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November 18, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees have been making the postseason every year for the past decade, but it's only been the past few seasons that they've started going nuts on the free agent market. The core of their championship teams -- Jeter, Williams, Pettitte, Rivera, Posada -- was mostly homegrown, and the bulk of the key players from outside the system were either accquired through saavy trades or signing them as second-tier free agents. The Yankees spent more money than anyone else, but they were spending that money one players they had accquired for reasons independent of money. To get Chuck Knoblauch they gave up Cristian Guzman and Eric Milton, both highly-regarded prospects -- and the Twins didn't have to dump Knoblauch, he was just sick of losing, and wouldn't shut up about it. They gave up David Wells for Roger Clemens, and while they certainly ended up on the better end of that deal, they didn't "buy" Clemens.

But after winning their third straight title in 2000, they opened up the pursestrings a little more and started making a big splash on the free agent market. They signed Mike Mussina for 2001, Jason Giambi and Rondell White for 2002, Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras for 2003, and while their free agent adventures were limited to Sheffield and QuanGor last offseason, they did bring in Vazquez, Brown and A-Rod in deals largely built around money.

And they've failed to win a World Series since they started this splurge. Coincidence?

Yeah, probably. They could have made better moves than they did, and signing so many free agents has decimated their farm system by costing them draft picks every year, but the ability of the team to accquire what they needed when they needed it was not, until this past season, heavily impeded by what they had done in the offseason. This past season they were unable to accquire the desperately desired Randy Johnson (you'd expect a lot of porn to come up on a Google search of that phrase...), but then, nobody else rode off with him either. But had they some tradable commodities in the farm system, they might have brought home Johnson before the deadline, and might have won the World Series. Or they might have lost -- pitching was not what cost them in October, it was the sudden inability of their offense to get crucial hits after winning 19-8 in Game Three.

This offseason, everyone is looking to the Yankees first when it comes to the big free agent names. Pedro Martinez had lunch with George Steinbrenner the other day so they're obviously somewhat intrigued, they're considered the leading suitor for Carlos Beltran if they want him, since they seem to be the only team that can match his 40-year $80 bazillion contract demands. They'll trade for Johnson, bring in Jeff Kent to play second and Carlos Delgado to play first, and sign Jason Varitek just to piss off A-Rod.

Problem is, where is all the money gonna come from? Now, some estimates that I've considered reliable have the Yankees bringing in $300 million in revenue a year, and I suppose that those numbers will keep going up. But they've already commited around $180 million to payroll next season, and they still need six more players to fill out the roster. Their payroll will absolutely be over $200 million, and with the luxury tax and revenue sharing they'll be right around or over that $300 million mark. Now, if George has money saved up (if?) he may very well be willing to dip into that fund to keep getting better -- what's he gonna save it for anyway? -- but what would spending all this money do to the Yankees' future.

Now, the Yankees could construct the contracts they sign to keep the real payroll low next season, since they have about $45 million coming off the books after next season, about $32 million of it to players who are almost certainly not coming back in 2006 (Bernie, Brown, The Run Fairy™, Lofton), so they pay someone like Beltran a lot less upfront, but a lot more down the line.

But still, if they sign Beltran for what it looks like he's going to get, they'll have committed almost $90 million to four players in 2008, and Jeter and Giambi don't look like a sure thing to be all that good then, either.

And yet, I think they have to sign Beltran, or at least make a move for J.D. Drew or Andruw Jones (in order of preference), because overpaid or no, it's a wise move if they don't want to fall apart. At contract's end Beltran will likely be about Bernie's age now, and had Bernie not gotten hurt in early 2003 I think he still would be one of the top offensive contributers from center in the game. I see a lot of Bernie in Beltran, and he's a lot better with the glove. Beltran won't be "worth" the contract he'll get, but he'll still be worth having as a starter at the end of it.

If the Yankees want to keep winning, they'll have to start signing younger players, and making wiser economic decisions. Had they spend $185 million wisely last season, they would have had an incredible juggernaut of a team, won 110 games easily and only lost in October by way of a stunning upset. But the $185 million "flop" (in the relative sense only) was the result of several years of bad contracts, and the accumulation of other teams' bad contracts in the past couple of seasons.

The Yankees should continue to be big players on the market, but they have to start showing severe restraint. Rather than signing Giambi in 2001-02, they could have given the job to Nick Johnson, signed a veteran first baseman to back him up, and spent their money on a three or four year contract to Barry Bonds. They would have spent less money, gotten more production (and anticipated it, as well), and they wouldn't regret the deal when it expired. They should have, in my opinion, done the opposite with Gary Sheffield -- instead signing Vlad Guerrero, who is far younger, just as good, only slightly more expensive, and will likely be much more valuable at the end of Sheffield's contract than Gary will. Sheffield was signed as a short-term patch, Guerrero could have been the first step in a radical makeover of the team -- the second step being A-Rod, the third being Beltran -- that could make them younger, better, and more likely to stay at the top of the game for years to come.

But Vlad's gone and he's never coming to New York as a young man, so there's no point crying over it. But the team should still bring in Beltran, and around him and A-Rod build the core of the next Yankees team for the next five years. Even if Giambi and Jeter fall off, if Matsui sustains this peak for a few years and they can add some quality players around the rest of the diamond, that should be more than enough to keep them at the head of the pack.

They're not entitled to be there, they have to earn that spot. But they have as much right to go for it as any other team, and I'll say once again, the best way to do it this year is to sign Carlos Beltran.

Expect them to sign Milton, Leiter and Robbie Alomar and day now, and stick Bernie back in center.