It's almost time to panic in the Bronx.
The Yankees went into this offseason with a plan handed down to general manager Brian Cashman from ownership: keep player payroll below $189 million at all costs. For most teams, that sort of an "ultimatum" would be a laugher; much of the AL Central could fit under that dollar ceiling with their payrolls added together.
But the Yankees are not too far removed from the days when they were comfortably spending well over $200 million a season, and some of the contracts they signed back in those heady days -- the Alex Rodriguez megadeal, the long term Mark Teixeira contract that looks more and more like an anchor around the team's neck as the years go by -- continue to weigh heavily on the team's balance sheet. And so after the Yankees took care of the usual, necessary business, which included exercising team options on Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson at $15 million apiece, re-signing veteran starters Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte for the upcoming season at $15 million and $12 million respectively, giving Mariano Rivera another $10 million to close despite no real assurances he'll be the same guy he was before destroying his knee last year (he probably will be, and this will be the last time New York will hand him one of these contracts -- Rivera has announced his retirement at the end of the season), they had much less budget room to futz around with than in seasons prior, and much harder choices to make for the aging roster's future.
In hindsight, some of those choices already appear questionable. Third baseman Eric Chavez went to the Arizona Diamondbacks on a one-year, $3 million deal that New York didn't try to match. In fairness, Chavez is old and a platoon player at this point in his career, as much for his injury concerns as any issues with same-hand pitching. However, he's still reasonably able to play third base -- something the Yankees knew they would need to prioritize even at that early point in the offseason, as they were already aware that Alex Rodriguez would miss significant time coming back from hip surgery -- and more importantly, he doesn't cost that much. But fine, off Chavez goes to Arizona. The money can be better used elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Yankees signed future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki to a two year deal worth $13 million total, adding $6.5 million to the Yankees' obligations for 2013. There was a time that would have been a steal for a player of his caliber, but Ichiro is no longer the Ichiro of years gone by (the friendly confines of new Yankee Stadium notwithstanding), and he'll be lucky to make it to the end of his deal with New York as an everyday player. The Yankees elected to bring him back instead of signing the much younger, much more productive right fielder Nick Swisher to a contract.
This decision is fairly defensible in its proper context: while Swisher ended up signing a four-year, $54 million deal with the Cleveland Indians, that only happened after the bottom fell out of the market on players whose acquisition resulted in draft pick compensation. Like his new teammate Michael Bourn, Swisher's initial demands hovered somewhere around $100 million over the course of eight or nine years; the Yankees, who would not have had to surrender a draft pick to re-sign Swisher and who will receive Cleveland's high second-rounder as compensation, would have had to pay closer to the higher number to retain his services earlier in the free agent period. Of course, while it's hard to know from a distance how exactly the last days of Swisher's contract negotiations went down, once the Cleveland offer was on the table one assumes that a savvy agent would go back to the Yankees and see if they were willing to beat it. And with his Cleveland deal paying around $13.5 million a year, the Yankees certainly could have if they'd desired.
That the club seems more than happy to tip their cap, play Ichiro in right, take their pick and wait on prospect outfielders Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams to play their way to the big leagues makes Swisher look less like the victim of a short-term budget crunch and more like an acceptable loss to the Yankees front office. That's a gamble, of course: both that Ichiro still has a couple years left, and that at least one of their prospects turns into an adequate replacement. Swisher's a top-twenty outfielder in baseball over the past three years, so as far as gambles go this one appears to be high-risk, low-reward; the good news, though, is that the Yankees aren't particularly tied to its success or failure. While top twenty outfielders are valuable, they also hit the free agent market fairly often, and in a year or two the Yankees should have enough budget space to snap one up if the current plan doesn't work out. But for at least the upcoming season, they have to prepare for a significant dip in production from right.
