The New York Yankees have conducted business during this offseason under a mandate from principal owner Hal Steinbrenner. The team’s payroll must be under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014.

As ESPN’s Jayson Stark explains, the Yankees have exceeded the luxury tax three times since the penalty was established in 2003. If the Yanks go over that $189 million limit for 2014, they’ll be taxed 50 percent on every dollar spent beyond that threshold.

With the directive to limit payroll, the Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman have been surprisingly quiet this offseason. In past years, pursuing top free agents like Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke or making a trade for Justin Upton would have been a given. 

Instead, the Yankees have signed Kevin Youkilis to a one-year contract and Ichiro Suzuki to a two-year deal. Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte were also inked to short-term agreements. Chris Stewart is slated to be the starting catcher as Russell Martin was allowed to depart via free agency. 

These are the New York Yankees? Where is that swagger, the sheer audacity that we saw for so many years under the reign of George Steinbrenner?

But Hal is a different cat, one who believes it matters to set a budget and stick to it. He referred to himself as a “finance geek” in The New York Times.

Hal is the guy you want balancing your checkbook. He’s not going out to Best Buy to buy an 83-inch flat screen TV when the 42-inch set in the living room was already good enough. 

However, Steinbrenner‘s resolve on sticking to that $189 million payroll for 2014 might not be as firm as he originally portrayed. If a limited budget prevents the Yankees from the fielding the sort of championship-caliber team that the team and its fans expect, Steinbrenner told reporters that he’ll take the handcuffs off. 

“We will always field a championship-caliber team,” Steinbrenner said (as transcribed by The Wall Street Journal‘s Brian Costa). 

“Is our goal 189 next year? Yes. But only if I’m convinced that the team I see we put together is a championship-caliber team.”

Steinbrenner put the onus on the Yankees’ minor league system. If their young players develop into major league contributors, the $189 million payroll should work, in his view. But if those prospects don’t pan out, the Yanks have to change their plan. They’ll have to spend more money.

David Phelps, Michael Pineda and Manny Banuelos were the players Steinbrenner singled out. All three could form the core of the Yankees starting rotation in the years to come.

Phelps showed promise in his rookie season, going 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts). But Pineda missed all of last year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder and his ability to pitch in 2013 is uncertain. And Banuelos won’t pitch this year after undergoing Tommy John surgery

Is Steinbrenner reaching for his checkbook yet? 

How about after looking at the Yankees’ projected Opening Day lineup for the upcoming season? Suzuki and Brett Gardner will likely get the nod at the corner outfield positions. Youkilis—who hit .235 last season—will fill in at third base while Alex Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery. A-Rod is expected to be ready to play in July, but missing the entire season is a possibility. 

As mentioned earlier, Stewart or Francisco Cervelli will be the starting catcher. That’s a long way from the days when Jorge Posada was hitting 20 home runs and compiling an OPS over .850 from behind the plate. 

Will Russ Canzler be the Yanks’ designated hitter? He hit .267 with a .697 OPS, three home runs and 11 RBI in 97 plate appearances for the Cleveland Indians last year. Even The New York Times called that “a Mets-like move” in a headline.

The Yankees view Canzler as a replacement for Nick Swisher. Yankees fans view him as a reason not to show up at Yankee Stadium next season.

On paper, that does not look like a championship team. Of course, the 2013 season has to play out before a final judgment can be rendered. But it certainly looks like Steinbrenner can say hello to a $200 million payroll for the Yankees again. 

If the Yankees decide to disregard the $189 million luxury tax limit, who could Cashman pursue next winter? 

Jacoby Ellsbury looks like the best outfielder on the free-agent market and would be an upgrade over Curtis Granderson in center field. 

But can Ellsbury repeat his MVP-caliber performance from 2011? Two seasons ago, he hit .321 with a .928 OPS, 32 home runs, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases for the Boston Red Sox. Signing a top player away from their archrival would make the transaction even more appealing. 

Shin-Soo Choo would look great in right field for the Yankees. He’s a .300 batter over his career, with the ability to hit 20 home runs with 85 RBI. Choo would also bring some speed to the Yankees lineup, as he’s capable of stealing 20 bases. 

Choo could even be an option for center field, if he shows he can play the position for the Cincinnati Reds this year. 

However, the Yankees already have plenty of left-handed pop with Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. They might prefer a right-handed bat, especially if Rodriguez isn’t the same player after hip surgery. 

That could lead the Yankees to Corey Hart. He’s played in relative obscurity with the Milwaukee Brewers, overshadowed by Ryan Braun. But Hart has a right-handed bat that’s averaged 29 homers and 83 RBI during the past three seasons.

He’s not a great defender in right field, according to FanGraphs‘ Ultimate Zone Rating, but would have less ground to cover at Yankee Stadium. Plus, the Yankees probably wouldn’t care about his defense if he provided plenty of run production. 

One more player Cashman might chase down is catcher Brian McCann. He’s clearly the best player at that position among the 2014 class of free agents, as listed by MLB Trade Rumors. McCann batted .230 with a .698 OPS in 2012 while fighting a shoulder injury. The hope is that he’ll return to form after offseason surgery on that right shoulder. 

Perhaps outfield prospects Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams will develop in time to contribute in 2014 for the Yankees. Catcher Gary Sanchez could be ready by then as well. 

But Steinbrenner and Cashman might opt for more of a sure thing if the Yankees take a step back this coming season and the future looks gloomy. If so, that $189 million payroll is something that may be scrapped and never spoken of again.


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