Saturday, December 1, 2007


"They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing."-- The Merchant of Venice

It isn't often that I thank the Baseball Gods for the Steinbrenners. Like many a Yankee fan I've always nurtured a rather ambivalent view of the Boss and his progeny. This off-season's developments offer a dramatically illustration.

For example, the Steinbrenners, one minute, can exhibit pettiness, duplicity, and callous ingratitude in disposing of the manager who guided their franchise through one of the great eras in Yankees history: 10 division titles; 6 Pennants; 4 World Series Championships.

In the next minute, the Boss Juniors can epitomize the very opposite traits-- magnanimity, self-effacement, endearing candor, wisdom and a largess both of spirit and pocketbook. They exercise Abreu's option. They indulge Andy Pettitte while he plays Hamlet. They re-sign Posada and Rivera (only after questioning the commitment of the one and offending the other.) And they top it off by consummating the unfathomable. They welcome Alex Rodriguez back without humiliating him. They forgive him his errancy without demanding his abasement. They don't allow rancor and slight to trump the business of winning. And at the exorbitant price of doing so, they never once recoil. A commitment the fans of most major league franchises only can envy and that we Yankee fans ought not take for granted.

A cursory glance at the tycoons fraternity that comprises MLB's ownership club only reinforces Yankee fan's great good fortune. For all the Steinbrenners largesse, their net work qualifies them among the memberships' middle class.

Consider Carl Pohlad, the Twins' owner, the wealthiest owner in baseball. Forbes' magazine estimates Pohlad's net worth to total somewhere between $2.8 billion dollars and 3.1 billion dollars (a sum more than twice that of the Steinbrenners) which would rank him the 114th wealthiest man in America. (See "The Twins Are Not Sharing the Wealth," NYT, November 29, 2007) Indeed, the annual interest Pohlad's wealth accrues exceeds the Yankees payroll. However, Pohlad operates his team as though it were a municipal entity and refuses to spend a dime more than the revenue the Twins generate. Although many question whether Pohlad even spends this much.

Many reports (in addition to Twins fans) accuse Pohlad of pocketing a portion of the revenue sharing he receives instead of investing it to retain his players and/or to sign free-agents, the purpose for which MLB earmarked it. The Twins, evidently, receive $20 million annually from general revenue sharing and an additional $25 million from MLB's on-line media properties, yet their 2007 payroll totaled about $70 million, 19th in baseball.

As for whether the Twins' own chief revenue sources, their ticket sales and media contracts, cover the difference, including added expenses. Well, Forbes' last "Business of Baseball" article credits the 2006 Twins' with producing $14 million in operating income, from which they garner about $5.5 million in operating profit.

Not enough lucre, evidently, to sate Pohlad's money lust.

An avarice the Twins forthcoming new stadium only accentuates and makes all the more reprehensible. Because in 2010 the Twins will earn $30 million dollars a year more from their new $522 million dollar stadium -- 75% of the cost Pohlad extorted from the City of Minneapolis.

But with more money on the way, Pohlad still has the effrontery to cry poverty. So as the 2007 Winter Meetings approach, the Twins prepare to ransom their franchise's crown jewel-- Johan Santana, perhaps, the best pitcher in baseball-- because they refuse to pay him the $20 + million dollar over 6 years that he seeks.

Which would seem to suggest that a competitive imbalance plagues baseball less because it can't institute a salary cap than because it allows tight-fisted misers to own its clubs-- hidebound skinflints who buy baseball teams to ornament their portfolio with a vanity asset and who could care less about winning or their fan's allegiance.

Compare Pohlad's short-sighted parsimony to Red Sox owner John Henry. Last year, Henry, another billionaire who surpasses the Steinbrenners in wealth, reportedly drew Dice-K's $51 million dollar posting fee from his own vast personal resources. Henry bought Dice-K for the obvious reason of course-- because he wants to win and Dice-K was the best available commodity for improving the Red Sox's fortunes. But Henry also did so because he's an astute businessmen. He appreciates professional sports' fundamental economic law: nothing sells like success. Henry's investment brought him a championship and augmented his team's revenues besides. The Red Sox not only profited from a post-season gait that ran through the World Series; what's more, winning a Championship enabled them to raise their ticket prices from between 5% and 13% for the forthcoming season.

