Yankees attempting to rebuild on the fly because a total tear down isn’t possible

The new second baseman. (Andy Lyons/Getty)
The new second baseman. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Over the last three years, the Yankees have been stuck somewhere between serious contention and rebuilding. They did make the postseason this past season, so they did have a chance to win the World Series, but they were hardly set up to be a force in October. At the same time, they weren’t bad enough that scaling back and rebuilding was necessary. They were in the middle of World Series contention and total rebuild.

Normally the middle is a bad place to be, especially for a smaller market team that may not have the resources to go for it and doesn’t want to risk alienating fans with an Astros style rebuild. A big market team like the Yankees can go all-in on contention at pretty much any time though. Sign some big name free agents and boom, you’ve at least generated buzz and given off the illusion of World Series contention, especially during the offseason.

The Yankees have stayed away from that approach this offseason. They haven’t signed any free agents — big name or small name! — and they insist they won’t spend much money. It’s clear the “World Series or bust” mentality no longer exists. Well, maybe it still exists, but it’s not being put into action right now. Trading Justin Wilson for two Triple-A arms is not a move that gets made by a team prioritizing contention in 2016.

At the same time, the Yankees are not undergoing a full blown rebuild because they can’t. Ownership insists they can’t rebuild in the New York market — “We can’t rebuild here. That’s not what we’re about, our fan base,” said team president Randy Levine to Brian Heyman recently — and while I’m sure many fans would accept a true rebuild, I think they’re in the minority. The casual fan still dominates the market and casual fans usually aren’t patient.

That said, there’s more to it than the market. The Yankees are not going through with a massive tear down rebuild because the roster doesn’t allow it. There are too many unmovable players on the roster. Unmovable because of no-trade clauses or declining performance or both. Wilson and Adam Warren were two of the few Yankees with positive trade value and they were dealt last week. Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller are two others and they’ve been in all sorts of rumors this offseason.

Beyond them, the Yankees don’t have a ton of desirable players to offer. They’re building a new young core — Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks, Dellin Betances, Luis Severino, and Greg Bird appear to be the main pieces of that new core — and those guys are presumably off-limits. Maybe not completely off-limits, but the Yankees don’t figure to move them unless they get a substantial return. As Brian Cashman said last week, they don’t do “old and expensive” anymore.

Even if the Yankees were willing to tear the whole damn thing down and rebuild from the ground up, they can’t. The rosters clogged and there’s little they can do about it. So, instead, they wait. They’re waiting for the big contracts to expire, and thankfully that will start next offseason with Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran. CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez and maybe Masahiro Tanaka will be gone the following offseason. Those are some huge contracts.

Shedding those salaries will give the Yankees a lot of money to play with — I can’t shake the feeling the team will prioritize getting under the luxury tax threshold at some point the next two years — and it also frees up some roster spots. Teixeira’s departure clears a spot for Bird. Beltran’s departure clears a spot for Aaron Judge. A-Rod‘s departure clears the DH spot for Brian McCann and thus the catcher’s spot for Gary Sanchez. So on and so forth.

It’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea. I’m sure the Yankees would love to trade Teixeira this offseason and install Bird as their full-time first baseman. They can’t do that though. Teixeira has full no-trade protection and has said in the past he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. So if you can’t trade him, what’s the best best thing? Try to win with him because the second wildcard makes it easier to get to the postseason than ever before.

So that’s the Yankees’ plan. Rebuild as much as possible and feign contention with the guys they’re stuck with. It sounds simple but it rarely is. The Yankees have made it pretty clear getting younger is the priority right now, not winning. If winning were the priority, the trade deadline would have gone differently and this offseason would be going differently. They are still good enough to at least be interesting, to win 80-something games and remain relevant for most of the summer. That’s better than a tear down in my book.

“I think at the end of the day, this is becoming a young players’ game, and I think it’s important to recognize that,” said Levine. “So I think you can win — and I think you need a blend of good young players and veterans and a lot of luck to go through the playoffs.”

