Two things jumped to mind when I read Al’s morning Pinch Hitter post.
The first was a story from almost exactly one year ago. My friend Dan Barbarisi did his usual standout work, and Mark Teixiera provided his usual honest evaluation: “You’re not very valuable when you’re making $20 million,” Teixeira said. “When you’re Mike Trout, making the minimum, you are crazy valuable. My first six years, before I was a free agent, I was very valuable. But there’s nothing you can do that can justify a $20 million contract.”
The second was a comment I heard from a National League executive this winter. Some of the bigger names were starting to come off the board — and some lesser names were getting multi-year deals at big money — and the executive said to me (paraphrasing here): “No one thinks these contracts are a good idea, but if you want the player, it’s what you have to do.”
It’s been said over and over this winter, and it remains true: free agency is not a smart method of team building. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s certainly not ideal from a team perspective. The game’s top players are — as Texieira said — extremely valuable when they’re young, and they’re overpaid when they’re old. If you’re signing a guy who’s already hit the open market, that means you’ve missed out on those bargain years and you’re taking on the expensive risk of his decline. The Yankees are certainly not the only team with a roster full of cautionary tales, but I do think the three Al mentioned are interesting cases.
· When the Yankees signed Teixeira, he was just turning 29 and he’d been a steady source of batting average, on-base percentage and power. He was an elite defender — at a position he wasn’t likely to move away from as he aged — and he’d been healthy. He’d played all 162 games in two of the previous four seasons. Then he showed up and actually lived up to expectations. Obviously there was long-term risk involved, but this sort of sudden decline? Of all the guys to sign long-term, Teixeira seemed relatively safe.
· When the Yankees signed Sabathia, he’d just provided an insane down-the-stretch performance in Milwaukee (so good that he was in the Cy Young conversation without even spending all year in the National League). He’d won the Cy Young in the American League the season before. He was a legitimate ace, and he when he opted out, he was coming off a three-year run in which he’d finished top four in Cy voting each season. He was the Yankees ace, and so they re-signed him. They needed him, and he’d been steady and durable. Then some injuries, some diminished velocity, and here we are.
· When the Yankees re-signed Alex Rodriguez, he was the best player on the planet. Sure, the new 10-year deal seemed like a horrible idea at the time, but who would have predicted a fall like this? That his power numbers would so steadily decline (he’d been absurdly consistent for 10 years)? That he’d regularly spend time on the disabled list (he was regularly getting 700 at-bats in a season, and he was still in his early 30s)? That he would become the face of the Steroid Era (this guy had been an elite player since high school)?
Those contracts were obvious long-term risks, but they seemed relatively safe in the short-term. And it’s in the short-term that they’ve become problematic. That’s what stands out to me about the Yankees recent success (and failure) with long-term agreements.
The fact that multi-year deals bring long-term risk is not really debatable. Locking up a young player before he hits free agency might be a good thing for an organization, but signing free agents off the open market is not an ideal way to go. Teams know it, players know it, and we know it.
Associated Press photos