Yankees and Dodgers Struggle as Payroll Offers No Winning Guarantees

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The New York Yankees have invested $2.35 billion in player contracts since they last won the World Series in 2009, including $200.5 million this season as they struggle to overcome a slow start. At 20-16, they currently own Major League Baseball’s eighth-best record after a pair of narrow wins the last two nights at Tampa Bay, and as the sport nears the quarter pole of its 162-game campaign.

For numerous reasons, MLB’s richest club hasn’t enjoyed the ultimate success on the field, yet the value of the franchise has soared from $1.5 billion in 2009, the inaugural year of the new Yankee Stadium, to $6.75 billion this year, according to the most recent MLB franchise valuations by Sportico.

“I think that’s a pretty good investment [in player salaries],” said one baseball executive who preferred to remain anonymous.

Add to that investment the $371.9 million assessments the Yankees have paid to MLB for exceeding the luxury tax threshold since the system was collectively bargained with the MLB Players Association beginning with the 2003 season.

Has it been worth it? The Yankees have been to the World Series only twice since, losing to the then Florida Marlins in 2003 and defeating the Philadelphia Phillies nearly 12 years ago. Both Fall Classics lasted six games.

Wednesday night, the Yanks won 1-0 behind Gerrit Cole, the right-hander they signed in late 2019 to a nine-year, $324 million contract. Cole went eight scoreless innings, striking out 12 Rays, giving him 1,508 during his nine-year career.

Asked what he liked about an outing that led to Cole’s fifth win in six decisions, Yanks manager Aaron Boone, said: “All of it.”

Boone, in the last year of his contract as manager, knows it’s a crapshoot for the Yanks again this season, just as it is for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are trying to repeat as World Series champions. After Wednesday’s action, and a 7-1 win over the Seattle Mariners, the Dodgers were tied with two other teams for the 11th-best record in MLB at 20-17.

Seven teams with lower payrolls are ahead of the Yankees, and 10 are ahead of the Dodgers. The Chicago White Sox with the 15th highest payroll of $130.6 million–just above the league average–are 21-13, MLB’s best record.

“I’ve always thought that it’s not about the money you spend,” the source said. “That’s to show the fans you’re trying to remain competitive. After that, it’s up to the players.”

Compared to the Yankees, the Dodgers have invested $1.86 billion in player salaries since 2014, the first full season after Guggenheim Baseball Management purchased the club from Frank McCourt for $2.15 billion.

The Dodgers have eight consecutive National League West titles, three NL pennants and last year’s World Series win over the Tampa Bay Rays in six games to show for it. They have been in the World Series three times in the past four years. According to Sportico, the Dodgers are now worth $4.62 billion, third in MLB behind the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps an even better return for the investment.

Boston, now worth $4.8 billion, has now won the World Series four times since 2004, twice since the Yankees were last in it. The Red Sox were worth $833 million in 2009.

After a torrid 13-2 start, the Dodgers have struggled despite an MLB-leading payroll of $250 million, $40 million over this year’s tax threshold. They had lost 15 of their last 21 games before beating the Mariners Tuesday night in a 6-4 comeback win at Dodger Stadium. The suddenly unexpected victory was fashioned on an eighth-inning three-run homer by Gavin Lux, their .234 hitting second baseman.

Including their 43-17 record during last year’s COVID-shortened 60-game season, the Dodgers were 56-19 from the beginning of 2020 through April 17, when injuries and the laws of baseball averages began to catch up with them. After blowing a 7-1 lead at home and losing to the division-rival San Diego Padres, 8-7, in 11 innings on April 25, the Dodgers and their bullpen collapsed, and the season shifted.

“This felt great,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Tuesday’s game. “Obviously, every win’s important, and they all feel good, but they’re not created equal. This one just felt good because of the way we came back and finally won a ballgame.”

To be sure, the Dodgers have been playing all season without outfielder and 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger because of a fractured left fibula, and they lost young starter Dustin May to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, among a bevy of other injuries. But they are hitting only a ninth-best .243 as a team. Mookie Betts, who was signed last year to a 12-year, $365 million contract, is batting .258 and is battling a sore lower back.

On Tuesday night, the right-handed-hitting Betts struck out looking with the bases loaded in the seventh inning on a pitch that seemed about two inches off the inside of the plate. Talk about the law of baseball averages.

“I just think that right now, Mookie is in between,” Roberts said. “He’s taking more balls in the strike zone than he normally does, and he’s chasing more than he does. Any time a guy does that, you can tell that they might be thinking a little bit too much in between.”

For the Yankees, the offensive woes are even worse. They are 24th in MLB with a .221 batting average and 23rd with 142 runs scored. Conversely to the Dodgers, they opened 6-11 and since April 21, have begun digging themselves out of that deep hole.

They have won four in a row, and nine of their last 11, including back-to-back wins over the Rays at the Tropicana Dome, where the Yanks have had their problems in recent years, clawing back to only a game behind first-place Boston in the American League East.

Going into the series, the Yanks had lost five out of six to the Rays this year, including two in the Dome. Tampa Bay went 11-4 against New York last season, including a five-game AL Division Series victory played on the neutral turf of San Diego’s Petco Park.

Beating the Rays is always good for the Yanks, considering Tampa Bay has the 29th-highest payroll in MLB, at $70.5 million. But after Tuesday night’s 3-1 win, it was the Yankees with four players who ended the game hitting .234 or worse.

Four New York outfielders—Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner—are batting a combined .206 with 42 RBIs and 15 home runs; Judge accounts for eight of those homers and is hitting .271.

Tuesday began with news that Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin testing positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. The team has reported that it is one of MLB’s 30 clubs with more than 85% of its uniformed personnel vaccinated. Boone added Wednesday that six more staff members had also tested positive, including coaches Reggie Willits and Matt Blake, and other results were still pending. Gleyber Torres was held from Wednesday’s lineup “out of an abundance of caution.”

“I know everybody is going to read into that, but I hope it’s nothing,” Boone said about the shortstop who had the coronavirus this past December and also was vaccinated.

The three-game set that ends Thursday marked a hectic beginning of a critical even though early 10-game road trip that will also take the Yanks through Baltimore and Arlington, Texas.

“Yeah, it’s been a long 24-36 hours, whatever,” Boone said after winning two games against a Tampa Bay club that beat them by seven games last year to top the AL East. “Obviously, this is a team that has played us really tough last year and over the first part of this year, a division rival. So getting off on a good start on the trip and playing well was really nice to see.”

Boone’s job might hang in the balance, but it’s too early to worry and there’s plenty of time to determine whether the Yankees again are the best team money can buy, if not on the field, than certainly off it.

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