Have the Yankees Gone Soft

The three highest profile free agents of the off-season have signed, and none have signed with the New York Yankees. The 2010-2011 off-season looked a lot different in New York than the 2008-2009 off-season when the Yankees signed CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira to contracts totaling 20 years and $320 million. The Yankees showed little interest in Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, but made their intention to get Cliff Lee clear. Many Yankee fans more or less assumed that Lee would sign with the Yankees. However, the Yankees’ money did not sway Lee who ended up signing with the Phillies for less money than the Yankees offered. This was a stinging defeat for the Yankees as they were probably Lee’s third choice behind the Phillies and the Rangers.

The Yankees failure to sign any major free agents in a year when they clearly wanted at least one is unusual, but not unprecedented. What has made this off-season strange is that while two teams, the Red Sox and the Phillies, who, like the Yankees, are generally in the hunt for a championship acted boldly, even ruthlessly, to improve their team, the Yankees approach to this off-season has been almost sentimental. The Phillies let a popular star player, Werth, go to free up money for a better and more valuable player, Lee. The Red Sox bade farewell to Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, useful players who did not fit into their plans, and acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. The latter cost the Red Sox more than $140 million, while the former player will probably also sign for a contract worth about that much.

While the Phillies and Red Sox confronted reality and did whatever was necessary to improve their teams, the Yankees this off-season have acted on the notion that Derek Jeter is either still a premier player or that overpaying him for three years was fine because of his previous contributions to the team, and that Lee would end up with the Yankees because nobody can turn down the history and money that the Yankees offer. This indicates that the team is now somewhat out of touch and unwilling to be as ruthless as either the Red Sox or Phillies.

The major moves by the Yankees, have been to resign Mariano Rivera and Jeter. Both of these future Hall of Famers have spent their entire careers with the Yankees and are now likely to finish their playing days in pinstripes. Keeping these players will make many fans happy, for now, but by resigning these two and missing out on the other major free agents, the Yankees look like a team driven by sentiment and fear of alienating their fan base, rather than a real drive to win.

After much public negotiation, and not one single serious offer from another team, the Yankees signed Derek Jeter to a contract that will pay him roughly $17 million a year for the next three years. Jeter’s status as a Yankee icon may justify this contract, but it will probably not help the Yankees in 2012 or 2013. During those years, it is extremely likely that Jeter will be a poor fielder who is best suited for the number seven spot in the lineup. Jeter’s contract, ego and stature will make him very difficult to move, bench or perhaps even drop down in the batting order.

Rivera is something of a different story. Although he is 40 years old, he is still a premier closer at the top of his game, averaging 39 saves, an ERA of 1.64 and a strikeout to walk rate of better than six to one over the last three years. However, Rivera’s true value to the Yankees is in the post-season, where he shone again in 2010 allowing no runs and only four base runners in 6.1 innings. If the Yankees make it back to the World Series at some point in the next two years, signing Rivera for $30 million will probably look like a bargain, because there is still nobody better than Rivera in the post-season. Almost any team with a serious shot at winning the World Series would be happy to have Rivera as a closer, but it is far from clear the Yankees will be that kind of team during the two years Rivera has left in his contract, and presumably career.

Ironically, signing Jeter and Rivera was a good strategy if the Yankees intended to contend seriously in 2011, because, at least for next year, the Yankees had no other options at shortstop. The extra years in Jeter’s contract could have been viewed as the cost of helping the Yankees get one more chance at winning a championship. Therefore, resigning those two only made sense if the Yankees were making other improvements, but the recent signing of Russell Martin notwithstanding, it looks as if the Yankees are not making any major moves.

If the Yankees are transitioning into a new era-nobody ever says rebuilding in Yankeeland-the Jeter and Rivera signings make little sense, but that seems to be what the Yankees are doing as they look for young players to handle much of the pitching rotation and perhaps some of the catching. In this context, the simplest explanation for resigning Rivera and Jeter, particularly Jeter, for the numbers the Yankees agreed upon is that the Yankees have let sentiment and their own spin override baseball decisions and that they have gone soft.