Jacoby Ellsbury is a very good outfielder, signed at market rate, who projects to age well but in five or six years will nevertheless be one of the more overpaid players in the game. But that's a problem for another day, and despite dropping $238 million on Ellsbury and Brian McCann, the Yankees still have more than a few problems right now.
Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner (who's apparently the Steinbrenner in charge these days) lied to us, or themselves, somewhere along the line. The first, and entirely logical announced strategy, was to get the payroll under $189 million, which would save $30 million in luxury tax payments this season, and reset the counter on the "repeat offender" provision. The second iteration was that the Yankees would still get under $189M, but still manage to go on a spending spree this offseason, re-signing Robinson Cano to a massive deal and filling in a miserable rotation—Cashman said the plan was to add 400 innings' worth of starters.
Neither of those uniquely Yankee versions of austerity now seem possible. It's About The Money has updated the projected 2014 roster, and even with Ellsbury and McCann, it's an ugly sight. With glaring holes in the rotation, bullpen, and at 2B and 3B, the Yankees "only" have $37 million left to spend before the $189 million threshold. Bump that payroll up significantly if, by some miracle, Cano is signed, or Alex Rodriguez's suspension is reduced to less than a full season.
New York's only starting pitchers with significant major league experience are the aging and inconsistent C.C. Sabathia, and the young and inconsistent Ivan Nova. They still hope to obtain NPB import Masahiro Tanaka, but a proposal from MLB to cap the size of posting fees for Japanese players could stop the Yankees from winning a bidding war outright, and force them to use payroll dollars to sway Tanaka's choice.
No matter how the rest of the offseason plays out, the Yankees will emerge from it a flawed, aging, injury-prone team, much as they have been for two of the last three decades. This, then, is the Steinbrenner version of a boom-and-bust cycle: the brief troughs are climbed out from by forever borrowing against the future. There is no time afforded to rebuilding from within, even though all available evidence, even the Yankees' own late-'90s dynasty, points to a healthy combination of farm system and free agency being the best way to win a championship. Instead, just throw money at the short-term.
It's not a recipe for sustained greatness, but it might be sound business. It's often said New York fans won't accept a rebuild, but that's not precisely true. They'll wait it out; they just won't pay to see it. Ticket sales and TV ratings nosedived last year, even as a makeshift roster stayed in the playoff hunt most of the season. The Yankees' model is predicated on selling stars and success, or perhaps more importantly the promise of success. The YES Network's contract with Time Warner, the New York area's largest cable provider, is reportedly up next month. Signing Ellsbury and McCann to long-term deals is a signal to fans as well as to cable executives that the Yankees don't intend to let the team lie fallow for any length of time.
The brand is enough of a draw that the Steinbrenners will turn a profit with just a hint of competitiveness. This team merely needs to be relevant, and make the playoffs with some regularity. In a two-wild-card world, that's generally something you can buy. World Series are harder to come by, and tossing $20+ million at a 30-year-old outfielder when you don't have a single dependable starter isn't the way to win one. But opening the checkbook in the winter, even when holistically unwise, is the greatest pinstriped tradition of all. Spending is an announcement: the Yankees intend to remain the Yankees.
Image via Jimmy Traina.