Sliding in Starlin

(Mitchell Leff/Getty)
(Mitchell Leff/Getty)

When your team trades for a player in December, it’s like getting a present early; there’s a shiny new toy with “your” name on it and you can’t even open the damn thing–let only fully play with it–for months. So, in turn, you build up anticipation both positive and negative about what this new toy could or couldn’t be. Such is the case with this post and newly acquired infielder Starlin Castro and where he fits in the Yankee lineup (as presently constructed, barring any more moves).

For most of his career, Castro has hit in the number two spot in the lineup. During his time with the Cubs, he amassed 1117 plate appearances in that spot over 252 games. He’s also had about a full season’s worth of PA in the leadoff spot (529); the third spot (494); the cleanup spot (537); and the fifth spot (525). In the Bronx, Castro won’t be relied upon to hit in those important spots in the lineup. Rather, it’s likely he’ll be called upon to add some right handed balance to the overall lineup as well as some contact skill to the bottom of the Yankee order.

There are definitely reservations to have regarding Castro entering the Yankee lineup at all before we even get to where he’s going to hit in that lineup. Castro’s career high walk rate is only 6.2%, which he notched in 2014. He’s only been over 5% on his walk rate three times including 2014; the other two were in his rookie year of 2010 (5.7%) and 2012 (5.2%). His power has been up and down and either average or slightly below. New York’s success over the last 20 years has been predicated on patience and power, but not every player can be a take-and-rake guy, especially in today’s offensive climate and especially when that guy is a middle infielder. The Yankees have at least four guys who can fill at least one of the “take” or “rake” role–Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann–and they don’t necessarily “need” the bottom of the order guys to do that. Granted, it’s a lot more helpful when the lower-in-the-order hitters can do those things, but that’s asking a lot in 2016. What Castro is good at, though, is making contact.

Castro has posted above-average contact rates for his entire career , including the down years he had in 2013 and 2015. After years of watching Jayson Nix and Stephen Drew rack up a good amount of strikeouts in the lower third of the order with not too much return (though Drew was probably a little better than we gave him credit for), it’ll be nice to have a player who can make contact to (hopefully) move more runners along and bring more runners home.

Lefties killed the Yankees in the second half last year after A-Rod slowed down and Mark Texieira got hurt, and that’s another area where Castro can help the club. For his career, he’s hit .295/.344/.415 against lefties with a .330 wOBA and a 106 wRC+. Depending on how manager Joe Girardi deploys Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks–who can hit lefties well–Castro will have some opportunity to spend time at the top of the lineup. It’s easy to see him leading off or batting second against lefties when Ellsbury or Gardner gets a day off. His high-contact, decent-OBP success against lefties bodes well for leading off or batting second and is something the Yankees sorely lacked with Ellsbury struggling against lefites and Gardner fighting injury (along with the aforementioned Teixeira and Rodriguez situations).

With the Yankees, Castro will not need to shoulder the load or be the catalyst for offense. He’ll simply need to keep doing what he does well–making contact and handling lefties–and he’ll fit in just fine, regardless of where he ends up hitting. There was a time–even a recent time–when I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of acquiring Castro, but he certainly fills a need and the hole he fills is bigger than the one the pieces used to get him–Adam Warren and Brendan Ryan–are leaving. Even if it’ll be a while before we can see what he can do, I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Thoughts following the Justin Wilson trade


The Yankees completed their second trade in as many days last night. One day after acquiring Starlin Castro from the Cubs, the Yankees sent left-hander Justin Wilson to the Tigers for minor league righties Luis Cessa and Chad Green. Time for some more thoughts.

1. From what I can tell, no one felt comfortable with Wilson on the mound because he walked too many guys, and now no one likes that he has been traded away. Which is it? The Yankees have been very good at building bullpens the last few years. I trust them completely here. Wilson was pretty great this past season but the Yankees also may have just sold high, since dudes who throw hard but have career long control issues flame out all the time. I like Wilson. Lefties who throw hard and strike guys out are really cool. But based on the reaction, he went from being a pretty good seventh inning guy with the Yankees to being Billy Wagner as soon as he was traded away. The deal was fine. Geez.

