Our next Pinch Hitter is Al Sacco, who is a staff writer for SportsoutWest.com and covers the San Francisco 49ers for 49erswebzone.com and 49ersgab.com. Don’t let all the 49ers stuff throw you. Al actually grew up and currently lives in upstate New York, where he’s been a lifelong Yankees fan. He has started to write about the team via freelance opportunities.
For his post, Al’s diving into the Yankees long-term commitments. And the verdict isn’t good.
Should the Sabathia, Teixeira, and Rodriguez contracts serve as a cautionary tale for Yankees?
In today’s financial climate, it’s nearly impossible to get big-time players via free agency in Major League Baseball without overpaying in both years and dollars. Recent history shows that the New York Yankees have not been shy about handing out big contracts like this, knowing that the return on their investments might greatly diminish after the first handful or seasons. This offseason, the team showed some restraint by not giving in to Robinson Cano’s 10-year demands, but they did not bat an eye at giving Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka seven years at over $20-million annually. In both of those cases, the team would hope to get big production early on, and live with whatever decline might come in the final years of the deal. For an example of what may lie ahead, you need to look no further than some of the recent big-ticket free agent signings the Yankees have made.
Sabathia hit the free agent market after the 2008 season as one of the most durable and dependable starting pitchers in baseball. He’d made 30 or more starts in seven of eight Major League seasons from ’01 to ’08, but he was coming off of back-to-back years in which he threw 241 innings (’07) and 253 innings (’08) not counting the playoffs. While his track record more than warranted a huge contract, it was a gamble to invest years and money into a pitcher with that kind of wear and tear.
Despite any possible concerns, the Yankees didn’t flinch when Sabathia became available and made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a seven-year, $161-million deal. CC not only didn’t disappoint from 2009-11, he arguably may have been the best free agent signing in the history of the team. Sabathia won 59 games during that three-year span and averaged 235 innings a year. He helped pitch the team to a championship in 2009, winning the ALCS MVP in the process.
With the first three seasons a rousing success and Sabathia able to opt of his original contract after 2011, the Yankees restructured Sabathia’s deal to five years and $120 million (plus a vesting option) as opposed to the four years, $92 million that had remained on the original contract. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the results haven’t lived up to the precedent that was set. At 31 years old in 2012, Sabathia made his fewest starts (28) and pitched his least amount of innings (200) of any season since 2006. When healthy, he was still pitching at a high level, however, as he won 15 games and had a 3.38 ERA.
After 2012, Sabathia had a minor procedure done on his elbow to clean out bone spurs and the surrounding area. While he would be fine for the start of 2013, the real CC never showed up. Sabathia was inconsistent all season, going 14-13 with a 4.78 era, which was the highest of his career. His velocity was down and he had trouble putting hitters away. He still made 32 starts and threw 211 innings, but the quality of those appearances left something to be desired. Now, the Yankees have to wonder what kind of pitcher they are going to get over the last three years of a contract that still has $71 million remaining. It’s entirely possible that Sabathia can bounce back, but it’s also possible that he is now a middle-of-the-rotation starter, making $23 million plus a year.
CC wasn’t the only big name the Yankees broke the bank for after 2008. The team gave themselves an early Christmas present when they seemed to come out of left field to sign power-hitting first basemen Teixeira to an eight-year, $180-million contract. Teixeira, who would be added to an infield that already included Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, came to New York with a reputation for a big bat and a stellar glove.
The switch hitter averaged just under 34 home runs and 113 RBI’s from 2003-08. He hit over .300 twice during that span and won two Gold Gloves. Like Sabathia, Teixeira was as advertised over the first few years of his contract. In 2009, he finished second in the MVP voting and led the American League with 39 homeruns and 122 RBI’s. He also hit .292 and won another Gold Glove (his first of three with the Yankees). Teixeira was still very productive in 2010 and 2011, hitting 72 homeruns and knocking in 219 over the two campaigns. There was a disturbing trend that started to occur though, as his average and OPS dipped in each season (.292/.948, .256/.846, .248/.835).
Teixeira’s decline would continue in 2012, as injuries limited him to 123 games which would result in his lowest homerun (24), RBI (84), runs scored (66) and OPS (.807) totals since his rookie year. He hit .251, making 2012 the third season in a row he failed to hit for an average over .280, something he had done in every season from 2004-09. Whether it was declining skills or a tendency to try to pull the ball in Yankee Stadium, the once potential .300 hitter was struggling to maintain a strong batting average.
Things would only get worse in 2013 as Teixeira would miss all but 15 games with a wrist injury. All accounts are he will be healthy for 2014, but it’s unknown if he can ever approach his 2009-11 form again. The Yankees have to hope he can at least be a productive player as the team owes him $22.5 million in each of the next three years. That’s a scary number if Teixeira is no longer able to put up game-changing numbers at a corner infield spot at this point in his career.
While the final verdict on what remains of Sabathia and Teixeira may still be up in the air, there is no doubt about Rodriguez. A-Rod opted out of his already absurd 10-year, $252-million mega deal after his MVP season in 2007. The Yankees (who were ultimately bidding against themselves) responded by re-signing the 32-year-old to another 10-year deal, this one worth $252 million that included bonuses for performance and statistical achievements.
Rodriguez was coming off a season the likes of which no Yankees right-handed batter had ever had. He hit .314 with 56 homeruns, 156 RBI’s and 143 runs scored. His OPS was a league-high 1.067. From 2004-07, A-Rod averaged 157 games played, 43 homeruns and 128 RBI’s. After opting out and re-signing, those totals dipped to an average of 124, 26 and 89 from 2008-12. He eventually became an above-average third basemen with injury concerns as opposed to the dominant, everyday force he once was. The only saving grace was Rodriguez’s 2009 performance in the playoffs, in which the usually dormant postseason performer helped carry the Yankees to a title with timely home runs and big hits.
Now, obviously the A-Rod situation has turned into a circus, and no one knows for sure if he’ll ever play baseball again. The Yankees got 44 controversy filled games out of him in 2013 after he recovered from hip surgery. He would later be suspended for the 2014 season for his part in the Biogenesis scandal. In the end, the Yankees are lucky the scandal occurred. Had he not been suspended, New York would still be looking at greatly diminished returns on their second A-Rod investment and would still be on the hook for close to $90 million over four years. Now they will escape his 2013 salary and could come to some kind of settlement for the remaining $61 million.
Associated Press photos