Thursday, November 13, 2008


Money can't buy you love perhaps. Recent history, in fact, indicates it can't even guarantee a playoff appearance, let alone a championship. However as Congress' recent bailout of the banking sector demonstrates, cash certainly can assuage anxiety, restore confidence, and renew hope.

So for all us Yankee fans who recently watched the Red Sox and Rays, fortified by seemingly endless reserves of young talent, march through the playoffs and have wallowed in resentment, despair, and self-pity ever since-- well, have faith, and remember Scarlett O'Hara's credo. For tomorrow is indeed another day. This time, quite literally.

For tomorrow the Yankees can begin to offer contracts to free agents. Tomorrow, the Yankees can begin to leverage their financial might to compensate for a farm system, that while beginning to show the first signs of growth after a decade of neglect and plunder, will not yield the likes of a Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youklis, or Jacoby Ellsbury; Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, or BJ Upton for years to come.

No, it won't earn the Yankees many admirers in the industry or among the games' self-appointed moral guardians in the media. Before the Steinbrenners have spent so much as a penny, in fact, baseball's Reds have already launched their annual jeremiad about the gluttunous Yankee payroll and have accused the Bronx robber barons of cornering the market and destroying baseball's competitive integrity. The irony is how many of these same media hacks would impose on the Yankees a financial tax they themselves would bridle at paying. The New York Daily News, for example, recently quoted one of the most consistently strident and dogmatic advocates for a salary cap in baseball, The Million Dollar Mad Dog, Christopher Russo, as follows, "I voted for McCain. I think there is an element of people sitting on their fannies. 'Lets go tax the wealthy up and down to make sure the guy on Main Street can sleep until 10 o'clock in the morning.' That kind of thing... steered me to McCain." Let them all eat Yankee Franks, says the Mad Dog.

The truth is that in the NBA and NFL, salary caps, actually, enshrines an aritocracy of talent, crowning dynasties like the Spurs and Patriots and perpetuating losing franchises by preventing them from spending enough money to re-arm. This is why NFL and NBA teams, to improve, depend so heavily on their drafts.

Baseball, in contrast, more readily approximates the liberal democratic ideal. In many ways, in fact, it mirrors the U.S.'s own system of liberal welfare state capitalism. No law prohibits Microsoft, for example, from mustering its $21 billion in cash reserves to throttle and ravage would-be competitors. They just have to pay taxes. So too with the Yankees.

In 2005, Forbes reported that the Yankees earned $354 million in revenue, $77 million of which baseball exacted and redistributed to 16 small-market teams through revenue-sharing, another $34 million of which the Yankees paid in luxury taxes. (Steinbrenner's Tax Shelter, Forbes, 05/08/06) Together, the two levies constitute the equivalent of a 31% tax, about as high the 35% rate both Microsoft and Chris Russo probably paid last year.

Accordingly, the Yankees will have no reason to apologize for if in the forthcoming weeks they spend prodigious sums of money and sign multiple players from among, perhaps, the most talented free-agent class in baseball. After all, the Red Sox responded likewise after failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2006, going on a $210 million off-season spending spree that netted them Dice-K, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo. What's more, with the 2008 season's end, $80+ million in Yankees player contracts have expired which they now can re-allocate to address their most pressing needs. Onward, Cash.


PRIORITY #1: The Ace
That the Yankees foremost priority should be to marshal every last resource to sign CC Sabathia strikes me as so self-evident it's not worth arguing. Rare is it for a team to rectify the mistake they made one year the next.

The 2008 season, as such, could best be called Cashman's Folly. For it demonstrated the hubris of constructing a rotation in the New York crucible that hinges so greatly on the performance of rookie pitchers confined by innings caps. It's one thing to cultivate starting pitchers and to integrate them slowly into the rotation. Quite another, to bear the risk of injury and inconsistency that comes with assigning 40% of the rotation to two untested, under-25 pitcher with innings limitations to boot and still to expect the team to thrive and qualify for post-season. The risk only intensifies, in fact, when two 35+ starters comprise another 40%.

Apart then from the quality start a pitcher like Sabathia can offer every fifth day, he, in anchoring the rotation and providing 200+ innings, also alleviates the pressure on the starters who follow him. He would allow the Yankees, then, to exercise more patience with, and thereby assist in, the ongoing development of Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Aceves, or whomever else earns a Bronx audition in 2009.

Priority #2: The Three Hole
According to SI's John Heyman and other reporters privy to the Yankees thinking, the front-office's second priority is to sign one of the other two or three other premiere free-agent pitchers-- A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe, or perhaps, Ben Sheets. With this decision, I admantly disagree.

Let's begin by assuming the Yankees sign Sabathia (if they cannot, then in this eventuality, I can't argue with signing Burnett or Lowe or both). Andy Pettite already has indicated he wishes to return and would accept a one-year deal to do so. Should the Yankees oblige Pettitte, then, they'd begin with a rotation of Sabathia, Wang, and Pettitte. I'll address the 4th and 5th spots below in Priority #3.

