The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008, causing more civic agita than a decade of Knicks ineptitude, then spent their way out of the problem, committing $423.5 million to three players over a two-week span in the middle of an economic apocalypse. But now, after a World Series–winning season, they’ve done a funny thing: They’ve pulled back. Their “we get whoever we want” imperialism has disappeared—and that’s both a heartening and a frightening prospect for the rest of the league.
If past accounts of the team’s internal deliberations are accurate, general manager Brian Cashman has always wanted to be a long-term franchise-builder rather than a guy who simply signs checks, but he had no choice but to spend after 2008: The Yankees needed to show they were doing something. Now Cashman has the license to build the team he wants, and he’s doing it by staying prudent. The champions came into the winter short at one major position: left field. As circumstance would have it, left field was the position in a weak free-agent market that featured high-dollar talent, in the form of Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. But Cashman & Co. said they were sticking to a budget, and much to everyone’s surprise, they did. That meant ignoring Holliday and Bay in favor of cheaper acquisitions like Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, and Javier Vazquez. The Yankees’ left-fielder next year will likely be the unheralded Brett Gardner.
If you’re an actual baseball player, not to mention a baseball agent, the Yankees’ turning frugal is the worst news possible. Just ask Johnny Damon (or Scott Boras). Damon turned down a two-year $14 million offer from the Yankees in December, thinking, quite understandably considering the team’s history, that the Yankees would go higher. But this time they meant it, and now he’s scrounging to get the same deal from Detroit. Holliday ended up signing with the Cardinals. Agents have made fortunes off not just the Yankees’ overbidding but also the specter of the Yankees-as-bottomless-pit-of-cash, which frightened the other 29 teams into paying up. The last decade of baseball economics has been based on the team’s wild spending habits. Rein that in, and you rein in the entire sport.
If you’re the owner of a cash-poor club like the Pirates, this is great. Sort of. All of the players Cashman acquired this off-season could have been had by almost every other team. Whether or not it’s due to a financial crunch (not entirely implausible in these times, even for the Yankees), he’s using the same tools available to everyone else: savvy drafting, smart trades, and efficient free-agent spending. If it works out—and most observers think the Yankees actually have a better roster now than they did when they won the World Series—it will be tougher for other squads to claim that their relative poverty is what’s holding them back. Discretion in the Bronx means a reckoning everywhere else.