With only a few days left before the start of spring training, neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado appears to be any closer to calling New York home than they were when this offseason began.
Machado made it as far as a perfunctory December meeting in the Bronx, followed by dinner in Manhattan with Yankees officials. Otherwise, the two players were relegated to punch lines by the franchise in Queens, where, as expected, the Mets showed no interest in what were projected to be a pair of $300-million contracts.
That doesn’t mean, however, the New York clubs on opposite sides of the RFK Bridge were reluctant to brandish their checkbooks this offseason. Quite the contrary. Despite their aversion to the Harper/ Machado derby — a strategy most other teams apparently share — both the Yankees and Mets invested heavily in their 2019 rosters, making them among the highest offseason spenders in the sport.
Such company is nothing new for the Yankees, of course. And if you tally their total expenditure on free agents, it comes to roughly $148 million on eight players, which includes bringing back four of their own from last season — Zack Britton (three years/$39M), J.A. Happ (two years/$34M), CC Sabathia (one year/$8M) and Brett Gardner (one year/$7.5M).
Oddly enough, the Yankees’ highest-paid import is actually Troy Tulowitzki, whose $20-million salary for 2019 is being picked up by the Blue Jays, leaving Hal Steinbrenner on the hook for only the major-league minimum of $555,000. Who’s to say Hal can’t bargain-shop, too?
A year ago, the Yankees did what we usually expect from a Steinbrenner in trading for Giancarlo Stanton, assuming roughly $265 million of his remaining salary. This year, Brian Cashman is more into the varied distribution of his resources, further bolstering the two critical areas of need: the rotation and bullpen.
He’s still writing big checks, just not all to one player, and Steinbrenner bristled this past week at the suggestion that he isn’t laying out enough cash for their 2019 title hopes.
“If there’s a narrative that we’re not spending money and being cheap, it’s just false,” Steinbrenner said at the owners’ meetings in Orlando. “I mean, we’re well above $200 million [in payroll] — we’re at $220 [million] right now — and we’re well above where we were last year. We did everything we wanted to do to really improve, again, the pitching, because that’s where I wanted improvement, because as far as I’m concerned, pitching was a big problem in the Division Series, more so than anything else.”
Steinbrenner isn’t used to such accusations, and for good reason. Before last year, the Yankees had forked over the luxury tax for 15 straight seasons, at a total cost of $341 million. Before their last World Series championship, in 2009, Steinbrenner invested nearly $500 million in four players the previous offseason to claim that title, ending an eight-year championship drought in the Bronx.
Is passing on free-agent megastars such as Harper and Machado the better strategy this time around? That remains to be seen. First, they have to sign somewhere; then it depends on how the Yankees finish up. Evidently, they believe this group can win a World Series, or at least be in a good position to do so come October.
As for the Mets, who will show up in Port St. Lucie with agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen as well as a revamped front office, their immediate sights are on the NL East title, with bold talk of taking the division. To a certain degree, they’ve put some money where their mouth is, spending about $142 million on five players this offseason, which includes the $63 million they inherited with Robinson Cano in the Mariners deal that also netted elite closer Edwin Diaz.
That’s a sizable chunk of change, certainly by Mets standards, even if they declined to get back in the bidding for another player approaching anywhere near the $100-million mark.
One important thing to remember, however: The Mets are getting some money back with the insurance settlement on David Wright’s contract, as well as a percentage of relief on the injured Yoenis Cespedes.
Those refunds should lessen the financial sting somewhat, and Van Wagenen did manage to check some important boxes, upgrading at catcher with Wilson Ramos (two years/$19 million) and fortifying the bullpen with old friend Jeurys Familia (three years/$30M) and Justin Wilson (two years/$10M). Even the flexibility of infielder Jed Lowrie (two years/$20 million) should come up big as Mickey Callaway tries to keep everyone productive on a daily basis.
“Hopefully the fans recognize we did make a big offseason splash; we just spread it around among a number of different players, be it free agency or trades,” Van Wagenen said last week as the Mets’ equipment truck prepared to steer south for Port St. Lucie. “There’s a lot to be excited about. We have not been quiet about our belief in this team, and our players have expressed the same.”
Words alone can’t accomplish much. But with six weeks of practice on the horizon for the Mets and Yankees, no one can say they didn’t make good use of their winter months in preparation.
Was it enough? That’s a question that won’t be answered for a while.