This may be the case; but this may also be an urban legend originating in the baseball media's tendency towards groupthink.
What I mean is that this speculation about the Yankees changing motives seems to have been kicked off by an interesting Joel Sherman article citing unnamed Yankee executives. There has been sort of an echo chamber effect since.
However, a skeptical observer should keep in mind that every offseason Yankees executives' leak the notion that the Yankees will be cutting their spending; for example, I remember reading almost daily in the winter of 2008 that there was no way the Yankees would be in on Mark Teixeira for financial reasons. Peter Abraham, then of the Lohud Blog, was so totally suckered by the Yankees' annual spin about payroll reduction that he mocked those who saw around it; for example, he wrote: "Unless you frequent the local crack dealer, you realize by now that Mark Teixeira is going elsewhere." While other observers may not have been as cocky about it as Abraham, pretty much every member of the baseball media echoed the same notion - it was a collective exercise in groupthink, masquerading as journalism.
A particular reason I am skeptical regarding whether anything that happened this offseason proves the Yankees are moving towards a financial austerity mode is simply this: when you look at the moves that have and haven't been made, sound baseball arguments can be made for each. Since upgrading the starting rotation was without doubt the Yankees' most critical 2012 need, let's review the options that have so far been rejected and then those that have been made. These starters, who obviously have their appealing points, were rejected:
- Yu Darvish - Japanese pitchers have typically not lived up to expectations, making a 5- or 6-year commitment risky.
- C.J. Wilson - He is risky because he has only had 2 years as a starter, will be 31, and jumped from 73.2 to 204 innings in 2010.
- Mark Buehrle - he will be 33, risky for a long-term commitment.
- Gio Gonzalez - The rumors were that he would cost at least Jesus Montero plus either Manny Banuelos or Dellin Betances; a high prospect cost for an admittedly talented lefty who has never had a WHIP under 1.30 even though pitching in Oakland.
- Edwin Jackson - By all accounts, Jackson was looking for a 4- or 5-year deal. That is a big commitment to a guy who statistically has been an average pitcher.
Now let's look at the moves that have been made:
- Extending CC Sabathia by giving him an additional $25 million for 2016, when CC will be 35, and an additional $25 million in 2017 that will kick in if his left shoulder is not seriously injured in 2017. A no-brainer in terms of retaining an ace pitcher.
- Resigning Freddy Garcia to a one-year, $4 million deal. It's useful to retain an innings eater.
- Trading Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda. This was a way to obtain a young potential ace while preserving Banuelos and/or Betances; in other words, a much better bargain than trading for Gio Gonzalez.
- Signing Hiroki Kuroda for 1 year at $10 million; a relatively low-risk investment. (Note: BaseballAnalytics.org wrote up an interesting discussion of Kuroda's strengths and concerns.)
However, a simpler argument can be made that this offseason's moves reflect a strategy of leaving rotation slots open for potential aces Banuelos and Betances, while preserving slots for Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova, and now Pineda as well. With this group, the Yankees have an opportunity for an awesome young rotation with superior stuff over the next several years; signing one of the available starters to a long-term deal would mean blocking one of these guys.
The baseball media will continue to paint all moves into the narrative they have created regarding the Yankees and austerity. For example, the NY Times article on the Pineda and Kuroda acquisitions described the latter as useful to the Yankees primarily because the team does "not want significant multiyear contracts for the next few years because of the financial incentives they have under the new collective bargaining agreement to keep their payroll under $189 million starting in 2014." Maybe - but really, only Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner know how true this is. Everyone else won't know for awhile whether this narrative is meaningful or merely the media once again lazily regurgitating leaks by some subset of Yankees front office personnel.
As it stands, all I think we can know after smoking the objective pipe is that the Yankees did improve the rotation; with its talent and depth, Yankee fans have to be optimistic about their chances in 2012. The moves - and the non-moves - also provide fans with an opportunity to have a dynasty-level rotation over the next decade. The moves do have cost-savings benefits; however, this may be an incidental by-product of the decisions, not the driving force behind them. For a historical analogy, when the Yankees in the 1990s developed Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, this did save some money; but thriftiness was hardly the goal.