Over the first month of the season, the Yankees have not only been one of the worst teams in all of baseball, but they’ve also gotten off to one of the slowest starts in franchise history. How did the once proud and mighty Bronx Bombers find themselves in such a predicament? It all started when they said good bye to Robinson Cano.
It remains to be seen how productive Cano will be in 2023, but the immediate impact caused by his departure has been undeniable. Not only do the Yankees miss the future Hall of Fame second baseman in the middle of their lineup, but the ripple effect has resulted in a series of questionable roster moves that have seen the Yankees throw good money away on bad decisions.
The first and most direct response to the loss of Cano was the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury. After reaching an impasse with Cano, the Yankees simply pulled their offer and handed it to Ellsbury. Instead of trying to meet Cano somewhere in the middle of the wide gulf that separated their offer from the Mariners’, the Yankees ultimately decided that what they paid was more important than to whom they paid it. The result was the Bronx Bombers ended up with an inferior offensive players whose value was predicated on the fleeting skill of speed. And, by doing so, they forfeited an enormous relative strength at a weak position, while duplicating the skill set of a player, Brett Gardner, they already had at nearly half the price.
As it turned out, the AAV on Cano’s deal was only $2 million more than Ellsbury’s, and that’s assuming a compromise couldn’t have been reached. Unfortunately, the Yankees then spent exactly that amount on Brian Roberts, the first of many ill-fated replacements for the consistent excellence of Cano. Not surprisingly, Roberts wasn’t able to fill Cano’s shoes, and Ellsbury wasn’t able to make up for the lost offense. In fact, the Yankees probably anticipated this. Why else would they sign Carlos Beltran to a three year deal lasting until about the same age that caused so much concern with Cano?
While the Yankees were busy collecting outfielders on long-term deals to make up for the one they didn’t want to give Cano, Nelson Cruz was practically begging for a job. The slugging righty would have fit like a glove on a team that had lost Alex Rodriguez to a year suspension, but the Yankees had no room in the outfield. The Bronx Bombers’ loss was the Orioles’ gain. Similar situations would play out in the following two off seasons, as productive outfielders like Colby Rasmus and Dexter Fowler were also forced to take bargain contracts. Could the Yankees have known these players would be available so cheaply in each season? Perhaps not, but that outfield would be an easier void to fill should have been obvious.
Instead of Cano anchoring the middle of their lineup in 2014, the Yankees relied on a cast of questionable characters, including Yangervis Solarte. It wasn’t a good trade off. The Bronx Bombers offense was grounded for most of that year, forcing Brian Cashman to seek an overhaul at the deadline. For about $8 million, the Yankees acquired Chase Headley, Martin Prado and Stephen Drew, but not only were the moves too little, too late, but they would also be the basis for more missteps the following season.
Of the three players acquired by the Yankees at the 2014 deadline, Martin Prado was the best fit. So, naturally, the Yankees traded him to the Marlins for Nathan Eovaldi. Instead of signing one of the many established free agent aces, like Max Scherzer, the Yankees opted for a cheaper lottery ticket in Eolvadi. That left a big hole for the Yankees at 2B and 3B, which necessitated the re-signing of Headley and Drew. Fast forward to this year, and Headley’s game has shown a complete deterioration, while Prado, whom the Yankees are paying $3 million, is batting over .400.
Note: Yankees send the Marlins $3 million to cover Prado’s salary in 2015 and 2016. Max Scherzer’s AAV is based on an estimated discounted value of his contract ($191 million). 2014 salaries for Headley, Drew and Prado are based on estimated pro-rated portions of existing contracts offset by other considerations involved in each trade.
Source: Baseball-reference.com, Cots contracts
As illustrated in the chart above, the Yankees penny wise and pound foolish approach has only saved the team about $22 million over the last three seasons ($33 million including luxury tax). But, that savings has come at a cost of about 20 wins. All else being equal, the gap in each respective year would have been enough for the Yankees to win a wild card in 2014 and the A.L. East in 2015, and, perhaps take in enough postseason revenue to offset the increased costs.
Yankees Estimated Actual and Hypothetical Payroll/Luxury Tax as a Percentage of Team Revenue, 2001 to 2015
Note: Revenue is based on Forbes projections and net of revenue sharing and stadium debt service. Payroll is based on final figures for each year released by MLB, and may not necessarily equal the amount upon which the luxury tax is based. Payroll and luxury tax for hypothetical years with Cano are based on the figures displayed above, all else being equal. To account for difference of one player, a league minimum salary has been added to the calculation. No additional revenue from the hypothetical roster built around Cano has been assumed.
Source: bizofbaseball.com and MLB releases published by AP (final payroll), MLB releases published by AP (luxury tax) and Forbes (revenue)
Even if the Yankees didn’t end up advancing in the postseason, and earned no additional revenue from potentially having a better team, the added expense would have still been reasonable. As depicted in the chart above, the Bronx Bombers’ relative payroll would have remained around 50%, which is still lower than the seasons that preceded them and in line with the MLB average.
When Hal Steinbrenner drew a line in the sand and let Robinson Cano walk away, the Yankees stopped being the Yankees. Instead of quickly learning from that mistake, the Bronx Bombers have continued their frugal approach, which has left the team where it finds itself today. By building so much uncertainty into the current roster, the Yankees gave themselves a chance to win, but also put themselves at risk of a total collapse. That’s the price to be paid for a lack of investment in players, and, after three years of neglect, the bill may have finally come due.