By MARK KNUDSON @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
The New York Yankees are the greatest franchise in Major League Baseball history – even Boston Red Sox fans can’t argue that. With 27 World Series championships, they’re the ultimate baseball winners – which is among the reasons why most baseball fans either love ‘em or (more often) hate ‘em. A big reason for distain is that for several decades now – especially the years between the mid 1970’s and the early 2000’s, the volatile “George Steinbrenner Era,” – the perception was/is that the Yankees – located in the country’s largest market and blessed with deep pockets and endless revenue streams – could simply go out and buy championships…and did.
There was – and is – obvious and well founded jealously among other fans and even other owners. It’s a luxury to be able to throw money at a problem and be able to fix it. During baseball’s difficult labor relations era (1972-1994) when the game suffered eight “strikes” and/or “lockouts” (due to the inability of owners and players to seemingly ever agree on fair collective bargaining terms) Steinbrenner and the Yankees were often times a virtual third party in the negotiations: They weren’t in line with the other owners (who wanted spending restrictions and a more level financial playing field) nor with the players, who wanted a bigger and bigger share of the financial pie. Three-way negotiations often proved nearly impossible.
Then something strange happened in the summer of 1990 when MLB suspended Steinbrenner from day-to-day involvement in the operations of the Yankees. They stepped in line. Those operating the club decided to place a new emphasis on player development instead of piecing together a team through big name free agent signings. The result was the drafting and developing of core players like Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter – the nucleus of Yankee teams that won five World Series titles between 1996 and 2009. New York found out that the franchise could actually develop a championship team the old fashioned way, through drafting and developing players. They didn’t have to buy World Series titles.
Fast forward to 2017. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the young and fiscally responsible Yankees. But they shocked the baseball world by going 91-71 and earning a play-off spot. Powered by home grown All-Stars Aaron Judge (American League Rookie of the Year) and Gary Sanchez, New York came within one game of making it to another World Series.
Once this off season arrived, the Yankees, empowered by a better than expected season, became players in the free market again. Only this time, they did so with an eye on keeping the checkbook in the black. They made a trade to bring 2017 National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton from Miami and create a lineup that will feature two guys – Judge and Stanton – who each hit more than 50 home runs last season, and Sanchez, who hit 31. While they remain under baseball’s luxury tax threshold, the critics are already talking about the revival of the “Evil Empire.”
Yes, Stanton brings with him an enormous $29 mil/year contract that has 10 seasons remaining – one that only clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers would seem able to absorb. So to that end, the critics are correct. Having deeper pockets than most is allowing the Yankees to make a move most of their competitors can’t make. On the surface this seems to be a return to the old Steinbrenner days of free spending and buying championships. But if you look closer, you’ll see that’s not a fair or accurate assessment.
The core of the 2018 Yankees has been built the old-fashioned way, through drafting, making low level trades and developing prospects in the farm system. Both Judge and Sanchez were draft picks – players other teams could have had if they would have drafted better. Brett Gardner, Greg Bird, Austin Romine, Dellin Betances and Luis Severino are all critical elements to this year’s Yankees who’ve never played for another MLB franchise.
While the Yankees did acquire outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury as a free agent from the rival Red Sox, they traded for closer Aroldis Chapman and pitcher Sonny Gray. They drafted reliever David Robertson before trading him – and then traded to bring him back. Shortstop Didi Gregorius was acquired in a creative, three-way trade and outfielders Clint Frazier and Aaron Hicks were brought in via trades while they were still minor leaguers. New York signed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka as a free agent from Japan.
These were all baseball moves that did not happen because the New York had deeper pockets. They were moves any other club could have made.
Bringing in Stanton doesn’t guarantee the Yanks any success on the field. They’ll sell more jerseys and tee-shirts, but that doesn’t win games. They still have to go out on the field and produce with a team that is largely home grown. They’ll have a manager in the dugout who has NEVER managed a professional baseball game before. Regardless of their payroll, they’ll have to deal with injuries like everyone else.
This is a well run organization. Remember, even during the years when they weren’t loading up on free agents and were becoming more “budget” conscious, the Yankees have gone 25 years without having a losing record. That’s not because of their bank balance.
Not all problems can be fixed by money. Team building is about much more than simply who has the highest payroll. Recent World Series winners like Kansas City and Houston didn’t have the highest payrolls. They did what champions have to do – they put together great teams that performed on the field regardless of what the accountants were doing off of it.