The New York Yankees, for the first time in decades, have a branding problem. The team is known for many things: Winning. Pinstripes. Derek Jeter. A facial-hair ban. Ten-dollar beers. None of which are changing. But perhaps the most powerful aspect of the franchise’s identity over the past 25 years is how much it loves to spend money. The Yankees’ profligacy has been woven into the very fabric of rooting for the team: When we lose, fans think, it’s not that bad, because the other side’s best player will end up playing for us someday. Yankees fans don’t mind if the team overpays to make that possible. To a degree unique in sports, they expect it. Which is why this offseason has been so jarring for them.
Determined at last to maintain some fiscal discipline, the team has not been pursuing any marquee free agents and is waving good-bye to catcher Russell Martin and outfielder Nick Swisher. These are, to be clear, objectively smart moves. The Yankees payroll for this year is around $206 million, exceeding the $189 million limit imposed by Major League Baseball and subjecting the team to the league’s escalating luxury tax; if the Yankees break the payroll cap four years in a row, they’ll face a luxury tax of 50 percent, a hit that could work out to $50 million or more. But as soon as a team gets back under the limit, the tax resets. The Yankees have been maneuvering to do just that in 2014—when nearly $120 million is due to come off their books—in order to be able to go after really big fish like Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton when they become available later this decade. It’s smart management and the way baseball works now. You save today so you can pay later.
But most Yankees fans don’t want to hear about strategies for gaming the luxury tax. They want to win now. That is to say: Yankees fans are all little George Steinbrenners. And fittingly, the team’s flirtation with austerity looks like it’s going to be undone by an actual little Steinbrenner. Last week, word leaked that the Yankees may end their longtime practice of not negotiating early with pending free agents and are instead planning to try to lock up second baseman Robinson Cano, whose contract expires next year, rather than let him hit the open market. The edict reportedly came directly from Hal Steinbrenner himself. Since taking over from his father, he has mostly allowed the baseball men to make the major personnel decisions. But not this time, according to ESPN’s Wallace Matthews. “This is the first time since George died that it appears a Steinbrenner is actually running the Yankees,” a source told him. Steinbrenner was said to be “freaked out” by the perception that the Yankees were no longer big spenders; season-ticket renewals, reportedly sagging, may have reflected some supporters’ distaste for the shift.
Now, the emergence of Hal Steinbrenner as a new George is a beat reporter’s Shakespearean fever dream; it’s unlikely that he’ll go as far as his father was willing to. Even throwing a little money around this season, though, could derail the front office’s plan; signing Cano to a massive contract that exposes the Yankees to the luxury tax indefinitely is not the best long-term play. But we may be learning that the Yankees are too powerful a brand to be run in a frugal, efficient, shrewd fashion. They are too big to be cheap.