The Yankees are stuck. After an offseason for the ages that saw the team drop $438 million on four big-name players, general manager Brian Cashman will head into 2015 with little payroll flexibility and a team that's relying heavily on the success of high-earning players who are no longer the stars they once were.
It was once difficult to imagine the Yankees being associated with anything other than payroll freedom, not constraints. But the team's dependence on veteran signees has dug the Yankees into a hole they can only climb out of when those players start to perform—or when their contracts expire down the road.
Past Yankees teams, the ones that appeared in five World Series in six years from 1996 to 2001 and again in 2003, relied on a mix of homegrown talent and big deals to veterans like Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. The 2009 championship-winning squad used a similar formula, though admittedly with greater reliance on offseason signings.
In other words, the Yankees used to be a "normal team," in the sense that they had a good mix of young and old talent. Now there's a whole lot of the latter, and not much youth at all. What's more, those older players have created a concentration of wealth that Cashman would probably look upon with horror if he'd seen it coming back in his debut season of 1998.
The degree of that problem is truly astonishing. The combined 2015 salaries of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann will total roughly $128 million, more than the Houston Astros' payroll over the last three seasons combined.
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Yes, six Yankees players will make more in one season than an entire team made over the course of three. And those six players have combined to post a WAR of 9.7 this season, a total that is disconcertingly close to Angels outfielder Mike Trout's 6.6 WAR. (Obviously, A-Rod hasn't played in 2014, though it's anyone's guess as to how much he can still contribute anyway.)
Incredibly, the Yankees already have $172 million committed to 2015 salaries in total, and when you throw in possible extensions to players like closer David Robertson, starter Brandon McCarthy and third baseman Chase Headley, Cashman could be heading into the offseason with his work nearly finished thanks to a payroll that figures to total over $200 million with extensions factored in. Those three players—Robertson, McCarthy and Headley—will also command significantly more than they did in 2014, including McCarthy, who somehow has a 1.36 ERA with five wins in six starts at Yankee Stadium this year.
Success in one of the worst pitching environments in the game turns a pitcher into a valuable commodity, and as Pinstripe Alley's Michael Brown noted, teams out of the financial running for top starters like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester will likely turn their attention to McCarthy this offseason. If the Yankees get into a bidding war with pitching-starved teams like the Red Sox or Phillies, McCarthy might come at a very steep price.
Certainly the loss of players with big contracts like Hiroki Kuroda ($16 million this season), Derek Jeter ($12 million) and Ichiro (a rather tame $6.5 million in comparison) limits the damage a bit. But A-Rod's salary jumps back up to $22 million after he made around $3 million in 2014, on top of Brett Gardner's $7 million salary hike as the result of his extension and the $6 million A-Rod will make if he hits six more homers to match Willie Mays' 660.
2014 isn't a lost season for the Yankees just yet, and 2015 doesn't have to be either. Though the Bombers won't go far if McCann posts another sub-.700 OPS and Beltran maintains his replacement-level production, to name a few issues, the team is loaded with players who have been there and done that. There's a lot of potential for the Yankees to be a good ballclub (heck, a playoff ballclub) next season, even if they haven't shown many signs of it yet.
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Most importantly, Tanaka will be back and should contend for the Cy Young award if he stays healthy. McCann is hitting .316 in September and looks much more comfortable at the plate. Dellin Betances is allowing less than half a hit per inning, and he'll combine with Robertson to hold down the eighth and ninth innings if the latter re-signs. Barring injuries, the Yankees could have a solid rotation of Tanaka, McCarthy and Michael Pineda, along with Sabathia. Even A-Rod might provide a few hundred quality at-bats with the luxury of the DH spot.
2015 is a season of uncertainty for the Yankees, but many of the team's core players figure to remain the same. And yet, if the team is willing to move up into the mid-$200 million range, as could very well be the case, we might see more big-name players joining the Bombers by the time next season rolls around. The sky—or the confines of Steinbrenners' checkbooks—is the limit.