The last two seasons for Yankees fans have been rather...interesting. First, we had 2013's injury extravaganza, with the starting catcher, first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, backup third baseman, and left fielder all injured for major parts of the season; yet despite players like Chris Stewart and Vernon Wells getting regular playing time, the team was still in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season. Then there is this season, with 5 starting pitchers sitting on the DL and the supposedly-revamped offense hitting even worse than last season's.
To put it bluntly, this team has been overachieving mediocrity for the past two seasons, which begs the question: are Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi doing something wrong?
I'd like to redirect the question, however. Is Hal Steinbrenner to blame?
Say what you want about his father George, the Boss only cared about one thing - winning. If he felt he needed to fire managers, he fired managers; if there was a big bat on the free agent market that he wanted, then he would go to the ends of the earth to make sure that player was wearing pinstripes the following season. In the Evil Empire (honestly, it's surprising it took so long for the Yankees to receive that name), he was not just the Emperor, he was Emperor, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin. Baseball was not just his game, it was his life.
And then there is Hal, who has been in control of the team's day-to-day activities since November 2008, and has been part of the decision-making process since even before then. He has presided over three division titles, four playoff appearances, and the 2009 World Series champions; but in recent years, the team has not had been of the same quality as it has been, and for several reasons.
Everyone who follows the Yankees even remotely knew that going into this past offseason, Hal Steinbrenner had demanded that the team keep to a budget of $189M, the luxury tax limit; although that seems like an incredibly large budget for most teams, when you factor in the fact that the Yankees had massive salaries like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez already on the books, that is actually fairly limiting, forcing the Yankees to fill out most of their roster with essentially the same budget as the Astros and Cubs, but without the strong farm system to make it possible. His logic, in theory, makes sense - be budget-minded for one season to reset the luxury tax limits, then splurge the following offseason. But it is the New York Yankees; the team prints money, and that statement comes from a Yankees fan; everything in the stadium is absurdly expensive, tickets are off-the-charts costly, and it sells merchandise throughout the world. Unless they know something we don't, then they really should not be fretting over a few million dollars, which is ultimately what the luxury tax limit would save them.
Just like his father George, he has taken a very active (albeit less obvious) role in the formation of the team, often overriding Brian Cashman. He was the one who gave Ichiro the two-year contract. He's the one who insisted on the trade for Alfonso Soriano last season. He's the one who signed Rafael Soriano. He's the one who....well, you get the idea. Hal has often ignored Brian Cashman's judgment and has done what he wanted, even if it made little-to-no baseball sense. Signing Ichiro for one year was questionable, but two was just absurd; but it gave the team the Japanese star - and thus the Japanese market - it had lacked since Hideki Matsui's departure. While trading for Alfonso Soriano was brilliant short-term, it hurt the team this season and forced them to give up a pitching prospect that Cashman wanted to keep; although I feel Cash is a bit too clingy with his pitching prospects, the logic here was sound: Soriano was up there in age and a one-trick pony. Once his bat speed diminished and he could not mash the ball, he was useless. But at the time, it reinvigorated the fanbase for the playoff race, and helped draw people to the stadium. It brought in revenue.
That's how Steinbrenner runs this team - the bottom line.
While I often disagree with what Cashman does, in general I consider him an amazing GM; through the years, he has made great signings and trades, such as Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Lyle Overbay, and this year's trio of Headley, Prado, and McCarthy. Generally speaking, he has a good read on prospects; he liked Gardner and Cervelli even before they were considered starter-quality players, and now Gardner is ranked among the league's top underrated players and Cervelli would start in many organizations. He traded Jesus Montero when many still believed he would be a serviceable catcher. Every year, he makes the right moves during the season to strengthen the team, and as a friend of mine put it, "he and Theo Epstein (when he was Boston's GM) would engage in a chess match when the two teams dominated the division." He makes the most of what he has, and in truth, his player development and amateur scouting colleagues are well below-average, on the whole. Cashman gets a lot of blame when things go wrong, but oftentimes, he's the one keeping the team afloat, especially the last two seasons.
Girardi is another person often the target of criticism, but again, he is one of the team's unsung heroes. Since 2008, he has seen the bullpen through a number of transitions but has always kept it among the team's major strengths. With minor issues (such as his insistence on batting Jeter second all through the season and giving Vernon Wells ABs even with Soriano and Granderson on the roster), he has maximized his team in a way few other managers do. When the time is right, he makes the difficult and controversial decisions, such as pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez in the 2012 ALDS. If it were not for him, the Yankees would not still be in the playoff hunt this season.
And yet however interesting this season has been, a lot of these issues could have been avoided if Hal Steinbrenner had taken a step back. Baseball-wise, there were plenty other alternatives to Ichiro, almost all of which would have been better; but none commanded overseas markets like he did. Alfonso Soriano brought a "hero's return" storyline that generated excitement down the stretch last season, but dubious from a baseball perspective; it was fortunate that he hit like he did down the stretch last season. And a plethora of other situations would not have happened had the team not insisted on the $189M goal for multiple seasons. We would be in a very different boat, and arguably a much better one.
That is not to say that the Yankees are totally down on their luck, exactly. The farm system, although small, looks promising. The pitching staff, for the first time in many years, looks like a major strength going into the offseason, with plenty of possibility for improvement this offseason. The team has plenty of flexibility to improve the roster going into the offseason, and could see major developments from multiple prospects as soon as next season. But the downward trend is beginning, and if Hal Steinbrenner does not back off his bottom-line-above-all policy, then in a few years, baseball fans across the world just might need to find a new worst enemy as they watch the Evil Empire slowly collapse.