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Why the Yankees are sitting this dance out

I've written the figure "$423.5 million" so frequently in the past year or so, I would probably make it a save-string, except that it's quicker for me to just type it out than to try to remember how to do a save-string. In any case, that figure, as you probably know, represents the amount of money spent by the New York Yankees last winter on three premium free agents -- first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

Here, meanwhile, is the total amount the Yankees have spent on free agents this winter: $5.5 million -- all of it on first baseman/designated hitter Nick Johnson, with whom the Yankees agreed to terms Thursday night, pending a physical. The signing spells the end of Johnny Damon's tenure in the Bronx.

And the Johnson deal may very well be the last of the Yankees' spending this winter, with the possible exception of a mid-market starting pitcher. They're not in on Matt Holliday or Jason Bay. They barely kicked the tires on John Lackey. No big ticket items this winter.

Why are the Yankees essentially sitting this one out? Because they're smart. It's no secret that last winter's free agent market was one of the best in years, in terms of elite talent available, and this year's was one of the worst. Yankees GM Brian Cashman acknowledged as much during a news conference to introduce Curtis Granderson, the outfielder they acquired in a trade from Detroit earlier this month.

"We were very aggressive in last year's free-agent market," Cashman told reporters. "It turned out, for good reason. There were terrific players available. This market is a lot different."

What Cashman failed to note (but surely knows) is that next winter's market -- even with Roy Halladay now off the board -- could be just as good as that of 2008-09, with the list of free-agent eligibles including (at least for now) Joe Mauer, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee.

Damon could have returned to the Yankees, but it had to be on their terms, not his -- which meant no more than two years, at no more than about $10 million per year. Damon, understandably, did not feel he needed to accept a pay cut from his previous $13 million salary, following one of the better years of his career, and he expected at least a three-year commitment. Irreconcilable differences.

The Yankees had hoped Hideki Matsui would still be available in this exact scenario, but Matsui understandably chose to accept an early offer from the Angels rather than gamble on the Yankees still wanting him in late December. In a sense, then, Johnson was their Plan C -- another patient, left-handed hitter (his .831 OPS in 2009 was not far below Damon's .854 or Matsui's .876) who will serve as their primary DH.

For the Yankees, the one-year deal that Johnson accepted was critical. They are looking to free up as much payroll space as possible entering next year's off-season. And at this point, you have to figure the countdown is on -- 11 1/2 months to go -- before Crawford, the Tampa Bay Rays' talented left fielder, is in pinstripes.

Unless, of course, the Rays trade him to the Yankees even sooner.

By Dave Sheinin  |  December 18, 2009; 10:09 AM ET
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Next: Mets nearing agreement with Jason Bay


Dave, nice article, but Cashman did actually note how impressive next year's class is:

"Why? Because this market dictates caution, unlike last winter’s. “We were very aggressive in last year’s free agent market and it turned out for good reason. There were terrific players available. This market’s a lot different. We played in the better market last year; we’ll be less aggressive in this market.” The Yankees have key free agents to deal with ahead, like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Plus, Cashman called next year’s market is “incredibly more impressive than this one.”

Posted by: Hoya10 | December 18, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

And let's throw another number up there in the save-string: $206,812,000 -- the Yanks payroll last year ($85M hihger than the next priciest club), with the sur tax of whatever it is (something like 22% for every Dollar over something like $125M??) that is huge money. Cashman can say whatever he wants about the talent pool, his club was going to slash payroll on e way or another this year. The Yankee wallet though super fat has its limits.

Posted by: dfh21 | December 18, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

dfh21 - I believe the luxury tax threshold was $165m or so last year, and the NYY as a repeat offender were in the 40% bracket.

Also, the $85m gap was to the Red Sox. The Mets were at $145m, or a $60m gap, and the Cubs were at $134m. There were a number of teams in the $115 - 125m range at the end of the season. These are not quite the luxury tax number, which includes a few other charges beyond payroll.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | December 19, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Here is Cots's numbers:

Cot's had the NYY at $207m, Mets $139m, Cubs $138m, Detroit $130m, Phillies $128m, Red Sox $123m, Angels $117m. All those exclude deferrals and certain bonuses. Those look like start of 2009 numbers because it has DeRosa, VMart and Lee on the Cleveland payroll and Sheffield in the Detroit number.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | December 19, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

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