Then there's the catching situation. The club's 2012 backstop, Russell Martin, got a two-year, $15.5 million deal from the Pittsburgh Pirates and will make $6.5 million of that next year -- the same amount as Ichiro. These deals don't happen in a vacuum: It's possible that Martin would have turned down the exact same deal from New York, though it's hard to say precisely why that would be. But that $6.5 million probably helps the Yankees more going to Martin than it does going to Ichiro.
That's not a choice the club had to make, however. Both Ichiro and Martin could have been fit into the current budget situation had the team not given $12 million to "third baseman" Kevin Youkilis. Youk's an Alex Rodriguez replacement in all the wrong ways: An aging guy who can't responsibly field his listed position anymore due to a combination of age and injury (actually, this is probably a disservice to Rodriguez, who can still handle the hot corner reasonably well when healthy), whose offensive numbers are declining and who commands a relatively high paycheck due to past accomplishments. He's a decent enough piece to have on a one year deal, but if the Yankees were going to sign an old guy who could still give you one good year to short-term big money, well, the Texas Rangers got A.J. Pierzynski for one year/$7.5 million and he plays a position the Yankees actually need filled.
Even after all this, though, the Yankees were still a good, almost-complete team. Sure, catcher was going to be a tire fire and they'd likely have to do something about right field at some point, but the core of the team's lineup -- Cano, Granderson, Jeter, Gardner, and Teixeira, in that order -- was still doing fine. Jeter, of course, had that ankle thing going on, but he'd probably be back by Opening Day and besides, he's just one guy. An important guy, yeah, but just one guy.
Then J.A. Happ broke Granderson's arm in his first at-bat of the spring, putting him on the shelf until May. Well, alright, now Juan Rivera or Melky Mesa's an everyday player for a little while. The Yankees wouldn't be great out of the gate, at least not on paper, but not the end of the world.
Then Mark Teixeira feels something pop in his wrist during batting practice before Wednesday's game between WBC's Team USA and the Chicago White Sox, and things get even more uncertain. At first, Brian Cashman talking about how worried he was about Tex's wrist and pulling him from the WBC seemed like just another manifestation of the New York GM's long-standing dislike of surrendering his guys to international competition, but when the estimated time the first baseman would miss jumped from two weeks to 8 to 10, it became a more serious concern.
So pending any more injuries, the Yankees' Opening Day lineup goes something like:
CF Brett Gardner
SS Derek Jeter
2B Robinson Cano
3B Kevin Youkilis
DH Travis Hafner
LF Melky Mesa/Juan Rivera/Matt Diaz
1B Dan Johnson/Jayson Nix
RF Ichiro Suzuki
C Chris Stewart/Francisco Cervelli
A full five members of this lineup -- whoever's starting in left, at first or behind the plate, Ichiro in right and Hafner at DH -- are either in danger of being or expected to flirt with being replacement-level players. That's very bad for New York, but for the time being it's only for a couple weeks at the beginning of the season. No reason to freak out, right?
No, not yet. But Derek Jeter's not back yet. What happens if he suffers a setback and isn't ready for Opening Day? (Eduardo Nunez at shortstop happens.) What happens if Youkilis or Hafner gets hurt, as they've shown a tendency to do, Hafner especially? Brett Gardner missed a lot of time to injury last year as well. In fact, the only people in that lineup with a reasonable bill of health are Cano and Ichiro.
The good news is that none of that has happened yet, and stands a reasonably good chance of not happening. Furthermore, Phil Hughes' recent precautionary scratch aside, the injury bug hasn't spread to the Yankees' rotation or pen, both of which should be strong points for the club in 2013, especially once Michael Pineda returns.
But as things stand right now, the Yankees lineup is at its absolute breaking point. One bad setback, one new injury, and the team has to start seriously considering some kind of trade.
There hasn't been some perfect storm of budget restrictions, roster gambles, foreseeable fragility and plain bad luck for the New York Yankees. Just a bunching together of the sort of injuries every team has to deal with over the course of the season. It's likely the team has its usual slow April then storms back in May like it seems happens every year, just with an excuse this time. So no, it's not time to panic in the Bronx.
Not yet. But almost. Soon.