will look like.
The Yankees' other option -- the smarter option, in my opinion -- is to rethink their player development system, test their young prospects, look hard at the 2014 schedule and, well, punt. In hindsight, they should have done this before the 2013 trading deadline and dealt Cano like the Red Sox traded Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett a year earlier.
Baseball America recently ranked the Yankees' 2013 draft class third-best in the majors. This June, if they don't sign a high-end free agent, the Yankees will pick at least 18th -- their highest draft position since 2005, when the team passed over Matt Garza, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury to select C.J. Henry, one in a series of first-round draft busts since selecting Jeter with the sixth pick in 1992. (They could also net another first-round pick if Curtis Granderson is offered -- and he rejects -- a qualifying offer.)
Meanwhile, the Yankees' farm system is continuing to develop, although most of the team's high-end prospects (Rafael DePaula, Gary Sanchez) are still a few years away from making an impact at the major league level. Nevertheless, if prospects like catcher C.J. Murphy and outfielders Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott were given a chance to start next season, it could go a long way toward their development.
I'd like to see what the Yankees have on the farm and root for homegrown talent rather than watching multimillionaires swing through waist-high fastballs. Yes, such a team may not finish above .500, but it would go a long way toward making 2015 and beyond more enjoyable.
If anything, the Yankees can look to the Boston Red Sox to see how spending a year to rebuild can advance the team's long-term prospects.
After finishing 90-72 in 2011, Boston fell to 69-93 last season. This season, spurred by homegrown talent like Buchholz, Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester, they finished 97-65. Their most expensive free agent? John Lackey, whose $15.25M salary this season is almost $10 million less than what A-Rod was owed.
In an era of sabermetrics and increased scrutiny into players' use of performance-enhancing drugs, you can't buy championships anymore. You may be able to secure a single trophy, as the Yankees did in 2009 after signing Sabathia and Teixeira, but the long-term costs can be great, as evidenced by the pair's 2013 numbers.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
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