Power rankings: No. 2 Yankees

Former free-spending ways now giving way to emphasis on young, inexpensive talent

No. 2 Yankees: 29th in a series counting down to spring training. Next: Angels.

Can we have a mulligan?

That's what Hal Steinbrenner or Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, is believed to have asked either Commissioner Bud Selig or Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's top negotiator, when they were formulating the strategy for baseball's new labor contract.

The Yankees got their wish. MLB successfully added potential relief for so-called "repeat offenders'' of baseball's luxury tax rules, which were intended to serve as a soft salary cap, and the Yankees responded in a most un-Yankee-like way. They avoided the most attractive free agents for a second year in a row.

It's much too soon to declare a fundamental shift in baseball's economics has occurred. Maybe the Yankees are waiting for the likes of Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Yadier Molina to reach free agency. But as first was reported by the New York Post, it certainly appears that the new Steinbrenners are more interested in profits than was their father, George, and that they've chosen to get themselves out of the 40 percent tax bracket.

If this happens, no one will be happier than the other 29 teams. The MLB Players Association has made it impossible to implement a salary cap similar to those in the NFL, NBA and NHL — one of the structural pieces that makes baseball great, although fans of the Pirates, Royals and Indians might see it differently — but Selig and the owners did think they'd dealt the Yankees a blow when they added the luxury tax system in 2003.

Boy, were they wrong. The Yankees stepped on the gas, with George Steinbrenner flexing his arrogant might. From 2001 to '05, their payroll climbed from $112.3 million to $208.3 million, with general manager Brian Cashman seemingly always in a frenzy as he added Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson and Hideki Matsui, among others.

In the nine years that baseball's Competitive Balance Tax has been in place, the Yankees have averaged $194.3 million in player salaries. The gap between them and the second-biggest spender works out to $56.1 million per year, including a separation of $84.8 million between the Yankees and Red Sox in 2005.

Through all of that spending, the Yankees also were paying an additional 40 cents on every dollar beyond the threshold prescribed by the collective bargaining agreement. That has added up to more than $200 million in penalties and accounted for about 95 percent of the taxes collected (the Red Sox, Angels and Tigers made the other small payments).

The spending gap between the Yankees and their competition has decreased in five of the last six years, with the Yankees' spending flat and teams such as the Phillies and Red Sox setting new standards for their franchises. It may be nonexistent in a couple of years, as Levine and Hal Steinbrenner try to take advantage of a rule change that will let the Yankees start over, tax-free, if they can get under the threshold.

The threshold for 2012 and '13 is $178 million, and teams that go over it will be taxed 42 percent in '12 and 50 percent in '13. The Yankees would need to dump big salaries to get under $178 million but appear to have a shot in '14, when the bar increases to $189 million.

They're currently obligated for only $75.1 million in guaranteed contracts for '14 to Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia. That leaves plenty of flexibility to lock up Robinson Cano, Michael Pineda and maybe Curtis Granderson while making Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera annual considerations.

Cashman's own deal recently was extended through 2014. You won't hear him complain about lost spending power, not with scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and others in a state-of-the-art front office opening a rich pipeline to young, inexpensive talent. Jesus Montero was swapped for Pineda, 23, and Jose Campos, 19, but Cashman has hoarded his other highly regarded prospects: pitchers Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances, catchers Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez and outfielder Mason Williams.

Pineda and free agent Hiroki Kuroda are huge upgrades for a rotation blamed for a 7-7 postseason record the last two years. They'll slot in well alongside Ivan Nova in giving Sabathia a little more help this season and could make Joe Girardi's team tough to beat in October, assuming both make the adjustment to the Yankee Stadium fishbowl.

If things go badly this season and either Hamels or Cain reaches free agency, we'll find out how much discipline Hal Steinbrenner and Levine have.

And furthermore

•In Sabathia's three years in New York, the Yankees are 8-2 in his postseason starts and 8-11 when he doesn't start.

•Granderson has been one of the most dangerous hitters in the majors since hitting coach Kevin Long made a mechanical adjustment early in the 2010 season. He has hit .260 with 58 home runs, 105 extra-base hits, 162 RBIs, 180 runs scored and 30 stolen bases in 228 games since the 2010 All-Star break.

•One of the secrets to the Yankees' success has been getting plus production from positions where teams often go with good fielders who are ordinary hitters. Jeter (shortstop), Cano (second base), Granderson (center field) and catcher Russell Martin are examples.

•Would Cano test the free-agent market? He's two years away and still covered by an extension he signed in 2008, but the Scott Boras client isn't likely to sign unless Levine and Cashman present him with a monster deal, say $140 million over seven years.

•Ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte is headed for Triple A after an excellent winter in Mexico but did not receive an invitation to big league camp. Former Red Sox lefty Hideki Okajima and former White Sox center fielder Dewayne Wise did.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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