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New York Yankees: Traveling a slippery road to an unknown destination

The New York Yankees are doing business in a new buget-conscious way -- a way that could have long-term benefits but could also blow up on the richest franchise in American sports.

Brian Cashman speaks to the media during the Winter Meetings
Brian Cashman speaks to the media during the Winter Meetings
USA Today Sports

New York Yankees' fans awoke Thursday to more news that their team had lost out on players it was interested in.

- Infielders Jeff Keppinger (Chicago White Sox) and now ex-Yankee Eric Chavez (Arizona Diamondbacks), players the Yankees had targeted as possible third-base fill-ins for Alex Rodriguez, have decided to go elsewhere.

- Outfielder Nate Schierholtz, who some reports indicated had a contract offer from the Yankees, chose to sign with the Chicago Cubs.

The winter is far from over, but as the New York Times opined, right now things don't look good for the team that used to be called the Bronx Bombers:

For the past 15 years, the Yankees have been known as a team with a stout lineup capable of producing many runs. The way the roster is currently constructed — with holes at three positions that as of now would have to be filled by players within the organization — the Yankees will not be able to rely on their offense to carry them.

"I think that’s fair to say right now, but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be that way come Feb. 10 when we’re getting ready to go to camp," [manager Joe] Girardi said. "But right now we don’t know who is going to play right field, we don’t know who is going to play third base. Those are big power positions."

Yankees' fans can hardly be blamed if they are both frustrated and confused right now as they watch the richest and historically most free-spending team in American sports act like a penny-pinching small-market team. When, exactly, did Jeffrey Loria get control of the Yankees?

General manager Brian Cashman has toed the budgetary line and insisted he can fill the Yankees' holes while working within the Hal Steinbrenner-mandated constraints. Now comes word, though, that even Cashman might be getting frustrated.

"I just I had a meeting with [Cashman] and he just said he is not in on a lot of players that he liked,’’ [Scott] Boras said. "He would like to be in on more, but right now he is working with ownership to see where he can go. I don’t think any final decisions have been made, but at this point in time he is working through it."

Anything the uber-agent Boras says has to be taken with a grain of salt, but there could easily be some truth to that. Cashman and the Yankees have a shrinking market with which to fill their needs, and they seem to be left only with the option of picking up the cheapest table scraps when everyone else is done gobbling up the best meat on the bone.

[Related: 'Beggars can't be choosers']

This is not the way the Yankees have always done business, especially during the Steinbrenner era of ownership. It is easy to see the financial benefits of getting under the $189 million luxury tax threshold by 2014 -- $50 million in savings isn't chump change, even for the Yankees. It may also be good long-term strategy.

The Yankees, though, have never been about the long-term. Who is going to sit in those luxury seats if the Yankees are a third or fourth-place team? Who is going to use the luxury suites? Who will watch the YES Network. Putting the product on the field at a competitive disadvantage, seemingly intentionally, is risky business for the Yankee brand.

Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York had this to say about where Steinbrenner has put the Yankees, and his own legacy:

Hal has called an audible on the family legacy and, ultimately, it may result in a smarter, sleeker version than the Boss' model of win or destruction. Sensibly, as a businessman, Hal wants to pocket the near $50 million that would come in luxury tax and revenue savings by dropping payroll below $189 million by '14.

In the meantime, the Yankees must withstand the pain of guys like Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Jeff Keppinger slipping through their clutches as every penny must be preserved as the winter meetings conclude.

The Yankees might be in the midst of -- to use one of Brian Cashman's old pet phrases -- a market correction, where they take a step back for a couple forward down the road.

The way the collective bargaining agreement works, if the Yankees fall below the tax threshold in '14, they would then reset their bracket to zero. By 2015, when there is a mammoth free agent class -- currently featuring names like Justin Verlander and Elvis Andrus -- the Yankees possibly could return to being the Yankees of old, George's Yankees. Without a 50 percent tax, it could be bombs away all over again in two years.

If they were to go over the $189 million threshold after '14, they would be taxed at just 17.5 percent so you can understand why this appeals to Hal's psyche.

This is a slippery, unfamiliar road the Yankees haven't traveled before. Whether it ultimately leads to the bottom of a ravine or to the mountaintop of World Series glory nobody knows. It is, however, a dangerous journey for a team -- and a fan base -- not used to traveling this path.