The Yankees made some waves a week or so ago for going to court to protect their claim to the "Evil Empire" moniker that was bestowed on them by Larry Lucchino in 2002. They've lived up to that nickname for the better part of the last 11 years, but in a strange bit of irony their battle to trademark the name was the biggest attempt made by the Yankees to live up to the motto this offseason. After years of free spending, ballooning payrolls, record-setting contracts, and drawing the ire of fans, teams, and writers alike, the Yankees enter the 2013 season with a plan to ditch their traditional business model, for a few years at least, in an attempt to reset their luxury tax penalties and save some coin. The key year is 2014 and the key payroll number is $189 million, but a lot of groundwork to get to those key points was done this past offseason and will continue to be done through the 2013 regular season.
Hal's justification for making this move now has been his belief that $189 million is still enough to build a championship-caliber team, and in a perfect situation he's absolutely right. But the Yankees aren't going through with this plan in a vacuum, and the situation they're presently in is far from conducive to building a championship-caliber team on that kind of budget. They're old, with the bulk of the payroll tied up in their older players, and don't have nearly the payroll flexibility needed to spread money around the rest of a 25-man roster. This issue is compounded by the fact that there aren't a lot of Major League-ready players in Triple-A who can step into full time roles at minimal cost, and so the plan to fill out this year's roster has been a penny-pinching one.
A fair amount of money was spent this offseason, but almost all of it was used to re-sign New York's own internal (old) free agents to payroll-friendly one-year deals. Their efforts to build a bench on the cheap resulted in an even shallower talent pool than usual, and now they've resorted to scraping the bottom of the free agent barrel for recently retired players to try to cover for the rash of injuries that has stripped the projected lineup of almost all of its power. The priority has become keeping costs down rather than keeping talent up, a priority reinforced not only by the tight grip that ownership held on the wallet when it came to negotiating with free agents this offseason but also by the team's unwillingness to get seriously involved in trade discussions for younger players who could help the team this year and beyond (see "Headley, Chase" and "Stanton, Giancarlo.")
The battle to stay atop the AL East was already going to be a tough one in 2013 because of the improvements made by the competition and the extra year of wear and tear added to the aging Yankee core. That battle became even more difficult with the way the front office went about building this year's team and it's become more difficult still with the way they've responded, or more accurately NOT responded, to the injuries cutting down major parts of the batting order. It's safe to assume we haven't heard the last of the injury problems this season, and the precedent has already been set for how the Yankees plan to deal with those problems when they come. Maybe a cheap FA here, a Triple-A promotion there, but certainly not the big moves to add championship-caliber players that we've come to expect from the former Evil Empire.
The Yankees are still a $200 million team, but they're no longer the $200 mil juggernaut they used to be in the early-to-mid 2000s. They're fragile, they're not deep, and they're more apt to have that fragility and lack of depth exposed than they've ever been. The expectations aren't going to change in 2013, at least not from the ownership group, but they are going to be more difficult to meet now that Cash has to operate under tight financial constraints. His injured big hitters will return, but this team is likely still going to need more offense and I wouldn't expect there to be a major move at the trade deadline based on what we saw during hot stove season.
This team still has good pitching, still has a top 5 player, and still has a lot of name recognition. It's going to need more than that to contend in 2013, though, and there more than likely won't be any help coming from the trade or free agent markets. It's tough to say a team with a payroll as high as the Yankees' is rebuilding, but this is about as close as they're going to get. Hopefully there's still enough talent and health in the aging core and enough unforeseen production in the Minors to keep this payroll-conscious transition from becoming a full-scale rebuild. If not, it could be a long year.