New York Yankees’ owner Hal Steinbrenner talking with press in...

New York Yankees’ owner Hal Steinbrenner talking with press in the during spring training in George Steinbrenner Field on Thursday, Feb. 22, 20224 Credit: J Conrad Williams / Newsday

Red Sox principal owner John Henry, already under siege in Boston, probably didn’t help himself by saying the quiet parts out loud during a recent interview with The Financial Times. Henry wasn’t wrong, though, and certainly reflected the feelings of most MLB owners, the majority of whom don’t speak with the baseball media at all.

Fortunately for us, the notable exception is New York, where the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner and the Mets’ Steve Cohen fully understand what comes with the stewardship of their franchises, which reside in the sport’s biggest market.

Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe, has retreated from his past practices of regular media availability, no doubt tired of his words being used as lighter fluid for the daily bonfire. One particular comment that turned up the temperature over the winter was made by Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, whose “full throttle” prediction for the team’s offseason was ridiculed by spring training.

Henry told The Financial Times that Werner’s remark “overshadowed every other word, paragraph and interview of the winter because it reaches so deeply into the false belief that many fans and media have that you should mortgage the future each year for the present.”

Or maybe just try harder.

After Yankees general manager Brian Cashman went on the attack last November, verbally jousting with more than a dozen reporters at the GM meetings, he and Steinbrenner pledged to correct their 2023 mistakes and improve the club’s title chances for this October. The Yankees traded for the best offensive weapon in the game by getting Juan Soto, snatched another valuable rental — ironically, from the Red Sox — in Alex Verdugo and made necessary rotation/bullpen upgrades.

Few would argue that the Yankees didn’t deliver on their promise, and as a result, Steinbrenner is on the hook for a $312 million payroll this season, which ranks third behind the Mets ($337M) and Dodgers ($321M). That brings us to another interesting comment by Henry, one in which he explains why he’s been more reticent about doing interviews.

“I don’t think people in my position can win publicly — your words are often used against you — so the less I say I generally think the better,” Henry said.

That definitely rings true. While Cohen still enjoys the waning days of his extended honeymoon period since purchasing the Mets in 2020, Steinbrenner routinely gets whacked any time he opens his mouth, primarily because of the frustration over the Yankees’ 14-year title drought. That’s understandable. But it would help if his audience would actually listen to what he says. Or Cohen for that matter, as the Mets’ blueprint for 2024 is basically mirroring what he has been preaching since last year’s trade deadline.

Case in point: Steinbrenner’s comments last month regarding payroll and his desire to re-sign Soto. While I felt it was addressed to some degree in my column from that day at the MLB owners’ meetings — as I asked Steinbrenner the specific question — his remarks continue to be twisted into some false narrative handicapping the Yankees’ willingness to spend for Soto. Here’s the actual quote:

“We’ve got a good amount of money coming off the payroll in the offseason,” Steinbrenner said on May 23. “But look, I’m going to be honest. Payrolls at levels we’re at right now are simply not sustainable for us financially. It wouldn’t be sustainable for the vast majority of owners, given the luxury tax we have to pay. But we’ve got a considerable amount of money coming off. We didn’t have a whole lot of money come off last offseason, which is why we’re at where we’re at.”

First off, it’s important to remember that Steinbrenner, a past member of MLB’s finance committee, was at the forefront during the contentious 2022 CBA negotiations. He’s also one of the very few owners who ever speaks publicly on the subject. So to think Steinbrenner is going to trumpet the virtues of $300-million-plus payrolls is ridiculous. He isn’t the renegade type. Plus, midway through this CBA, you’re not going to find any owners boasting about how much cash they’ll be throwing at players anytime soon.

The good news for Steinbrenner’s audience? A decade ago, he said the same stuff about a $200 million payroll and he’s rocketed past that threshold every year since (except for resetting his luxury tax in 2018, when it was $182 million, according to Cot’s Contracts).

That’s not a guarantee that Steinbrenner will stay much north of $300 million in the future, but even so, it’s worth pointing out that he has emphasized — repeatedly, in fact — that “a considerable amount of money” is coming off this year’s payroll heading into 2025.

