By Marc Normandin
Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been at the helm since 2008, but we nearly saw him leave for a new gig in a new town this week. The Cubs' interest in Girardi was one of baseball's worst-kept secrets, and he was their top choice. The problem, though, was that New York wouldn't allow Girardi to interview with anyone else until his contract ran out at the end of October.
The Yankees used this exclusive negotiating window to keep Girardi in town for another four years, for a total of $16 million, making him the second-highest paid manager in the game behind the Angels' Mike Scioscia. The Cubs will have to find a new skipper for their rebuilding squad, while the Yankees don't need to ask themselves any questions about who will be running their bench until nearly the end of the decade. While the Yankees likely made the correct choice in retaining Girardi, who has shown an ability to handle the New York market as well as its players in his six seasons running the Bombers, did Girardi choose as wisely?
It seems a silly question to ask on the surface, considering the Yankees won 85 games in a 2013 season that could be described as their most disappointing in 20 years, missing the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. The Cubs, on the other hand, have only dreamed of "failure" on that scale: They haven't seen the postseason since 2008, have finished in fifth place four years in a row, have lost nearly 100 more games than they've won over the last five seasons, haven't been to the World Series since 1945, and are without a successful championship run since 1908. In spite of all this, though, there's reason to hope on the North Side. Theo Epstein and Co. weren't running the show for just about all of that century-long period of futility.
Epstein, the club's President of Baseball Operations, is joined by General Manager Jed Hoyer as well as Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod in Chicago. Epstein and Hoyer were in Boston when the Red Sox snapped their own lengthy futility with a World Series victory in 2004, and the whole gang had more than a hand in their repeat performance in 2007, when a club built almost entirely from the farm system and Epstein's own acquisitions defeated the Rockies in four games to secure his and his front office's legacy in Boston. This is the group that drafted and developed the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz, brought players like David Ortiz to Boston after they were given up on by other clubs, and retooled a farm system that had, just years earlier, been more depressing than fruitful.
The Cubs' turnaround is not happening as quickly as that of the Red Sox, but they were also starting from a much lower rung on the ladder. The farm was nearly bereft of upper level pieces, and the movable assets at the major-league level were not enough to change that fact overnight. In the two years Epstein, Hoyer, and McLeod have been in Chicago, though, they've managed to revamp the minor-league system and add tremendous depth through trades, the draft, and international signings. They aren't necessarily ready to transform the major-league roster yet, but there is a time in the not too distant future that the Cubs are relevant and a force in the NL Central once more.
That's because, in addition to the same kind of potent farm system that this trio already developed in Boston -- one that was repeated by Hoyer and McLeod in their short time with the Padres -- the Cubs have money. They don't have Red Sox or Yankees money, maybe, but they've got more than enough to compete financially with anyone in the National League besides the Dodgers, who just might have more money than anyone. So, sure, the Yankees have hundreds of millions of dollars, more than the Cubs, but part of their problem right now is that they don't want to use it -- and they certainly don't have the farm system to justify that tactic. That's where things get a little questionable in Girardi's return to the Bronx.
If there was a time to bail on the Yankees, it would be now. They are already responsible for $89 million in 2014 contracts right now, regardless of whether they re-sign any current players or sign any new ones, and they've got nine arbitration-eligible players who will command enough money to make that figure even higher, again before adding anyone new.
That $89 million figure doesn't even count what happens with Derek Jeter, either: If he picks up his $8 million option, he will actually count against the luxury tax for $14.75 million, as player options count towards the average annual value of a deal. Over the last three years, the Yankees essentially counted Jeter against the soft cap for that $14.75 million, even though the AAV of his three guaranteed years was $17 million -- this is the year where that useful bit of monetary allocation backfires.
So, assume Jeter returns, and the Yankees actually are already up to just under $101 million of their stated $189 million target limit before they fill any of the various holes, or pay for the entire 40-man roster, or for the medical benefits that are all part of that $189 million. Some key members who are returning will cost more: David Robertson and Brett Gardner are both in their third and final seasons of arbitration, and Ivan Nova will get a significant pay bump in his first year of arb.
