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Pinch hitting: Nick Kirby

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Next up in our Pinch Hitters series is Nick Kirby, a 19-year-old freshman studying communication theory at the University of Delaware (which happens to be where my brother-in-law went to undergrad). Nick is from Pennsylvania, but he roots for the Yankees because his dad is from New York and took Nick to Yankees games every summer since he was 6.

For his post, Nick took a look at the changing strategy of the Yankees front office. Part conservative patience and part high-powered maneuvering, the Yankees decision making has certainly evolved over the years.

[2]The Yankees go out and sign the big name. Growing up a young Yankee fan in Philadelphia, the son of a transplanted New Yorker, I was accustomed to playoff losses followed by “wins” via trade or free agency. Giambi. Contreras. Matsui. Sheffield. A-Rod. Randy Johnson. Carl Pavano. The list goes on and on.

The Yankees, under George Steinbrenner, had a simple offseason approach of outspending the competition for proven talent. They also gave in too easily to player demands, like when Hank Steinbrenner offered 32-year-old Alex Rodriguez 10 years and $275 million when there were no other bidders. However, this approach did not produce in any championships from 2001 to 2008. The last big spending spree with lengthy contracts was the 2008 offseason when the Yankees committed more than $400 million on Mark Teixiera, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. The Yankees gave out too many years and too much money for aging stars during the Steinbrenner era and were not shrewd negotiators.

The Yankees needed to do something besides flex their financial muscle in order to win championships. Once Brian Cashman was granted “full autonomy of baseball operations,” the front office started to show more patience. One of the first signs of patience came in 2007, when they resisted trading Phil Hughes to the Twins for Johan Santana. Although Hughes has been somewhat of a disappointment as a prospect, Santana got a six-year, $137.5-million extension with the Mets and has been injured for the majority of the contract.

The Yankees have also started to play hard ball and show patience with their own free agents, such as when they dragged out negotiations with Derek Jeter to make sure they didn’t give him too many years like they did with Rodriguez in 2008. The declining health and eventual passing of Steinbrenner has made this fundamental transition a bit clearer. The Yankees have not signed a free agent to an outlandishly long-term, oversized contract since Steinbrenner died.

The current off season is a prime example of how the culture has changed. Instead of overpaying for C.J. Wilson, the Yankees wouldn’t even meet with him. They didn’t throw $100 million at Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. They didn’t give Albert Pujols a ten-year deal to DH, or attempt to lure Jose Reyes from the Mets in order to make back page news.

They waited, waited and then pounced on Michael Pineda. They got a young flame-throwing starting pitcher who will come very cheap for the next five years. They did it by being patient and not giving into to free agent temptation. They did it by developing Jesus Montero into a grade-A trade chip, and then cashing him in when it was clear that this rotation needed help.

An example of why a patient, controlled philosophy is necessary can be found during the 2010 off season, when Cliff Lee turned down a seven-year deal with the Yankees and took $50 million less to return to Philadelphia. It was demonstrated that nothing is guaranteed in free agency, and that placing a large emphasis on developing home grown players (to either play or be used as trade chips) would be a top priority for the club.

Cashman has taken some heat for “babying” some of his prospects, whether its implementing the Joba rules, refusing to discuss the killer B’s in trade talks, or waiting until the last second to call up a young pitcher. Cashman saw over the years that huge contracts could ruin Yankee teams. The 2002-08 teams were filled with overpaid players who never lived up to their hype or salary. Kevin Brown was 39 years old making big bucks as an injury prone has-been. Gary Sheffield got $40 million dollars to be a statue in right field and complain about management. Carl Pavano spent more time rehabbing in Tampa than he did on an actual pitcher’s mound.

Cashman realized that prospects could not only turn into productive players like Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, but that they could also be used to acquire stars in their prime. One of his best trades as GM was when he cashed in Austin Jackson to get Curtis Granderson, a 40 home run center fielder who anchored the Yankee lineup last year.

Saving money and saving prospects could not come at a more convenient time. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, the Yankees are making a serious attempt to be under a $189-million payroll by 2014 to avoid paying a larger luxury tax penalty than is already in place. To accomplish their goal, they will need to continue to develop and call up prospects and avoid giving out large, multi-year deals to players that have done most of their damage for another team. Since the Sabathia/Burnett/Teixeira splurge, the Yankees have stayed true to their new philosophy and will hopefully ride it to a championship in 2012.

If the seemingly endless Yankee finances can be combined with a top notch farm system and smart negotiations, the Yankees will be a dynastic force for years to come.

Associated Press photo