I don’t need to tell you things have changed. The Cubs are World Series champions. Biff is president. The pope is young, and the actor playing him has five kids from three different women. Perhaps most shockingly: The Yankees are cheap.
Cheap may be the wrong word. They’re reformed. They’re neither impatient nor reckless, two defining features of the latter-day George Steinbrenner era, and they are finally rid of the epoch-defining A-Rod, a tragicomic, brutalist baseball genius, the acquisition of whom basically doomed the Bronx Bombers for a generation. It wasn’t signing A-Rod per se that crippled the Yankees, of course. It was the habit grabbing the shiniest toy in front of them, damn the short-term costs, a movement of which A-Rod was the avatar. Georgie was getting on in years, and he wanted another ring.
He also wanted to humiliate Boston, and, of course, the Sox had traded for A-Rod first. I won’t go through the history, because you probably know the Red Sox had agreed to trade Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and then-prospect Jon Lester in a multi-team deal that would have netted them reigning MVP Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez; the deal was rejected by the MLBPA on account of reducing A-Rod’s record salary, and the Sox, effectively crying poor, gave up, and it looked like Rodriguez was headed back to a Texas team that didn’t want him, despite the 156 dingers and more than 24 WAR he put up over three years.
Then noted Sox-killer Aaron Boone got hurt while playing pickup basketball, and the Yankees swooped in for the kill, dealing for Rodriguez. On Valentine’s Day, it was announced that they had their man, in exchange for Alfonso Soriano. They even got Tom Hicks to pay $67 million of A-Rod’s salary. That really happened. The Yankees got someone to give effectively given them boatloads of cash.
Steinbrenner was over the moon, and after the Sox owners weren’t happy. After they clucked about the trade in the press, Georgie released a historic, blistering statement about Boston’s transactional impotence:
We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston. It is understandable, but wrong, that he would try to deflect the accountability for his mistakes onto others and to a system for which he voted in favor. It is time to get on with life and forget the sour grapes.
In retrospect, that statement was all hubris, and represented high watermark of the Yankees “Core Four” dynasty. It was mostly downhill from there. A triumvirate Red Sox/Cardinals/Giants coalition dominated baseball for the next decade plus while the Yankees threw good money after bad in order to “go the extra distance” for their fans and owner, up to and through the moment Steinbrenner passed away, and it didn’t do much good. They won a World Series title in 2009, but in recent years have retooled, shedding salary and built up their farm system to a remarkable and terrifying degree.
Last season, they won 84 games on the strength of youthful piss and vinegar, veteran savvy and insane relief pitching. They are very scary. And they’ve fundamentally changed the way they run their business.
If the Sox have changed, too, they’ve simply stepped on the gas harder. Last year, they signed David Price to the richest pitcher contract in history. It was evocative of the Yankees’ signing of C.C. Sabathia before the 2009 season (a deal which seems bad now, but was fine). This offseason -- spoiler alert — the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, who was perhaps the most obvious top-tier trade target in baseball since A-Rod himself. The symbolism here, in the context of the Sox/Yankees rivalry was obvious.
To get Sale, the Sox gave up the No. 1 prospect in baseball and a flamethrowing relief prospect; a decent haul, sure, but by no means a bloated one. To say it left some White Sox fans disappointed would be an understatement, and to say the Yankees could not have come up with a better deal is, as Brian Cashman said recently to NJ.com, is an alternative fact:
I try to play in my mind what the equivalency would be with the Yankees," Cashman said. "Is Moncada the Gary Sanchez? You'd have to give up a Gary Sanchez-type. Would it be the equivalent of Moncada?
"And then you have to play around with the next (piece). Is it (a touted pitching prospect such as James) Kaprielian or Chance Adams or Justus Sheffield? It would probably be (Luis) Severino right now. So those are the two primers just to get the ball rolling with the other two players yet to be named to try to match up for Sale.
This, along with the Sox’ installment of Dave Dombrowski, a historically win-now operator, is the surest sign yet that we’re 180 degrees from the heady days of the early aughts. This is uncharted territory, and I like charts. If I’m alarmist, it’s not because I love the Red Sox less, but I fear the Yankees more. They’re coming.
I don’t think our decay is imminent, but the Yankees have moved far enough in the opposite direction that, if you view the rivalry as a zero-sum game, there are stormc louds ahead. The Sale and Price acquisitions extend Boston’s window a few years, and that’s good, but they still have to climb through the window, and the newly lithe Yankees are doing everything they can to slip past them along the way. It’s not the likeliest scenario, but that it exists whatsoever is scary as hell.