Crystal Balls: The Slide Of The Yankees

I’m not piling on … honest.

The Yankees look like a team in trouble. In 1994, the Toronto Blue Jays were back-to-back World Series champions. They still had WAMCO (Devon White, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Joe Carter and John Olerud), which consisted of the top three finishers in the previous year’s AL batting race (John Olerud .363, Paul Molitor .332, Roberto Alomar .326), all of which had terrific peripherals (adj. OPS+ 185, 142, and 140, respectively). The other two, White and Carter, were decent power threats with excellent defense.

The future was beginning to make it felt with Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, and the then highly regarded Alex Gonzalez. The bullpen looked passable even with Duane Ward’s tendonitis (he’s still three weeks away from returning), and coupled with the emergence of Darren Hall (17 SV 141 ERA+), it looked like the eighth and ninth innings would be foregone conclusions when Ward returned. The rotation featured 19-game winner Pat Hentgen, Juan Guzman was 40-11, 3.28 ERA over his first three seasons, four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart still looked like he could be effective, and there was a serviceable righty-lefty pairing of Todd Stottlemyre and Al Leiter to round out the rotation.

We all know what happened. The Jays went 55-60 before the strike hit, finished with the worst record in baseball the following year, and have yet to return to the post season or even 90 wins.

In short, the team still looked pretty good on paper, but when put on grass (or Astroturf) it was a different story.

The Yankees still look pretty good. They have troubles to be sure, but they also have Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera — so how much trouble could they possibly be in?

As we learned from the 1994 Toronto Blue Jays — it could be a lot.

But this isn’t about the 2005 Yankees per se, it’s about the Yankees future and its impact on Major League Baseball as a whole.

As has often been pointed out — the Yankees will always have the resources to compete. Although they apparently couldn’t afford Beltran, they’ve got a lot of money coming off the books come the offseason. Even if the next couple of free agent crops are anemic, there are always a couple of superstar players with superstar contracts that teams will do anything to divest themselves of.

It’s no secret that George Steinbrenner wants another World Series title desperately. He’s also 75 years old — or he will be come the Fourth of July. What will happen when he passes away? I’m not trying to be morbid, but he — as well as Marvin Miller — has probably had the biggest impact on Major League Baseball over the last half century. When he’s no longer among the sentient (dead, not becoming Bud Selig 2.0) what will happen with the Yankees? What will happen to the salary structure? What will happen to the MLBPA?

It’s good to remember that the last CBA was designed to basically reign in Steinbrenner. Collusion was targeted as much toward him as it was the MLBPA. Had Steinbrenner not escalated the costs of doing business for other owners, he probably wouldn’t have received the wrath of Fay Vincent (remember his “lifetime suspension”?) the way he did.

As already mentioned the Yankees will have the resources to be competitive. It’s one thing to have the resources; it’s another matter entirely to use those resources. The Minnesota Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad is among the richest men in America. He receives generous revenue sharing subsidies and is possibly on the verge of a new stadium of which he’ll likely be the beneficiary of anywhere between $200-$400 million (depending on cost overruns) of corporate welfare courtesy of the good sucke…er, folks of Hennepin County.

Of course, he’s loath to reinvest that largesse back into the Twins. Granted the Twins are competitive despite that, but it goes to demonstrate that having the money and spending the money are two completely different animals.

What will the new owner(s) of the Yankees do? The Bronx Bombers are on the hook for over $30 million in luxury taxes this year, and their tax rate rises to 40% next year as a three-time offender. Factor in revenue sharing obligations and possibly the debt from a new stadium (although this would reduce their revenue sharing obligations, it would increase their debt which would make them run afoul of MLB’s debt rules), and you cannot take for granted that the next Yankee owner will be as generous as Steinbrenner.

Let’s face it, this edition of the Yankees are getting long in the tooth. They have significant long-term obligations in Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. Although not as long, the Bombers have significant — although shorter term — obligations to Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, and possibly Jaret Wright, as well as obligations to players no longer on the club (Roger Clemens, Javier Vazquez) due to deferred deals or other factors. While Steinbrenner is still there you might see New York re-up Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. Of course you might also see a trade or two where they add other long-term contracts (Todd Helton anyone?) while The Boss is still around.

How will the next owner deal with this situation? Bear in mind that the next owner will have to pass Bud Selig’s muster. Before Frank McCourt was allowed to purchase the Dodgers, Selig had to be satisfied that he wouldn’t be an owner who’d go nuts in the free agent market (I would’ve loved to hear any phone conversations between McCourt and Selig after the Derek Lowe deal was announced — with appropriate bleeps of course). Selig wouldn’t approve of any new Yankees owner that wasn’t “fiscally responsible.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There’s another factor to consider. The current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of next season and ownership won the right to unilaterally contract. What do you suppose the odds are that Selig and company will hold 50 major league jobs over the MLBPA’s head for further salary restricti….er, cooperation in achieving “competitive balance”? Whatever twisted concepts are currently rattling around in the craniums of Selig, Bob Dupuy and Jerry Reinsdorf, you can bet that they’ll be designed to put the squeeze as much on the Yankees and Steinbrenner as it will on Don Fehr and Gene Orza.

So you can see how uncomfortable things could get for Steinbrenner’s successor.

You see, it’s not just the obvious that might happen; without the Yankees blowing the competition out of the water with offers to free agents to drive up the market — both for free agents and players going to arbitration, or madly outspending the competition etc., things could also happen in a more subtle way. For example, although I don’t have the data to substantiate this (although it does help to explain things that might be otherwise inexplicable), but how many teams sign a star player to a large free agent contract thinking that if things don’t go according to plan, they have an available trading partner that’s willing to take on said superstar with said superstar contract? In recent years Kevin Brown, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson (deferred), Raul Mondesi and Jeff Weaver were all traded to New York [partially] because they were the only club willing to take on their contracts. Will teams be willing to offer long-term, big money contracts without the pinstriped safety net?

A new owner in the Bronx could put a significant damper on the player market. How many agents now use the Yankees as a way to increase offers to their clients? Every time a big free agent hits the market, his agent lets slip that the Yankees are interested. If the Yankees are trimming payroll, trying to lower their luxury tax obligations, pay for a stadium, and trying to get in compliance with MLB’s debt rules, can you see an agent saying that New York has interest in a big-ticket free agent without being laughed out of the room? What if the Yankees cash Cashman and hire a Billy Beane acolyte?

Are you beginning to get the picture?

We may be witnessing the end of more than one era; not only the end of the current Yankee dominance (at least as far as the AL East/annual playoff appearance goes), but possibly the end of baseball’s current salary structure as well. This much is certain — when George Steinbrenner is off the scene, Major League Baseball will never look the same again.

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