November 1, 2014

The Balance of Power Has Officially Shifted in Baseball

December 15, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

When Cliff Lee finally announced he was taking his talents to Philly, it marked the final proof that the balance of power has shifted in baseball. No longer can the Yankees money-whip the best players into coming to the Bronx and no longer do the Yankees and Red Sox reside alone in the big-spenders group.

Not only have the Phillies become the prohibitive favorite in the National League, other teams such as the Nationals, Twins, Tigers and Rangers have shown they don’t have to sit at the little kids table and watch the big boys feast on the free-agent spoils. It was the Nationals who outlapped the competition to sign Jayson Werth this off-season, while the Twins opened up their wallets last year to sign Joe Mauer without having to sell off their other stars, thanks to the revenue boost from their new stadium. As for the Rangers, they not only stole Lee away from the Yankees at the trading deadline despite being mired in bankruptcy, they came closer to signing him as a free agent.

Let’s not forget it was the Reds who emerged as the high bidders for Aroldis Chapman this past January, not the Yankees or Red Sox. The Rays have certainly shown how it’s possible to draft and spend wisely and finish ahead of the Yankees with one-third the payroll, while the Giants demonstrated it’s better to have home-grown pitching talent than $126 million free-agent pickups. If the Cardinals have been paying attention to the seismic shift in financial dynamics, they’ll understand there’s no excuse in not re-signing Albert Pujols. After all, they’re not low-budget Butler trying to compete against heavyweight Duke. Dream big and spend big, or plan on staying home in October for the foreseeable future.

A couple of things can be gleaned from the Lee signing. First of all, most of the articles written about his signing have noted how refreshing it is to see a player and agent turn down significantly more money to go to a team for love. The evidence reveals that to be a half-truth. It took him five days to make a decision after the Rangers made their final pitch at his home because his agent was clearly trying to get the Rangers and Yankees to increase their bids. Why do that if Lee already had his heart set on the City of Brotherly Love? If the Yankees had  offered the same contract terms as CC Sabathia—7 years, $161 million—and lapped the field by 20%, it’s safe to say the Lees would be saying how much they were looking forward to being spit on in New York. And if the Rangers had separated themselves from the Phillies by going to a seventh year, as they were asked to do near the end, then the Lees would be saying the decisive factor in choosing the Rangers was a desire to stay close to their Arkansas home. Money was not the only factor, but it was obviously one of the major factors.

The most incredible thing about Lee’s deal is the money he’s leaving on the table in 2011. He will be the best bargain in baseball for a second straight year, as the Phillies evidently only need to pay him $11 million next year. This places less strain on their payroll until the contracts of Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson and others come off the books at the end of next year. Then the big money kicks in for Lee at $21.5 million, three years at $25 million and a sixth-year option at $27.5 million when he’s 38—yikes! The reality for the Phillies is they have an aging roster, holes in their left-leaning lineup, a weak bench and an undependable bullpen, yet they’re tapped out for funds. They better hope the Big Four carry them to the title next year, because it’s not looking good beyond that.

The Phillies’ total package comes to $135 million for six years. The Rangers offered $138 million over six but wanted a big chunk deferred, meaning their package was ultimately worth less than that of the Phillies. Various reports have put the Yankees’ offer at $138 million for six years with a $16 million option for the seventh year that brings the guaranteed money to $154 million. In other words, the Phillies fell just $3 million short over six years and Lee decided he could live without the seventh year. For a player that the Yankees had to have, it’s inexcusable to allow the Rangers or Phillies to hang around a high-stakes poker game when you have the most chips on the table. Go all in and watch the competition fold and worry about hitting your so-called budget later. If you can pay A.J. Burnett $16.5 million a year until he’s 36, then trust me, Cliff Lee is worth $25 million.

Once you realize the money was close among the three contenders, then it’s not hard to see why Cliff would pick the Phillies over the Rangers and Yankees. His wiry frame would not last six more years pitching in the oppressive summer heat of Texas—he has a 5.07 lifetime ERA in Texas—nor could he be assured the Rangers would be able to remain a contender year after year with his salary soaking up 20-25 percent of the payroll. And there’s no sense knocking heads with the beasts of the AL East when Roy Halladay demonstrated how much fun it can be pitching to the weaker lineups in the National League.

There are some other good reasons why Lee didn’t want to take the Yankees money. He undoubtedly saw how the team badmouthed and bullied team captain Derek Jeter—the most popular Yankee of the past 40 years—as well as their pattern of insulting Pettitte, Rivera and other franchise legends with unnecessary penny-pinching and crass comments. Thanks for taking us to the playoffs 12 straight years, Joe Torre, now don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out. Same for you Don Mattingly and you too, Bernie Williams. Consider yourself lucky we let you be a part of the franchise for as long as we did. Lee also had to be offended by Hank Steinbrenner arrogantly stating it “behooves” Cliff Lee to sign with the Yankees, like it’s their God-given right to the top players and Hank knows what’s best for Cliff. Perhaps he’s heard what an uptight control freak Joe Girardi is, in contrast to the easy-going Charlie Manuel, and even Ron Washington, for that matter.