2. That said, the Yankees are going to have to make up for the innings they traded away in Wilson and Adam Warren. They’ve been good at building bullpens but now they have to … you know … do it. They can’t just wave the magic bullpen wand and turn Jacob Lindgren and Branden Pinder into late-inning weapons. Wilson and Warren soaked up some pretty important innings last season — especially since no one in the rotation pitches deep into games consistently — and they’ll be missed, Warren in particular. The Yankees are clearly comfortable with their bullpen depth if they traded away these two. They believe they have the replacements either already in house or they’re readily available. Now they just have to figure out who they are, and that takes some time. Remember, the Opening Day bullpen always looks quite a bit different than the bullpen on August 31st.

3. I don’t think the Wilson trade takes Andrew Miller off the table and it shouldn’t. Miller has a ton of value — did you see that Ken Giles trade? geez — and if a team offers a young starter plus other stuff, are the Yankees really going to say “no thanks, but we already traded Wilson”? Nope. Not happening. I do wonder if Cessa and/or Green — two Triple-A starters, remember, they’re upper level depth — could be flipped as part of another trade, though Brian Cashman indicated last night nothing is lined up. The Yankees do need the depth though. Right now Ivan Nova is the sixth starter and Bryan Mitchell is the seventh starter. They needed some more bodies to compete with Mitchell there, and to provide a buffer between the big leagues and the Brady Lails and Rookie Davises of the world. The trade addressed a clear need.


4. I do think it’s interesting — and not a coincidence — the Yankees traded Wilson, Warren, and David Phelps right as they were about to get expensive through arbitration. “Expensive” is a relative term here: Wilson was only projected to make $1.3M next year while Warren was projected for $1.5M. It’s not that the Yankees are being cheap — they just took on $40M or so in Castro, you know — it just seems like they’ve decided they’re not going to pay much more than the league minimum for non-elite relievers. Maybe that only applies to certain relievers. Warren’s more valuable than most because he can start, but Phelps and Wilson? Eh. Given the internal options, the extra million bucks might not be worth it. It’s tough to nitpick the strategy when the Yankees have been so good at building reliable bullpens. If there’s some sort of payroll limit in place — and there very clearly is — the bullpen is a good place to save.

5. Everyone is trying to copy the so-called Royals model and have a lockdown bullpen — as if the Royals are the first team to realize a great bullpen is a nice thing to have — so much so that I feel like the rest of the roster is being overlooked. The end of the game is really important! But the first six or seven innings are more important. After all, bullpen usage is determined by the game situation, not the other way around. As long as the Yankees have Miller and Dellin Betances, the bullpen will be formidable. It’s the rest of the roster I worry about. Those first six or seven innings. The rotation still has a ton of health concerns and the offense is, well, kinda sketchy. It’s a boom or bust offense. Hopefully the Yankees spend more time improving the beginning of the game and not worry so much about the end.

Thoughts following the Starlin Castro trade

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

Last night the Yankees made their second trade of the offseason, sending Adam Warren and a Brendan Ryan to be named later to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Brian Cashman confirmed he tried to get Castro at the trade deadline, then again earlier this offseason before the two teams circled back at the Winter Meetings this week. Anyway, I have thoughts. Here they are in no logical order.

1. This trade seems to go against pretty much everything the Yankees have done the last few years in that Castro is not considered a great makeup guy. Fair or not, he’s been cast as a bit of a headache throughout his career, and he’s also had some off-field issues, namely this and this. I doubt the “good clubhouse guy” thing has gone out the window, so chances are the Yankees feel comfortable with Castro as a person. Special assistant Jim Hendry was the Cubs GM when Chicago signed, developed, and called Castro up to MLB. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was also with the Cubs for Starlin’s rookie year, so presumably he and Hendry have firsthand knowledge of Castro the person. I’m sure both had some level of input — Hendry moreso than Rothschild — into the trade and signed off on his makeup. It’s just a little weird to see the Yankees pick up a guy widely believed to have makeup issues after doing the opposite for so long. (I don’t think playing in New York will be an issue. Chicago is intense and Cubs media has been trashing Castro for years. He’s used to it.)

