Over a month ago, I wondered if the Yankees’ patient approach this offseason was part of a larger strategy to load up for next year’s free agent class. More recently, the mainstream media has also advanced the same theory, and now, some in Red Sox Nation are wondering if Boston might be taking the same tack?
Although the instant gratification of an incremental upgrade has to be tempting, especially for perennial contenders like the Yankees and Red Sox, it behooves both teams to maintain enough flexibility to be serious bidders for the game’s very best players. Next winter could provide such an opportunity. In addition to elite starters like Matt Cain and Cole Hamels, the 2013 free agent pitcher class could also includes Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano, Dan Haren, Shaun Marcum, Anibal Sanchez, Ervin Santana, and James Shields. Granted, some of those pitchers will either have their 2013 options picked up or sign a contract extension, but if just a few from that group hit the open market, the opportunities for improvement would be compelling.
The worst case scenario for either the Yankees or Red Sox would be to enter the 2012 offseason tapped out while the other goes on a shopping spree. If Yankees’ fans are unhappy about the way the winter has unfolded this year, just imagine the helplessness of watching the Red Sox sign Cole Hamels next offseason? Similarly, Red Sox Nation would be up in arms if the team’s payroll or roster construction prevented it from competing with the Yankees for aces like Hamels and Cain. In either scenario, it’s probably safe to assume each team’s fans wouldn’t be appeased by actions taken during the current offseason.
Not only should the Yankees and Red Sox be closely monitoring each other, but the agents of the best potential free agents would be wise to do the same. If the two super powers really are primed for an offseason buildup in 2012, elite free agents will reap the benefits. With the prospect of such a bidding war, the impetus for players like Hamels and Cain, among others, to sign long-term extensions could be significantly lessened (which, in turn, could make for a very robust trade market around the deadline), making the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ strategy almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
While many seem to think the Yankees and Red Sox are dealing with new fiscal restraints that have forced the two sides into a détente, my suspicion is they are simply employing a wise policy of strength through flexibility, which, for each team, was severely limited this offseason (particularly because of past contracts given to A.J. Burnett and John Lackey). Although losing out on the likes of C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and Yu Darvish this offseason could impede both teams in the short term, a similar opportunity cost next year would have more lasting ramifications.
So, don’t be fooled by the silence coming from each side in the rivalry. The real battleground will be next winter, when the opportunity to stockpile is sure to lead to an escalation. Let the arms race begin again.