The Yankees currently have a need, and for once they’re not throwing money at it. According to some reports, it’s not because they haven’t found anything they like, but rather because they’re unwilling to raise payroll any further. They’re already at around $200 million for 2012, and we’ve already heard more than enough about the possible austerity budget for 2014. Whether they’re really trying to get payroll to a certain level by 2014, of they’re just getting out of the habit of giving out big-money, long-term contracts, it means that their biggest need this off-season, pitching, won’t get typical Yankee attention.
While avoiding long-term contracts for pitchers such as C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson make sense to varying degrees, what’s striking about this off-season is the Yankees’ reluctance to explore short-term deals that could boost the 2012 rotation. They’ve distanced themselves from Roy Oswalt even after learning he seeks only a one-year deal. More alarmingly, they’ve backed off Hiroki Kuroda, a pitcher who is not only seeking a short-term deal, but is also a pitcher the Yankees reportedly like.
Why would the Yankees choose not to pursue a pitcher they like if he only requires a one-year contract? There are a few reasons, but these seem the most plausible.
1. They’re not interested in paying the price for Kuroda plus the luxury tax. The contracts on the book are already there and can’t go anywhere. Adding Kuroda will effectively add nearly $17 million to total 2012 expenditures.
2. They’re worried that Kuroda won’t handle the transition to the AL in general, and the AL East specifically, well. If he’s not measurably better than Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, he’s not worth much, never mind $17 million. Since the Yankees clearly have a budget this winter, that $17 million could effectively wipe out any remaining flexibility, which could affect other aspects of the team. In other words, it’s a bigger risk than they’d normally consider for a player on a one-year deal.
Unfortunately, this ties the Yankees hands. They can’t do anything with the big contracts currently on the books. The players have no-trade clauses, play an integral role on the 2012 team, or are untradeable. That money is on the books and is not going anywhere, much to everyone’s chagrin.
We can look back through recent Yankees history and take umbrage with certain contracts. The A-Rod contract stands out. The Yankees not only had him on what was, at the time, a fairly reasonable contract, but they also had payments coming fro Texas to help offset the costs. When he opted out and re-signed they lost it all. Now they’re paying luxury tax on a $27.5 million average annual contract for the next six years. While Rodriguez played an integral role on the 2009 championship team, it’s still pretty clear that the Yankees will later suffer for that contract. It’s certainly one that is holding them back from making other moves.
Yet if you look at the contracts doled out after A-Rod, it’s hard to find complaints. The Yankees needed CC Sabathia in the worst way following 2008. While no one wants to hear it now, they also needed A.J. Burnett. At the time they had two returning starting pitchers, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain, both of whom were coming off fairly major injuries. Cashman said at the outset that he was signing two starting pitchers. Sabathia and Burnett were hands down the best available. The Yankees did take a gamble on Burnett’s health, though that has rarely been an issue in his three seasons with the team. It’s easy to hate the contract now because of his performance, but at the time it made total sense. The Yankees simply needed talented arms at that exact moment.
Then there’s the Mark Teixeira contract, another one that’s coming under increased scrutiny after two disappointing seasons. But as with Burnett, it’s tough to look back on that and see a folly. The first baseman at the time was Nick Swisher, a player the Yankees apparently held in lesser regard than Xavier Nady. Their 3-4-5 hitters were going to be Hideki Matsui, A-Rod, and, well, probably Nady or Swisher. That might not be horrible, but it’s not the formidable core we’d seen from past Yankees teams. Bringing in Teixeira beefed up the offense in a significant way.
The Yankees remained quiet in 2010, though they did trade for Curtis Granderson. Yet his contract is relatively reasonable — he far outperformed it in 2011. The following off-season, though, the Yankees did hand out some big contracts. Mariano Rivera got two years and $30 million. Derek Jeter got three years and $51 million. It’s easy to complain about that contract, since Jeter will probably never provide production commensurate with his salary. It’s tough to say what they were going to do in that situation. Would they have let him walk? Would he have walked? Who would have played shortstop? There are just too many questions involved with that deal.
That leaves just one big-money contract from last winter: Rafael Soriano. Bringing him in wasn’t a bad move, per se. After all, he’s capable of legitimate shutdown performances. But at the time the Yankees already had a quality setup corps in Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Adding Soriano wasn’t exactly necessary. As I wrote at the time”
In terms of the 2011 team, there are no complaints. The Yankees had plenty of money to spend, and they certainly upgraded the back end of the bullpen. This will lead to a greater enjoyment of the 2011 season. The Yanks might win a few games that they otherwise would have lost, and we will all be a little less irritable the next mornings. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is what this means for the 2012 and 2013 teams.
Maybe the Yankees really do have a limitless budget. Maybe they can raise it to $220 million if the right players become available. Brian Cashman has always asserted that he operates under a strict budget, but Brian Cashman also said that he wasn’t going to surrender his first round pick in this year’s draft. If Soriano’s contract doesn’t prevent the Yankees from making a move in the next three years, it’s hard not to like it. But if they can’t or don’t make a move because of payroll concerns, then the contract becomes a problem.
Now the Yankees have a legitimate need. The $11 million they’re paying Soriano this year could easily buy them a stopgap solution for the 2012 rotation. But they’re now holding back, because the payroll is already high enough. Of course, the other contracts are holding them back as well. Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter, Rivera, Cano, Sabathia, and Burnett all make more than Soriano. But when they were signed they at least filled areas of need. Soriano did not. The Yankees could have passed on him and had just as much success in 2011. Yet they did sigh him, and now they can’t or won’t make a move because of payroll concerns.
Perhaps at the time the Yankees didn’t plan to significantly stifle payroll starting this off-season. Maybe they thought they could continue to add players as needed, even with Soriano on the payroll. Either way, the Yankees are suffering currently because of this move. The Soriano signing, while not bad at the time, was unnecessary. That unnecessary contract is apparently the difference, right now, between adding a needed player and not.