2. Now, that said, this an an opportunity for that veteran clubhouse to go to work and help Castro. I’m sure that crossed the team’s mind before the trade. Specifically I’m talking about Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Those two have long had reputations for helping young players, A-Rod in particular. Robinson Cano was a little like Castro earlier in his career — ultra-talented but a bit lazy (especially in the minors) and someone who coasted on talent — but he credited Alex for whipping him into shape and helping him take his career to the next level. A-Rod’s made some big mistakes in his career, but he’s always been very prepared and a very hard worker. He instilled that mindset in Cano and hopefully he (and Beltran) can do it again with Castro. Starlin may really be able to thrive under two veteran mentors like A-Rod and Beltran.

3. Castro’s risk is very obvious. He’s been one of the worst players in baseball two of the last three years and is a .265/.305/.383 (89 wRC+) hitter in his last 1,852 plate appearances. That’s bad. I don’t care how young you are or how much upside you have. That’s bad. Can’t argue otherwise. And yet, Castro hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) as recently as 2014. He’s been league average or better at the plate in four of his six big league seasons. This strikes me as a very boom or bust move. Castro could really take off as he enters his prime — maybe he goes on a Cano-like tear these next few years, that’d be cool — or he could continue to flounder and be a below-average hitter. The Yankees are taking a shot on talent here and there’s a chance this turns into a $40M dud. Then again, if Castro was putting up big numbers, it would have taken a lot more than Warren (and Ryan) to get him.

4. I do think the trade is fair-ish from a pure value-for-value perspective. Warren (and Ryan) was at the very upper bound of what I would have been comfortable paying for Castro, but it’s not crazy. Cubs fans are probably more upset they didn’t get more for Castro — a young everyday middle infielder signed affordably for another four years — than Yankees fans should be they didn’t get more for Warren. The Yankees got three cheap years out of David Phelps then traded him away from Nathan Eovaldi. They then got three cheap years out of Warren then flipped him for Castro. Who’s next in line, Bryan Mitchell?

5. The Yankees are definitely going to miss Warren because he’s both good and versatile. He can start or relieve, and he’s durable. Warren has never had an arm injury in his career and he bounces back well on back-to-back days, stuff like that. Warren was basically penciled in as that No. 4 reliever behind Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Justin Wilson. Who’s the team’s second best righty reliever behind Betances right now? Mitchell? Branden Pinder or Nick Rumbelow? Eek. Warren was also the club’s No. 6 (or No. 7) starter. He was really important this past season and his “quality innings in whatever role” profile will not be easily replaced. You’ve got to give to get, but boy, those important innings Warren soaked up are going to fall on someone less qualified now. Bringing in another depth arm should be on the to-do list now. (Yes, there’s still plenty of offseason left.)

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

6. I do like that Castro adds balance to the lineup and has a different offensive profile than most other Yankees regulars. For starters, he’s a right-handed hitter who has a history of hitting left-handers (career 106 wRC+), and we saw how southpaws chewed the Yankees up down the stretch last year. A-Rod was their only potent everyday right-handed hitter, and once he faded in the second half, the Yankees had little chance against lefties. Castro will help fix that problem. He’s also a very aggressive (career 3.67 pitches per plate appearance) contact hitter (career 15.6% strikeout rate), and I don’t think having a guy like that in the lineup is a bad thing. The Yankees can get caught being a little too passive at times. Having someone who comes out willing to jump on that belt high first pitch fastball adds a different dynamic to the offense. Now, putting nine guys like that in the lineup is a problem. But one? No big deal. Especially when he’s hitting in the bottom third of the lineup like Castro probably will, at least at first.

7. One aspect of Castro’s game that is pretty cool: he’s very durable. He’s played in 766 of 810 possible games since 2011 (94.6%) and he’s never been on the DL. His only notable injury is a high ankle sprain suffered late last year while sliding into home plate. The Cubs shut him down for the final 23 games of the season because they were out of the race and there was no reason to push it. This is baseball, fluke injuries can happen at any time, but the ability to stay on the field and play 150+ games year after year is a valuable. That was a big part of what made Cano great. The guy played every game. Health is a skill, and six years into his big league career, it appears Castro has it.

