Usually when the Yankees go out and spend a lot of money on a guy, Red Sox fans such as myself bitch about how they’re able to outspend us by ridiculous amounts. It used to be that the Red Sox had the second highest payroll in the game and were closer to the lowest payroll than to the Yankees. Times have changed somewhat, of course, what with the luxury tax and the winning of of three World Series and all. So today, when the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, all I could do was laugh and rub my hands together in Mr. Burns-like glee.
Everything is context dependent, and the context in this case is the luxury tax threshold. The tax has an escalation clause so that the first time a team goes over, they pay 17.5% of the amount they overspent. This goes up each year they’re over the tax, maxing out at 50% and resetting if they even spend one year under it. The threshold was $178 million in 2013 and goes up to $189 million. The Yankees have been telling people for about two years that they had a goal of getting under the threshold in 2014 to reset their tax rate and save themselves tens of millions of dollars.
This would be a reasonable business decision. The Yankees have been old for a long time now, and since winning the 2009 World Series, the Yankees have lost the 2010 League Championship four games to two by a combined score of 38-19, lost the 2011 Division Series despite outscoring their opponents 28-17, lost the 2012 LCS in four games by a combined score of 19-6, and missed the postseason entirely. More than that, they have done it while looking not just old, but old and bad.
So if the Yankees wanted to regroup a little, reset their tax rate, let some salaries come off the books, and make another major push in 2015, the only people who would complain are the self entitled douches who try to justify their miserable lives by leeching off the Yankees tit. Well, them and everyone that advertises on Yankee broadcasts.
And it looked like this is what the Yankees were doing. They let Russell Martin go, accepting an OPS of .587 from the catcher spot. When their old players were—shockingly—injured in 2013, they went to great lengths to ensure that the players they brought in would have a minimal burden on the 2014 tax rolls. That’s why they ended up with the desiccated corpse of Vernon Wells patrolling left field.
Time after time after time after time the Yankees would make some penny ante move instead of the big one you knew they wanted to make and all anyone could do was point to the luxury tax threshold for 2014. The Yankees even got the greatest gift they could get when Alex Rodriguez and his $27 million dollar contract were suspended. Salaries of suspended players don’t count for luxury tax purposes.
Then there came an event which, so far as I can tell, is unique in all of history. The Yankees let their best player get away when they could have kept him just by giving him more money. A lot of folks were skeptical that the Yankees really intended to get under the tax threshold, but this convinced a lot of those skeptics.
Then the Yankees started spending money. They signed the most expensive catcher they could. They signed the most expensive center fielder they could. They signed Carlos Beltran, who was too old for them just four years ago.
And some looked askance, but they were still under that tax limit.
And now they have signed Masahiro Tanaka, the most expensive pitcher they could sign, and they have virtually zero chance of staying under that cap limit. To get under, they would have to trade players that nobody wants and get someone to take their salaries. Oh, and they haven’t got much in the minor league system to send to make the deal at all reasonable for anyone to take.
Or, I suppose, they could send the commissioner’s office some dirt and get some of their other players suspended for 2014.
If they were going to go over the limit, why didn’t they sign Robinson Cano? The Yankees have often said that getting under the cap was a goal and not a mandate and that they would be willing to go over it for the right player. Are we really supposed to believe that Tanaka is the right player while Cano is not? Cano is a marvelously talented player at a premium position who has already demonstrated the ability to perform at a high level in New York. If we believe the scouting reports on Tanaka, he should be one of the top 25 pitchers in the game but it is much more likely that he’s in the 10-25 range than the top ten. He’s younger, and that’s certainly an argument, but the Yankees also signed the thirty year old Jacoby Ellsbury, thirty year old etiquette enforcer Brian McCann, and thirty six year old Carlos Beltran.
But wait, you say, they desperately needed pitching. After all, the only finished slightly better than league average at 4.14 runs allowed per game last year, almost two thirds of a run worse than the best in the league. True, but they also finished tenth in runs scored at 4.01 per game, a full run and a quarter less than the league leading Red Sox.
And sure, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran will help them score runs. But if they don’t make any other moves, they’re relying on a forty year old Derek Jeter to play more than 17 games and the thirty four year old, Mark Teixeira to play more than 15. Meanwhile it is utterly unclear how they intend to get offense at second or third. They have Kelly Johnson who may be able to be average somewhere but that leaves the likes of Brendan Ryan, Brian Roberts, and Eduardo Nunez. It’s pretty ugly.
Should, by some strange quirk of fate, one or more of their old guys get hurt, they have precisely squat to replace them with.
Oh, and did I mention that Mariano Rivera retired, CC Sabathia just had his worst season ever, and if he’s not exactly old, he certainly isn’t young. The Yankees clearly think they can compete in the short term, but they really have to have just about everything go right for that to be the case.
Were I them, with resetting the tax rate a vanished dream, I’d give Derek Jeter a nice watch and sign Stephen Drew. He would be a massive upgrade on defense, and probably a big upgrade on offense as well.
Of course, the Yankees won’t do that. If they weren’t willing to move Jeter off short when they got Alex Rodriguez, they certainly aren’t going to send him to the glue factory for Stephen Drew.
The bottom line is, I think, this. Unless the Rays end up dealing Price—which is certainly possible—the Yankees are going to be fighting for third place unless they get very lucky om the injury front.