However, the simple verity that "If you win it, they will come" is a verity Carl Pohlad, for all his business acumen, evidently is too frugal and/or too myopic to apprehend. Because for very same $50 million Henry spent, Pohlad could increase the Twins' offer to Santana from the 4-year $80 million proposal Santana rejected to a 6-year $130 million contract he likely would approve. An investment that would assure Pohlad a World Series contender for his new ballpark and far beyond. With a 29-yr-old Santana and a 24-yr-old Liriano at the front of their rotation, the Twins would boast the best 1-2 combination in the AL. (Liriano, you may recall, went 12-3 with a 2.19 ERA in 2006 before an elbow injury disabled him and ended his season.) .

But that doesn't appear in the offing. So baseball's talent drain continues: from the frugal and myopic to the ambitious and visionary. The question for the Yankees is at what price Shylock's ransom?


And it will be a hefty price at that because the Minnesota Usurer can smell the anxiety. Their mortal rivals have won their second World Series in three years and perhaps for the first time in history, threaten the Yankees' hold on their birthright. And the Yankees know it: they didn't just invest $100 million in two players over 35 to surrender the fight or to bide their time while their youth movement burgeons. The Steinbrenners understand the law of battle: You must strike the enemy before he grows too powerful to overcome.

Because for all the media cant about Joe Torre's tactical inadequacies and the demagogy about his failure to realize the team's "mission statement" the Yankees' haven't advanced to a World Series since 2003 for one overriding reason. They've suffered from a deficit of arms. As a consequence, they've had to muddle through the post-season with a middling starting rotation bloated with overpriced salaries, debilitated by age and injury, and bereft of a genuine ace.

(Albeit, observers have overrated the liability of the last shortcoming. During the Yankee dynasty era, the Yankees won less because they possessed a conventional ace in the Guidry, Beckett, Santana mold than because of their rotation's depth. From '96 through '01, a different pitcher occupied the #1 slot in October, depending on the quality of the season he was having: Cone/Pettitte in '96/'97, Wells in '98, Duque in '99, Pettitte in '00, Clemens '01. In fact, the #1, #2, and #3 slots were largely interchangeable because one or two equally proficient pitchers followed the #1 starter. This explains why the Yankees could drop the first game in nearly every ALDS and still win the series.)

Since 2003, however, the Yankees' starting rotation has lacked both quality and depth. By now, Yankee fans are all to familiar with the following damning stat. In the last seventeen post-season the Yankees have played, beginning with Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, their starting pitchers are 2-8 with 6.36 ERA. And in only four of those games has the team's starter given them a "quality appearance"-- defined as pitching at least 6 innings and yielding 3 or less runs. (Mussina in Game 5 of the '04 ALCS, Chacon in Game 4 of the '05 ALDS, Mussina in Game 2 of the '06 ALDS, and Pettitte, more recently, in Game 2 of the '07 ALDS.)

But with one transaction, the Yankees could consign this record of futility to a best forgotten past.

Add Johan Santana and overnight, the Yankees' rotation rivals that of the Red Menace to the North.

Slot 1-- Santana v. Beckett------------------------------------ Draw
Slot 2-- Joba v. Buchholz-------------------------------------- Draw
Slot 3-- Wang v. Lice-K----------------------------------------NYY
Slot 4/5--Schilling-Wakefield-Lester v. Mussina-?-------BRS

However, if the Yankees can manage to retain Kennedy and/or Pettitte returns, the fourth/fifth slot evens and the Yankees pull ahead overall.

The problem, of course, is that Shylock knows how much Santana would profit the Yankees. Or alternatively, cripple them, should he instead ransom Santana to the the Red Sox. And so, Pohlad will extract his weight in young flesh. At what price do the Yankees' balk? Because apart from the players they will have to cede, the Yankees also will have to pay Santana over a $120 million, besides. The financial burden to the Yankees then is two-fold. First, Santana's $20 to $25 million-a-year salary, obviously, would consume 10 to 15% of their payroll, forestalling the leaner, more flexible salary structure Cashman recently has striven to implement. Second, Cashman would have to yield three to four of the young, inexpensive players upon which the success of his plan depended.

Fewer younger players subject to the league minimum for 3 years and to arbitration for another 3 years still perpetuates reliance on the overpriced, inefficient market baseball's free agency system produces. A player earns the most in his career at the precise moment he is oldest and least productive.

Of course, the foremost problem in evaluating the Twin's ransom is that they haven't publicized their demands. At this writing however, baseball insiders at ESPN, SI, and the local tabloids have reported the Yankees' best offer for Santana to include Philip Hughes and Melky Cabrera, in addition to a third prospect ranging from Jose Tabata, Austin Jackson, Alan Horne, and Mark Melancon at the high end to Daniel McCutchen, Kevin Whelan, Alberto Gonzales and Jeff Marquez at the lower end.