8. The bench will have a different look now. Castro is going to be the starting second baseman but with Ryan going to the Cubs in the trade, Starlin also figures to be the backup shortstop. So now the bench is: backup catcher (Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez), outfielder (Aaron Hicks), utility man (Dustin Ackley), and a fourth guy. That fourth guy can be anything! It could be another outfielder (Slade Heathcott?), another infielder (Rob Refsnyder?), a backup first baseman (Greg Bird?), or heck, even a third catcher. That said, the Yankees need to come up with a backup third baseman for Chase Headley, because Ryan was it and now he’s done. Ackley can’t do it because his arm has been shot since having Tommy John surgery in college. He’d need a relay man to make the throw across the diamond. Castro has never played third at the big league level and has seven games of hot corner experience in his career, all in rookie ball a very long time ago. Gregorius has played ten innings at third in his career, all with the 2014 Diamondbacks. I guess he’s the backup third baseman by default right now. Juan Uribe would be a pretty cool bench target. He can still pick it at third and do damage against lefties. Mark Reynolds stands out as another potential depth pickup. The backup third base situation is: developing.

9. Alright, so what happens with Refsnyder now? Cashman said yesterday the plan was to start him at Triple-A in the wake of the Castro trade, but what’s he supposed to say? They could trade him now — the A’s had interest at the deadline, remember — but there’s no need to come out and say that’s the plan. It’s self-defeating. The Yankees didn’t give Refsnyder much of an opportunity this season despite Stephen Drew‘s prolonged slumps, and the Castro trade is only more confirmation they aren’t comfortable with Refsnyder as an everyday player. “I think that the one spot that’s probably open for competition more than anything is second base,” said Joe Girardi during his meeting with reporters prior to the trade yesterday. Holding on to middle infield depth is never a bad thing, but it would not surprise me at all if Refsnyder was traded now, perhaps for a spare arm or another position player who fits the roster better. We’ll see. The Castro pickup certainly did Refsnyder’s Yankees career no favors.

Thoughts prior to the Winter Meetings

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Baseball’s annual hot stove mosh pit known as the Winter Meetings will take place in Nashville next week. Prepare yourselves for four days — really three days since everyone heads home after the Rule 5 Draft Thursday morning — of rumors and trades and signings, some of which might even involve the Yankees. Anyway, I have some thoughts.

1. David Price to the Red Sox has felt inevitable for a few weeks now. You don’t hire Dave Dombrowski to run your baseball operations department if you’re not willing to spend money or trade prospects. That contract (seven years and $217M) is the going rate for an ace these days. Roughly $30M a year over six or seven years with a conveniently timed opt-out. The Yankees were pretty clearly never going to get seriously involved in the Price sweepstakes even though he would have been a huge addition. They need a guy just like him, someone they can count on to provide a ton of high-quality innings. The Yankees are steering clear of big money long-term contracts, and it’s easy to understand why when you look at the roster, but this is the cost of doing business these days. This is what a player of this caliber costs. Eventually the Yankees will jump back into the deep end of the free agency pool. I’m just not sure when.

2. Do the Yankees have to do something to respond to the Price signing? Goodness no. That’s how you end up with Kei Igawa after missing out on Daisuke Matsuzaka. That’s no way to build a team. The Yankees just have to stick to their plan and move forward by addressing their needs (pitching, second base), which remain unchanged. Aside from having to directly compete against Price a bunch of times next year, the signing doesn’t change much of anything for New York. The AL East is going to be tough and that was always going to be the case. The Yankees haven’t made any kind of knee jerk reactionary move in a very long time and I have no reason to think that will change now.

