The phrase “the Yankees on a budget” sounds downright oxymoronic. Jumbo shrimp! Deafening silence! Business ethics! Yankees budget! We’ve heard this song before, but rarely in the post-1996 era has the team had so many needs -- most notably outfield, catcher, and with the news of Alex Rodriguez’s hip injury, third base for perhaps half the season -- and demonstrated such a reluctance to spend on them. Brian Cashman has always had a hard job, but this offseason will be one of his biggest challenges yet, heading into a season where the AL East could be more balanced than ever.
(Some will argue that the Yankees’ giant Scrooge McDuck-style swimming pool full of gold makes Cashman’s job easy; try juggling George Steinbrenner, the New York media and superstar egos, and see how many laps you get in before you’re gone).
Of course, “budget” for the Yankees does not mean what it does to most of us -- they will not be living off Top Ramen the week before the rent is due. They’ll still spend significantly more on players than any other team except the extravagant nouveau-riche Dodgers. Being on a budget, for this team, simply means staying below the $189 million luxury tax threshold by 2014. This is a budget most teams would love to have.
The problem with that figure for the Yankees, however, is that a good chunk of it is already wrapped up in Rodriguez, who will receive $28 million next year; Derek Jeter ($17 million); CC Sabathia ($23 million); and Mark Teixeira ($22.5 million). That’s, yes, $90.5 million for just four players. Two of them, Jeter and now A-Rod, will be coming off surgery; and they will turn 39 and 38, respectively, during the 2013 season. To put that $90.5 million in context, the Opening Day 2012 payroll of the Tampa Bay Rays was $63,627,200; the Royals’ was just over $64 million.
Of course, the Yankees have claimed to be on a budget before … often immediately before a large signing. “Bubba Crosby is our center fielder,” was Cashman’s now-infamous pronouncement in December of 2005. Needless to say, Bubba Crosby was not the Yankees’ starting center fielder and never was going to be, and less than three weeks later the team signed Johnny Damon to a four-year contract. There’s nothing for Cashman to gain by telling other teams how much money he has to spend.
But this year’s rough Johnny Damon equivalent, Josh Hamilton, is not walking through that door, not unless Cashman is even more of a stealth black-ops GM ninja than he’s typically given credit for. Neither is Michael Bourn, who reportedly wants $100 million (you’ll never guess who his agent is). Wanting and getting are two different things, obviously, but whatever he gets would put the Yankees well over the dreaded $189 million mark. If the Yankees were prepared to spend that sort of money, one would have to assume that Russell Martin would still be in pinstripes.
No, this time things appear to be different. Martin is no superstar, but he’s a useful and productive catcher, and those don’t come easy. The contract he signed with the Pirates ($17 million over two years) is quite reasonable … and if the Pirates can swing it, it’s affordable almost by definition. The Yankees could have topped it without breaking a sweat if they were willing to go above that $189 mark. Martin hit only .211 last year, true, but he did that while getting on base, hitting for power and receiving widespread praise for his defense and game-calling, and he’s not yet 30.
In the Yankees’ ideal world, prospect Austin Romine would grow into the role, but he spent most of last year injured, and few prospect watchers seem to think he’s ready. Cashman has said (perhaps “threatened” is the better term) that the team could use one of its current roster options behind the plate, Chris Stewart or Francisco Cervelli, both of whom can call a game capably, but neither of whom could hit their way out of a paper bag.
An all-glove, no-hit catcher is a common enough sight, though you could argue that Cervelli especially doesn’t have the defensive skill to compensate for his weak bat. But you do not see a lot of all-glove third basemen these days.
The news that broke Monday about Alex Rodriguez’s health -- he has a torn labrum in his hip and a bone impingement, will need surgery early in 2012 and could be out four to six months -- was simultaneously expected and surprising. Expected because he had hit so terribly for New York in the playoffs (you may recall hearing just a bit about this), and manager Joe Girardi gave up on him so quickly, that you felt he almost HAD to be hurt. And surprising because both Girardi and Rodriguez himself were asked repeatedly in October -- over and over again, in fact -- whether Rodriguez was hurt, and they always said he was fine.
When the news first broke, the report was that A-Rod was in so much pain that he was on medication and taken to the ER after a Division Series game. Cashman, however, told a different story. He said Rodriguez first mentioned an issue when Girardi first told him mid-game during the Division Series against the Orioles that he would be pinch-hit for. Cashman said Rodriguez told the team that he was not in pain but that he thought the problem might be in his right hip, that he just wasn’t “firing on all cylinders,” but when they took him to get an MRI on his right hip after the game, it came back clean. They did not get an MRI on his left hip, the one which, it turned out, was injured.
