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

TAMPA, Fla.

Three months ago, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and his Yankees were under siege when he appeared on a Zoom call to give a State of the Bronx address.

During that November session, Steinbrenner repeatedly expressed his disgust with his team's 82-80 2023 season, the club's failure to make the playoffs for only the fifth time in 29 years and the Yankees’ 0-for-14 streak in the title department since winning the World Series in 2009, their last trip to what used to be an annual October trip for his dad.

“Unacceptable” was the word Steinbrenner used.

Fast-forward to this past week. Standing in a runway of the stadium that bears his father’s name, Steinbrenner held an impromptu news conference, his back literally against a concrete wall, after the Yankees completed an earlier workout. For the dozen or so reporters gathered, it was time to get the scorecards out, to see if Steinbrenner indeed had made good on the pledges he made in November.

With his manager, Aaron Boone, saying the Yankees are “hell-bent” on ending the franchise’s championship drought this season, I asked Steinbrenner if he also believes that to be true, based on the club’s roughly $306 million payroll — second behind only Steve Cohen’s Mets ($329M) in the majors — and its efforts to improve in the offseason. He stopped short of making any mandates, however, and hedged on the mission come October.

“I think so,” Steinbrenner said. “And I think the attitude is these guys are ‘hell-bent’ to win a title. But look, we all know when you get to the postseason — competitive balance being what it is today compared to 10 years ago — [general manager Brian Cashman] says it is a bit of a crapshoot. I mean, look at the clubs that got knocked out in Round One last year. Clubs you wouldn’t have thought.

“But we’ve got to get there. That’s the whole thing. That’s why last year was a failure on every level — we didn’t even get there. Once you’re there, most teams have a good chance, if not all of those teams.”

Steinbrenner was echoing a growing sentiment around baseball, one that’s gained momentum in recent years, or at least outside of Flushing and the Bronx, along with maybe Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Texas. Last October, the 84-78 Diamondbacks got to the World Series with a $119 million payroll — ranked 21st overall — before losing to the Rangers, whose $251 million investment (fourth) paid off despite a chunk of rotation money on the shelf.

Still, Steinbrenner promised upgrades to the roster  and has mostly delivered in pushing the Yankees’ payroll over $300 million, more than a decade after saying he didn’t believe spending $200 million was necessary to win the World Series. He added nearly $66 million to this year’s tab — almost half of it going to Juan Soto’s $31 million salary, a record for a final arbitration season — and insisted Thursday that he’d be willing to go higher if Cashman gave him a reason to do so. The Yankees already are well above the top luxury-tax threshold of $297 million, meaning they would pay 110% tax on any additional signings, more than doubling the overall cost of the new player’s salary.

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell remains as free...

Two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell remains as free agent as exhibition games begin. Credit: AP/Mark J. Terrill

The most obvious reason to stretch that ceiling is free-agent lefthander Blake Snell, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner, whose reported asking price of nine years and $270 million (as piloted by Scott Boras) has yet to find a taker. Cashman’s January pivot to Marcus Stroman on a two-year, $37 million deal helped solidify one rotation spot. But with $162 million disappointment Carlos Rodon — another Boras client — coming off an injury-riddled mess of a debut, concern over Nestor Cortes’ health and Clarke Schmidt coming off an  increased workload, the Yankees are thin on the starting front. It’s an Achilles' heel further exposed by sending five major league-caliber pitchers to the Padres in the deal for Soto.

Steinbrenner played it coy when pressed on the Yankees’ interest in Snell,  admitting only that, yes, he has spoken to some agents since spring training began earlier this month. But the Yankees’ appetite to further spend on the rotation — or trade more prospects for a front-line starter — is red-lining at this stage. That could change abruptly if the rotation takes a hit in the coming weeks, and with the Grapefruit League schedule underway — Rodon and Stroman will make their first starts in Sunday’s split-squad games — the poker game with Boras continues.

“I don’t think you can ever have enough pitching,” Steinbrenner said. “We’ll see what remains to be done or not done.”

Credit Steinbrenner for reading the room. He’s well aware of the drumbeat for Snell. And the Yankees already had $300 million earmarked for Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who ultimately chose the Dodgers on a 12-year, $325 million deal, so it’s not as if Steinbrenner couldn’t pony up more cash if he wanted to circle back for Snell.

The difference? Yamamoto is six years younger than Snell and considered to be a generational pitcher with lucrative sponsorship appeal.

The Yankees certainly thought they had an inside track for Yamamoto based on their previous success with other high-profile Japanese stars, but that wasn’t going to get them a discount. And Steinbrenner drew his own line in the sand for those negotiations. When asked if matching the Dodgers’ offer would have nabbed Yamamoto, he said he was unsure.

“That’s pure hypothetical,” Steinbrenner said. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t.”

Was it too high to go for Yamamoto?

“I felt the $300 million was a very, very good offer,” Steinbrenner said before adding: “We were disappointed. We had a great meeting with him. He’s a great young man, and obviously a great player. But for a player that’s never played in the major leagues before, that’s a lot of money. And sooner or later, you have to have a limit. You have to have a limit because of circumstances like that.”

It will be another eight months before we truly know if Steinbrenner & Co. did enough this winter to lay the foundation for title No. 28. For now, he’s checked a number of boxes, a list that includes the offseason’s best trade in netting Soto. As February winds down, that’s acceptable. For now.

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