3. The Yankees are in the middle of this rebuilding on the fly thing, meaning they’re trying to remain competitive while getting younger at the same time. So far they seem to be doing a pretty decent job. The 2016 season feels like a critical year to me. Lots of young guys got a taste of MLB this past season, but next year they’ll be counted on to handle more of the load, plus it’s the final year with Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran. The Yankees are hoping to use the Teixeira and Beltran money to supplement the roster next offseason, not build a new core because the young guys flopped. Luis Severino and Didi Gregorius are the key pieces but others like Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez are important too. They’re going to get opportunities to help next season. I’m sure of it. The Yankees emphasized youth this past season but that was only step one of the process. Calling guys up and giving them a taste of the show is much different than counting on them to play important roles.

Cishek. (Dylan Buell/Getty)
Cishek. (Dylan Buell/Getty)

4. Yesterday was the non-tender deadline and, as usual, a bunch of well-known players hit the open market. None of the position players really make sense for the Yankees — I guess Tyler Flowers as the backup catcher, that’s about it — but there is the usual crop of busted pitchers. Greg Holland just had Tommy John surgery and won’t pitch at all in 2016. An Andrew Bailey-like arrangement would make sense, though I bet he goes back to the Royals in that case. Neftali Feliz has been alternatingly bad and hurt since 2011. He’s a minor league contract only guy for me. Henderson Alvarez and Mike Minor are both coming off shoulder surgery and won’t be ready until sometime in the middle of next season. Neither offers immediate rotation help. Steve Cishek interests me the most, but he was a mechanical mess this past season and who knows what else was going on. When right, he’s a huge (6-foot-6 and 215 lbs.) righty with a funky arm slot and no platoon split who misses bats and gets grounders. He’d also remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2017. The Yankees talked trade with the Marlins about bullpen help last offseason before signing Andrew Miller, and perhaps Cishek was part of those talks. If so, he may still have some fans in the front office, and the Yankees might bring him in if they believe he’s fixable.

5. I absolutely love that Barry Bonds is reportedly set to join the Marlins as a hitting instructor. That’s a fun story and Bonds sure knows a thing or two about hitting, plus he has some teaching experience after working as a guest Spring Training instructor for the Giants the last few years. Alex Rodriguez is among those who have worked out with Bonds in the offseason — Dexter Fowler has as well — and pretty much everyone praises him for his knowledge and teaching ability. “You know how much I think of Barry. He has a brilliant baseball mind. I think he’ll be good for the team, the hitters. I’ll be really excited to see what (Giancarlo) Stanton will do with Barry there to develop (him),” said A-Rod to Joel Sherman. It’s a no risk move for the Marlins. If Bonds helps their young players take the next step, great! If he flops, well who cares? They’re already the laughing stock of the league. Bonds made hundreds of millions of dollars in his career. He’s doing this because he loves the game, plain and simple. If Bonds can get back into baseball as a coach, so can A-Rod when his playing career is over.

After ten years, Yankees’ stagnant payroll is an issue that can no longer be ignored

This place is only six years old. (Presswire)
Oh what a lovely new ballpark you have. (Presswire)

Over the last 15 years, baseball has experienced incredible growth as an industry, with MLB revenue climbing from $3.4 billion in 2000 to north of $8 billion in 2015. They might even be over $9 billion at this point. Attendance is as good as it’s ever been, television contracts are enormous (at least for teams that don’t own their own network), and MLBAM is a media juggernaut.

Baseball is extremely healthy right now and, as a result, teams are spending more than ever on players. According to the USA Today salary database, the average MLB payroll has gone from $52.8M in 2000 to $65.8M in 2005 to $83.7M in 2010 to $114.8M in 2015. The average payrolls have more than doubled over the last 15 years. That’s incredible! The Yankees specifically have gone from a $92.8M payroll in 2000 to a $213.4M payroll in 2015.

That only tells part of the story, however. New York’s payroll increased $23.1M on average each year from 2000-05. They went from that $92.8M payroll in 2000 to a $208.3M payroll in 2005. That’s insane. The team’s payroll has held fairly steady over the last ten years though. It was $208.3M in 2005 and $213.4M in 2015 according to USA Today’s numbers, which I’m certain are not 100% accurate, but are good enough for our purposes. Here’s a graph:

2000-15 MLB Payrolls

The Yankees have added some significant revenue streams over the last ten years. First and foremost, the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009. That’s kind of a big deal. Then, in November 2012, a significant percentage of the YES Network was sold to News Corp. for hundreds of millions of dollars over a span of several years. And finally, MLB recently signed new national television contracts with FOX and TBS, more than doubling each team’s take. All of that additional revenue has not led to a payroll increase.

