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Looking At A Big Yankees Problem

by Cary Greene

December 11, 2021

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Leading up to the December 2nd expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each American League East team was busy executing their offseason plans. With the lower tier portion of the Rule 5 Draft now over, all that remains for each team is to successfully maneuver through the Rule 5 Draft’s MLB portion and then, once a new CBA agreement is reached, teams will commence with implementing their plans to improve. Expect each team to use a combination of trades and or free agent signings to reach their goals of improving. This is especially true of the Yankees, who compete within what has become an increasingly rugged division.

When a new CBA agreement is reached, teams will look to adjust their plans to match any changes that are implemented. Jesse Rogers, from ESPN, has been doing a good job of insider reporting on the various issues that MLB owners and MLB Players Union representatives are negotiating and it’s fair to say that the two sides are very far apart on a number of issues. Topics like what the Luxury Tax Threshold will be and whether or not there will be a Salary Floor are two of the items that will need to be dealt with. Suffice it to say, the game is certainly going to be changing. We may even see an expanded playoffs format with not two but four wild card teams playing three game series to determine which teams advance to face the division champions, who may have buys.

The Yankees have been very cautious on spending so far this offseason. It’s very hard to predict how much spending the Yankees will actually do, when and if a new CBA goes into effect. The Yankees 2022 payroll is already projected to be around $230 million, as per fangraphs.com, but the team really doesn’t have a concrete Luxury Tax threshold number to set their sites on.

We know that Hal Steinbrenner cast his vote in favor of lowering the threshold, not raising it, which indicates that if nothing else, he’s 100 percent in favor of suppressing payroll spending. Personally, I’m not buying this subterfuge that Steinbrenner’s small group of MLB owners comprised of both small and large market teams put together. I’ll even go so far as to proclaim that when the dust settles, we are likely to see the Luxury Tax threshold be reasonably increased, not decreased. I expect it to land in the neighborhood of $250 to $260 million. The rate of inflation was 6.2% this year in the US. In all likelihood, the luxury tax threshold will go up commensurately.

A payroll floor will certainly increase MLB spending, so the owners will negotiate from the position that if spending is going up across the bottom tier of low spending teams, that top spending teams should come down. It’s a valiant argument being made from the Hal Steinbrenners of the world but at the end of the day, let’s be real.

Steinbrenner and owners like him aren’t going to be on board with paying even more luxury tax and being penalized even more strictly for spending, so baseball will one way or another create some small market, mid-sized-market and large market system that will work for everyone. Teams like the Yankees spending 20-plus percent less than last season isn’t going to help baseball, it would hurt it.

We also know that Hal Steinbrenner’s real goal is not really to win a World Series championship, if it means he has to pay big money to do it. If the playoff field is expanded as part of the new CBA agreement, it will become infinitely easier for teams to make the playoffs and this would have great appeal to a team owner like Hal Steinbrenner. He could more easily continue fielding teams good enough to make the playoffs and continue maximizing profits because fans will likely remain interested in a winning team and as long as the fans are still interested, why throw money away on frivolous taxes? After all, that’s money off the bottom line of the business.

Let’s put all this in the parking lot for now and let the owners and the Player’s Union come up with a system they can agree upon. Let’s also assume the Yankees will sign a few free agents later on this offseason and they’ll have the threshold room to do it.

Questions dance in the minds of fans this offseason. Some are wondering when the lockout will end. Others are wondering if we are looking at a strike. While many others, myself included, who are still reading baseball blogs and are still interested in the sport despite the fact that it is now completely frozen, are wondering how their favorite team(s) will look in 2022? When the dust settles and we hopefully have baseball again, which teams will be best positioned not just for 2022, but for sustainability?

Ask yourselves, has Brian Cashman built an organization that has continuity, or do you think he’s simply constantly scrambling to try to keep up with division rivals who have established the sustainability the Yankees lack?

How will the American League East look in 2022? Which teams will be the favorites? Also, which teams have the best 40 man rosters and the most trade chips, in case their plans to start the season are flawed and they have to make some moves at or before the trade deadline to right the ship?

