Bargain-basement Yankees making a mockery of free-agent spending

Wallace Matthews

NEW YORK — In Major League Baseball, you don’t always get what you pay for.

For instance, the New York Yankees on Tuesday night fielded a starting lineup that cost a total of $30 million, or approximately what Manny Machado will be paid annually by the San Diego Padres starting in 2020 and continuing for the following eight seasons.

For that relatively meager amount, the Yankees trounced the Baltimore Orioles for the 16th time in 18 meetings this season, 8-3, at Yankee Stadium. The damage was mainly done by Gio Urshela ($555,000 a year), Mike Tauchman ($557,000), backup catcher Austin Romine, spare outfielder Cameron Maybin, and a minimum-wage starter, Domingo German, who became MLB’s first 16-game winner.

The Orioles, who have all of 39 wins and whose starting nine on Tuesday amounted to just about $9 million, are definitely getting what they paid for. The Yankees, on the other hand, are getting a lot more. All season long, they have been squeezing an incredible amount of value out of a bargain-basement lineup.

This was not their intention, of course; their team payroll of approximately $203 million is their highest since 2016, and their roster includes the bloated contract of Giancarlo Stanton, who is in the fifth year of a 13-year, $325 million contract signed with the Miami Marlins.

But due to an unprecedented rash of injuries, the Yankees have been forced to plug holes with chewing gum and cellophane tape. Remarkably, the makeshift patches have held, and their win Tuesday night made them the first team in the American League to reach 80 wins. They are 39 games over .500 and 9-½ games ahead of the AL East field pending the outcome of a West Coast game between the second-place Tampa Bay Rays and the San Diego Padres.

Meanwhile Stanton has played all of nine games in 2019 and there is no guarantee he will play again this season. According to manager Aaron Boone, Stanton is getting close to getting close. But there’s still no timetable for his return and no one seems to be asking for one.

Likewise, Jacoby Ellsbury, the poster child for bad contracts, is in the second-to-last year of seven-year, $153 million contract and has not been on a major-league field since Sept. 30, 2017 and the consensus is he never will be again, at least not in a Yankees uniform.

In fact, both New York baseball teams are likely to play at least one game in October -- the Yankees are running away with the AL East and the resurgent Mets are in the thick of the NL wild card hunt -- and three of their highest-paid players are likely to play no factor at all.

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 07:  Gio Urshela #29 of the New York Yankees celebrates with teammates after a 14-2 victory against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 7, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Gio Urshela (Getty Images)

Yoenis Cespedes, the Mets’ $29 million a year outfielder, hasn’t played a game since July 2018 and, having suffered a mysterious ankle fracture while supposedly rehabbing surgeries on both heels at his Florida ranch, is unlikely to ever play for them again.

And you know what? Neither of their teams seem to miss them. Nobody seems overly concerned with when, or if, they are coming back. And both teams are thriving without them.

This is not meant so much as a knock at any of those players as it is a reminder that quite often, “superstars,’’ or the players who are paid like them, are often quite unnecessary for the success of a baseball team. This is not the NBA, where one dominant player can carry a team to a title.

As of Tuesday night, Machado was having a good season, batting .265 with 26 home runs, 70 RBIs and an .816 OPS. But his home run total since the All-Star break was equal to that of Yankees second baseman DJ LeMahieu, the highest-paid player on the field Tuesday night but a relative bargain at $12 million a year.

Machado’s 70 RBIs are one more than Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres, who makes $605,000 a year. His batting average was six points lower than that of Romine, who earns $1.8 million. And his OPS would rank no higher than sixth in the Yankees’ Tuesday night lineup.

The only offensive category in which Machado currently leads the league is grounding into double plays (18). Most importantly, the Padres are 55-63 and in 4th place in the NL West, 23 games off the pace.

Similarly, Bryce Harper, awarded a 13-year, $330 million deal by the Philadelphia Phillies in the hopes he would turn them into an NL East powerhouse, has produced good, if not quite eye-popping numbers -- 22 homers, 80 RBI, a .250 batting average and .844 OPS. And the Phillies are hardly a powerhouse, mired in fourth-place in the division and two games out of the second NL wild card. And Harper leads the league only in strikeouts, with 137.

This makes it amusing to recall the outcry among Yankees fans when their team, traditionally the freest-spending and most susceptible to the lure of a big-name free agent in baseball, passed on both Harper and Machado last winter while spending relatively modestly on players like LeMahieu, quietly purchasing a stealth player such as Urshela and making a seemingly insignificant trade for someone named Tauchman at the end of spring training.

One hundred and twenty games into the season, LeMahieu, who leads the AL in batting, is a legitimate MVP candidate. Urshela, playing for the big-league minimum of $555,000, is this year’s breakout star, pushing up against LeMahieu for the AL batting crown And there are sure to be howls of displeasure if Stanton comes back -- and relegates Tauchman to the bench.

The Yankees decision to add Stanton to their roster, and payroll, before the 2018 season remains something of a mystery. New boss Hal Steinbrenner is not George Steinbrenner, in temperament or profligacy, and staying under the luxury tax threshold has been his mandate for the past three seasons.

But clearly, the prospect of adding Stanton was too tempting for someone in the Yankees front office to resist. Stanton was the reigning 2017 NL MVP. The Marlins were willing to assume $30 million of the remaining $295 million on his contract. He wasn’t going to cost all that much in players, just Starlin Castro and a couple of minor leaguers.

And most intriguing of all, he was a STAR, in capital letters, something the Yankees have always relied on to fill seats and boost TV ratings.

Stanton, Harper, Machado and the rest of their ilk may do all of that, but they don’t necessarily win ballgames.

So far, the Yankees are doing it with the likes of Urshela and Torres and Tauchman and LeMahieu.

And with them, the ballpark is full and the Yankees are winning.

The names may be strange and the paychecks relatively puny, but you can’t argue with the results. Or the value.

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