Of course, the Yankees have some significant expenses as well, including revenue sharing and the luxury tax. (They’re also paying off the new ballpark.) They’ve paid something along the lines of $20M annually in luxury tax for a few years now, and who knows how much they’re playing in revenue sharing. A Forbes article says the Yankees paid $95M (!) in revenue sharing in 2013. That’s ridiculous. Then again, the same article says the team led MLB with $461M in revenue that year. (That’s after revenue sharing and bond payments on the ballpark.) Forbes had the team’s revenue at $277M in 2005.

Revenue is up and expenses are up, but payroll has held steady for a decade now. To be fair, the Yankees have spent a lot of money on things not directly related to the roster the last few years. The team beefed up their pro scouting and statistical analysis departments, the Himes complex in Tampa was upgraded with major renovations a few years ago, and of course there was the unprecedented international spending spree a few years ago. Who knows what else has gone on behind the scenes?

But still, something isn’t adding up here. Annual revenue increased nearly $200M from 2005-13 according to Forbes — their numbers are estimations, it should be noted — yet payroll has not changed. Has all the extra revenue gone to increased expenses and behind-the-scenes stuff? I suppose it’s possible, but man, that’s really hard to believe. Especially when Hal Steinbrenner has been wearing out that “you don’t need a $200M payroll to win the World Series” line. He’s made it very clear he doesn’t want to spend more money.

The Yankees are in the game’s largest market and they are the biggest brand in the sport — if not all sports — and that comes with its advantages, specifically money. Lots and lots of money. Look at that graph above. From 2003 to 2011 or so the Yankees blew the rest of the league out of the water with their payroll. That isn’t the case anymore. The rest of the league is catching up, so the Yankees are not taking advantage of their market. They’ve done the rest of the league a favor and leveled the playing field, and it’s showing in the standings. The Yankees haven’t finishing closer than six games back of the AL East winner since 2012.

That is the intention of the luxury tax and revenue sharing system, of course. After all, the luxury tax is officially called the Competitive Balance Tax. It’s meant to level the playing field and as far as the Yankees are concerned, it appears to be working beautifully. Hal doesn’t want to pay the tax. He’s made that abundantly clear. And I get that. The luxury tax is dead money. The Yankees have been writing an eight-figure check for a few years now for … nothing. The money does nothing. It goes into MLB’s Central Fund and that’s it. It’s an investment with no return.

It’s one thing to pass on some free agents because of the luxury tax. Over the last few offseasons the Yankees have only spent whatever has come off the books, little if anything more. But now the Yankees have apparently reached the point where Brett Gardner and Andrew Miller — two of their very best players — are reportedly being made available. There are baseball reasons to trade them, but it’s also financially motivated too. The Yankees didn’t shed much money this year, so they can’t afford any significant free agents, meaning the best way to add talent is by trading some of their best players.

That is screwed up, man. The thought of trading players as good as Gardner and Miller because spending money on free agents is not permitted is screwed up. It’s one thing when you can’t sign a free agent because payroll won’t increase, but once you start trading away good players to make things work financially, then it’s really a problem. Shouldn’t this concern the MLBPA? The Yankees haven’t increased payroll in ten years. I feel like the union should consider that a problem.

The Steinbrenners own the Yankees and they’re free to do whatever they want with the team, the same way I own this stupid blog and am free to do whatever I want with it. And fans are free to disagree with the team’s direction. When payroll stands still for a decade even though a new ballpark opened (!) and the News Corp. deal happened and the league itself keeps setting revenue records, it’s not hard to understand why fans might be unhappy. Now there’s talk about trading good players because signing expensive free agents is not an option? Holy mackerel.