Even with the clean MRI, it’s odd that the Yankees kept this so quiet during the playoffs. Alex Rodriguez was pinch-hit for, stunningly and repeatedly; he was not played at all for several games; he was humiliated; he was then surrounded by reporters at his locker and asked about whether he felt humiliated. Rodriguez said the right things, but he was also clearly, as anyone would be, miserable. So why would he or Girardi not say that he didn’t feel 100 percent? I suppose without a diagnosis, it could have seemed like just another excuse. But Rodriguez was already the subject of so much abuse, it could hardly have made things much worse. And if you don’t want the opposing team to have that information, well, given how ineffective Rodriguez was in any case, what could it really have mattered? The fact that Cashman said the diagnosis that would require four to six weeks of “pre-hab” training, significant surgery, and four to six months of rehab and recovery gave Rodriguez “peace of mind,” because it helped explain his struggles, should tell us how bad things were.
There are not a ton of great third base options out there. New York could try a trade; Chase Headley’s name was floated. But a Padres official told the New York Post that they wouldn’t move him, and the Yankees are unlikely to part with too many high-caliber prospects if they really expect Rodriguez back by June. A-Rod may be destined to be a very, very expensive DH from here on out, but until they know that, it doesn’t make sense to bring in a big name. Re-signing Eric Chavez would be a possible solution, though the team has made no move to do so yet, and keeping him healthy two years in a row has odds only slightly better than winning the Powerball. Another name mentioned is Stephen Drew, who could presumably shift from shortstop to third base, but given his poor numbers against lefties he would probably be better suited to a platoon -- meaning the Yankees would need to sign two players just to replace Rodriguez for three months.
The Yankees could end up with, of all people, Kevin Youkilis, late of the Sox, both Red and White. He could be a good fit in terms of his approach (the “Greek God of Walks” is not, in fact, Greek, but he does consistently display the kind of patience the Yankees love), and also may be the one person the team could find who’s more disliked by fans than Rodriguez. At least signing Youk would presumably stop Joba Chamberlain from throwing at his head, though he might buzz him at third base a few times just out of habit.
Finally there’s the outfield, where the Yankees can least afford reduced production, and where their sudden money consciousness may hurt most. The logical move is simply to keep Nick Swisher. The Yankees have indicated not even the slightest urge to do this, however, presumably because Swisher is looking for a very large contract, one which he’s earned, but which would put the Yankees well into the red on the luxury tax. (He also had some hard feelings with his previously beloved Bleacher Creatures at the end of the Yankees’ miserable Championship Series homestand, but it’s hard to believe that would have much impact on negotiations; for dozens of millions you can let a few unfair boos become water under the bridge).
Where does that leave the Yankees? They could trade for someone like Justin Upton, though the Diamondbacks seem more inclined to keep him than they did a few weeks ago. They could go again with Raul Ibanez, but for all his playoff heroics and usefulness as a bat off the bench, he plays defense in much the same manner as a baseball glove taped to a stick and planted in right field (albeit with strong effort; imagine a baseball glove taped to a stick but really giving its all out there).
Options are dwindling: Angel Pagan got a four-year deal from the Giants, and Scott Hairston -- Scott Hairston! -- reportedly has at least six teams courting him. There will always be a couple of useful players the Yankees can combine into a serviceable platoon, as they more or less did in 2012. But it’s a very large drop-off from Nick Swisher to that, as it’s a drop-off from Russell Martin to Chris Stewart, and from Alex Rodriguez, even this much-diminished Alex Rodriguez, to anyone who's currently available. Furthermore, their starting rotation is solid enough if they get something approximating their usual runs scored, but other than Sabathia it’s not a group you want to lean on to win a lot of one-run games: Hiroki Kuroda (37), Andy Pettitte (older), Phil Hughes (young, but not always reliable), and some combo of Ivan Nova, David Phelps and Michael Pineda if he recovers from surgery before the season ends. They could use another solid 200-inning presence, but it’s not their main concern at the moment.
The Yankees don’t really have a “rebuilding mode,” and there is no need to overreact; this is still a team with talent and stars, and they should be, at the very least, respectable in 2013. But the organization has not generally been aiming for respectable. It’s been a long time coming, but the moment when the Yankees have to choose between limiting their budget or heading to the playoffs may have finally arrived.