By Jason Keidel
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Normally after a failed season, the Yankees would go on a shopping binge that would make Carrie Bradshaw blush.
But nothing is normal anymore.
There isn’t the wide buffet of young bucks you’d have a decade ago, lined up like a long mug shot, for the Yanks to pick and pluck. Local and regional cable deals now allow smaller market franchises to keep their best players, thus creating a financial membrane between themselves and the opulence of the Yankees, who have made hay by poaching the poor clubs that freckle the map. Like a great, monetary tide, the Hudson swept away your favorite players and lapped them on the shores of the Bronx.
Not anymore. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout would have been de facto minor leaguers, developed by the Nationals and Angels, respectively, and then bought by the Bronx Bombers as they bloomed into All-Stars, bagging all their MVPs in NYC.
Think of the Yankees’ new approach as a fantasy football tactic. They are now doing the equivalent of watching the waiver wire to see whom they can pluck from the discards of a doomed team.
Instead of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, or Mark Teixeira, the Yanks now covet Starlin Castro. Nothing against Castro, who is a fine player, but Tuesday’s trade was more about the new world order than it was the old one.
In 2009, the Yankees spent about a quarter-billion bucks to bag those glittering free agents. And it brought — or bought, if you prefer — a World Series title.
But we’ve learned you can’t buy baseball love anymore. Certainly not if that love includes pennants or penance for a bad season. Ever since Larry Lucchino famously branded the Bombers the “Evil Empire” they have been searching for just the right combination of cash and cachet to restore Darth Vader’s mask. The Yankees have made just one ride up the Canyon of Heroes in 15 years, and that’s not an acceptable rate under the Steinbrenner reign. If nothing else, Boston can no linger gripe about the sailor-spending habits in the Bronx.
If King George were still around, you can bet your bottom dollar he would have spent his bottom dollar on David Price, who signed with the Red Sox. Now, the Yanks bristle at the $217 million sticker price. Ten years ago, the Yanks had a different corporate coda of spend now, fret later. Once Price became old they would just buy a new pitcher, and hang onto the lanky lefty like a used car, buried in their baseball garage.
You can bet your last buck the Yanks would have pined for Zack Grienke, who just signed with the Diamondbacks for six years. Ten years ago, the Yanks would have matched or topped Arizona’s $207 million offer.
Both deals are dubious, if not downright gluttonous. Even the Yankees know that.
Grienke will turn 38 at the end of his deal; Price will be 36 at the end of his. Long before then, both will become financial anvils around the respective necks of the teams that signed them.
Now, there is a meaty move the Yanks can make, a trade that would tickle the baseball palates around the five boroughs and beyond.
The Yankees are reportedly interested in Jose Fernandez, the flame-throwing righty who landed on the Miami Marlins’ mound like a meteor in 2013. Just how much they want him is not known, but let’s assume they have more than just a mild interest.
Despite skipping two levels in the minors, Fernandez posted a 2.19 ERA, 187 strikeouts and a 6.7 WAR (if you’re into that sort of thing) over 28 starts as a rookie. Fernandez was so mature and electric he cruised past Yasiel Puig in the race for that season’s NL Rookie of the Year honors.
In addition to his unreal ability, Fernandez would fit the Yankees’ new approach of acquiring young players under relative financial control, as the 23-year-old has three years of arbitration eligibility remaining.
And despite falling to the scourge of Tommy John surgery, Fernandez bounced back in 2015, to the tune of a 2.92 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 64 2/3 innings. But in this case, the Yankees can’t just spend their way into Jose’s heart, make it rain over the young man until he signs on the Bronx bottom line. It will take some of the Yanks’ prized prospects, likely including a cocktail of Luis Severino, Greg Bird, and/or Aaron Judge, to get a deal done with the Marlins.
The Yankees would also have to show the stones to deal the right fruits from the farm to get a blue-chipper like Fernandez. All you need to do is gaze across the Harlem River to see some flourishing, Tommy John graduates in Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz.
The Yankees not only need to keep up with the Blue Jays, who raced by the Bombers after the trade deadline by snaring Price and Troy Tulowitzki, but also the Red Sox. Maybe Price is a long-term bust, but for the next three years, at least, he will be a beast in the AL East.
The Yankees were one of only two teams to spend more than $200 million on their roster in 2015, at roughly $219 million. The other was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who dished out around $273 million.
The Bombers will still have a huge payroll in 2016, but by circumstance, not choice. It’s just the way of the new world. The rest of the offseason is going to teach us a lot about a franchise that’s never known any other way to do business.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel