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Why the Bombers Won’t Bomb

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The Yankees’ payroll for this year is around $206 million, at least $100 million of which is set to vanish after this season. Some of that is for players the Yankees will want back, like Robinson Cano, but the Yanks feel comfortable saying good-bye to fellow heavy earners Curtis Granderson, Youkilis, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and the retiring Mariano Rivera. The savings from those five contracts is $64 million. (Add another $8.5 million for the money the team still owes A. J. Burnett this year. Sorry: A-Rod’s around for five more years—he will still have one more year on the Yankees during the Hillary Clinton administration.) The point is, it’s a good time to get under the luxury-tax threshold. Getting below the tax line now and staying there for a couple of years will make it a lot easier to land high-priced, game-changing free agents like Bryce Harper, who will be entering his prime as a 26-year-old after the 2018 season. Just spending money like crazy is no longer the optimal way to construct a championship team; the penalties are too high. The Yankees are trying to adjust accordingly—building the farm system, avoiding veterans on long-term contracts (essentially what they did to build the core four of Jeter, Rivera, Posada, and Pettitte), while also making sure they can again spend like the Yankees you know and love when the time is right. It is exactly the right move.

Yes, it looks bad when you’re losing players while division rivals like Toronto are spending like mad. But I’m not sure Toronto (which is basically maxed out for this season, bringing in every player it can—including former Mets R. A. Dickey and José Reyes—in an attempt to take advantage of this supposed relaxation from the Yankees) is really any better than the Yankees right now. You can make a pretty strong argument that the Yankees are still the best team in the A.L. East—today, in 2013, even with the slashed payroll.

The Yankees’ lineup has always been its strength, and even with the myriad injuries (which will happen when you have this many veterans), it should remain potent in 2013. Cano might be the best hitter in baseball relative to position, and a lineup with Jeter, Brett Gardner, and Youkilis at the top should have little trouble getting runners on base. (On-base percentage, the foundation of the Moneyball movement, has long been a Yankees hallmark: They were first in the A.L. last year and haven’t finished out of the top three in the league in that category since 2001.) Injuries to Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira at the beginning of the season are worrisome but not fatal. The Yankees should be able to tread water until those players return, and they have the ammunition, trade-wise, to bring in reinforcements, if necessary, in July.

The pitching staff, meanwhile, might be better than it has been in years. CC Sabathia, who finally showed some wear last season, looks healthy in spring training, and the Yankees have legitimate depth behind him, from Kuroda and Pettitte to (currently rehabbing) Phil Hughes to spring standouts Ivan Nova and David Phelps. That’s not to mention Michael Pineda, who is working himself back into shape and was one of the best pitchers in baseball just eighteen months ago. And with Rivera back, the bullpen has snapped into place, the one area of the team that might be taken care of almost entirely by players developed within the system. There is more depth overall than many give the Yankees credit for.

All right, so I sound like a Yankees apologist. Then don’t take my word for it. Listen to the folks at Baseball Prospectus, who use computers that don’t care about payroll perceptions or whether this Steinbrenner looks like that Steinbrenner. Despite some fans’ gloom, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system (developed by Nate Silver, a guy who used to be known for baseball) still projects the Yankees to win 91 games and finish with the best record in the A.L. East. It also gives them nearly 70 percent odds at making the playoffs, better than every team in baseball other than Detroit, Cincinnati, and the Dodgers. It thinks, in other words, that the Yankees are going to be just fine. Figures. The spoiled kids always get more candy in the end.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.


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