David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
To gauge just how much has changed in New York baseball since the last time we packed up for spring training, all you had to do was listen to Brian Cashman and Sandy Alderson this winter.
Cashman, with his Yankees having failed to win a playoff game since 2012, frequently talked about the team’s payroll tightening in steering clear of the free-agent market. That sentiment also was echoed by Hal Steinbrenner, who repeated his oft-stated belief of the Yankees’ not needing to spend $200 million to win a World Series.
Across town, we heard a different company line from the defending NL champs, who finally did write a few big checks this offseason, including one with Yoenis Cespedes’ name on it. Of course, the gap between the two teams’ payrolls remain substantial — roughly $50 million, in the Yankees’ favor. But we’re starting to see a more level playing field now, with the Mets wearing the target for a change and the Yankees, well, dare we say taking on more of an underdog role?StoryLI’s Matz ready for first full season in majorsStoryStrike three: Mets’ Mejia banned for lifeColumnLennon: Mejia ban seems permanent for Mets
In Steinbrenner’s mind, he’s judging his franchise on how it stacks up to the roster that lost to the Astros in the wild-card game last October.
“We’re definitely a better team,” Steinbrenner said at the owners’ meetings. “We’ve improved some positions. I think we’ve got a great bullpen. I think we’ve got a good starting rotation, if they can stay healthy. And in any given year, I think health is one of the biggest factors anyway.”
Losing Greg Bird to season-ending shoulder surgery before the Yankees even showed up in Tampa was a significant blow, and Joe Girardi will have to take it slow with Masahiro Tanaka as the rotation’s ace recovers from an elbow clean-up this offseason. Otherwise, it’s being careful with the senior Yankees, such as Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia — older, sure, but still critical to the success of the 2016 club. At least until those hefty contracts can be cleared and the Yankees are able to dive into the deeply talented ’18 free-agent pool.
“Everybody knows the next two years we’ve got significant amounts of money coming off the payroll,” Steinbrenner said. “We’re going to do what we can to put as much of that back into the team as we possibly can.”
While the Yankees executed a few clever trades to retool for the coming season — netting Starlin Castro, Aroldis Chapman and Aaron Hicks — the Mets did some fine-tuning themselves before waiting out Cespedes, the final piece for what they hope will be a return trip to the Fall Classic. The two teams butted heads briefly in December when the Yankees traded for Castro in helping the Cubs land Ben Zobrist — a Mets’ free-agent target — but Alderson ponying up the cash to get Cespedes was more like something out of the Bronx playbook.
Not only that, Alderson suggested that the Cespedes deal was a sign that money would no longer be an obstacle when it came to acquiring talent, with $140 million now becoming the payroll floor moving forward. The Mets a big-market team again? Now they’ve got more than just the zip code to show for it.
“We recognize there is a ‘window’ but we want to have a sustainable operation beyond that,” Alderson said. “This is not about being all-in in a three or four-year cycle and back to bust.”
The Mets’ GM was referring to the current window involving the rare configuration of having four or five elite starting pitchers — all under team control, at far below market value. After what has amounted to a six-year rebuild, the Mets are in a sweet spot where high draft picks and smart trades have converged to create a World Series contender — without cracking the top 10 in payroll.
Part of that package, however, is the expectations that come along with trying to repeat — as division winners, as NL champs — and then needing to finish the job with a ring this time. We don’t know how these Mets are going to react to that pressure. Not until we watch them during that opening series against the Royals at Kauffmann Stadium. These next six weeks, after all, are just practice.
We’ll get an idea of what some of the new Yankees might be, and see if the Mets are as good as we remember from October. To find out just how much, if anything, has really changed.