The Evil Empire strikes back

Photo via Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station. Fire at will, commander.” 

This quote rings familiarity to movie critics and Star Wars fanatics alike, as it is roared by Darth Sidious in Return of the Jedi to Luke Skywalker on board the second Death Star, signaling that the Rebel Alliance fleet is caught in a trap and is now at the mercy of the super-weapon’s laser. 

For the Rebel Alliance, it is a frightening moment as it shows the Death Star is back, bigger and something that will have to be dealt with again.

For all of baseball, a sports comparison of this can be made, as the New York Yankees, deemed the “Evil Empire” by many, are back. Back in the sense of flexing immense financial muscle to bring in a really good player to an already formidable team. 

The Yankees signed Gerrit Cole Tuesday night to $324 million over nine years. The average annual value of the deal is $36 million with no deferrals. It is the largest deal to a pitcher and is the fifth player to receive $300 million or more (Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton and Manny Machado). 

For the Yankees, shelling out contracts is not new. They gave Alex Rodriguez $275 million over 10 years in 2007. Mark Teixeira? Eight years for $180 million in 2009. Jacoby Ellsbury? Seven years for $153 million in 2014. Masahiro Tanaka? Seven years for $155 million in 2014. The list goes on and on.

However, a brief period of waiting in the shadows occurred to this team starting in 2016. Compared to other teams it was not a huge shadow, but given New York’s payroll capabilities, it was significant.

From a payroll perspective, this shadow can be noticed. After having the second-highest payroll in 2014 and 2015 (behind the Los Angeles Dodgers), the Yankees had the second-highest payroll again in 2016, albeit at $2 million less than the 2015 payroll. A minuscule amount in baseball terms, but a drop nonetheless that would start a small trend. In 2017, their payroll dropped again; this time to $209 million, still third highest in baseball. Then, in 2018, it dropped to $180 million—sixth highest in baseball; a ranking unheard of for a team that is renowned for having $200+ million payrolls. 

One of the reasons for this change was the lack of success spending big was bringing New York. After splurging in the 2013 offseason by spending over $400 million on four players, the end result was missing out on the 2013 postseason.

The torpedoes from an X-Wing fighter piloted by Luke Skywalker blew up the first Death Star. As a result, the Empire had to adapt without their superweapon. The torpedoes, in baseball terms, was the increased emphasis on developing younger players and building up the farm system. The Yankees adapted due to their spending capabilities not fixing the problem. 

With the payroll getting smaller, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman emphasized not on contracts, but prospects. From a farm system that ranked in the bottom-tier in 2014 and 2015, it eventually built its way up to a top-five farm system in 2016 and 2017. Even with some growing pains, due to not making the postseason in 2016, the long-term plan was still intact.

After three consecutive trips to the postseason from 2017 to 2019, the Yankees were starting to look like their former selves in being a regular contestant in the playoffs. The payroll also began to look normal again from a Yankees perspective, as it was over $200 million in 2019. However, they have still not been able to cash it in with a Fall Classic appearance or victory. While the process of going younger has paid off with consistent playoff appearances, the Yankees would have to add more external pieces to get back to the World Series.

That result would be getting Cole to provide durability to a starting staff that has a good foundation but has had injury issues in Luis Severino and James Paxton.

As it stands right now, the Yankees look like for-sure World Series favorites. While they adjusted to developing prospects instead of high payrolls for a brief period, the Yankees could not be separated from their roots: having serious finances to bring in stars that can supplement their roster. Even though it did not work in the 2013 offseason, their Death Star in having deep finances would not be forgotten. 

By trimming payroll and developing prospects, the Yankees would wait to strike with their superweapon. After waiting in the shadows, the superweapon brought in one of the best starting pitchers in the game today. 

The Evil Empire is back. And they are fully operational. 

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