The Real Yankee Financial Advantage
In the 1988-9 offseason after missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year and finishing in fifth place, but only 3.5 games behind the division winning Red Sox, the Yankees decided to make some changes.They traded away aging players like Jack Clark and Rick Rhoden, but the biggest move they made was in the free agent market. At the time signing Steve Sax formerly of the Dodgers while letting Willie Randolph, whose .322 on base percentage in 1988 had been the the worst of his career, leave as a free agent, and ultimately sign with the Dodgers had the feel of a trade of second baseman. Randolph was four years older than Sax, but the better player and a beloved and underrated Yankee great. Almost a quarter century later another star Yankee second baseman, Robinson Cano, left the Yankees via free agency, signing a massive multi-year deal with the Seattle Mariners.
These two moves were different because the Mariners outbid for the Yankees for Cano, whereas in 1988 the Yankees foolishly decided they wanted Sax more than Randolph. However, these two cases are important because these were the highest profile Yankees, along with Andy Pettitte following the 2003 season, lost to free agency during the more than four decades since it started. The Oakland A’s by contrast, lost more great players than that in free agency’s first year alone. This is significant because while some may claim that the Yankees did not use their financial strength this offseason to bolster their roster with either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, that is only part of the story of how the Yankees wealth had an impact this offseason.
Money allows wealthy teams like the Yankees to sign free agents away from other teams. Since the advent of free agency in the 1976-1977 offseason, the Yankees have been more active and successful in the free agent market than any other team. Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Tommy John, Dave Winfield, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia are just some of the stars the Yankees have acquired through free agency, but the money that keeps great homegrown players may even be more important. Over the last forty years, Ron Guidry, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Don Mattingly are among the Yankee greats who stayed with the team despite the possibility of testing their value in the open market.
The Yankees flexed this less visible muscle again in the past few weeks securing Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks, who was acquired in a trade so is not a product of their own farm system, for several years each. Both of these players signed relatively team friendly contracts, sacrificing possible future income for security, but together the Yankees spent $110 million on securing these players for the next four years for Severino and seven for Hicks. As is always the case with baseball contracts, there is no guarantee that these players will be worth the money. Severino’s pitching fell off dramatically in the second half last year, going from 14-2 with a 2.31 ERA in the first half to 5-6 with a 5.57 ERA in the second half. His recent injury is also not reason for great optimism about his future. Hicks turned 29 in October and has still yet to play 140 games in a season. If Severino never bounces back and Hicks remains injury prone, it will be a very bad break for the Yankees. However, while the impact on the field will be substantial, the Yankees will not be handcuffed by these contracts.
The ability to sign two young stars, with several bigger stars, like Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres likely looking for much bigger contract extensions in the next few years, is a less obvious way the Yankees can leverage their financial resources. Few teams in baseball can develop a core of young talent, or in the case of Hicks, fleece another team out of young talent, knowing that if that talent develops, they will be able to retain all of their key players. The Yankees can, and in the last few weeks took the initial steps towards doing just that.
If the Yankees stumble in 2019 and 2020, this offseason will be remembered as the year the team failed to secure the services of superstar free agents Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, but if the next few years bring on the field successes, it will be remembered as the year the Yankees took the first step in keeping a very strong core of young players together. It is a risky bet because if the Yankees don’t win, but it also leaves the Yankees the payroll flexibility to address needs as they arise during the course of these coming seasons.
Photo: cc/Purple Slog