When the first big free-agent domino fell on Tuesday, the biggest surprise was not that Patrick Corbin landed a six-year, $140 million contract, it was the team with whom he signed it.
Corbin, the top pitcher on the market, did not sign with the two suitors close to his hometown in upstate New York: the Philadelphia Phillies, whose owner was prepared to spend “stupid” money over the winter, and the Yankees, who have crafted a book on it.
Instead, the Washington Nationals landed Corbin, a 29-year-old left-hander.
The Nationals were flush with cash — the expiring contracts of Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters free nearly $62 million from their payroll — and probably fueled by last season’s collapse, they were willing to outbid the competition by adding a sixth year to the offer.
Corbin, for his part, also gave a little, allowing the Nationals, as is their habit, to defer some of the money, according to a baseball official familiar with the agreement.
The deal sends a signal that is heartening for baseball: At least in the National League East, most everyone is trying to win. The division champion Atlanta Braves landed third baseman Josh Donaldson, the American League Most Valuable Player three years ago, on a one-year, $23 million flier. The Mets acquired an elite closer in Edwin Diaz and an aging middle-of-the-lineup bat in Robinson Cano.
And while the Phillies may have lost out on Corbin, they should be in the chase for the premier free agents in this class: Manny Machado and Harper.
In Washington, Corbin joins a rotation where he will be third fiddle — behind Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who are down for $37 million and $38 million next season.
Those are the types of salaries that used to regularly dot the Yankees’ ledger. Sometimes it was money well spent (C. C. Sabathia) and sometimes it was not (Jacoby Ellsbury), but the deals had at least one commonality: They reinforced the notion that the only bottom line that mattered was winning the World Series.
Now it is no longer so. Fiscal responsibility reigns.
The Yankees, though they did take on what remained of Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million contract last December, went through financial contortions to stay below the luxury tax threshold for the first time last season.
General Manager Brian Cashman has said that he has been given a budget by Hal Steinbrenner, but has declined to say if it is above the new luxury tax threshold of $206 million, which is $9 million more than last season.
The Yankees have occasionally lost out on free agents over the years — Greg Maddux didn’t care much for New York, and Curt Schilling was intrigued by the possibility of ending the Red Sox playoff drought — but it is exceedingly rare for them to pursue one of the top players on the market and be outbid.
About the only example that comes to mind is Cano, whom the Yankees were wary of committing to for 10 years.
The Yankees made a similar calculus with Corbin, whom they viewed as a very good pitcher — they had tried to trade for him last winter — but one who had several middling seasons after Tommy John surgery before blossoming last season. He was 11-7 with a 3.15 earned run average, making the All-Star team and finishing fifth in the N.L. Cy Young voting.
The Yankees liked Corbin plenty, but they did not view him as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and thus did not want to give him a sixth year. Their final offer, according to a baseball official familiar with the negotiation, was five years and $100 million.
So, instead of reading tea leaves last week — the order of Corbin’s visits was Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and the report that Corbin’s brother put on a Yankees cap while delivering a toast at Corbin’s wedding — it was better to have listened.
Cashman was asked on Friday, a day after Corbin’s visit, if he was waiting on Corbin as a primary target.
“There’s a lot of players of interest to us and a lot of players that can improve us, both in free agency and trade, so I wouldn’t designate anyone as a primary,” Cashman said. “There’s a lot of attractive players that are available for various price points.”
Now the Yankees will pivot. Their pursuit of pitching to augment Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia already resulted in a trade with Seattle for James Paxton, and will now shift toward the next-level free agents — Dallas Keuchel, Nathan Eovaldi and J. A. Happ — and what could be a robust trade market with Cleveland’s Corey Kluber headlining it.
Only time will tell if the Yankees were wise not to invest in Corbin. Cashman has been shrewd in rebuilding the Yankees through their farm system, but his reluctance to take on the salary of Justin Verlander two years ago and — to a lesser degree — his unwillingness to part with a prospect like Miguel Andujar to land Gerrit Cole loom as what-ifs.
But there was no equivocation about what happened on Tuesday. If this season’s Yankees do win the franchise’s 28th World Series title, it will not have been at any cost.