Why the Bombers Won’t Bomb

Illustration by André Carrilho

Everyone is assuming the New York Yankees are going to have a terrible season. This is sort of amazing, isn’t it? I’ve never seen anything like it. Sure, the Yankees have always had a degree of negativity and scandal surrounding them, even during their dominant eras; that’s part of the deal when you’re the Yankees, whether it’s Dave Winfield or David Wells or Alex Rodriguez, and honestly, when you take a step back, you have to admit all that’s sort of fun anyway. But living in a world where Yankees fans aren’t just booing A-Rod but actually assuming that the Yankees won’t make the playoffs? What is this, Kansas City? Pittsburgh? Boston?

This is unprecedented. The last time Yankees fans have had such a dour outlook on their team’s chances heading into a season was probably 1992, the year after the Stump Merrill bottoming out, a year in which the Yankees’ best player was probably Melido Perez, a starting pitcher who went 13-16. That year brought the start of Donnie Baseball’s decline and the realization that Kevin Maas wasn’t going to be a savior; it was the third season with George Steinbrenner suspended. That was the last Yankees losing campaign, although the seeds for the future would soon sprout. Starting pitcher Mariano Rivera would throw a complete-game shutout for Class A Fort Lauderdale in May; a Kalamazoo high-school kid named Derek Jeter would be drafted in June; 24th-round selection Jorge Posada slugged .472 in the Sally League. From that point forward, Yankees fans haven’t had much to complain about.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Yankees fans were so frustrated with their team this off-season. When you’ve spent twenty-plus years being able to eat all the candy you want, you’re going to scream when someone finally takes a piece or two away. Most off-seasons, the Yankees just pick whichever free agents they want, most notably in the winter of 2009, when the team, as the global economy collapsed, spent $423.5 million on three players and opened up a new $1.5 billion stadium no fans had asked for. (They were, of course, rewarded with a World Series title.) But this year it was the opposite: The Yankees lost starters Nick Swisher and Russell Martin to the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates, of all freaking teams. The Yankees lost their starting catcher to the Pirates? And didn’t replace him? Not only are they not bringing anyone in to help out a gimpy Derek Jeter, but they’re counting on him? They know he’s 38, right? They’re not really waiting around for A-Rod, with Kevin “I’ll always be a Red Sock” Youkilis as a patch, are they? Are they even trying to win?

And that’s why this off-season has been so lamented by Yankees fans. It wasn’t necessarily just those guys; Swisher and Martin are useful players but hardly superstars. It’s that the Yankees, for the first time, seem like they’re not driven by that insane, insatiable hunger for a championship that has defined the franchise. They seem … complacent? The reason, of course, is that the team has a publicly stated goal to slash its payroll to $189 million by the 2014 season in order to fall under the luxury tax for the first time since it was implemented for the 2003 payroll. The Yankees have been spending money like crazy for so long, have spared no expense in the name of championships so consistently, that looking at the bottom line all of a sudden feels somehow crass, beneath them—a betrayal. And you’re seeing fans react with their wallets (note the empty seats during last year’s playoffs). The Yankees’ attempts to save money are costing them money. The Yankees brand has, amazingly, been tarnished. Which is a shame. Because not only are the Yankees right to be slashing their payroll, but I bet they’re gonna win the American League East again this season too.

First, let’s talk about the money. Look, I know it’s not the most popular thing to start explaining why a billionaire corporation—one that already has sky-high ticket prices and is fighting with StubHub, which has helped make some tickets at last affordable on days when the market can bear it—should be slashing its payroll, but I’m gonna try anyway. When Yankees co-owner Hal Steinbrenner announced he wanted to get that payroll down to the $189 million number by 2014, he was doing it for his own bank account, of course. But he was also doing it for the sake of the franchise in the long term. It’s a smart play.

Here’s why: Major League Baseball’s ­luxury-tax limit will be $189 million in 2014. Going over it once is bad, with a 17.5 percent tax involved; going over it every season—ten times so far and counting—as the Yankees have is potentially devastating. That’s because the punishments, under the new collective-bargaining agreement, get worse every year. When you go over four years in a row at the maximum percentage, like the Yankees, the tax hits 50 percent. There are rumors—now that there are teams other than the Yankees, like the Dodgers, over the tax limit—that it will become even more punitive after that. But all you have to do is get under it once and everything resets. Getting under will save the Yankees at least $20 million a season and perhaps even more down the line. That money can and surely will be spent later, with interest.

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.

Why the Bombers Won’t Bomb