To my mind, the Yankees' lineup last year was almost as deficient as their starting rotation, if not more so. They scored 179 less runs than in 2007. Their on-base average declined from .366 to .344; their slugging percentage dropped from .463 to .427; their batting average with runners in scoring position fell from .293 to .261.

Nonetheless, the Yankees would compound the regression the lineup already has shown. That is, the Front-Office intends not to re-sign their 3rd and 5th hitters, Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi, two of their lineup's most proficient hitters last year in two of the three statistical groups above which accrued a shortfall from the previous year -- on-base percentage and slugging. Only Alex Rodriguez exceeded Abreu and Giambi in OPS (on-base + slugging percentage). Giambi and Abreu also led the team in the number of pitches they saw per plate appearance, each with 4.3 P/PA.

Yes, Posada and Matsui may return next year, but relying on either player to recuperate fully at their advanced age, to reproduce their 2007 totals, and to stay healthy for the season's duration is as presumptuous and reckless as Cashman's decision last off-season to entrust 40% of the rotation to rookies. Perhaps, the Yankees can assume Posada and/or Matsui could fill the five hole and compensate for Giambi's loss. Neither however is a genuine 3 hole hitter even when fully realizing his potential.

The only two players available via free-agency who promise the Yankees sufficient production as three hitters in (i) their ability to get on base, (ii) work counts, and (iii) amass extra-base hits are Mark Teixiera, Manny Ramirez or Abreu himself. (It is impossible to project how Adam Dunn-- a career NL player, with a low average and high strike out totals and a questionable passion for the game-- would perform in New York. But each caveat presents its own risk.)

Ramirez is limited to LF or DH and will command a $100 million contract besides. He's the least desirable option as such. Teixiera and Abreu, to be sure, present risks as well. Teixiera is a younger than Abreu, a better hitter and fielder, but nonetheless will commit the Yankees to at least a seven year obligation, if not more. Abreu, on the other hand, only desires a 3-year contract and might even acquiesce to two years with a vesting option, if the Yankees offer it because he wants to return to New York. I concede his speed has diminished and he's lost some range in RF but he's not nearly as much a defensive liability as his critics insist. Nor for that matter does his anointed succesor, Xavier Nady, represent a dramatic improvement.

Re-signing Abreu has the added virtue of enabling the Yankees to play Nady at 1B or to trade him for first-baseman while Nady still has value. (Nady is a Boras client and will accompany Damon and Matsui on the free-agent market at next season' conclusion.) Alternatively, after re-signing Abreu, they Yankees could trade Matsui, freeing the DH position for Damon, Abreu, Nady, and Posada to rotate through, and could audition Juan Miranda at 1B or perhaps even sign Giambi for one-year.

Either way, with Brett Gardner expected to play CF in 2009, Jorge Posada returning from labrum surgery, Matsui suffering from chronically arthritic knees, Derek Jeter reverting to his free-swinging ways and his GDP numbers increasing annually, and A-Rod always prone to press, the Yankees need a sure-fire, prolific bat in the three hole almost as much as they do Sabathia. Only two free agents fit the bill, Teixiera and Abreu. The Yankees would err greatly in not signing one or the other.

Priority #3: The Innings-Eater

Another reason why a 3-hole hitter should take precedence to a second starter is cost efficiency. Mark Teixiera is a young elite talent and one of the best players in baseball at his position, and probably will remain so for the lion share of his contact. Abreu, similarly, joins Pujols and A-Rod as one of only three players in the game to amass 6 consecutive seasons of 100 RBI's. He also happens to be one of the game's most durable players as well, playing 150 games or more every year since he became a starter in 1998. Plate discipline, his great asset, what's more, is one of the more age-resistant player skills. The Yankees, accordingly, can expect to receive production roughly commensurate to their outlay by signing either.

The same cannot be said of AJ Burnett certainly, and perhaps not of Derek Lowe either. Burnett lives on the disabled list, having thrown 200 innings or more in only 3 of the last 7 seasons. (No, cleverly, refers to him as the baseball market's equivalent to a sub-prime mortgage.) Lowe, on the other hand, while more durable, will turn 36 next year, wants a 3-4 year contract at $15+ million, despite not qualifying as one of the best pitchers in the game, and finally, hasn't pitched in the AL since 2004.

The Yankees would profit more accordingly from signing one or more less prestigious, second or third-tier pitchers who would cost them less and necessitate a shorter contractual commitment, but upon whom they can rely alone, or in tandem, to pitch 200 innings: John Garland, Paul Byrd, Randy Wolf, Mike Mussina (if for a year, two at most) or perhaps, some combination of one-year contracts for Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Eric Milton.

The Yankees rotation would then consist of Sabathia, Wang, Pettite, Innings-Eater, and Joba. Then as injuries mount and innings caps are reached, the organization could integrate Hughes, Aceves, Kennedy, Coke, Brackman, etc., as their performances and health warrant.

What the Yankees actually do is anybody's guess. The marketplace unfolds according to a logic of its own that can upend even the best laid plans. Count on it, for this reason, to dictate one or more choices the Front-Office otherwise wouldn't make.

Still, should the Yankees somehow achieve a reasonable facsimile of the three priorities above, I'm confidence they'll resume their role as perennial contender in the AL East.