TAMPA, Fla. — There’s a reason nobody is calling it the Hal Steinbrenner Tax.
Once feared for their unrivaled financial might, the Yankees can’t even claim to be the checkbook kingpin of their own city anymore. That honor belongs to the Mets’ Steve Cohen, whose name just got engraved onto the newly created, highest rung of the competitive balance tax ($290 million).
And the cha-ching sound being heard on the other side of the RFK Bridge? That’s got to be annoying to the Bronx baseball folks, as if the neighbors hit the lottery and are partying too hard.
The volume is getting impossible to ignore, and Steinbrenner — unaccustomed to having the Mets throw around cash like an ‘80s Wall Streeter — was faced Wednesday with some unflattering comparisons. Steinbrenner doesn’t often have news conferences in spring training, and rarer still is one where his spending practices are repeatedly called into question.
Put it this way: The Yankees went into the offseason with openings at the positions played by free agents Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman, then filled them with Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Anthony Rizzo (the sequel). No offense to the two very solid players who’ll be wearing pinstripes, but that’s a bit of a buzzkill, even if astute observers of the Yankees’ bookkeeping lately probably expected more frugal moves along those lines.
Then again, it’s all relative. The Yankees did bring aboard Josh Donaldson in the IFK swap — taking on his remaining $48 million salary — and signed Rizzo to a two-year, $32-million deal. That puts Hal at a projected payroll of $256 million (with arbitration bumps, according to Spotrac) to place the Yankees third overall behind the Mets ($287M) and Dodgers ($274M).
Not what anyone would call cheap. But when a Steinbrenner is spending $30 million less than the Mets, and consistently losing the headline wars, it’s got to make Hal feel some additional pressure to be looking up at the Flushing franchise for the first time in decades.
"I think everybody expects that I do, but the answer is no," Steinbrenner said. "Because the fact is, I can’t control what resources other owners or other teams have and what they’re going to do with those resources. I make the same commitment every year — my family does— which is to do everything we’re able to do to field a championship-caliber team and try to win a World Series. I will continue to do, everything I’m able to do, to accomplish that."
From a geographic standpoint, sharing the same NYC stage, the Mets now pose a greater threat to the Yankees than they have in a long while, especially with Cohen’s deep-pocketed ability to make splashy moves (not to mention an active Twitter account). If the owners already are inventing new payroll penalties specifically as a Cohen deterrent, the Yankees better hope they’re successful in slowing him down.
"I’ve had a couple lunches with him," Steinbrenner said of Cohen. "He seems like a pretty down-to-earth guy to me, but I don’t know him well. Look, I think it’s great for the fans of New York to have two competitive baseball teams."
The Yankees aren’t about merely competing, of course. Their mission statement is to win No. 28, and as they’re currently assembled, that could be a tough sell. While passing on Freeman and Correa comes off as un-Yankees-like behavior, the ulterior motive could be crafting a long-term extension for the homegrown Aaron Judge, and Steinbrenner expected those talks to start very soon if a deal is to get done by the Opening Day deadline.
Sizing up the Yankees’ current payroll, a Judge extension should still leave Hal below the Cohen Tax. And unlike the Mets’ mega-billionaire, Steinbrenner wasn’t shy Wednesday about expressing his limitations, mostly due to the pandemic’s financial bite over the past two years. It’s become a more common refrain since COVID-19 dominated our everyday lives, and, well, the Yankees aren’t the Mets.
"That’s my job every year — to make sure that we’re financially responsible," Steinbrenner said. "I’ve got a lot of partners and banks and bondholders and things like that that I answer to. But at the same time, it’s always a goal to win a championship . . . We didn’t have fans for one year, so I think a lot of the larger-market clubs got hit the hardest. Our expenses, with the players or not, are normally greater. And obviously in New York, everything costs more."
It’s just a matter of what Hal’s Yankees, and now Cohen’s Mets, are willing to pay. In the coming weeks, we’ll find out if Steinbrenner has been saving up for Judge — or the bondholders. Either way, the bill comes due in October, and if the Yankees don’t come home with a title for an unlucky 13th consecutive season, Hal will have even more explaining to do.