What holes are there to fill? Well, outfielder Curtis Granderson is a free agent, and he will likely be expensive to retain. Hiroki Kuroda will either cost significant single-year money or he'll retire, Andy Pettitte is definitely retiring, and Mariano Rivera leaves as large a hole in the bullpen as is imaginable with his own retirement. Many of the rest -- Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, Mark Reynolds, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and so on -- might not be significant contributors, but replacing them will cost money just the same, especially since the Yankees don't have internal replacements on hand.
What is being paid for already isn't necessarily a core, either, as 2013 has reminded us. Mark Teixeira is good when he's healthy, but he's also well off his peak, and likely not worth the over $23 million he'll make in each of the next three seasons. Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano, thanks to nifty deals that have the Angels and Cubs respectively shelling out the majority of their final seasons' pay, only combine for about $7 million, most of it to Soriano. While that's great for Soriano, Wells is essentially chewing up a roster spot -- he has an 81 OPS+ over the last three seasons -- and at the price of over $2 million. CC Sabathia is making at least $51 million over the next three seasons, and while he should bounce back from his off 2013, he'll also be 33 years old with nearly 2,800 innings on his arm: A bounce-back is possible, and even likely, but it's not a guarantee like his paycheck is.
Then, of course, there's Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod counts for $27.5 million against the luxury tax, and while a suspension could reduce that, whether over 50 games of 211 or anything in between, unless he misses the entire 2014 campaign, his money is going to get in the way of making moves in the present, in the way of staying under that infamous $189 million mark. While he was productive in his brief time on the field in 2013, he's not $27.5 million productive, and that seems to be an issue for basically everyone on a guaranteed deal in New York right now. Again, if there were a time to jump ship on the Yankees, it would be now.
Let's step back for a second, though, and remember that there's a whole lot you can do with $50 million, or $60 million, or whatever it is the Yankees will have available. The Red Sox went from worst to first in the matter of a season thanks to some shrewd investments and some returns to form from their core players. Maybe Sabathia bounces back completely, Teixeira hits somewhere close to his 2010-2012 levels, Soriano continues to mash like he has since he donned pinstripes again this summer, and the likes of Gardner and Robertson continue to do what they tend to do. You've got -- maybe -- a returning Michael Pineda, an evolving and improving Ivan Nova, and probably Robinson Cano, who is unlikely to find the market to his liking enough to bail on New York for richer lands, especially with the Dodgers reportedly not interested. There are quality players on this team, and if New York can push the right buttons on free agency, they can easily compete in the East once more. If they can do that while staying under $189 million, then they'll achieve the Steinbrenners' dream of running a championship-caliber team while practicing the Yankees' version of financial restraint.
None of that is a guarantee, of course, but neither is the Cubs' finally developing an army of prospects that, in conjunction with their own signings, can lead them to the World Series title they've lacked for over a century now. After all, while Epstein is the architect of Boston's successful clubs from last decade, his final Sox club was one that had to be dismantled by the current General Manager, Ben Cherington, in order to get them back to winning. There is no real right decision here, or, at least, no wrong one. The Cubs will likely rebound from this awful stretch and build a contending NL club. The Yankees might be down right now, but it's unlikely they'll be that way for the entirety of Girardi's contract, not unless they manage to compound some poor decision making by throwing some new ones on top this winter.
Girardi could have been, hypothetically, Chicago's version of Terry Francona, the manager who brought a World Series to a town that doesn't remember ever having one. He would have been a legend, one who won outside of New York, without the vast resources and history of the Yankees on his side. Instead, he's bet on being a part of that history in the Bronx, where he can be a different kind of legend should things go his way. Given that the Yankees have been seemingly too old, too bloated, and too stubborn in the past, and that they continually bounce back to compete and win, we can forgive Girardi for his faith in a return to form.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.