The most telling moment of the Yankees’ off-season was when they simply said no to C. J. Wilson. Here was the No. 1 starter for the Texas Rangers, the two-time defending American League champions. He wanted to come to New York for a visit, and the Yankees would not even extend an invitation.
It turns out the Yankees are not obliged to sign a player just because he happens to be a free agent who would fill a need. They won 97 games last season, the most in the league, before their first-round playoff loss. They can give it another try with these players and go back on the market next winter, when the free-agent starters should be much more appealing.
Cole Hamels and Matt Cain, All-Stars younger than 30 with strong postseason pedigrees, are unsigned past this season. Either would make more sense for the Yankees, in the long term, than Wilson or the other top starters on this winter’s market.
Hamels was the most valuable player in the 2008 World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have since added two other starters, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, who make at least $20 million a year. The Phillies could overwhelm Hamels with a lavish deal, like the one they gave first baseman Ryan Howard to keep him off the free-agent market, but there are no signs that will happen.
Cain, of the San Francisco Giants, is also overshadowed by a more accomplished teammate, Tim Lincecum. The Giants control Lincecum through the 2013 season, and theoretically would have more money to re-sign him if they let Cain leave as a free agent next winter.
Cain is a 27-year-old right-hander, and Hamels is a 28-year-old left-hander. Otherwise, they are essentially the same pitcher. Cain has a 3.35 career earned run average, Hamels 3.39. They allow roughly the same number of base runners, and their advanced statistics (Wins Above Replacement, E.R.A.+) are close.
The Yankees played a version of this waiting game after the 2007 season, when they resisted a trade (and a subsequent long-term contract) for Johan Santana. They gambled that C. C. Sabathia would be available as a free agent the next winter, and they were right. The Yankees missed the playoffs in 2008 but signed Sabathia and won the World Series in 2009.
It is no stretch to think that their inactivity this winter, at least since extending Sabathia’s contract, could cost them a playoff spot in 2012. The Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox should be strong, the Toronto Blue Jays are improving, and the A.L. West has two imposing teams in the Rangers and the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels signed Wilson, and the Rangers hold the rights to the Japanese star Yu Darvish. The Yankees passed on Mark Buehrle, who signed with the Miami Marlins, and have no interest in giving Edwin Jackson the five-year deal he seeks.
Any of those pitchers could help the Yankees, if only marginally, for 2012. But the smarter play is to wait and give more money to a better pitcher like Hamels or Cain. Opening this season with a rotation of Sabathia, Ivan Nova, A. J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia — supported by a stingy bullpen and brawny offense — hardly means the Yankees are conceding.
What they are doing is planning ahead, a strategy that fits Hal Steinbrenner much better than it ever did his impatient father, George. Incentives in the new collective bargaining agreement would essentially reward the Yankees for reducing their payroll to $189 million by 2014. By then, Burnett, Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher will be off the payroll, which has exceeded $200 million in each of the last four years.
At the moment, the Yankees owe just over $80 million to Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter for 2014. That leaves a lot of room for marquee talent, some of which is already in pinstripes.
Their best offensive player, Robinson Cano, can be a free agent after the 2013 season. Cano hired Scott Boras as his agent last year, well aware of the splashy free-agent deals Boras got for his infield teammates Rodriguez and Teixeira. Cano will be 31 when he hits free agency, and he will not come cheaply.
The Yankees hold a $15 million option for Cano in 2013, and a $13 million option that same year for Curtis Granderson. By opening day in 2014, Granderson will be 33. But if he plays the next two seasons the way he did last year, the Yankees would probably want to keep him, too.
General Manager Brian Cashman is looking for trade possibilities, as always. But young starters like Mat Latos and Gio Gonzalez have recently commanded four-player packages in trades, a price that seems steep for the Yankees.
Cashman has held onto his top prospects because cheap, productive players make it possible to carry all those big contracts, or could be dealt in-season for an unexpected short-term need. Payroll efficiency and patience are rarely associated with the Yankees, but it may be time to alter the perception.