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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Labor negotiations or not, Hal Steinbrenner's going to have to spend for Yankees

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner watches during

Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner watches during the sixth inning of the first baseball game of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in New York.  Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

Earlier this month, during the MLB owners meetings in Chicago, Hal Steinbrenner was the only one who held court with the handful of reporters in attendance.

Steinbrenner makes a point to do so at these gatherings, since he rarely hosts any type of media briefing the rest of the year. And this 20-minute session wasn’t much different than the others, in tone or messaging about the Yankees’ offseason issues.

Hal did get a little uncomfortable, however, when someone brought up MLB’s proposal to lower the luxury-tax threshold to $180 million (it was $210M the past year) and his support for the measure, which also included a $100-million payroll floor.

Steinbrenner obviously realized the poor optics of the Yankees’ owner willfully handing over his financial advantage to cut spending at the top of the sport’s food chain. But as a member of MLB’s labor committee, which consists of seven team owners, doing anything else would be considered the actions of a rogue state in the midst of these heated CBA negotiations with the players.

"There are certainly things in the proposal that we didn’t like, I mean every owner," Steinbrenner said at the time. "But we wanted to put together a proposal that addresses their concerns and come together as a group."

Two weeks later, the Yankees’ inactivity during this recent free-agent frenzy makes sense when viewed through the prism of Hal’s comments in Chicago. While it seems crazy -- and some might say negligent, given their needs -- for the Yankees to sit on the sidelines as the top free agents are gobbled up during this post-Thanksgiving gluttony, Steinbrenner may see it as a show of solidarity with his fellow labor hawks.

Either way, it’s not a great look, especially with his Flushing neighbor, Steve Cohen, spending $254.5 million over the span of four days, including the record-breaking contract to Max Scherzer, who now is baseball’s AAV leader at $43.3 million per season. Overall, MLB clubs already have dished out $1.5 billion in new contracts, but Steinbrenner’s lone purchase has been the $2-million deal for reliever Joely Rodriguez.

Another suspiciously quiet big-market team? The Red Sox, who also are on the labor committee with Steinbrenner. Boston’s total haul to date is a $7-million contract with Michael Wacha.

Just five teams are responsible for nearly all of the money spent so offseason -- the Rangers ($561.2M), Mets, Blue Jays ($252M), Tigers ($217M) and Rays ($200M). As a result, the top three free-agent pitchers are off the board, along with three of the elite shortstops. Those are two of the aisles the Yankees need to be shopping in, but they chose to pass on Scherzer, Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Javy Baez.

The Yankees’ early behavior is somewhat puzzling in that they made a point of staying under the luxury-tax threshold this past season and GM Brian Cashman suggested he would have some "latitude" this winter to increase payroll, which currently stands at roughly $220 million, if you include the projected arbitration raises. Amid all that talk of opening the Bronx vault, both Steinbrenner and Cashman also spoke glowingly of free-agent Carlos Correa, dismissing any perception of a grudge left over from the Astros’ cheating scandal.

Correa is still available, but he figures to be the most costly free agent in taking aim at Francisco Lindor’s 10-year, $341-million deal signed with the Mets last April. Trevor Story is another option at shortstop, and if the Yankees pivot to first base, there’s always Freddie Freeman.

Sharing the city with Cohen’s Mets these past few days have made the Yankees look small-market by comparison. It won’t get any easier the longer they stay silent over in the Bronx. But this lockout-induced deadline isn’t a real deadline for anything -- other than the expiration of the current CBA. When the next labor agreement is reached, and new economic rules are in place, the free-agent signing period will resume, as well as a revived trade market.

Problem is, nobody can predict when that will be, or define the parameters of that new baseball landscape. Maybe Steinbrenner and the majority of his fellow owners are sticking with a hard-line stance for these ongoing negotiations -- or they just prefer operating with more financial certainty in the future.

We just don’t know yet. But, while it’s way too early to write off the Yankees’ offseason as a failure before the start of December, they had better have a plan to catch up at some point. And Steinbrenner is going to have to open his wallet. That part is non-negotiable.

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