As a no-nonsense guy, Lee would want no part of the daily media circus that follows the Yankees looking for a reason to stir up a controversy. Just imagine the drama that’s coming up over the next four years as Jeter hits more milestones while his fielding and batting continue to decline and his salary stays atop the league leaders. Think there might be a difference of opinion about when it’s time for him to stop playing short so we can enter the Nunez Era? Or how about when A-Rod collects another joyless $6 million bonus for reaching a home run mark while collecting $29 million as a part-time DH. Lee certainly wouldn’t want to be lockering next to his Arkansas buddy A.J. Burnett when he’s filling the Sergio Mitre role while earning $33 million the last two years of his contract and refusing to say where his latest shiner came from.

When the Lee signing was announced a collective cheer went up in two cities: Philly and Boston. It was a stunningly bold move by the Phillies, but has a team had a better off-season than the Red Sox this year? Short of having Mariano Rivera sign with the Pirates, everything has gone the Sox way.

First, the Red Sox traded three prospects who may or may not pan out for a slugger, Adrian Gonzalez, who has a swing tailor-made for Fenway and is two years younger than the player they lost to the Yankees in 2008: Mark Teixeira. Next, they forced the Yankees to add a second year to Mariano Rivera’s contract by sniffing around the free agent. Then they swooped in and snatched up the best position player on the market, Carl Crawford, while the Yankees were still trying to play up Crawford as their “Plan B.” Finally, they gave the Phillies the payroll flexibility they needed to sign Cliff Lee by demonstrating there was a viable market for Joe Blanton. With Lee Philly-bound, the Sox no longer have to worry about getting stymied by a southpaw triumvirate of Sabathia, Lee and Pettitte.

On top of that, the Red Sox will have around $40 million to spend next season when contracts for Ortiz, Drew, Cameron, Papelbon and others go off the books. They have two young pitching stars—Buchholz and Lester—under affordable control through 2014 along with two high-priced but potential aces in Josh Beckett and John Lackey. They have a closer-in-waiting lined up in Daniel Bard. Their other stars, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, are signed to long-term, affordable deals while the pipeline is still filled with prospects at nearly every position.

Back in the Bronx, everything Brian Cashman touches turns to pine tar—sticky and unsightly. A top-notch general manager needs to be good at two things: evaluating talent and negotiating. Cashman has frequently admitted that talent evaluation is not his strong suit—any Kei Igawa sightings lately? Then each off-season he demonstrates that negotiating is not his strength either. Could he have handled the Jeter negotiations any poorer? Number 2 is the franchise icon, he delivered five championships and wants to retire a Yankee—was it really necessary to tell him to shop around for a better deal like you’re some kind of smug car dealer with the only car dealership in town? Jeter will still be peeved about this insult 30 years from now, so don’t be surprised when he’s a no-show for Old-Timer’s Day or when he becomes part-owner of the Rays.

In case folks weren’t paying attention, Cashman has managed to put together a roster almost entirely filled with overpaid, aging players who come up short in the postseason. Everyone knows Teixeira is a slow starter, but he really bottomed out with a .136 average this past April, which equaled his average in the 2009 World Series but was still significantly better than his 0-for-14 mark against the Rangers in the 2010 ALCS. He clearly doesn’t rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest. Nick Swisher batted .133 against the Phillies in the ’09 Series and .091 vs. the Rangers this year—his career average in the postseason is .162. Brett Gardner has 5 hits in his last 37 trips to the plate in the postseason—his career average in the playoffs is .175. Jorge Posada is at .241 including .219 in World Series action.

The pitching staff has fared no better in the postseason, with the obvious exception of Rivera and Pettitte. Sabathia pitched well in the postseason last year but produced a 5.62 ERA this year—his career postseason ERA is 4.66, more than a run above his regular season mark. Here are the postseason ERAs for some other Yankee pitchers: Burnett, 5.67; Phil Hughes, 5.86; David Robertson, 6.23; Boone Logan, 10.80. Can Whitey Ford be talked out of retirement?

The Yankees are so confident in the catching abilities of youngsters Montero, Cervelli and Romine that they felt it necessary to throw money at a catcher with a bad hip in Russell Martin. They’ve seen A-Rod’s hip problem turn him into an old man at third, yet somehow this won’t be a problem for a catcher? Cashman signed Posada for one year too many and now gets to see how unproductive and unhappy he can be as a full-time, 40-year-old designated hitter.

After spending two years touting Austin Jackson as a top prospect, Cashman decided to give up on him and surrender reliable lefty Phil Coke to the Tigers so he could acquire Curtis Granderson, who is six years older than Jackson and has demonstrated he can’t hit lefties. This move didn’t exactly go with the plan to get younger and cheaper, and Jackson proceeded to outhit Granderson .293 to .247 and steal 15 more bases while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Players around the league surely noticed how Cashman and the Yankees stiff-armed Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui after the pair played key roles in delivering the 2009 championship. Gee, think it might have been better to spend $2 million more to bring back Damon for one year instead of Nick “Mr. DL” Johnson? Maybe they should seriously consider a second round with Carl Pavano after Javier Vazquez’s return engagement went so well.

