Commentary

Baby Boss breaking Bombers' old mold

Relative fiscal sanity means focus on farm, fewer back-loaded megadeals. Will it pay?

Updated: March 2, 2012, 9:03 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA -- Believe it or not, there are more efficient ways of running a baseball team than by regular and massive infusions of cash.

And for the first time in their recent history, the Yankees finally have some motivation to find one.

That is the real upshot of Hal Steinbrenner's decree that the Yankees cut their payroll to $189 million for the start of the 2014 season.

It doesn't mean the Yankees are going to start operating as if they were the Pittsburgh Pirates, or worse, the Mets, and it doesn't mean they have changed the team's mission statement, which is essentially, Win It All Or Hang Your Head In Shame.

[+] EnlargeAdam Warren
Kim Klement/US PresswireCould righty Adam Warren, who started Friday's spring scrimmage against USF, be the Bombers' Next Big Thing? With the Yankees trimming payroll, he might get more of a shot.

As Brian Cashman said Friday, "We're still the Yankees. We're still going to outspend everybody else. That's not going to change. We're still going to be there for our fan base and try to make sure every year that they have legitimate hope that this can be a special season."

But he also parroted Hal's theme from his impromptu Thursday Q&A session in the elevator lobby of The Boss: "Our payroll doesn't need to be at this level. It's at a certain level because of massive commitments that we've already made. But at the same time, look at the Minnesota Twins, look at the Tampa Bay Rays, look at a lot of clubs that are having massive success going about it a different way."

The question is, can the Yankees do it that way? Or do they need to have it both ways? Clearly, some things are going to change.

What is going to change -- what has already changed, if you've been paying attention -- is the way they go about it.

If it means giving up on a Jesus Montero for a Michael Pineda, who might someday be a bargain-basement ace, you do it. If it means signing a Hiroki Kuroda for one year rather than a C.J. Wilson for five, so be it.

Is it really such a bad thing not to get locked into contracts like the ones the Yankees have with Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, or the one they just (partially) wriggled out of with A.J. Burnett, which almost always end with the club paying big bucks for bad performance?

It may mean that in two years, either Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson will get a new deal, but not both.

It may mean no matter how good a 2012 season he has, next spring Nick Swisher will be wearing a different uniform. Same thing for Russell Martin.

Baseball teams can, and routinely do, find cheaper ballplayers who can do essentially the same jobs as their higher-priced counterparts. Even if they can't quite match the stats, very often the number of wins they produce is virtually the same.

If there is an ultimate verdict on whether the "Moneyball" approach to evaluating ballplayers worked or not, it is not to be found in the success or lack thereof of the Oakland Athletics.

It is in the fact that 29 other major league teams are now using it. Including, at long last, the New York Yankees.

"I know Hal talked about a number, but it's not like that number is a low number," Joe Girardi said Friday after the Yankees spanked a team from the University of South Florida, 11-0. "What manager wouldn't like to have a payroll like that?"

The reality, however, is that unlike the other 29 major league teams, the Yankees are the only one that will have to cut payroll to make its number. Every other one, including the Yanks' main divisional rivals, the Boston Red Sox, can add payroll and still escape having to pay any luxury tax as well as qualify for a rebate of a good chunk of the money it pays into baseball's revenue-sharing pot.

Hal Steinbrenner has, quite reasonably, decided he too would prefer to take money out of that pot rather than simply pay into it.

"This could mean $50 million a year" to the Yankees, according to a source who requested anonymity on the topic.

And there is no sane businessman on planet Earth who would turn down a chance to add that kind of coin to his books every year.

For the Yankees, all it means is more Bill James and a little less drunken sailor.

It means that by the time the new threshold kicks in before the 2014 season, the Yankees have to find a way to fill out their roster with 21 winning major league ballplayers for a total of about $114 million, since they already have $75 million tied up in four of them: Rodriguez, Teixeira, Sabathia and Derek Jeter.

It means making tough calls -- do you sign Martin or Granderson to a long-term deal or gamble on a lower-priced substitute -- and taking some big risks, such as betting that at least two of the abundance of young pitching prospects in the farm system develop as the organization hopes they will.

"We've got a lot of guys," said Cashman, who held court behind the batting cage on the subject for about a half hour before Friday's spring opener. "Who's to say [Adam] Warren or [David] Phelps don't become whatever? Who's to say [Danny] Burawa isn't another David Robertson in his own way with the power arm that he's got? As Gene Michael told us years ago, you just collect as many nuggets as possible and sift through it."

It sounds like there will be a lot more sifting and a lot less spending in the Yankees' future. Because if you can save money on pitching -- an area in which the Yankees are loaded with young talent -- you can spend on outfielders, an area in which the system is thin.

And as Cashman pointed out, "when we were getting sand kicked in our faces by Tony La Russa and the Bash Bros.," the powerful Oakland A's teams of the early '90s, the Yankees were growing the nucleus of a team down on the farm that would go on to win four World Series in five years.

"And we had the Bernies and the Geralds and the Riveras and the Pettittes and the Mendozas and the Jeters, and all those guys in the system coming up," Cashman said. "But did we know this was the future generation?"

The answer, of course, is no. But they were hopeful back then and they are hopeful now because, as he has demonstrated over the past three seasons, Hal Steinbrenner is not George Steinbrenner.

That doesn't mean he doesn't care if he wins or not -- in fact, with the massive debt service to be managed on the new ballpark, the financial pressure on the son to field a winner may be greater even than the psychological pressure to win that tortured his father, who turned it on everyone else -- just that he is motivated to find a more cost-effective way to do it.

Now, Cashman says, when the Yankees say no, it will mean no. Not maybe, not yes and certainly not "we want you so badly we'll bid against ourselves to get you," as was often the case when The Boss was in charge.

"For years, we've acted a certain way and it's hard to change the perception," he said. "You see that we've been a lot more disciplined, a lot more conservative, a lot more deliberate. But you've also seen us deviate from that, and make independent decisions that might be outside of the long-term plan, a short-term decision."

Rafael Soriano was one that Cashman publicly disagreed with, on the grounds that it makes no sense to pay a setup man like a closer, especially when you already have the best closer ever to play the game and a perfectly good, and affordable, setup in David Robertson.

Kuroda was another, but one that Cashman argued for, since his one-year, $10 million deal will be off the books long before the threshold kicks in.

The real test, of course, will come if the young pitchers fail to become what the Yankees need them to be, or if some of the big names with the big contracts get hurt, or the team starts to fall out of the race. What if the clock turns back to 1991 and it gets harder and harder to feed the beast that is Yankee Stadium?

At that point, will Hal Steinbrenner stay the course of comparative fiscal austerity? Or will he declare, as his father undoubtedly would have, "Damn the luxury tax and to blazes with the revenue-sharing rebate! Full speed ahead!"?

As the profits fall, will the checkbook re-open?

"You can go in with an idea," Cashman said, "But they're willing to adjust on the run at the same time, based on a lot of factors."

Based on history alone, the biggest factor of all will be the number of wins the team puts up. Efficient roster management may be the catchphrase of the moment, but for the New York Yankees, a return to financial insanity is always a viable option.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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