NEW YORK — They have enjoyed a record 27 World Series titles and been to the playoffs in 17 of the last 18 years, but Yankees fans are worried about aging stars and a new dread — cost cutting.
With seemingly endless funds and a manic thirst for winning, the New York Yankees have been derided over the decades as the best team money could buy in Major League Baseball.
The Bronx Bombers now want to be the best team money can buy for under $189 million, as the sons of the late, big-spending owner George Steinbrenner have declared they want to stay inside next year’s luxury tax threshold.
“I don’t believe you have to have a $200 million payroll to be world champions,” general partner Hal Steinbrenner said in an interview with WFAN Radio on Tuesday.
The Yankees, quiet during the offseason’s free agent and trade market, added former Toronto castoffs Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay this week to patch holes created by injuries to Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira. They had already picked up another unwanted former Blue Jay in Juan Rivera, as a fill-in.
Toronto, meanwhile, was among the busiest MLB teams this offseason, opening their wallets for a major transfusion of talent that turned them into instant AL East contenders.
The Yankees, MLB’s biggest spenders the last 14 years, were the only team to exceed the luxury tax threshold of $178 million last season with more than $223 million in payroll, and they kicked in a further $19.1 million for their transgression.
New York has run up a luxury tax bill of $224.2 million over the past decade, the New York Times reported.
Next year the penalties get even stiffer for offenders.
Steinbrenner said keeping to a payroll budget does not mean the Yankees have lost their desire to win.
“It is something that’s important to us, but only if we’re sure we’re fielding a championship-caliber team,” he said about the tax threshold. “I just can’t say that enough. We are going to field a championship-caliber team every single year.”
This year might be dicey, and the future does not look much better.
The gray-beard Yankees are counting on 38-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter, 40-year-old starter Andy Pettitte, 43-year-old closer Mariano Rivera and 39-year-old Japanese speedster Ichiro Suzuki as key contributers.
The 37-year-old third baseman Alex Rodriguez is not expected until mid-season at the earliest, coming off hip surgery.
Given all that, the suddenly cost-conscious Yanks decided to let outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, catcher Russell Martin and outfielder/designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who combined to hit 64 home runs in 2012, leave via free agency.
Pressured by their injury list, the Yankees did dip into their bank account to bring in corner infielder Kevin Youkilis and the vastly overpaid Wells, paying him nearly $14 million of salary, with the Angels kicking in about $28 million, to cover the final two years of his contract.
Wells hit .230 with 11 home runs in limited action last season. Some creative accounting will put most of his money on the 2013 payroll so it will not seriously impact the Yankees’ 2014 tax worries.
General manager Brian Cashman said the proof will be on the field. “You don’t get a trophy for having the highest payroll,” said Cashman, whose team has been passed in that regard by the heavy-spending Los Angeles Dodgers.
Steinbrenner said he remained upbeat about the season.
“I’m excited as I am every year,” he said. “We’re facing some adversity with the injuries … but these guys are professionals and they’ve faced adversity before.
“I’m confident that we have a good group of veterans that’s been through the fire before, and they’re going to produce.”
But to Yankees fans accustomed to seeing the team add big name stars to stay ahead of the pack, it all seems a bit small-time.
Especially for a team that became baseball’s preeminent franchise after they bought famed slugger Babe Ruth in 1920 for a massive $125,000 and a $350,000 loan against the mortgage on Fenway Park from the financially strapped owner of the Red Sox.