Looks like the Lee negotiations were just a smoke screen for the Yankees’ real off-season priority—outbidding other teams for Mark Prior, who last pitched in the majors in 2006. The team is strongly considering bringing back Kerry Wood, which means all they need to do is track down Shawn Estes and Matt Clement to complete the Cubs 2003 rotation reunion.

Not only does Cashman have to beg Pettitte to come back now, he’ll have to pay through the nose to make it happen. Andy is too decent to say it in public, but his agent will understand this concept: they owe him one…big time! As for the fifth spot in the rotation, the Yankees need to refrain from panicking, since other teams will demand double the usual premium in any deal for a frontline starter. Zach Greinke has a lifetime ERA of 8.82 at Yankee Stadium, so perhaps it’s not wise for the Yankees to give up four top prospects to see him implode.

Their best bet is to pencil in Ivan Nova and hope he can give them 10-12 wins and a 4.00 ERA while waiting and seeing what’s available at the trade deadline. It’s unlikely the Marlins will be willing to unload Josh Johnson or the Mariners Felix Hernandez, but someone like Carlos Zambrano might be attractive if the Cubs pick up some salary. Realistically, the best bet for upgrading the rotation won’t happen until 2012, when top prospects like David Phelps, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman are hopefully ready to play big roles.

There is an intriguing player out there who appears headed to free agency at the end of 2011—Pujols! Perhaps the money they didn’t spend on Lee (plus another $10 million/year) could convince Pujols to be their new left fielder. After all, he’s played 309 games in the outfield. The Yankees are getting outhustled and outsmarted by teams like the Red Sox, Rangers and Phillies—isn’t it about time they did something unconventional and daring?

When the Yankees were winning four titles between 1996 and 2000 they were doing it with gritty warriors like Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and David Cone, backed up by solid role players on the bench like Tim Raines, Luis Sojo and a backup catcher named Joe Girardi. They were a team of players who cared about each other and about winning and little else, not a team of all-stars who have the highest salary at each position. It doesn’t take a genius to throw $180 million at a player like Teixeira, but it sure would be nice to unearth the next O’Neill, a .259 hitter in Cincinnati who evolved into a .303 hitter nicknamed “The Warrior” in the Bronx. All it takes is a plan, and a GM who knows how to evaluate talent and is an expert negotiator…like that Epstein guy in Boston.

Here’s some free advice to Brian Cashman: the next time the Mariners, or any other team, asks you to throw in a shortstop with a .318 OBP and .938 fielding percentage in the minors so you can acquire a Cy Young winner who channels Bob Gibson in the postseason—just do it!

Chris Jensen is a Yankees fan living in Indiana who remembers the good ol’ days when the Yankees money-whipped the competition to snag top free agents such as Ed Whitson, Jesse Barfield and Andy Hawkins.

Comments

One Response to “The Balance of Power Has Officially Shifted in Baseball”
  1. Ken Dunning says:

    The Winter Meetings and its post-game wrap-up, at least for the big budget contenders, are an annual fight for free agent love and glory, a case of do or die. Cliff Lee, however, set his own timetable, leaving the heavily bankrolled baseball elite on hold, delivering a message to the baseball world that the fundamental things still apply.

    Lee waited after the Rangers and Yankees made their best and final offers. While the Rangers knew they wouldn’t outbid the Bombers, they offered a team that outplayed the Yankees as well as proximity to Lee’s Little Rock home and future family compound. Both teams publicly liked their chances for landing the lefty free agent, but had to admit that Lee – and not the teams or their multi-year mega millions – was the sole star of this three-way drama.

    Lee waited after Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth inked their own over priced, super sized deals, drawing a second ‘final’ offer from the Yankees. Silence, is indeed golden.

    Lee then waited for the Phillies to finalize their own offer of World Series contention-hood when neither the Rangers nor Yankees emerged as the imminent sweepstakes winner.

    And the takeaway from all of this daily high stakes hardball theater?

    The Rangers learned that it’s often harder to get back to the World Series, and that you have to make the most of your chances while you have them.

    In the wake of Yankee chestnuts roasting on an open fire, it may very well “behoove” Hank Steinbrenner to learn that the highest offer isn’t necessarily the best one, and that an extra $30 million doesn’t necessarily cover the full cost of the bad behavior of a few inhospitable Yankee fans toward the Ranger wives during the playoffs, nor the bad behavior of the inhospitable Yankee ownership toward their not-going-anywhere captain.

    The Phillies learned that their policy of offering no more than a three year deal to a pitcher is purely situational if it means besting the Yankees.

    Doc Halladay learned that timing is everything.

    The Players Association and the fraternity of agents learned that there’s a new currency in play, and it has nothing to do with money.

    And Cliff Lee proved that waiting for the right moment can sometimes allow a number two starter to hold all of Baseball by the seams and play by his own rules.

    In summary:

    You must remember spit
    The rich are still the rich, a Cy is just a Cy
    Firm policies do not apply
    As time goes by.

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