The Red Sox meanwhile refuse to relinquish either of the two players the Twins would require: Clay Buccholz or Jacoby Ellsbury.

Is Hughes too high a price for the Yankees to pay? An that depends of course on one's estimation of Hughes' promise.

Keith Law, one of ESPN's more insufferably insolent, self-declared experts, believes the New York media has overvalued Hughes and exaggerated his potential.

Law's opinion of Philip Hughes follows:

"I've never seen [Hughes] as a potential #1; best case scenario is a #2... He has just an average fastball; does not have plus fastball movement; has only one average or better secondary pitch (his curve); does not show an advanced feel for pitching; does not have a build that points toward durability, nor has he been durable in the past; does not show plus command, although I wouldn't rule it out down the road; and has shown below-average poise and mound presence...I've seen him lose his composure on more than one occasion...His fastball also isn't explosive...Clay Buchholz, for example... I've said before that I think he could be a #1 starter.";

How much value should we place on Law's assessment? Well, those familiar with Michael Lewis' Moneyball will recall Law's pedigree. Toronto GM J.P Riccardi hired him to serve as the Blue Jay's counterpart to the Oakland Athletics, stat guru, Paul DePodesta. However, Law fancies himself more than just another sabermetric prodigy. Law thinks the part of Riccardi assistant qualifies him as a scout as well.

His sabermetric background notwithstanding, Law doesn't offer a single stat to substantiate his judgment. An rich irony considering Billy Bean adapted sabermetrical analyses precisely to eliminate his front-office's dependence on the very kind of subjective evaluations Law issues on Philip Hughes.

Hughes' Minor League Stats certainly impress: In 275 innings, he struck out 311 batters (1.13 per inning), issued only 66 BBs (.24 per inning), amassed an exceptional 2.83 GO/AO (Ground Ball:Fly Ball ratio), and held batters to a .164 Batting Average.

Compare Buchholz's Minor League stats: In 125 innings, he struck out 171 batters (1.37 per inning), issued 35 BBs (.28 per inning), posted a 1.09 GO/AO, and held batters to a .193 Batting Average.

Apart from Hughes' larger sample size and better GO/AO, the numbers almost mirror each other.

At first blush, it might seem improvident to trade a 21-yr old pitcher who can anchor the team's rotation for the next six years for a 29-year-old pitcher, even if he's the best in baseball. While Hughes is entering the prime of his career over the next six years, Santana will begin the autumn of his. What's more, over the same period, Hughes would probably cost the Yankees approximately $100 million less.

Year 1 through 3 Hughes $5,000,000 (pre-arbitration)

Years 3 through 6 Hughes $30,000,00 (arbitration eligible years)

Year 1 through 6 Santana 135,000,000

Forsaking Santana, accordingly, would save the Yankees an average of about $16 million-dollars-a-year that they then could reallocate for free-agent position players or relievers. It's a bargain, that in the abstract, it would behoove the Yankees to rebuff.

Alas, the Yankees aren't an abstract team playing in a baseball vaccum. Their an aging roster that plays in the AL East.

Four interdependent factors compel them, as such, to bear the sacrifice and to trade for Santana.

1) Pettitte's potential retirement only leaves them the Yankees with two starting pitchers the Yankees can rely on for 200 innings: Wang and Mussina. And perhaps, not even Mussina, given his performance last year.

2) The corollary to which is that the Yankees would have to rely on three rookies Hughes, Chamberlain, and Kennedy-- none of which the Yankees will let pitch 200 innings or whose performance the team can project over that portion of the season they will pitch.

3) Forsaking Santana raised the possibility the Red Sox could obtain him and a rotation featuring Beckett and Santana very well could relegate the Yankees to second place for the next decade.

4) The Yankees need to win NOW. The Yankees had a sum total of 2 starters under 30 last year: Cano and Melky. Their next youngest starter is A-Rod, at 32. While Posada and Rivera are over 35. Jeter, Matsui, Damon, and Abreu are all 33-34. During the 3 to 4 years it may take for their young pitching to flourish, their position players may decline and/or retire. And with the exception of Jose Tabata and Austin Jackson, the Yankee farm system lacks high-end position prospects to replace their aging superstars.

So if the Twins will trade Santana for Hughes, Melky, and another prospect (that does not include Tabata, Austin Jackson, Melancon or Horne), the Yankees, reluctantly, will have to gouge themselves to award Shylock his pound of flesh.