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Dec. 5, 2017 - Source: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli

Is Plan 197 Hurting The Yankees’ Chances To Win It All?

If the Yankees fall short in their quest to win their 28th World Series championship, we may look back at the season and realize that the failure was rooted in Plan 197.

From the time George M. Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, the number one priority of the New York Yankees every year was to win the World Series — at all costs. “The Boss” certainly put his money where his mouth is.

Four times during his 35-year year run as Managing General Partner, Mr. Steinbrenner handed out a contract with the highest Average Annual Value (AAV) in baseball. Meanwhile, the club consistently had one of the highest payrolls in the sport.

Amidst failing health, George retired in 2007 and passed control of the team to his children. His son, Hal, emerged as the principal. For a time, Hal carried the mantra he inherited from his father. But that has apparently changed.

While the franchise’s stated goal is still to claim the championship, the number one priority is now to get under the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold. That limit is $197 million for the 2018 season.

“We’re committed to getting under that tax,” general manager Brian Cashman has said several times this offseason.

Starlin Castro Salary-Dumped

When they acquired National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton for two low-level minor leaguers, the Yankees also sent second baseman Starlin Castro to Miami. Although the casual observer might conclude that the Marlins requested Castro in order to get a proven talent in exchange for their superstar, that wasn’t the case. Miami is looking to shed payroll, not add it. No, this was strictly a maneuver to dump salary on the part of the Yankees. The AAV on Castro’s contract is $8.5 million.

Castro’s production is not easily replaced. He slashed .300/.338/.454 with 16 homers and 63 RBIs in 112 games for New York last season. He missed nearly two months due to injury but was still selected to the All-Star team for the fourth time.

Chase Headley, Too

At least the Yankees have Stanton to show for losing Castro. They subsequently sent third baseman Chase Headley back to San Diego in a straight-up salary dump. The AAV on Headley’s contract is $13 million, with the Yankees still on the hook for $500,000 of it.

Headley was mired in a dreadful slump last season, causing the Yankees to acquire Todd Frazier from the White Sox at the trade deadline. Frazier took over at the hot corner, with Headley shifting to first base while the team waited for starter Greg Bird to return from the disabled list. He did in time for the playoffs, so Headley moved to the bench.

That is precisely where Headley could have been of great value to the Yankees in 2018. With the perennially-injured Bird at first and an unproven prospect slated to play third, Headley could have been a valuable backup corner infielder.

Who Will Play In The Infield?

With Frazier having departed via free agency, shortstop Didi Gregorius is now the only infielder on the Yankees 40-man roster who has at least one full season as a starter in the majors under his belt. Brian Cashman announced that Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Tyler Wade, Ronald Torreyes, and Thairo Estrada are the candidates to compete for the two open infield spots in spring training.

Torres was the centerpiece of the 2016 trade deadline deal that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs. The 21-year-old is MLB’s number-two ranked overall prospect. He played second, third, and shortstop in the minors last year before suffering a season-ending injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery. He has yet to see action above Triple-A.

Andujar contributed heavily to a Bomber’s win in his major league debut at the end of June when he went 4-for-4 with a walk and four RBIs in five plate appearances. He was sent back to Triple-A after the game to continue working on his defense. Both Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner have since spoken of Andujar’s improved play at third base.

Torreyes entered the 2017 campaign as the Bomber’s utility infielder but ended up starting 85 games because of injuries to Castro and Gregorius, as well as Headley’s early-season slump. Torreyes is a beloved member of the clubhouse, but his weaknesses were exposed once he started playing every day. He seems to be a better candidate to resume his utility job, rather than to start.

A former top-ten prospect, Wade exceeded his rookie limits during the 2017 season, slashing .155/.222/.224 with zero homers and two RBIs in 63 plate appearances over 30 games. Estrada, 21, has seen time at second, short, and third, but has yet to play above Double-A.

