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The Yankees are still using money to win, but not nearly as much as they used to

It takes a rich team to employ Giancarlo Stanton. It takes a smart team to build the 2018 Yankees.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Giancarlo Stanton isn’t getting booed these days. The 2017 NL MVP was stumbling around with an OPS in the mid-700s at the end of April, and a vocal minority of Yankees fans were upset at the perceived bait-and-switch. But he’s hot again. He’s hitting for power and average in June, and his walk-off homer was just superb public relations. The previous eight seasons of his outstanding career suggest he’ll be a huge positive for a team that probably doesn’t need more offense.

It is very Yankees to have Stanton, of course. During the advent of free agency, when the other teams were poking at it like apes stumbling across a vending machine, it was the Yankees who pilfered Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter and used them to win a World Series. They were rich then, and they’re rich now. I think I spent most of my 20s complaining about the Yankees signing players like Mike Mussina to huge deals that my team would never consider. This past offseason, there was a newly crowned MVP and marketable superstar available to whichever team could afford him. The winner of that sweepstakes was not a surprising one.

And that’s the story of how the 2018 New York Yankees bought their way to first place again.

Except, hold on just a second. These are the new Yankees, the ones of austerity and moderation. They don’t have the biggest payroll in baseball. Or the second. They’re just $700,000 away from having the third-largest payroll in the American League East. The Yankees are just $9 million away from having the second-largest payroll in New York.

It’s in this spirit that I would like to tally up exactly what the Yankees are getting for their money. Is there still value in being a big-market bully in the nation’s largest market?

Of course there is. It just isn’t as obvious as it used to be. Here are the main ways how the Yankees have used their money in 2018:

Giancarlo Stanton is the most obvious example. The Yankees didn’t set out this offseason to add hundreds of millions in payroll, but when the opportunity presented itself, they said, sure, why not? That is not something the Pirates can do. It’s not something the Rays can do. It takes a ridiculously rich team to absorb Stanton’s contract and compete at the same time.

Aroldis Chapman was the highest-paid closer in baseball for a day or two, and that’s a pretty neat luxury for a team to have. If you don’t want to hurt your brain, definitely don’t think about how the Yankees first acquired Chapman for pennies on the dollar because his value was hurt by a domestic violence incident, traded him away when the rest of the league stopped pretending to care, netted Gleyber Torres in the process, and then signed Chapman again anyway. Definitely don’t think about that.

CC Sabathia was a leftover from the team’s bygone days as the biggest payroll in baseball, but his new contract was a one-year deal for $10 million, so he probably shouldn’t count. That’s the same contract that Jaime Garcia got from the Blue Jays, and it’s not dissimilar to what Jason Vargas got from the Mets. This was a prudent move that was made before other free agent pitchers had to settle for working for company scrip, so I’m not sure if this is the best example of a big-market bully throwing its money around. Or a good one. Or even one that could be made in bad faith.

Jacoby Ellsbury has been hurt all year, but his contract wasn’t so bad that it prevented the Yankees from getting Stanton.

Masahiro Tanaka has been pretty bad this year, but his contract wasn’t so bad that it prevented the Yankees from getting Stanton.

Brett Gardner was locked up by a team that could afford to overpay him in the last year of that contract, and David Robertson was acquired by a team that could afford to pay a premium for late-inning relief.

That’s mostly it for the Yankees’ big-ticket items, though. Those seven players are currently combining for something between eight or nine wins above replacement, which isn’t a great bargain for the combined $120 million they’re paying them, but that production is one of the reasons the team is in first place. If you eliminate Gardner and Sabathia — two players who might fit on the Orioles or Brewers in an alternate universe — the Yankees are getting about five or six wins from the $97 million they’re paying to the five players who seem like the stereotype of big-market excess. That’s a lot of money for fair production, so even when it comes to the austerity-driven, seventh-highest-payroll Yankees, they’re still getting extra wins from the kinds of expensive players that only a few teams would bother with in the first place.

Another way to put it, though, is the Yankees would still be in a playoff hunt if all seven of those players were replaced with whatever Triple-A flotsam floated by. If they had even an extra $50 million to spend in the dumb 2017-2018 free agent market, they would have been in Twins/Royals payroll territory, and they would probably have come away with some above-replacement players.

If that’s still too many words, I’ll dumb it down. The Yankees would probably be in a postseason chase without their most expensive players. They’d probably be in first place with a payroll in the bottom-third of baseball.

This is a testament to the contributions they’ve been getting from Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino and Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Jonathan Holder, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez. That they’re young isn’t a surprise; that the overwhelming bulk of the team’s success is coming from underpaid youngsters is at least a little surprising. They’re built like the lovable Pirates or Rays teams that would threaten their divisions at their best, but this sundae has a cherry-sized diamond on top.

There’s a twist, too. In the next year or three, these players will still be young and underpaid. And the Yankees will not be so austere in the future. They will melt the offseason down and use it for fillings. It doesn’t have to be Manny Machado (but it might be). It doesn’t have to be for Madison Bumgarner (but it might be). Just know that once they’re out of this self-imposed fiduciary prison, they’re going to be more Yankees than you can possibly imagine. Fans of 29 other teams are going to hate it.

Right now, though? They’re a small-market team sneakily buried under the typical big-market trappings, and they’d probably be contending with a payroll a third of the size. Money is still helping the Yankees, just like it always has. But this is a team that’s built for years and years to come, even without any additional spending.

There will be additional spending.

If you want to read this column aloud, I suggest around a campfire, with a flashlight held under your chin.