Gone are the days when the Yankees acted decisively, swiftly and, if need be, expensively to fill all their gaping or perceived holes that cost them a World Series the year before. In 2009, when they did win their lone World Series over the past decade, they were still looking for ways in improve by making bold changes in letting World Series MVP Hideki Matsui depart as a free agent, trading away another post-season hero Melky Cabrera, reacquiring Javier Vazquez, and acquiring Curtis Granderson.
Some worked, some wound up being a wash, some were disastrous, but at least they were doing something for the short and long terms and at least they were done in the Yankee fashion of money being no object in the interests of getting better.
The new Yankee template has nothing to do with getting better. It has to do with getting cheaper; spackling over holes because they’re too expensive to repair correctly; dropping nuggets into the media to keep them relevant or provide cover stories (the Josh Hamilton talk and GM Brian Cashman not being allowed to spend money at the winter meetings); and signing players not based on what they can do, but to placate the fans. They created this dynamic with the image of a first class organization and budgetless wheelbarrows full of cash from the Steinbrenners and the World Series or bust concept that anything less than a championship was deemed a failure. Now they’re facing the consequences of that business model and the desire/need to get the payroll down to $189 million by 2014.
Two more short-term signings have been made to fill a hole (Kevin Youkilis) and to make the fans happy (Ichiro Suzuki). Youkilis agreed to a 1-year, $12 million contract and the details of a contract with Ichiro are reportedly being finalized, but he’s returning.
The Youkilis signing makes plenty of sense and fills the chasm created by Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery and apparent absence until the summer. The Ichiro signing, if it’s done in the interests of him playing regularly, is a bad one. In years past, the Yankees would’ve thanked Ichiro for his help from August onward and moved along with someone younger and better. But they can’t afford anyone better. They can’t trade for a young third baseman like Chase Headley because they no longer have the prospects, so they had to sign Youkilis. They can’t dive into the free agent market for a Hamilton. Agents and players aren’t going straight to the Yankees safe in the knowledge that if the Yankees want the player or are desperate enough, the money will be a secondary issue because it’s plainly and simply there as a matter of course. That world doesn’t exist anymore.
They’re left with this: signing a useful player like Youkilis who doesn’t fit in with the Yankees clubhouse but, as a short-term fill-in, was the best option for their shockingly limited resources. There’s a possibility that Youkilis will either be a toned down version of himself or be advised how to act like a “Yankee” and not a “Red Sox.” This might affect his play on the field moving forward. Bear in mind that Youkilis isn’t the player he was in his Red Sox heyday.
Ichiro on the other hand, became a fan favorite because of his solid play after being acquired from the Mariners in late July. He played his usual solid defense, was a part of the landscape rather than the diva he’d become with the Mariners, and seemed rejuvenated by playing on a contender. None of that means he should’ve been re-signed or that he would’ve been re-signed as a regular contributor if prior Yankees’ incarnations were still the order of the day.
Here are the facts about Ichiro: he’s a declining 39-year-old player who batted .322 with a .340 on-base percentage and a .337 BAbip in 240 plate appearances as a Yankee. Even at the height of his powers, the split between his batting average and OBP has always been quite low because he doesn’t walk. He looked good for the Yankees because the balls he was hitting were finding a spot between the fielders, but in reality he wasn’t much better for the Yankees on the field than he’s been for the Mariners in the past two seasons. He’ll steal a few bases, show good glove work, and maybe have what looks like a good year with the bat. Good doesn’t necessarily mean productive. That’s the player they’re getting and if he’s asked to contribute for 400 at bats, it’s abundantly clear how far the Yankees have fallen in the hot stove competition and are destined to fall when the real competition begins in April of 2013.
They’re trying to save money as an end unto itself expecting the pinstripes and Yankees lore to be enough of an attraction to bring fans to the park no matter the state of the team. The implication of damaging the brand is not without merit. The on-field product will be cheaper, no doubt, but they’ll also be bringing in less money because of a lack of interest. They’re signing veterans past their sell-by date and hoping they have a small spring of baseball life left to “experience” their way into the playoffs. It’s a hard sell and it shows—not in a good way.