Wed 10 Oct
Whether it’s illogical, delusional or arrogant, fans of the New York Yankees (including me) expect to see the team win the World Series every year. So it’s frustrating when, as happened on Monday night, they come up head-scratchingly short, losing this time in a first-round series against the Cleveland Indians by three games to one.
Year after year, Yankee management spends exorbitantly to assemble a roster of some of the most formidable, on-paper talent available. So to watch that talent expire ignobly in October while swinging aimlessly, pitching stalely, and shuffling across the field in an exhausted, uninspired pantomime of their regular season selves… well, relative to their payroll and their expected potential, it’s frustrating, to say the least. (Though more than a few of you out there, I’m sure, take some delight in it!)
Though each team that’s beaten them in Octobers past rightfully earned their victories it’s hard to deny there’s something fundamentally wrong about the Yankees’ approach. I won’t pretend to have definitive answers to what ails them (or to whether manager Joe Torre should go, or whether third baseman Alex Rodriguez should stay), but there is something I’ve noticed that strikes me as inherently troublesome: the Yankees have an untenably high cost of change.
To me, this is the guiding principle that enables nimble organizations of any kind. The ability to change tactics and strategies, to compensate for insufficiencies, to throw out the old and go with the new is invaluable, underrated and poorly understood. It’s also something that you can’t easily buy with money. In many ways, money creates the opposite scenario: extensive investments of money — or time and labor paid for by large outlays of money — have a kind of immutability, an insistence on precedence that can easily steamroll over more agile thinking.
Consistently carrying the largest payroll in baseball, as the New York Yankees have done for years and, sadly, will probably continue to do for years, seems like the best way to ensure that one’s cost of change remains prohibitive. For every under-performing marquee player that the organization has paid handsomely to dress in pinstripes, untold opportunities for younger, smarter or different talent flits away. Which is to say, a single high-dollar player represents a multiplicity of more affordable and likely more flexible options; given the nearly epic duration of a 162-game baseball season, it would seem to me that options are what management would want the most of.
You might argue that general manager Brian Cashman is fighting a good fight to bring about a change in this free-spending approach; he’s invested much effort — and much less money — in a rejuvenated farm system, shrewdly nurturing a new breed of Yankees and creating for the team a far richer set of opportunities down the road. This accounts for the highly satisfying and sometimes startling success of home-grown prospects like Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, Joba Chamberlin, as well as the recently troubled but surely fixable Chien-Ming Wang. These are guys to build a future around.
I agree wholeheartedly on the wisdom of this approach, of course, and it gives me cause for hope… except for the fact that Cashman’s is not the dominant philosophy in the Yankees front office. There still emanates, almost certainly from owner George Steinbrenner, a propensity to acquire high profile, proven players at virtually any cost — and to do so for the foreseeable future, apparently.
So it’s not just the expensive investments already made that prevent an organization from acting nimbly, it’s also the way those outlays of cash create their own mentality. Having already stocked the clubhouse with specialists earning ten or twenty million dollars a year, it becomes difficult to rationalize staking a season or a championship on staff that the market doesn’t deem to be similarly valued. It somehow seems reckless to put a rookie or journeyman in the field who earns only a few hundred thousand a year; it may not be crazy, exactly, but it’s logic dictated more by money than sense. Again, the money becomes immutable, and rash, ill-advised and destructive decisions result — like signing a 44 year-old pitcher to the most lucrative one-season contract in history.
This highly conjectural assessment is far more about the symptom than the cure, of course. None of it directly translates into an actual plan for winning the 2008 World Series. I’ll be the first to admit that. Mostly I’m going on gut here, and frustration.
A lot of what we identify as haplessness in the teams we watch on the field or (or the organizations in which we work) can be linked to this inability to correct course, to the paralyzing effect of poorly spent resources driving up the cost of change. Not being able to change makes any endeavor more difficult — and less enjoyable too, by the way. And that may be the worst thing about watching the Yankees’ recent seasons, even when they were winning: they’re not as fun as they could have been.