There are legitimate complaints about the New York baseball teams. But the one that seems to have life that I just don’t get is that they are cheap.
They might be incompetent and spending poorly. There is an argument to be had there. But cheap?
I literally had a Yankees fan come up to me on the street Friday and tell me that they cheaped out, and that is why they signed Marcus Stroman for two years at $37 million. I just shook my head because I think no amount of facts dissuades this way of thinking once it is locked in. Yet, I will try here anyway.
They pivoted to Stroman after offering Yoshinobu Yamamoto $300 million. Which, with the posting fee and the implications on the luxury tax, would have been about $370 million all in. They lost out because Yamamoto preferred the West Coast and the Dodgers, who signed the righty at 12 years, $325 million. That eclipsed the largest contract ever given to a pitcher — that would be the $324 million deal Gerrit Cole has with the Yankees.
The Yankees also possessed the largest free-agent contract ever with Aaron Judge’s $360 million pact, until the Dodgers also overwhelmed that with their 10-year, $700 million, heavily deferred pact with Shohei Ohtani. Judge was signed last offseason, the same as Carlos Rodon, whose $162 million was at the time the 11th-most ever given a pitcher.
Again, you can argue that is a stupid use of money. If you read this space or see me on TV or listen to our podcast, you know I hated the signing. You know I am no fan of the Stroman signing either. But the Stroman signing actually pushes the Yankees over a $300 million payroll for luxury-tax purposes. Remember when Hal Steinbrenner used to say you didn’t need to have a $200 million payroll to win and morphed his statement to $300 million.
Well, he has exceeded it anyway, and I do not think the Yankees are done at roughly $305 million. I believe they will continue to monitor the markets for pitchers such as Dylan Cease (trade) and Blake Snell (free agent) to see if they drop to a more comfortable level. I think they will add at least one reliever.
Look, there are times the Yankees got too cute dancing with the luxury tax — such as when they stretched DJ LeMahieu’s contract out over six years rather than do it at, say, four but pay more per year. But, in general, the investment has been strong, and not just in payroll.
As Jameson Taillon noted on the “Foul Territory” podcast last week: The Yankees are “an organization that treats players the right way, and families. You are always staying at the nicest hotels. You always have the most access to resources.”
Steve Cohen is attempting the same with the Mets. Both New York clubs know that in recruitment of free agents they have to overcome elements such as high city/state taxes, perceptions about traffic and the safety of living here, and tough media and fan bases. And that often means 1) paying a premium to convince someone to come, and 2) trying to create an environment of comfort for players and their families that word spreads that this is a first-class place to play.
Let’s remember that even in this offseason of “austerity,” the Mets matched the Dodgers’ bid for Yamamoto. That they were not asked to go higher screams that once it got to this range, Yamamoto was going to his preference in Los Angeles.
Cohen has tried to spend at the top level the past few years as a way to camouflage the multi-year work necessary to build an infrastructure such as the Dodgers that regularly delivers meaningful players from the system for their use or to use in trades. Midway through last season, Cohen did what I believe no other owner would even consider — take on multiple years of substantial dead money with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander to deal out of a plan that he did not think was working and try to basically buy more prospects in trades.
Whether these were good or bad moves is up for debate. But they weren’t cheap moves. Scherzer, Verlander and James McCann represent roughly $62 million in dead money for the Mets this year for luxury-tax purposes. That will approach 20 percent of their payroll. That payroll, by the way, is going to be the largest this year and the second-largest ever to the 2023 Mets (the Yanks and Dodgers currently are neck-and-neck for second in 2024).
Even with the trades saving some money, Cohen’s bill between payroll and luxury tax for 2023 was $475.5 million. It probably will approach or exceed $400 million this season. And does even the most skeptical Mets critic believe that if they are contending in July that Cohen will not expand payroll? Do you really believe that president of baseball operations David Stearns came from Milwaukee and only wants to do small-market moves?
Stearns was born and raised in New York as a Mets fan. He was pushing for Yamamoto. By the way, the guy in charge of the Dodgers who pushed for Ohtani and Yamamoto is their president of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, who came a decade ago from Tampa Bay.
These are smart, competitive people. They will use the means available to them in Milwaukee, Tampa Bay or New York to try to get better. Do you think Stearns is actually going to tell Cohen, “No, I don’t want to spend.”
What differentiates Friedman is what a great job he has done incorporating players in every facet — from the waiver wire to the largest contract ever. We will see if Stearns can mimic that. The Yankees and Brian Cashman have made more mistakes at the highest level than the Dodgers.
But it hasn’t been about payroll. The argument that the Yankees and Mets should spend more feels like it comes from a subset that is never going to feel like there is enough tribute to them — that each new addition is just going to create a demand for even more.
And, ultimately, the New York clubs have not had payroll problems. They have had decision problems.