It’s too early to truly answer these questions, but we can agree that the Rays are not only going to open as the favorites, but that the Red Sox and the Blue Jays are certainly not losing any ground to the Yankees. A smattering of free agent spending alone won’t help the Yankees become favorites.

Quite frankly, we as baseball writers haven’t had much news to write about lately, but there are plenty of issues to focus on and there seem to be many good questions worthy of attempted answers. From pondering all of this, I’ve come to one, bottom line notion that supersedes everything I’ve written so far in this article. It’s also a notion that has been at the heart of the Yankees flaws for the past several seasons.

The notion is this: The organization is going to need to start translating its prospects into viable, difference making major leaguers.

Brain Cashman often says that the Yankees approach an MLB season as if it were a marathon race. He’s not wrong in saying this. Hoarding depth helps a team like the Yankees, who employ a roster that has been incredibly susceptible to injuries. Hoarding a bunch of AAAA players helps keep the wheels on the bus. But you don’t win a marathon if you simply stay in sight of the lead pack of runners. You win one by making your move. Then you surge into the lead and run at a pace that isn’t sustainable to the runners behind you. Is Brian Cashman operating the team as if it really were running a marathon, with the goal of winning the race? Or, is he simply running a 5K, the goal of which is to simply finish respectably?

The Yankees need to do a better job of translating their prospects into viable, Major League players. They’ve given away some players they should have been better at identifying, players they should have continued to develop. They’ve failed to build a core of cost-controllable, young, athletic, talented players that are capable of surging the team to the top of the division and carrying it into the playoffs with authority. They’ve failed to build a team that wins the race.

Instead, the Yankees are gasping just to stay in sight of the Rays, the Red Sox and now, the Blue Jays (who are surging by the way).

The Yankees need difference-making prospects, not AAAA prospects who they can plug in for a few weeks while yet another injury-prone star goes down with the latest hamstring pop. When was the last time the Yankees brought up a player like Wander Franco? The Yankees drafted Aaron Judge in 2013. He shot through the system and made his MLB debut in 2016. In the five years since this organizational feat, the system has produced Jonathan Loasiga (2018) as the only other true difference maker, not counting Chad Green who came up with Judge.

The high-end difference making prospect spigot has run mostly dry and this is the primary reason that American League East rivals have surpassed the Yankees. The Yankees simply aren’t getting enough from their farm system. This forces Cashman to clog the roster with expensive free agents, many of whom have undesirable contracts by the end of their tenures. Then, Cashman jettisons blocked prospects and some of them become actual difference makers for other teams. Others become viable, controllable major leaguers who help their new organizations keep their payrolls lower and allow them to run leaner.

The Yankees are going to need far more impactful organizational contributions in order to help them gain ground that they’ve lost under Cashman’s leadership.

Unfortunately, it appears that division rivals will likely get more of a boost from their farm systems than the Yankees will receive. According to mlb.com, the Yankee system is presently rated the 19th best in baseball. This puts the Yankees concerningly behind the Rays, who are rated 6th. The Red Sox, who are 12th and the 14th Blue Jays have also surpassed the Yankee system. The Orioles, who are the lowest spending team in all of MLB, of course have the number one rated farm system. With each division rival trying with purpose to reap the cost controllable benefits that strong farm systems have the potential to deliver, it is very fair to say that the Yankees not only desperately need a renewed focus on their minor league system, but it might even be the difference between success and failure for the Yankees. They must make up lost ground in this department and it probably needs to be the team’s primary focus.

With a system that is now lagging behind their division rivals, the Yankees have two choices. Either outspend your rivals considerably and pick the absolute right free agents or start focusing on building a better system and make that an absolute, top priority. We know the Yankees will spend, they really don’t have a choice. Will they spend correctly? That remains to be seen. Beyond cracking the free agent nuts they are undoubtedly going to roast on the open fire this winter, the Yankees need to focus inward to achieve meaningful and impactful sustainability. They need to look around the landscape in their own division.

The other teams are all doing this better than they are.

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