The Yankees don’t have to go out and sign the biggest free agents. You needn’t look beyond their roster to see why that can be a really bad strategy. There’s a point of diminishing returns too, where every dollar you spend brings fewer and fewer wins to the roster. I thought the Yankees were beyond that point a few years ago, but with payroll holding steady and the team winnings 84-87 games the last three years, they’re not there any more. There are some obvious ways the Yankees could spent money this winter and add a lot of wins to the roster.

For a few years in the mid-to-late-2000s it was difficult to see how a static payroll was hurting the Yankees. The rest of the league was still so far behind it didn’t matter. Now though, in 2015 heading into 2016, it couldn’t be any more obvious the league is getting more competitive and the Yankees are no longer in a class of their own. They were kings of the sport and now they’re much closer to everyone else.

The Steinbrenners don’t have to up payroll. It’s their team and they can do what they want. But they also can’t ignore how failing to keep up with league-wide inflation — a modest goal, I’d say — is hurting their chances to field one of those “championship caliber teams” Hal is always talking about. The longer the Yankees’ payroll remains stagnant, the better it is for the rest of MLB.

The Swiss Army Outfielder

This ball was caught. (Presswire)

The Yankee outfield was given more shape on Wednesday when the team acquired Aaron Hicks from the Twins for John Ryan Murphy. Ironically enough, that shape is a little more amorphous now than it was before the trade. The term “amorphous” generally carries a negative connotation, the implication for the Yankees going forward is one of flexibility, not shapelessness.

It’s most likely that Hicks will slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder to start the year, but that alone could carry a great deal of playing time, as Chris Young appeared in 140 games for the Yankees last season. That much playing time is easy to envision for Hicks. Given his defensive reputation, he’ll likely be replacing Carlos Beltran on a daily/nightly basis, which will give the Yankees a strong defensive outfield in the late innings, something any team would gladly sign up for.

Nominally, Hicks will be the fourth outfielder, but there’s potential for him to play an even bigger role. He’ll definitely swap out for Beltran in the late innings, but given Joe Giradi’s tendency to platoon and his desire to rest players, Hicks will get plenty of burn in the starting lineup. Brett Gardner (fairly or unfairly) already gets his fair share of platooning as he sits semi-frequently against lefties. That’s a trend that’ll probably continue, given that Hicks hit lefties very well last year–.375 wOBA; 139 wRC+; .188 ISO–and has done similarly over the course of his (short) career–.354; 125; .175. Gardner was also, apparently, playing through injury in the second half and it’s a certainty we’ll see Hicks start in place of Gardner when Brett starts to slow down a bit after playing for long stretches. The same could be said for Jacoby Ellsbury, who probably wasn’t healthy for more than a month and a half of last season; he also had his fair share of struggles against left-handed pitchers and the fact that Hicks can play center–88 games there last year–means the Yankees will still be able to run out a mostly strong defensive outfield, even if one of Gardner or Ellsbury is sitting.

One knock on Hicks, a switch hitter, is that he doesn’t hit right handed pitching well. That rang true in 2015 as he racked up just a .292 wOBA/82 wRC+ against them. His career numbers against non-southpaws are just as ugly: .269/66. In this way, he’s definitely similar to Chris Young, who also couldn’t hit right handed pitching. However, for his career, Hicks does have a 9.2% walk rate against right handed pitchers, something slightly encouraging that the team could build on. And, taking it with a shaker of salt, Hicks did hit right handed pitchers fairly well in the minor leagues, posting a .371 OBP against them. It’s not the most reliable data, but it shows that, at some point, Hicks did something well against righties.

Despite those struggles, though, it’s easy to see why Hicks could be an upgrade over Young. His ability to play center field–and play it well–means that the Yankees can feel fully confident when they match up for platoons or have to rest someone. Hicks will also play the entire 2016 as a 26 year old, which in and of itself means there’s potential for more growth and development. Trading for Hicks was certainly a surprise, but it’s something that gives the Yankees a lot of flexibility in one spot on the field. Given the way the team looks, that’s a welcome sign.