To think that just three months ago, some believed the New York Yankees' offseason would be relatively quiet, if not downright boring.
In a way, the Yankees have the Seattle Mariners to thank for the massive facelift the Bronx Bombers have seen on the field this season. Seattle's provocative signing of Robinson Cano freed up anywhere from $18 to 22 million of theoretical dollars on the 2014 player payroll for general manager Brian Cashman and Yankees ownership to play around with even considering that, at the time, the team was still trying to stay under the $189 million threshold for luxury tax reasons. And following the team's inability to come to terms with Shin-Soo Choo on a deal at the start of December, the Yankees decided to discard the so-called Plan 189 entirely.
Over the past few months, the Yankees have added a grand total of $450 million in guaranteed money to the payroll spread out over seven free agents who were not on the team last season. It's worth noting that the budget for 2014 will not be changing too much in absolute terms: while New York's offseason moves have added $83.5 million for the season, this is offset and then some by the $105 million or so that came off the books with the departures of Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Kevin Youkilis along with the retirements of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. That number also includes the $29 million that was supposed to be paid to Alex Rodriguez, who recently accepted a year long suspension. Thanks to arbitration awards and other slight raises, the Yankees' payroll will still bump up against the $200 million threshold. If the Yankees had been less openly disdainful of Robinson Cano's demands -- and more importantly, Seattle less eager to outright meet them -- it's possible they could have eventually returned Cano as well and still fielded a team with a smaller payroll than last year's $228 million third-place effort.
The Yankees' moves this offseason were not just about the upcoming season, of course; the biggest among them were made with eyes fixed firmly on the future. While some of the new contracts are relatively minor deals that add money only to the 2014 and 2015 budgets, not beyond -- Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson, and Matt Thornton among them -- the other four are deals with mid to long lives: The most expensive of these contracts, the seven-year, $155 million blockbuster given to 25-year-old NPB ace Masahiro Tanaka, was offered based on the Yankees' belief that not only is he a solid third starter right now but that he still has potential yet to unlock. Then there's new center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who could still be patrolling center field for the Yankees through the 2021 season if his deal's last-year team option is exercised. (That might be a long shot considering that in 2021 Ellsbury will be 37 years old, but the Yankees do have four guys around that age on the 2014 roster.)
No matter how long Ellsbury remains in the Bronx, it's unsurprising that Brett Gardner received the four-year, $50 million contract extension he did. New York is clearly no longer interested in lowering payroll either to avoid paying MLB's luxury tax or to satisfy externally-imposed visions of budgetary efficiency. Some teams have to maximize their dollar-to-production-to-roster-spot ratio merely in order to operate within their markets and their ownership's expected profit margins -- the New York Yankees are not one of those teams. They can afford to pay over $50 million to keep Gardner in a Yankees uniform instead of trading him or tagging him with a qualifying offer on his way out the door to get draft pick compensation, and so they're going to do that because he makes the Yankees a better baseball team.
Gardner, 30, would have been a free agent this season and stands a more than decent chance of being worth the value of his deal. He is probably among the top defensive left fielders in baseball, if not the best (the Royals' Alex Gordon are probably his closest reasonable competition now that Mike Trout's back in center field again). And while his bat neither has any real untapped upside remaining nor much pop -- Gardner's seasonal line featured a slugging percentage over .400 for the first time in his career last season, and even then it was only .416 -- he has a superior batter's eye and patience and is possessed of great instincts on the basepaths. You could argue that Ellsbury, while far more expensive, is only slightly better than Gardner in terms of offensive production (if one assumes, like I have, that Ellsbury's home run spike in 2011 was an outlier blip that is unlikely to be repeated). But the beauty of being the Yankees is that there's nothing forcing them to make a decision between the two -- the team can easily afford both.
So Gardner will start left next year in the Bronx, with Ellsbury in center and Carlos Beltran likely getting the majority of the starts in right field while Alfonso Soriano settles into the primary DH spot and Ichiro Suzuki is bumped to the bench. Given Gardner's versatility, one imagines scenarios where he handles center field during Ellsbury's rest days, with Soriano or Beltran taking his spot in left -- but, for the foreseeable future, the idea of Gardner returning to center on an everyday basis has been put to rest. This could be seen as a misallocation of resources. As it is, though, the move came after New York not only inked another everyday center fielder, but also re-signed a veteran starting pitcher, signed a new high-upside middle of the rotation starter, a new veteran starting catcher, a bullpen arm and some infield help.
In the end, a contract only really hurts a team if it prevents the team from making moves elsewhere on the diamond or obligates the team to play its recipient instead of acquiring a more productive replacement for less money. Events have shown time and again that the former cases don't exist in the context of the New York Yankees. Given his production and skillset, the team is justified in their confidence that Brett Gardner won't necessitate the latter.