Paper Thin

Can you see the problem here? The Yankees’ proven MLB-talent in the infield is paper thin, with no depth to insure against the inevitable injury.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very excited to see what young prospects like Andujar and Torres can do in the big leagues, and I really hope they do well. (I hope they become superstars!) But wouldn’t it have made more sense to hang onto Castro and Headley until both rookies had proven themselves? With the Yankees currently projected to be about $20 million under the cap, they certainly could have hung onto one of them.

Consider this: Castro and Headley combined for 3.8 Wins Above Replacement last season. Derek Jeter was a 3.3 WAR player when he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1996.

Heading into the season with two completely untested youngsters in the starting lineup—with no backup—seems more than a bit risky. It’s a move made by a team still in rebuilding mode, not one that is completely committed to winning the title this year.

Who Is The Next Casualty?

Even though the Yankees already have the same rotation in place that pitched them to within one win of the Fall Classic, Cashman is still trying to add another starter. It has even been reported that the club made a $160 million offer to free agent Yu Darvish.

There’s no way that the Yankees can sign Darvish while staying under the cap unless they shed more payroll. At $25 million, Stanton is the highest paid Yankee. But they just got him, so it’s unlikely that they deal him away. Next are three players who have no trade clauses: Masahiro Tanaka ($22.14 million), Jacoby Ellsbury ($21.86 million), and Aroldis Chapman ($17.2 million.)

After that, we have Brett Gardner at $13 million. The longest-tenured Yankee and de facto team captain is in the final season of a four-year deal. Although Gardy has been the subject of trade rumors since the ink on his contract extension was still wet, without him, the club no longer has a reliable leadoff hitter. (Obviously, Ellsbury fell out of favor long ago).

Trading David Robertson Would Be Galactically Stupid

The latest rumors have David Robertson and his $11.5 million AAV deal on the trade block. Shocking, because anyone who followed the Yankees last year knows how critical D-Rob was to the team’s success. Sure, Tommy Kahnle was excellent and Chad Green was historically great. But the re-acquisition of Robertson at the trade deadline brought a steady hand and veteran leadership back to a bullpen that was sorely lacking in both areas.

A proven closer, Robertson also showed us something new last year. He regularly pitched multiple innings of lights-out relief. His versatility and effectiveness are a rare find. Along with Gardner and CC Sabathia, Robertson is also a link to the franchise’s most recent championship in 2009.

With questions surrounding Chapman’s ability to regain his dominance and Dellin Betances‘ ability to consistently find the strike zone, it would be really hard to take the front office’s commitment to winning the World Series seriously if they trade Robertson. He is indisputably the most important figure in that bullpen.

Plan 197 Or Bust… Really? How About World Series Or Bust!

The Yankees have paid the CBT for fifteen straight years, and are currently taxed at a 50% rate. So I understand the desire to get under the cap and reset the luxury tax rate for future seasons.

While fiscal responsibility is a noble goal, it shouldn’t be all-consuming. It also shouldn’t override the franchise’s commitment to winning a championship.

The team could have kept Castro and Headley, signed Darvish with no salary-dumping, and gone $25-30 million over the CBT threshold. That would have put their tax at $12.5-15 million. Is that so bad for a team that grosses well over $500 million per year? That strategy would have allowed them to put a better team on the field, with significant depth, all while lowering the payroll from last year.

Perhaps both young infielders will make the All-Star team and be the top two finishers for ROY. Maybe Bird and Didi will stay healthy and productive, as will the pitching staff, and the Yankees will march to their 28th World Series championship.

I really hope that’s the way it plays out. Otherwise, if the club falls short, we may look back at the season and realize that the failure was rooted in Plan 197.

Main Photo: Dec. 5, 2017 – Source: Mike Stobe/Getty Images North America

Brett Borzelli writes about the New York Yankees on Pinstripe Alley and Baseknock MLB. He is a member of the IBWAA. You may peruse his Baseknock MLB articles by clicking here.

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