When the New York Yankees spent money like they were richer than Jeff Bezos’ divorce lawyer, baseball fans accused them of buying their way to titles, called them the evil empire and suggested that MLB was broken because 29 of 30 teams were just farm systems for the Yankees.
Those days are over, replaced by the new era of MLB luxury tax austerity. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the big-spending “Boss,” died in 2010 and was replaced by his son Hal, whose view is less “here’s a blank check” and more “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”
Yankees fans, finding the notion of not winning the World Series every year distasteful, have fired back, calling Steinbrenner the Younger “cheap.”
On Thursday, Steinbrenner decided to go on record and fire back at his critics.
“I get hammered every year about something,” the New York owner said at the MLB owners meetings in Orlando, Florida, according to ESPN. “If you don’t win the World Series, that’s perfectly justifiable.”
But on the subject of being called cheap, well, maybe by the standards of the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Mackenzie Bezos when she cashes out, but the rest of us could win Saturday’s Powerball (estimated jackpot: $210 million or so) and still not have the money to make payroll for the 2019 Yankees.
“If there’s a narrative that we’re not spending money and being cheap, it’s just false,” Steinbrenner said. “I mean, we’re well above $200 million (in payroll) — we’re at $220 (million) right now — and we’re well above where we were last year. We did everything we wanted to do to really improve, again, the pitching, because that’s where I wanted improvement, because as far as I’m concerned pitching was a big problem in the division series, more so than anything else.”
But since they didn’t sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, in the eyes of their fans, the Yankees might as well be the Tampa Bay Rays or Miami Marlins.
Steinbrenner did leave open the possibility of making more moves to strengthen New York’s hand before the season begins.
“Fans should keep an open mind that I’m never done until I’m done, and that’s usually not until Opening Day,” he said. “Proposals come to me every day with these guys, between the analytics guys and the pro scouting guys, and I’m going to consider every single one of them.”
“The analytics guys” is a telling statement in today’s MLB free agent landscape. Teams simply do not like to throw big money at unrestricted free agents anymore, because a growing body of data points to the fact that such players, by the time they hit their contract year, have already peaked, and as such every subsequent season is one of diminishing returns and declining value.
These days, throwing big money at big names makes a team more likely to end up like the 1993 New York Mets, “the worst team money could buy,” than the late-1990s Yankees.
The Yankees haven’t had the league’s top payroll since 2013 and were, in fact, sixth in that department in 2018.
“With no discussion of our costs, that’s always the problem,” Steinbrenner said. “I hear everything about our revenues, I hear nothing about our cost. I hear nothing about the gargantuan debt service payment that we have to pay every year (on bonds that financed new Yankee Stadium), nothing about all of our stadium operations, all the security, not to mention player payroll, not to mention revenue sharing.”
But it’s not like the Yankees are talent-poor, not with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and the rest of the next generation of would-be Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera types still on team-friendly contracts but inevitably set to be paid when they hit arbitration or free agency.
Steinbrenner acknowledged that fact as well.
“I have to look at the big picture, and it is my responsibility — that my family expects, my partners expect — not just to look at the present but to look at the future, too,” he said. “Three, four, five years from now we get a lot of homegrown kids that we love, our fans love, that are going to be coming up for free agency.”
The Yankees acquired D.J. LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino over the offseason and even grabbed Troy Tulowitzki, so it’s not like they’re running a Triple-A team out there.
“We weren’t good enough, so we went out and signed a really good contact hitter in D.J., who can play multiple positions,” Steinbrenner said. “And then we went and got Ottavino really to secure a pretty good bullpen, which can certainly help the starting rotation, right?”
The Yankees went 100-62 in 2018, putting up one of their best seasons since the glory days but running face-first into an even better team in Boston, as the 108-54 Red Sox won the ALCS and eventually the World Series.
As for any future moves, Steinbrenner ultimately kept his cards close to the vest.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, because these guys come to me all the time with stuff,” he said of his staff. “I can’t tell you if 17 days from now they come with some kind of proposal that I say no or I say yes.”
With the Yankees’ restless fanbase, however, anything short of winning the World Series will be seen as a colossal failure, and no amount of Hal Steinbrenner’s money will change that fact.
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