The way the New York Yankees see it, they've got room in their budget for three big free-agent signings this offseason, three chances to help right a 2013 gone wrong, position themselves well for beyond 2014 and stay under their $189 million payroll target all the while. Let this much be said for the Yankees: Whatever they lack in make-it-rain ostentatiousness, they're making up for in damn-the-torpedoes persistence.
The Yankees are in on practically every big-name free agent, sources told Yahoo Sports, some heavier than others, some as backup plans, all indications that free-agent follies of the past are no impediment for a team whose player-development failures in recent seasons have left a roster barren of young talent. The Yankees fully understand the inefficiencies of free agency, particularly at the top of the market, where their list includes hitters Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, Stephen Drew, Jhonny Peralta and Brian McCann, and pitchers Masahiro Tanaka, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Dan Haren.
[Related: Phillies make first big free-agent move]
Currently, according to calculations by Yahoo Sports, the Yankees have about $55.5 million in payroll flexibility if Alex Rodriguez's suspension is overturned and around $83 million if arbitrator Fredric Horowitz bans him from all 162 games in 2014. Those figures include luxury-tax numbers for seven players (A-Rod, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells), arbitration estimates for seven players provided by MLBTradeRumors.com (David Robertson, Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, Shawn Kelley, Jayson Nix, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart), pre-arbitration salary estimates for five players (Eduardo Nunez, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Preston Claiborne and Vidal Nuno) and the typical $15 million or so budgeted for insurance, pension, minor league call-ups and other miscellany.
While much of baseball enters this offseason vowing to mimic the Red Sox's patch-and-play free-agent strategy, the Yankees are the Yankees, no matter their attempts to hit the reset button on their luxury-tax number this year. Even if A-Rod escapes suspension and earns his full $27.5 million salary plus an expected $6 million home run bonus, sources said the Yankees fully expect to balance three sizeable contracts with their current roster.
At the top of their want list: Cano and Tanaka. While the Yankees would like to re-sign the 31-year-old second baseman at somewhere in the $180 million range, their best leverage is the expectation that no other team has the motivation or financial wherewithal to join the bidding. Should another deep-pocketed team join the foray, almost surely they'll jump into the $200 million-plus neighborhood expected to lock up Cano.
Because Tanaka's posting fee to acquire his rights from the Rakuten Golden Eagles does not count against the team's taxable salary, he holds greater appeal to the Yankees than any other team. One source with knowledge of the Yankees' plans vowed they were "going to be bold" with Tanaka, the 25-year-old right-hander who could give them half of the 400 innings general manager Brian Cashman said they're seeking.
If that third player is a pitcher, it would leave the Yankees in need of a utilityman, at the very least – Jeter and A-Rod's age and health do not inspire much confidence – and perhaps a catcher, with the designated hitter spot to be a patchwork endeavor. Neither would be big dollars. The luxury tax factors in the average annual value of players' salaries, so assuming Cano's sits around $25 million, Tanaka's $10 million and the third player's around $15 million – a big assumption, but a fair ballpark – it would leave the Yankees about $5 million to spend on three players.
There remains the possibility the Yankees do exceed the threshold, which would mean they'd continue to pay a 50 percent tax on every dollar over $189 million in future seasons. Should they stay under, the tax rate would reset to 17.5 percent for 2015. They breathed a sigh of relief Monday when outfielder Curtis Granderson turned down a qualifying offer for $14.1 million. Not only did it ensure them a first-round draft pick to make up for one they may lose signing a free agent, it would have hamstrung their budget and perhaps forced a rethinking of the $189 million target.
For now, the plan is going swimmingly. A larger market for Cano hasn't materialized. The new posting system could allow them to pay less than what they bid. Players are intrigued by their strong offers on minor league contracts, which would allow the Yankees to build the minor league depth they haven't themselves developed and give them strong options in case of injury.
That, remember, is the underlying issue with these Yankees more than any: age. The likelihood of them pulling a Boston and following a substandard year with a championship is mitigated by their core. Boston supplemented a group of under-30 players (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz). The Yankees' penciled-in linchpins will play at these ages this year: Jeter (40), Ichiro (40), A-Rod (38), Soriano (38), Teixeira (34), Sabathia (33), Gardner (30) and Nova (27). Average age: Ouch.
Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Yankees used 56 players last season, tied with the woebegone Chicago Cubs for most in the major leagues. The injury-riddled Blue Jays used 53, as did the awful Mets and Marlins. The horror-show Astros used 52. The Yankees kept grasping for something that wasn't there, the sort of play we're not used to seeing from a franchise that at one point set the standard for balancing long- and short-term prosperity.
This is a seminal season for the Yankees not just because of the Red Sox's championship and the $189 million question but the question of who these Yankees want to be. They always will have the ability to outspend teams, even the Dodgers. The Steinbrenner scions may not have their father's bluster; they do have his business acumen, with smart people who know how to print money running the place. That's not what they want, though, not when a superior alternative exists.
The Yankees' broken player-development system must regenerate talent. They can't flat-out miss on first-round picks, as they've done on almost every single one since Jeter in 1992. Part of that, of course, is picking toward the end of the first round because they've been good. Not signing Mark Prior or Gerrit Cole didn't help. Even so, the only players with significant major league time were Ian Kennedy, Eric Milton, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain; their track record with position players is beyond dreadful.
After choosing three players in the first round last year, the Yankees likely end up with one first-round pick this season, if they re-sign Cano, forfeit theirs signing a free agent with a qualifying offer, get one from Granderson absconding and see Hiroki Kuroda go back to Japan. Which means they need first-rounder Eric Jagielo to follow up on a solid debut, and Gary Sanchez to move on the cusp of becoming their big league catcher, and Greg Bird to repeat a breakout season, and someone out of their pile of young arms – especially Michael Pineda or Manny Banuelos – to prove himself rotation-ready.
Until then they are happy to be the Yankees and drop a few hundred million in free agency. If prudence is the new buzzword in New York – yes, the word is relative – perhaps it's warranted after years of spending put them in this position. The Yankees may be changing, but they're still the Yankees, and the empire is far from crumbling.