The Cost of Unchanging Seasons

New York YankeesWhether 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.

Money Can’t Buy It

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.

Watching Cashman’s Spending

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.

Ceci N’est Pas Un Gameplan

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.

  1. I’m about as far from a Yankee fan as you can get outside of Boston. But I admit, most of it is out of jealousy and them playing in the same division as my Orioles (sad how little we have had to cheer for over the past 10 years). Anyways, I think that this is the best direction that the Yankees have been in years.

    They were outed early in the playoffs but by 2 of the best pitchers in the AL. The Indians were batting something like 444 with runners in scoring position, it’s pretty hard to defend against that.

    Anyways, like you said this is the first time NY has a some youth. Between Hughes, Chamberlain, and Cabrera I think you have a good group of kids to build on. As long as NY doesn’t do something stupid like turn Chamberlain into a starting next year.

  2. Just be glad you’re not in Chicago. The Cubs were never better than “pretty good” this year and nearly didn’t make the playoffs, yet Cubs fans acted as if the World Series was ours for the taking. They’re heartbroken over a team that didn’t stand a chance.

  3. Yankees fans, and Steinbrenner especially, should get on their knees and thank the heavens for Stick Michael for rescuing the franchise from oblivion in the early 1990s, with the drafts that brought them Pettitte, Rivera, and Jeter.

    If they can hold on to their young pitchers (or somehow turn them into Santana) they’ll be in a good position to reload in 2009, after a ton of dead weight (Pavano, Giambi, Igawa) and big contracts (Abreu, Mussina) comes off the books.

  4. Don’t hold my Bostonism against me, but I gotta admit, I was a bit sad to see the Yanks go down to the Tribe. Not only will Cleveland be tough(er), but even if my Sox win it might not be the same without going through the Bronx to get there.

    How about those Patriots, eh?

  5. Sounds like Chelsea …

    Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire owner of Chelsea, has started picking the team. When you’re spending Б30 million on players who are earning Б250,000 a week salaries, and filling your squad with international players, there’s no point in having a youth policy, or academy, because those young players will never make it to the first team.

    When there’s so much money going in at the top, there’s no way for the young players at the bottom to rise up. Abramovich is never going to pick a 16-year old kid over his Б30 million pound buddy Shevchenko.

  6. Someone has to say it…

    [cough]GO SOX![/cough]

    I think the biggest problem with the Yankees (and Yankees fans) is they expect the World Series to be handed to them. That it’s their’s to have. This is the difference between the Yanks and every other team.

    If you expect something to happen and don’t MAKE it happen, you’re going to lose.

  7. Jay: Groan. I actually edited out a line where I wrote, “I’m not of the school of belief that the Yankees have an inalienable right to victory in the post-season.” My thought was that by writing this: “Each team that’s beaten them in Octobers past rightfully earned their victories,” that I would’ve addressed this frankly tired criticism without having to say it twice. But, yes, the Yankees do not deserve to win unless they earn it. Brilliant insight.

  8. Sorry, I cant stand the Yankees and their bottomless pockets( BASEBALL NEEDS SALARY CAPS!). I also cant stand the Cubs since I am a Brewer’s Fan that hails from Milwaukee. I can say that next year will be an interesting battle between the Cubs and Brewers in the National League Central division… I just hope the cardinals arent in play.

  9. Khoi: I was more leaning on the actual players here. You have A-Rod, Jeter, Posada…amazing in the regular season. Then they enter October and don’t show up. My thought is they expect they’re going to win it because “Hey! We’re the Yankees” and they ultimately lose because they’re hoping the other guys will get something going. In A-Rod’s head it goes “Shit I keep blowing it. It’s ok, Jeter will do something…we’re the Yankees”.

    Contrast to the Redsox. All of those players show up in October. Same with the Diamondbacks.

  10. Tribe looks strong. Boston-Cleveland should be a classic series. Time for Dice-K to man up. Don’t worry Khoi, Yanks will be back (eventually). Take pride in a fierce comeback after a dismal first half of the season. I’ll admit to fearing the worst when the Yanks surged and the Tigers collapsed. Perhaps the upstart NLers will steal the show, but I doubt it.

  11. Haha, okay, I am surrounded by Red Sox fans. I wish you all the best of luck… I also don’t seriously see how any of the National League teams will beat you.

  12. Living in Boston, I have to say that I was very sad to see the Yankees lose. Honestly, I don’t think even if the Red Sox won the World Series that it would be as good as a Red Sox vs. Yankees playoff showdown. I know that Red Sox fans live for that.

    More to the point of the article…it’s an interesting analysis. I think things get really tough for a team when it is expected to win the championship every year (in any sport). It’s really just not feasible.

    Comparing the Yankees strategy with the Patriots strategy is quite interesting, although admittedly, they are different sports so the rules for free agency and caps vary. Aside from that, both teams have pretty much opposite strategies, each leaving something to be desired. Yankees go out and buy the best established talent they can at any cost. The Patriots either grow their own or get lesser-known players that are very versatile, but refuse to pay high salaries. I love this strategy, until the Patriots sack guys like Lawyer Milloy, Dion Branch and Adam Vinatieri. Their system expects all the loyalty in the world from their players, but gives none in return.

    That’s a long rant, but basically I think in sports that you’re kind of screwed no mater what if you’re a good team. No one can stay on top for any length of time.

  13. Yes, thank you Alissa. Beyond just the “Yankees suck” or not debate, I was hoping to highlight the organizational ideas. You have a great point, too: eventually, any method will encounter difficulty.

  14. Brian A — Who needs a salary cap? Obviously this behavior is self-defeating, so the Darwinian corrective is built-in.

    All — This is the “sunk cost” problem large organizations in any field start to get experience once they get to a certain (unhealthy) size. “We couldn’t possibly pull the plug on that project — look how much we’ve spent!”

    The guys at 37 Signals have it right — start and STAY small, nimble and flexible. Would that bahz-uh-bul teams could learn this lesson. (Go Toledo Mud Hens!)

  15. Very interesting post, but I must say, the opposite method that the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken, has not done so well either (I’m from Pittsburgh). They have been trying to build a young, nameless, but talented team for years, but everytime a player gets good, and asks for more money they get rid of them!

    I think every team needs a couple big name players, whether it brings media/fan coverage for the team, or that those players actually boost the teams moral/ability/energy. Just my two cents..

  16. Big Papi speak da truth. Props to Torre. Everyone respects him; he’s a class act and if he gets dumped the Yanks are going to feel it, no matter who replaces him.

  17. Khoi: Papi is a damn nice guy. As is Torre.

    “#*!&@^#$ that guy” comes out of my mouth often watching your team…but getting rid of Torre is a horrible decision if they choose to make it.

  18. I wanted to thank all the Redsox fans remarking on this post for keeping the conversation interesting. This could have easily turned into a platform for teasing and name calling. My hat’s off to Big Papi and the rest of the team.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.