Tribe-Yanks shows changing face of offseason
CLEVELAND -- They arranged separate news conferences for Nick Swisher and Travis Hafner in the hours leading up to the Indians-Yankees series being played at Progressive Field this week. The New York media wanted to reflect on Swisher's four years with the Yanks, and the Cleveland media wanted to capture Hafner's thoughts on returning here after 10 seasons with the Tribe.
As early-season storylines go, these were hand delivered by the gods of cut and paste.
This dual reunion, though, is interesting for reasons that extend beyond the reunions themselves. For the signings of these two sluggers tell us quite a bit about the direction of two distinctly different franchises and maybe even baseball, as a whole.
The Indians brought Swisher to Cleveland to become the franchise face they had struggled to draft and develop in-house. Swisher, almost frighteningly energetic and ebullient, has unsurprisingly embraced the task, enjoying his role as a centerpiece of the Tribe's marketing efforts and recognizing his responsibilities in the community at large (as evidenced by the hefty donation he formally delivered to a local charity, Providence House, before Monday's home opener).
"They've just treated me like a king over here," Swisher said.
The Yankees, meanwhile, brought Travis Hafner to the Bronx to be a cost-effective elder statesman in their star-studded -- but injury-ravaged -- lineup. The man known as Pronk, Swisher's polar opposite in terms of personality, has proven worthy of the investment in the early going, looking svelte and staying healthy enough to grip a bat and drive in six runs in his first seven games in pinstripes, including a four-RBI onslaught against the Indians on Monday.
"The franchise, the ballpark, having a chance to play with Hall of Famers and really good leaders," Hafner said of his decision to sign with the Yankees, "those were things I was really looking forward to."
Time was, the Yanks were the ones signing the studs of the free-agent class (Swisher received a four-year, $56 million guarantee and a vesting option for 2017), while the Indians were the ones desperately trying to squeeze just a little more toothpaste out of the tube, signing declining vets to relatively low-risk deals (Hafner signed a one-year, $2 million deal with incentives).
But this past offseason forced us to recalibrate our brains to baseball's new realities.
The chief reality here is that the Yankees have fundamentally adjusted their financial approach -- some would say necessarily. It's not just about avoiding the luxury tax, though that's obviously the No. 1 priority at play. The Yanks were hit with an $18.9 million luxury tax penalty by MLB at the end of 2012, and $189 million -- the luxury tax threshold for 2014-16 -- has become the backbone of every payroll decision general manager Brian Cashman and Co. make.
But it's no secret that Cashman has long sought an organization that doesn't abuse its robust revenue resources to the detriment of the development system or the 25-man roster at large. He fought against the massive extensions of Bernie Williams in 1998 and Alex Rodriguez in 2007, and he took the bold stance of publicly challenging Derek Jeter to find a better offer elsewhere when he knew the Yankees were the only serious bidder for Jeter's services in 2010. Had Robinson Cano remained engaged with Scott Boras, it's quite possible Cashman would have let one of the best players in baseball suit up elsewhere in 2014 -- a possibility that seems less likely now that Cano is affiliated with the Yankees-loving Jay-Z.
Granted, Cashman's hard line against outrageous expenditures hasn't affected the bottom line much. The Rodriguez extension happened, the Jeter contract happened, the Cano contract will probably happen. CC Sabathia took advantage of his opt-out clause in 2011 and made his huge contract even huger. A slew of Spring Training injuries prompted the Yanks to take on two years' and $14 million worth of Vernon Wells.
But if recent months are any indication, Cashman's desire to eventually turn the Yankees into an organization that does more with more, rather than spending frivolously on whatever shiny objects the market presents, is starting to become a reality, if only because of the punitive effects of the luxury tax. And this 2013 season -- a season that, to date, has been a barrage of bad news on the injury front -- is an awfully interesting test of the limits of the Yanks' mystique and the strength of the club's evaluative might.
Saddled as this Yankees roster is by the burden of backloaded contracts, 2013 could be an uphill struggle all the way, unless guys like Hafner, Wells and Kevin Youkilis -- each of whom has gotten off to a strong start -- are as productive in July, August and September as they've been in early April.
The other reality at play here is that baseball's robust revenue streams, brought on in no small part by an influx of national television dollars, affords small-market clubs like the Indians the ability to at least take a swing at the free-agent market.
Now, understand, the old rule still applies to these clubs: More often than not, they have to overpay, and it's difficult to dispute that the Indians overpaid for the 32-year-old Swisher. Because that national money is spread evenly across the 30 teams, the less-desirable landing spots will have to pay a premium (or, in the Indians' case, incorporate Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer into the recruiting process to tug at Swisher's Ohio State heartstrings).
But as Indians club officials have told me, there is absolutely, positively no way the Swisher deal gets done without that TV-aided assistance that's arriving in 2014 and beyond. And because those dollars have their limits, it seems doubtful that the Indians will have the flexibility to be as impactful a presence on the open market in future winters as they were in the winter of 2012-13, when they reeled in both Swisher and Michael Bourn.
This is but one example among many in the game today, but the Swisher/Hafner dynamic is a tell-tale illustration of the business of baseball today. As I wrote last week, a free-agent market already fraught with risk is going to get thinner and thinner in the coming years. So the smartest (or luckiest) teams, be they big-market clubs like the Yankees or small-market clubs like the Indians, will have drafted and developed and extended enough in-house talent to need only finishing touches, not franchise faces, in the open market.