Here is the list of major league free agents signed this offseason by the New York Yankees:
This is not a terribly overwhelming list. It is very pale. On the bright side, it has cost the Yankees exactly $0. No other team in Major League Baseball this offseason has spent the winter not even spending a plug nickel. If somebody truly believes the apocalypse is nigh, perhaps it's because the team worth $4 billion sat out an entire free agent period while the rest of the baseball industry lavished $2.5 billion on players.
And yet for the chuckles of executives who see the freest-spending franchise in the world suddenly finding austerity like it was born again, there is a plan here, one that speaks to baseball's tectonic plates shifting and the Yankees readying themselves for a future that looks different from today.
Maybe even a future with Bryce Harper.
Now, we'll get to that, though first it's imperative to understand how and why the Yankees are looking years down the road when deciding to sit out this offseason. And it's best to start with two numbers: $508 million and $8.1 million. The Yankees' yearly revenues in the most recent franchise valuations by Forbes were $508 million, and their operation income – money in the black – was $8.1 million. That is not a lot, not when New York's revenues exceed the second-place Dodgers' by more than $100 million.
The incentives to change, then, are quite obvious, and it so happens a number of events are conspiring to help the Yankees do just that and position themselves remarkably well going forward. The long play started last season, when the Yankees steered clear of Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, and continued this winter with their left swipes of David Price and Zack Greinke. It showed a remarkable amount of restraint from a team that in the past would rather gnaw through steel links than chain itself to any financial preconditions.
If reason No. 1 was minimal profit, No. 2 is every bit as important: the fear of the unknown. And with baseball ready to begin negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement soon, the unknown is palpable. New York has no idea what percentage of its revenue it will be sharing with lower-revenue teams. Currently, the tax rate assessed to every team is 34 percent of local revenue, and that pool is split evenly among the 30 teams. High-earning teams pay what amounts to another 14 percent on top of that. The Yankees give more in revenue-sharing dollars than every other team, and it's not particularly close. With the gap between the richest and poorest teams as significant as ever, they could give even more, something they'll surely resist.
On the other hand, the new CBA stands to benefit the Yankees considerably. Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports the expectation is the luxury-tax threshold will jump from the current $189 million to more than $200 million. The extra leeway should allow the Yankees to avoid paying it for the first time since it came into existence, significant not only because the Yankees have spent nearly $300 million in overages the last 13 years but because dipping beneath it would reset New York's luxury-tax standing and ensure their inevitable jump back over the threshold is taxed around 20 percent instead of the current 50 percent.
There's a chance this could happen as soon as the 2017 season. Currently, the Yankees expect a little more than $50 million to fall off the books with the impending free agency of Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman and Ivan Nova. If CC Sabathia injures his pitching shoulder, it could prevent his $25 million option from vesting and bring them even lower.
As it stands, the Yankees have approximately $150.5 million in luxury-taxable dollars already for 2017 among Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Brett Gardner, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro. (The taxable dollars are determined by taking the average-annual value of a contract, so even though Rodriguez is making $21 million next year, he counts as $27.5 million for tax purposes.) Add in reasonable arbitration raises for seven players expected to reach it next season, and the taxable number jumps to $187.5 million.
Considering the mediocrity of the free-agent class after this season – and mediocre is a kind way to describe it, with Stephen Strasburg the best pitcher and 35-year-old Jose Bautista perhaps the top hitter – there's a chance the Yankees sit out another winter to beat back the tax early.
For the sake of argument, though, say they don't. Hell, say they sign Strasburg for $28 million a year. After the 2017 season, Sabathia is gone, as are Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley. Even factoring in generous raises for Dellin Betances, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Chasen Shreve, that would leave the Yankees at $152 million. And if Masahiro Tanaka were to opt out of his contract, which he has the option to do following 2017, that would shave another $22.1 million in taxable money off the budget.
Here is where the Yankees' resolve will be tested. The free agent class of 2017-18 is far better than the previous mess, with Jake Arrieta, Tyson Ross, Todd Frazier, Eric Hosmer, Justin Upton, Lorenzo Cain, Johnny Cueto, Brandon Belt, Lucas Duda, J.D. Martinez, Alcides Escobar, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman, Mike Moustakas, Trevor Plouffe and others available. If the Yankees can manage to stay competitive enough in 2016 and '17 to ward off compulsively spending in the offseasons after, the confluence between their patience and the bonanza awaiting in the class of 2018-19 could save them tens of millions of dollars in luxury-tax payments.
Calling the 2018-19 offseason a bonanza might be selling it short. Though it's more than two years away, teams already are banking cash in anticipation of it, multiple sources have told Yahoo Sports. The deluge of talent that could be available – Josh Donaldson, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Adam Jones and Jason Heyward – is led by Harper, the reigning National League MVP who will just have turned 26.
Nobody with the Yankees dared comment on Harper, even off the record, because their future marriage is considered so inevitable by most in the sport that the team dare not trifle with tampering charges. Considering the pains to which the Yankees are going to tighten finances, Harper as the endgame makes worlds of sense.
His age – and the ability to cull prime years from a free agent, a rarity – is as much of a selling point as his ability. And Harper's transformation from enfant terrible to the most marketable player in baseball by a large margin fits the Yankees' ethos. Star power matters to the Yankees more than any other team.
How much they're willing to pay for their ideal fit is the question. Presuming Harper plays at a similar level for the next three years, his contract floor will be $400 million – a number, surely, at which the Washington Nationals won't balk in their efforts to keep Harper in their uniform for his entire career. Their presence creates the prospect of a bidding war, and the idea that Harper skips $400 million altogether and aims for a half-billion-dollar deal is not altogether far-fetched. If that's the price it takes to ensure he's in the same lineup as Greg Bird and Aaron Judge and Jorge Mateo and Gary Sanchez, the homegrown core that the Yankees hope will have developed by then, it's just money, something the Yankees in the past have all but printed.
Business today isn't quite what it once was. Last year, the Yankees averaged less than 40,000 fans per game for the first time since the turn of the millennium. Though they still led the American League in attendance, it was more than 7,000 per game off their peak at the new Yankee Stadium, and they nearly dropped out of MLB's top 10 with an 80.4 percent capacity rate.
For now, they keep one eye on the future with the other toward a 2016 team that has flaws. The everyday lineup remains filled with old or overpaid, the rotation is a jumble of health questions and the back end of the bullpen is unlike anything baseball has ever seen – in a good way. Joe Girardi helped manage a middling Yankees team into the postseason last year. Doing so again only would validate his abilities.
Because even with the trades for Chapman and Castro, it's not like he's got a whole lot of new material to work with. The Yankees did sign 19 players this offseason, every one of them to minor league deals. Maybe Anthony Swarzak or Pete Kozma or Vinnie Pestano or Donovan Solano surprises and becomes the sort of under-the-radar contributor general manager Brian Cashman has made a living unearthing in recent years.
Most of those hits came on smaller major league deals. Cashman didn't have the leeway for even that this season. The Yankees, forever micro thinkers, are going macro and doing so unapologetically. The risk to them is worth it. Getting under the luxury tax is a nice benefit. Getting Bryce Harper is the real prize.