Something is rotten in the state of the South Bronx: The Future of the New York Yankees

(Note: This is the first of two items on the future course of teams I care about. Look for a cranky diatribe about the Mariners later this week.)

Three hundred and five million dollars? Really?

Robinson Cano, the second baseman for the Yankees who I’ve taken to calling “Robinson Can-YES” seeing as he’s the only reliable hitter currently in pinstripes, wants $305 million over the next 10 years for his services to the Evil Empire. That’s about $30 million a year, from the team that already owes Alex “I am the worst person in baseball” Rodriguez something like $27 million a year over those two years, not to mention everyone else on the roster.

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be such a huge problem. It’s the Yankees; it’s not like they don’t have the money! But this is a new age. There’s a new luxury tax threshold and now the Steinbrenner’s are desperate to get the payroll under $189 million.

So assuming the Yanks actually make that payroll number, then between a fourth and a third of their payroll is sunk into two players, one of whom is ancient and about to sit out more than a year. Granted, if Rodriguez is forced to sit, then he will not have to be paid, but that is a short-term solution. Signing Cano to that kind of a deal creates long term problems.

Cano is 30. Rodriguez was in that age threshold when he signed his now bitter-pill contract with New York. Albert Pujols was a little over that point when he signed his 10 year papers with the Angels. What do these two men have in common? Their money has proven to be a poor investment.

In the second year of his mammoth deal out west, Pujols has basically played at replacement level. He was better than average last year, but not 10 years $254 million good. Rodriguez has literally played at replacement level, only worse because between injuries and steroids and constantly running his yap (or his lawyer’s yap, as it may be) Rodriguez’s value to the club has been far below replacement.

I think Pujlos is the ultimate case study as to why 10 year deals are bad for clubs, as the Rodriguez example is too caked with all the things that make A-Rod who he is to be a valuable example. Pujols was “insulted” when the Cardnials offered him five year money after Pujols won a ring, even though his numbers were already starting to dip (his 2011 OPS was down more than 100 points from 2010). So St. Louie let him go. Everyone crowed that the Cards were screwed, that they’d never fill the void.

Really? This is the club that invented the “farm system.” (Thank you, Branch Rickey) Of the seven Cardinals who hit above .280 this season, five were drafted by the organization, while only one has a free-agent contract longer than two years. “Pujols? Who’s that? Sorry, I was busy winning the NL Central.”

Who do the Yankees have in their farm system? Exactly. Since the Core Four burst onto the scene in the late 90’s, only Cano and Brett Gardiner have come through the Yankees’ minor league organization. Both of these players were nearly traded away for free agents. The mindset of the Yankees front office has embraced the concept of bringing in a mid to high dollar free agent to fill any hole in the lineup. It helps that most pro players swoon at the thought of playing in pinstripes (except for those like Curt Shilling who loathe the Yanks), but part of why they want to play in the Bronx is because it usually comes with a hefty payday.

The Yankees farm system is thoroughly depleted. None of their top 10 prospects will be ready next year and a few of them will be ready the year after, most of whom are pitchers who do not yet have important major-league tools like command or a decent changeup. The Yankees top prospects from the last decade or so have all been traded away for a variety of free agents that have ranged from helpful to hopeless.

With the new luxury tax rules, and the compensatory draft pick rules, the days of building a team through a consistent influx of top-flight free agents may be over. One thing is for sure: New York is in an untenable position. Resigning Cano for the money he’s demanding sinks them farther into the hole they’ve already dug for themselves. The playing field has suddenly shifted, and putting Cano on a monster deal like the one he wants is like doubling down with a bad hand.

The Yanks need to rebuild, and resigning Cano isn’t the way to do it. Starting pitching isn’t a huge concern, even if C.C. Sabathia is no longer the uber-ace he once was. But they need better bats, more consistent bats, and younger bats that will be less prone to injury. Obviously, with Mariano Rivera’s departure, the bullpen will be in some sort of flux, but that is a secondary concern to the Bombers inability to bomb. One bat isn’t enough, as this season has proven, and 30 million a year for a 31 year old bat, consistent as it may be, is simply too much for a club that has spent the last few years digging itself into a financial and prospect-lacking hole.

The free-agent market is pretty thin this year. This represents a golden opportunity for the Yanks to cut loose some of their dead-weight guys and grab some top Triple-A players from around the country and, at the very least, find a few diamonds to build around next year while saving gobs and gobs of money. David Robertson may well have what it takes to be a major league closer, and I think that avenue is worth exploring. The Yanks need some help in the bullpen and better bats at third and behind the plate. I don’t know the minor leagues well enough to say who the possibilities are, but I would have to think there’s someone capable out there.

Assuming Derek Jeter is caput, Brendan Ryan is, defensively at least, a more than serviceable shortstop (his bat is another story). Mark Texiera should be back at first sack, and Mark Reynolds has proven himself a decent hitter to go with Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki. Lyle Overbay is not bad for a utility player. Sabathia will likely need to accept that, due to age and loss of velocity, he is no longer the ace of the Yankees staff. With Andy Pettit’s departure, they will need another starter, unless they want to stick with Phil Hughes. (I wouldn’t) This isn’t even counting their lack of an everyday DH.

Will any of these concerns be addressed in a cost-effective, future oriented manner? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. The likely course will be to resign Cano, take another crack at singing a high-profile third baseman, and finish in fourth place again, This is the culture of the modern Yankees. Why develop prospects when we can overpay for whatever we need. With the deck now stacked against them, it will be truly impressive if Cashman and Co. are able to will themselves away from the Over-Priced Free Agent Game.


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