Remember, when Steinbrenner last talked in spring training — another of his scheduled speaking dates on the calendar — he insisted that Cashman was still looking at ways to improve the 2024 roster. But you could tell he was wary of adding more payroll, especially when any new salary would be taxed at a 110% rate, more than doubling the actual cost of a free agent. Turns out, passing on Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery was among the smartest decisions Cashman & Co. made this past offseason.

In February, Steinbrenner viewed the 2024 payroll as near the ceiling of his budget, or at least was saving some room for the trade deadline. But as I stated in my earlier column, the Yankees could have close to $70 million coming off the books for next season (as Steinbrenner alluded to). And with young, inexpensive prospects ready to fill some holes, that should clear plenty of cash for Soto in the years ahead.

Contrary to Henry’s fears of mortgaging the future, Steinbrenner signed off on trading four coveted pitchers for Soto. But the Yankees still retained Luis Gil, a 26-year-old flamethrower who was under the radar while coming off Tommy John surgery but now is a favorite to start the All-Star Game.

You would think that Henry bought himself a lifetime of goodwill in Boston after delivering four World Series titles, not to mention breaking an 86-year-old curse in 2004. Instead, Henry & Co. constantly seem on the defensive, having to explain why the Red Sox are ranked 12th in payroll ($218M) while new GM Craig Breslow is charged with retooling the franchise through the farm system.

“Because fans expect championships almost annually,” Henry said, “they easily become frustrated and are not going to buy into what the odds actually are: 1 in 20 or 1 in 30.”

Henry’s Red Sox helped elevate those expectations over the past two decades, but they’ve always existed in the Bronx, where the Yankees currently have a 14.2% chance of winning the World Series — second only to the Dodgers’ 21.9% — according to FanGraphs.

Mets playing long game

It’s a different story in Queens, however, as Cohen’s biggest enemy remains the regrettable statement he made upon acquiring the Mets.

“If I don’t win a World Series in the next three to five years — I would like to make it sooner — then obviously I would consider that slightly disappointing,” Cohen said in November 2020.

Cohen admits that he probably underestimated the task ahead. But to be fair, he had only about 10 minutes of experience as an MLB owner when he uttered those words. And it’s not as if he hasn’t tried. He’s spent more money than anyone else in the sport the past three years, and when that strategy didn’t work, he chose to eat more than $70 million on traded contracts last year to help rebuild the farm system for incoming president of baseball operations David Stearns.

With these Mets teetering between wild-card contention and a fire sale, Cohen spoke with the media last weekend at the London Series. Once everyone got past howling over Cohen saying London’s cuisine is superior to New York — he particularly liked the sausages on the golf course — he did provide some insight into the team’s thinking and reiterated his belief that the Mets are capable of putting together a run. There is value in talking with the guy who signs the checks, even if people seem to hear only what they want to hear these days.

“The fans have been through worse,” Cohen said.

Anyone who’s followed the Mets for any length of time would agree with that assessment. Making things better, however, takes more than words. Luckily for the owners, they have the power and money to follow through if they choose to do so.

More gambling concerns

First it was an interpreter. Then five players. Now an umpire.

We expected baseball’s gambling problems to continue, just not at such a rapid pace. Ten days after five players were suspended — one for life — MLB announced on Friday that well-respected umpire Pat Hoberg, a full-timer since 2017, has been disciplined for violating the sport’s gambling rules.

Unlike the down-to-the-nickel details disclosed about Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, and those five players, MLB did not specify Hoberg’s offenses because the umpire is appealing the punishment.

It was just last week that I discussed MLB’s gambling dilemma in this space with a pair of experts on the subject, and both agreed that pro leagues eventually will get a handle on the explosion of legalized sports betting. But they also said it’s a process, and we’re only in the early stages, with more scandals sure to come as this hyper-charged gambling environment becomes more “normalized.”

The implication of an umpire, however, spikes the concern to another level. Just like officials with other sports — most notably NBA ref Tim Donaghy, who admitted making calls that affected the point spread — umpires can seriously impact a wide spectrum of bets.

Having said that, in-game replay review does serve as sort of a check on those powers. And expanding the challenge system (something that seems to be on the horizon eventually) to include balls and strikes will help, too.

Vigilance and punishment are MLB’s primary weapons for now. And while close monitoring of gambling activity, with the help of sports betting operators, appears to be catching some offenders, we’re wondering if this alarming drip of cases could turn into a more persistent flow in the near future.

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