By Signing Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner is Finally Breaking Bad

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According to most accounts, Hal Steinbrenner, the managing general partner of the Yankees, is a quiet and reserved individual.  In fact, in an interview with Mark Feinsand of the Daily News earlier this year, Steinbrenner described himself as “introverted” and explained that, in sharp contrast to his infamous father, he did not want “to be out there in the spotlight.”

Hal has further distanced himself from “The Boss” by preaching fiscal responsibility.  Hal Steinbrenner, who has referred to himself as a “finance geek,” has routinely expressed his belief that a burgeoning payroll was not a prerequisite for winning World Series and has emphasized the need to secure draft picks and cultivate talent from within the organization.  It has been well-publicized that Hal’s goal was to get the team’s payroll below the $189 million luxury-tax threshold by 2014.

Over the last two weeks, however, this reasoned and restrained philosophy being advocated by Hal has seemingly been tossed aside.

On November 23rd, the Yankees agreed to a five-year, $85 million contract with catcher Brian McCann.  Although the wisdom of giving a five-year contract to a thirty-year-old catcher may be debated , McCann certainly fills a pressing need on the Yankees.

The head-scratcher came ten days later when the Yankees agreed to a $153 million contact with center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  The Ellsbury deal was a shocker on many levels.  First, this Yankee team has plenty of holes to fill, but a speedy, good defensive, left-handed centerfielder was certainly not one of them (ahem, Brett Gardner).  Additionally, Ellsbury does not have a track record of prolonged success.  He is a player who has had only one truly outstanding season (8.1 WAR in 2011) and one very good season (5.8 WAR in 2013).  Further, according to most media reports, the Yankees outbid other clubs by at least $40 million to sign Ellsbury.

So, what gives?  What happened to Hal Steinbrenner the reserved finance geek who argued against long-term, expensive contracts precisely like the one just given to Ellsbury?

What happened is that Hal Steinbrenner is finally breaking bad.

“No More Half Measures”

Last offseason, the Yankees were largely restrained, committing a relatively modest $60 million to free agents.  Rather than pursuing the A-list free agents, which would have required the team to give out expensive and lengthy contracts, the Yankees opted to sign the cheaper B- and C-listers.  The Yankees took chances on one-year deals with players who were coming off statistically poor seasons or who were perceived to be past their prime.

In addition, the team decided against re-signing Russell Martin or otherwise addressing the catcher position from outside the organization.  Instead, the Yankees chose to rely on a platoon of career backups, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart.

As anyone who followed the Yankees can attest, these decisions were disastrous.  Whether due to injury or simply poor play, almost none of the offseason moves panned out.

In retrospect, although these maneuvers were well-intended, they were really nothing more than half-measures.   As Mike Ehrmantraut explained to Walter White, there comes a time when a person has to say, “No more half measures.”

For Hal Steinbrenner, that time appears to be now.

No more catching platoon.  No more one-year, stop-gap deals.  No more attempting to find the soft spots in the free agent market.  No more worrying about draft-pick compensation.  The Yankees are going to do what they know best and that is to attack free agency with a sledge hammer.

The signings of Ellsbury and McCann have made it abundantly clear:  No more half-measures for Hal Steinbrenner and the Yankees.

“Stay Out of My Territory”

In 2011, the Yankees sat back and watched other teams sign marquee free agents to mammoth contracts:  Albert Pujols with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim ($254 million); Prince Fielder with the  Tigers ($214 million); Yu Darvish with the Texas Rangers ($111.7 million); and Jose Reyes with the Toronto Blue Jays ($106 million).  In 2012, the Los Angeles Dodgers picked up Zack Greinke for $147 million; the Angels grabbed Josh Hamilton for $125 million; and the normally conservative Atlanta Braves forked over $75 million for outfielder B.J. Upton.

For the last two offseasons, Hal Steinbrenner was merely an onlooker walking the aisles of the wholesale store that is MLB’s free agency.  Hal Steinbrenner did nothing as owners like Art Moreno, John Malone, and Mike Ilitch gathered their supplies.

Prior to the last two years, the upper echelon of free agents was the exclusive domain of the New York Yankees.  Every agent understood that the Yankees dictated the market, and the other teams understood that if the Yankees wanted a player, the Yankees usually got that player.

But, as Hal watched other teams operate during the last two winters, he understood what was happening The other owners were growing confident and becoming bolder.  It seemed that the rest of baseball no longer viewed the Yankees as a threat in the marketplace.

The Jacoby Ellsbury signing has changed that perception.

By not only signing Jacoby Ellsbury but also by excessively outbidding all other suitors, Hal Steinbrenner fired a shot across the bow of the thirty-one other major league clubs.  Ellsbury’s signing was less about filling a void on the roster and more about sending a message to the rest of baseball:  “Stay out of my territory.”

“The Yankees are the Danger”

The Jacoby Ellsbury signing also smacks of hubris.  Perhaps Hal Steinbrenner was simply tired of hearing the media reports about the state of the Yankees and how much the team could spend on free agency this season to remain under the $189 million payroll.  Perhaps he was just tired of being perceived as the reserved, conservative owner.   Either way, signing Ellsbury was Hal’s way of dispelling any misconception that he is a weak or timid owner.

While I have no first-hand knowledge regarding the Yankee executives’ internal discussion regarding the decision to sign Jacoby Ellsbury, I am pretty certain this is how the conversation ended:

Brian Cashman:  The trend in baseball is to build championship clubs by developing prospects from within.  Hal, please, let’s both of us stop trying to justify overpaying for free agents and admit that the Yankee franchise is in danger of falling behind teams like the Red Sox and the Rays.

Hal Steinbrenner:  Who are you talking to right now?  Who is it you think you see?  Do you know how much the Yankees make a year?  I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it.  Do you know what would happen if the Yankees just suddenly decided to stop giving out absurd contracts?  Major League Baseball, a business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ, goes belly up.  Disappears!  It ceases to exist without the Yankees overspending on free agents.  No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in.  The Yankees are not in danger, Cash.  The Yankees are the danger.  An owner gets a knock on the door and is told he has been outbid for a free agent, and you think that of me?  No.  I am the one who knocks!

 “We’re done when I say we’re done.” 

The Yankees have already committed $238 million in guaranteed money to two players this offseason.  In light of this outlay, many have speculated that the Yankees will be pumping the brakes throughout the rest of the winter.  However, the team was quick to quash any such speculation by assuring the public that these deals are more likely the beginning than the end:  “[W]e’ve still got a decent amount of money to spend, quite frankly. And we’re going to. We’re going to put it back into the team the way we always do.”

In other words, Hal is saying, “We’re done when I say we’re done.”

“Say My Name”

With two of the biggest names in free agency signed, one can almost see Hal Steinbrenner walk up to Mark Walter, principal owner of the Dodgers, at the Winter Meetings next week without introducing himself:

Hal Steinbrenner:  You know exactly who I am.  Say my name.

Mark Walter:  Do what?  I don’t….I don’t have a damn clue who you are.

Hal:  Yeah you do.  I’m the owner of the Yankees.  I’m the man who signed Jacoby Ellsbury.

Walter:  Bullsh*t.  Hank or Levine was responsible for getting Ellsbury.

Hal:  You sure?

[pause]

Hal:  That’s right.  Now say my name.

Walter:  You’re Hal Steinbrenner.

Hal:  You’re goddamn right.