David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Hal Steinbrenner stayed faithful to his late father’s memory Friday by issuing a statement that was meant to publicly reinforce the Yankees’ commitment to winning — less than 24 hours after an embarrassing ALCS sweep at the hands of the Tigers.
Under George Steinbrenner’s reign, those missives read like an apology and usually paved the way for another blockbuster signing that winter. It was standard operating procedure for The Boss. If there would be no World Series parade, then New York could expect a Jason Giambi ($120 million), Mark Teixeira ($180 million) or Alex Rodriguez ($275 million) in time for the holidays.
But in running up such a huge tab over the years and writing checks for those long-term commitments with a $200-million payroll this season, the Yankees have priced themselves into a corner. While Hal has every intention of maintaining his dad’s championship legacy, he may be coming to the realization that such a thing isn’t possible on a tighter budget, not with the organization’s current state.
Hal raised eyebrows in March with his mandate of getting the Yankees’ payroll below the new luxury-tax threshold of $189 million, which takes effect for the 2014 season. By getting below that figure, the Yankees not only would avoid paying a 50-percent penalty on the excess amount but get their rate back to the minimum 17.5 percent for going over in subsequent years.
There is a tremendous fiscal incentive to cut payroll. But now that a third consecutive season has ended without a World Series appearance, and with a top-heavy roster in flux, the Yankees are at a crossroads. Either become more budget-conscious this winter — and stomach the transitional phase — or acquire the necessary pieces, with less emphasis on what it costs.
The Boss always chose the latter, and the Yankees apparently are reconsidering Hal’s hard-line stance from spring training. A person familiar with the team’s thinking said Friday that budget concerns will have to take a back seat if the choice is between getting below the tax threshold by 2014 and building a championship-caliber roster every year.
“Make no mistake, this was a bitter end to our year,” Hal Steinbrenner said in the statement, “and we fully intend to examine our season in its totality, assess all of our strengths and weaknesses and take the necessary steps needed to maintain our sole focus of winning the World Series in 2013.”
Sounds good. But with the number of question marks on the Yankees’ roster, how realistic is it to be a World Series contender with an eye on trimming payroll? They were the oldest team in the majors this season, with an average age of 31.7 years, and are saddled with baseball’s worst contract in Rodriguez, who is due another $114 million through 2017.
In looking ahead, the Yankees really have no choice but to re-sign Mariano Rivera, who made $15 million this year for 8 1/3 innings of pitching and turns 43 next month. It’s also safe to assume that Andy Pettitte, 40, will be back at a much higher salary than the $2.5 million he signed for this season.
For 2013 alone, the Yankees have more than $92 million tied up in only four players — Rodriguez, Teixeira, Sabathia and Derek Jeter. That’s almost double the 2012 payroll of the A’s, who edged the Rangers for the AL West title. Figure in a sizable multiyear contract for Robinson Cano, along with another extension for Jeter, and the Yankees are going to need a bumper crop of young talent to fill holes inexpensively.
In the aftermath of the ALCS, when his team looked worn out, Brian Cashman denied there should be any imperative to get younger. “It depends on the choices,” he said. “We’re going to gravitate toward the best choices. I don’t care if it’s old. I care if it’s good. If you’re old and good, it’s not an issue.”
As an emotional Joe Girardi said Thursday night, the Yankees need to get better. And without the next Core Four waiting at Scranton, that’s likely to mean spending for the solutions. Or in the case of A-Rod, finding a way to dump the more costly problems.