ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Let it be recorded that July 31, 2016, is the date when the Yankees began to reap what they sowed nearly a decade earlier.
The seeds for the great sell-off — and the Yankees can call it whatever they like, but if it quacks like a duck, please pass the sauce a l'orange — were planted in December 2007, when someone in Yankees ownership (read: Hank Steinbrenner) decided to override the recommendation of general manager Brian Cashman and reward Alex Rodriguez with a contract extension and a raise.
This is not to be interpreted as blaming A-Rod for the Yankees' current plight; neither he nor his then-agent, Scott Boras, marched up to Hank’s office with a gun and a mask. The Yankees offered him the deal — an unprecedented $275 million in salary and another potential $30 million in home-run bonuses — and he would have been crazy not to take it. (And, crazy to walk away from it before every last dollar is paid.)
But the decision to make that deal, as well as the others that followed it — eight years, $180 million for Mark Teixeira; seven years, $161 million for CC Sabathia, with two more years and $50 million more tacked on in 2011; seven years, $155 million for Masahiro Tanaka; seven years, $153 million for Jacoby Ellsbury; five years, $85 million for Brian McCann; and four years, $52 million each for Brett Gardner and Chase Headley — ensured that this day would come, the day the Yankees would find themselves continuing to pay bills for goods and services that they had long stopped receiving.
For all that money, the Yankees bought themselves one World Series title — and nearly a decade of disappointment and increasing mediocrity.
Hence the events of the past four years, in which this team has managed precisely one — one! — postseason game, which they lost, and the events of the past four months, in which an aging, overpaid and underperforming roster has struggled just to remain a .500 team, and the events of the past week, when the front office finally began to shed some of the relics of their past for what they hope will be the building blocks of their future.
As a result, Hal Steinbrenner, the frugal son of George and far more cautious brother of Hank, became the first owner in the history of the New York Yankees to preside over what has become known as a trade-deadline fire sale, an event that for the past decade or so has been commonplace everywhere but in the Bronx.
Since last Monday, the Yankees have made two big trades, and the odds are there are more tremors to come between now and 4 p.m. Monday, when the 2016 non-waiver trading period becomes history.
Over the past seven days, the Yankees have traded away two of the best closers in the game for a handful of promises as-yet-unkept, also known as prospects.
Some of them might turn out to be something someday — shortstop Gleyber Torres, one of four players acquired from the Chicago Cubs for Aroldis Chapman, is considered a "can’t-miss" and outfielder Clint Frazier, one of the quartet of minor-leaguers stockpiled in exchange for Andrew Miller, was described as "electric," with bat speed considered "legendary," by Cashman on a conference call Sunday afternoon.
Of course, neither of them may ever get to the Bronx except on a trip to the zoo, but unlike nearly everyone on the current Yankees roster, their best days still seem to be ahead of them.
And for once, the Yankees might end up paying players for what they will do, not what they had accomplished for previous organizations. It represents a sea change in their thinking, prompted in no small part by the changing economics of a game they once dominated simply by throwing their wallets on the table.
“The chess board that we’re playing is not the same chess board that we were playing back when I started in the late '80s," Cashman said, meaning that the Yankees no longer own all the queens.
The rise of regional cable sports networks, an innovation of George Steinbrenner's, is now common practice, as is revenue-sharing and the luxury tax, measures instituted by Major League Baseball and the Players Association to offset the Yankees' tremendous financial advantages. The revenue streams now available to all have leveled the playing field drastically, and no longer can the New York Yankees outspend their rivals or plug the holes in their roster with more and more fistfuls of cash.
That was hardly a concern back in 2007, when the YES Network was still in its relative infancy and Alex Rodriguez was still regarded by many as the squeaky-clean savior of baseball in the post Bonds-McGwire-Sosa Era of excellence through chemistry.
At the time, A-Rod was coming off an MVP season and at 32 was in his athletic prime. The bookkeepers who run the Yankees — count Randy Levine and Lonn Trost in on this one, too — saw many dollar signs attached to the number 13, which is why they included the personal-services contract that continues to vex them to this day, the one that calls for a $6 million bonus for each of five home run “milestones," the next of which is home run No. 714. Luckily for all of them, A-Rod is unlikely to reach that number during his remaining 14 months as a Yankee, seeing as how he almost never plays anymore.
But the Yankees' greed and foolishness at the time — imagine all the merchandise we can sell as A-Rod chases Willie, The Babe, Hank and Bonds! — sparked a spending spree that has left them in the quandary they find themselves in now.
If he could find enough pigeons around the league, Cashman would gladly unload Sabathia, McCann, Headley, Ellsbury and Gardner. If he could convince the fiscally-responsible Steinbrenner — that would be Hal, not Hank — he would bid adieu to Teixeira and A-Rod, the remaining millions on their contracts notwithstanding.
And if he could convince Levine and Trost that the Yankees could survive a couple of lean years at the gate — the debt service on Yankee Stadium 3.0 is larger than the gross national product of several small nations — he would be more than happy to play the kids in his farm system, to fairly and accurately assess what he’s got and what he needs to build another Yankee dynasty.
Trading Chapman, Miller, and whoever else is destined to become an ex-Yankee by 4 p.m. ET Monday may seem like a rash decision borne by a pair of losses to a bad Tampa Bay Rays team over the weekend.
But in reality, it was nine years in the making — and long, long overdue.