The Yankees are 18-11 since Alex Rodriguez quietly returned to the Yankees lineup in early August.
(Keith Allison/Flickr)

The Red Sox kick of a critical four-game series in the Bronx tonight, facing the hard-charging Yankees. New York enters the series only 2.5 games out of a Wild Card spot, a rather drastic turnaround from where they were a month ago. On August 7, the White Sox completed a 3-game sweep of the Yankees and their recently returned third baseman, Alex Rodriguez. The loss dropped New York to 57-56, one game above .500, 11.5 games behind the Red Sox, and 7 games out of the playoff picture. Since then, they have gone 18-8 and are closing quickly on the offensively-challenged Tampa Bay Rays.

This spring I called the Yankees “Robinson Cano and the Replacement Level All Stars” and other than Brett Gardner, that’s been very true of this lineup. Even their pitching has been a bit hard to comprehend. Hiroki Kuroda has been excellent (although he’s dropped off substantially in his last four starts), Andy Pettitte has been wildly inconsistent, Ivan Nova has been fantastic since returning in late June, CC Sabathia has been uncharacteristically awful, and Phil Hughes has been characteristically awful. Fortunately for the NYY, Mariano Rivera has been nearly the same player he’s always been. (But please don’t let that convince you to come back for another season, Mariano. By all means, see yourself out! You already got those gifts, and standing ovations and stuff, you couldn’t come back now.)

The Yankees fight has been admirable, to say the least, especially in the midst of an A-Rod/Randy Levine/Brian Cashman love-triangle cat fight that even Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes would have been embarrassed to be a part of. They have continued to play hard for Girardi, even while they’ve dealt with a substantial amount of injuries. Consequentially, somewhere along the line a narrative has developed that this rag-tag band of brothers somehow qualifies as a team of underdogs. 

But make no mistake, the New York Yankees are not underdogs.

The Yankees are South Bend Central, not Hickory High.

The Yankees are Goliath, not David.

The Yankees are the USSR, not the USA.

The Yankees are Ivan Drago, not Rocky Balboa.

First of all, there is the biggest issue, one that is true of both New York and Boston. You can’t be an underdog when the structure of the game permits you to pay your team ten times what another team pays theirs. No seriously, the Yankees’ Opening Day payroll of $228,995,945 is more than nine times the Astros’ $24,328,538. Is it the Yankees fault that the Astros are in the midst of some kind of weird science experiment that involves ridding your team of every player who earns more than $10/hour? No, but it does eliminate the chances that anyone can ever considering your team an underdog.

Eight major league players will earn $23 million or more this season, four of them are Yankees. 43 players will earn $15 million or more, nine of them are Yankees. To say that they are playing with a stacked deck is an abundantly reasonable statement.

Now to be fair, at $158,967,286 the Red Sox are in a similar high-revenue boat. Only the Yankees, Dodgers and Phillies are paying out more salary than the Red Sox this season. But don’t let anyone tell you they are in the exact same boat, because even though the Sox have the fourth highest payroll, the financial gap between number four on the list and number one is $70,028,659, or more than the entire payroll of five major league clubs.

There are many advantages to rooting for a big-market club, like Boston. The biggest being that you can expect to compete for a spot in the playoffs every single year. One of the downsides though is that we never get to be a part of a great underdog story. Please don’t try to claim that Boston is an underdog this season because they won 69 games last year. Say they bounced back, say the reloaded, say they are a good story, but they’re not underdogs and never will be in this financial system.

If you’re looking for a real underdog to pull for, look no farther than Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
(fulinhyu on Flickr)

If you want to find true underdogs, look at the Oakland A’s, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Tampa Bay Rays. All three of these teams would be in the playoffs if they started today, and their combined payroll of $189,609,320 is still more than $39 million less than the scrappy boys from the Bronx. 

As the Red Sox kindly proved last year (and as the Angels and Phillies are proving this year, and the Mets spent most of a decade proving) spending money doesn’t make you a contender. Spending money well, on the other hand, can really make a substantial difference in the success of your team.

That’s where the wheels fall off the argument that the Yankees are somehow one of the great narratives in a season full of fun and interesting stories. 

The reason players like Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, and Brennan Boesch have had overly prominent roles on this year’s team is because they foolishly handed out copious amounts of money to aging, past-their-prime players. Who would have guessed that a 39 year-old shortstop with over 2,750 games on his odometer would start to show signs of wear and tear? Hey, let’s pay him $17 million a season! Or how about dropping $275 million on a player that was infamous in the clubhouse for his massive bacne and man-boobs? What do you mean his body started to crumble just like the statue in that old anti-steroids commercial? Could anyone have possible seen that coming? Or do you know what’s a great idea? Paying a guy $24 million a season from ages 29-36 who already weighs over 300 pounds and just got abused by the Brewers like 16 year-old kid driving someone else’s sports car. Sabathia’s contract already looks like a massive albatross, and they still have 4 years, $96 million left on the books.

If how Sabathia has pitched this year is a preview of the remaining four years on his deal, the Yankees are going to need to get him suspended for PEDs too so that contract comes off the books.
(Keith Allison/Flickr)

This season the Yankees will pay Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, and Curtis Granderson $105,500,000. Those same five players have accounted for 2.9 WAR (by comparison Jarrod Saltalamacchia alone sits at 2.7), or approximately $14,500,000 in value. So, no worries Brian Cashman, you only missed the mark by $91,000,000.

Truthfully though, Cashman didn’t completely miss the mark because they won 2009 the World Series title. After a disappointing third place finish in 2008, his job was to rebuild them into a championship team, and quickly. The signings of Sabathia, Teixeira, and A.J.Burnett all looked great that season as the trio combined for 15.7 WAR. Even Alex Rodriguez’s deal didn’t look like the worst thing in the world yet as he posted a 4.7 WAR on the season. But every one of those deals disintegrated like Alex’s surgically repaired, PED-infused hip. At one point they were all assets, but before long they each became a liability.

Did the 2009 World Series title come at a cost? Absolutely, and the cost was much higher than their $201 million dollar Opening Day payroll. The cost was awful contracts that would lessen their ability to compete within the next few years when they were paying well over $100 million dollars with an extremely minimal return. Would Yankees fans pay that price again to add one more notch into their title belt? We should ask one of them.

I went to my friend Matt because he’s the rarest combination of Yankee fan in this area — he’s pretty rational, knows the game incredibly well, uses full sentences, and eats his food with utensils. Was it worth it?

“Yes. The money is absolutely nothing to the Yankees. There is no good reason they have to get below $189 million next year, other than having one less storage locker full of cash in their storage locker facility made entirely of cash. Sports are supposed to be about winning, so who cares by how much they overpay? Does it suck to have A-Rod’s contract? Absolutely! But it would be much worse not to have Cano the next 5 years. I’m not suggesting they go spend $100 million on just anybody, but money should never stop them from filling desperate needs like in 2009.”

So when the series kicks off in Yankee Stadium tonight call the Yankees whatever you want: gritty, determined, fighters, gamers, a team that doesn’t quit. Call them a shortsighted franchise that spent money like a drunken sailor to return to championship level with little-to-no regard for what paying a handful of past-their-prime players $25 million a year would do to their long term competitiveness. Just don’t call them underdogs, that’s insulting to Hickory High.