We don’t know a lot about 2013. We know that Donald Trump will not be President of the U.S. — Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t either. We know that Apple will release a new iPad that will look cool and cost a lot of money but only be available in theory. We know that the loud guy sitting behind me at the airport who is on the phone begging for a first class upgrade will still be talking.
And we know that the New York Yankees have about $150 million in payroll obligations to eight players … all of those players on the wrong side of 30, and at an average age of 34.
Now, it doesn’t have to work out exactly that way. The Yankees, technically, are only obligated to five of those players for $97 million (the youngest of those five is 33). But to be blunt about it, at this point the other $51 million looks like the best part of the deal.
It’s a funny thing about money and baseball. Even the shrewdest people, even the toughest business folk, even the general managers who dream of someday running a small market team and having a best-selling book written about them, all of them will spend like nine-year-olds who just got their allowance, if given the chance. How else can you explain, say, the Tigers giving Joaquin Benoit a three-year, $16.5 million deal this year? Dave Dombrowski is a smart guy. He certainly knows that there is no worse money spent than signing an aging middle reliever coming off a good year to a multi-year deal. This is baseball’s version of giving your credit card number to the Nigerian prince who wants to deposit 23 billion dollars in your account. Dombrowski knows this.
But, he had the money. Benoit was available. Money meet player. Player meet money. The GMs can’t help themselves. It’s silly to pick on Dombrowski — that was just the first example that came to mind. Someone gave Vernon Wells a $126 million deal. Someone else TRADED for Vernon Wells with a $126 million deal. GMs are ALL like this, every one of them. They spend what they have … and just a little more. And look: I don’t blame GMs one bit. If I was a GM, and I had money, I’d spend like crazy too. I’d be out of control. Heck, you should see me in a Brookstone.
The Yankees obviously have made and spent much more money than any team in baseball since the 1994 strike, and they have just as obviously spent their money very well. They have only missed the playoffs once. They have won five World Series. They not only have given their fans Hall of Fame players to cheer, but they have given their fans iconic stars, players those fans could unhesitatingly admire like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and so on. The Yankees took over New York in a way that no Yankees team — not even the Casey Stengel Yankees, not even the Babe Ruth Yankees — had ever done.
And the thing you could always say about the Yankees was that they were living within their means. Maybe the Yankees payroll was obscene by Pittsburgh Pirates standards or Cincinnati Reds standards, but the Yankees themselves were still making money. Their big-money mistakes were offset by the graceful aging of their stars and the infusion of a good young player like a Robinson Cano or Brett Gardner or Phil Hughes or David Robertson. The thing looked like would go on forever. Heck, it still might.
But it turns out that the unbreakable rule of baseball — if given money, GMs inevitably will spend that money badly — can even reach the mighty and seemingly untouchable Yankees.
Look at the Yankees in 2013. That’s two years from now, as if you needed reminding. Here are five players they have locked up for that year, the age they will be, and the cost for that season:
Alex Rodriguez (38 years old, $28 million). I am wrong about baseball so much more often than I am right. Before the season, I actually put a list together of the 32 best players in baseball and I DID NOT INCLUDE JOSE BAUTISTA. I should be forced to write that on a blackboard five million times. I really thought Bautista would regress significantly. I really thought wrong. I’m working on a big magazine story on him now, not as penance but because the guy’s the best story going. More on that as it goes.
Anyway, that’s only one of a thousand things I was wrong about. But I think I was right about A-Rod. I think he’s on a serious decline. I still don’t think he’s going to break the all-time home run record. I don’t think he will play anywhere close to the level of A-Rod from 2000 to 2008, when he posted a 155 OPS+ and won three MVP awards and made his case as the best shortstop OR the best third baseman in 100 years.
Age is undefeated. That’s not true for some players. It’s true for all players. There were people who saw A-Rod during spring training and thought he looked great and was poised for a great season — some seemed to think he was an MVP candidate. Then he started off ridiculously hot and I thought: Well, there’s something else I was wrong about. Even with two good games the last two days — a two homer game and a four-hit game — he’s still hitting .216 since April 16 and slugging .363 and he has struck out 26 times in 26 games.
Whether I was right or wrong about him this year — hey, he HAS looked good the last two days — A-Rod has SIX YEARS left on his deal after this one, and even if you write off the last two as the cost of doing business, well, this contract has a chance to be provide one of the saddest and most painful endings for a great player in baseball history.
Mark Teixeira (33 years old, $22.5 million). Tex has five years left on his contract after this year. I think this contract could actually work out fine. Tex plays hard, he’s a switch-hitter, he’s good defensively, he will take a walk, I think his skills could stretch out.
The problem with Tex has little to do with Tex — it’s that we live in an era where hard-hitting first basemen are everywhere. I’ve been over this list before but again, I would ask you to choose from these first basemen:
— Mark Teixeira
— Albert Pujols
— Adrian Gonzalez
— Miguel Cabrera
— Joey Votto
— Prince Fielder
— Ryan Howard
— Eric Hosmer
Where would you draft Tex from that list? Third? Fifth? Last? Throw in guys like Ike Davis, Justin Smoak, Matt LaPorta, the surprisingly hot Gaby Sanchez, the now-third-baseman Kevin Youkilis, the surprisingly sturdy Paul Konerko, the former MVP Justin Morneau and a bunch of young guys and so on. Tex’s all-around play and the hope that he will age well might move him near the top. But we’re seem to be moving to a time where just about every team in baseball will have a first baseman who hits roughly like Mark Teixeira.
Derek Jeter (39 years old, $17 million). I’ve already banged the Jeter drum a whole lot, and I reserve the right to continue to do so because I find his situation endlessly and continuously fascinating. I think even the most optimistic Jeter fans knows that the $17 million Jeter will make in 2013 will almost certainly be sunken costs.
My hope as a Yankees fan would be that by then everyone involved will have come to grips with Jeter’s aging (including Jeter), and he can play a versatile role, move around some, play different positions, DH a bit, get 350 to 400 plate appearances, be an emotional leader. I’m not sure, based on the way the vibes coming out of the Bronx these days, that an ending like that is viable, but I hope for a good ending for one of the greatest players of the last 50 years.
A.J. Burnett (36 years old, $16.5 million). I have to admit that I did not realize that Burnett was already 32 years old when the Yankees signed him to that five-year deal. That makes the deal that much more curious.
We all know that Burnett has been an enigma. And so, who know what will happen? Maybe Burnett will settle in and pitch well for the next two years. After all, we don’t really have much research on the aging patterns of men with Bruce Lee tattoos. He’s pitched pretty well this year. And he clearly still has good stuff — this is probably best told by the fact that he’s on pace to throw 31 wild pitches this year, which would be a record. Even Yankees catchers can’t quite handle him.
Rafael Soriano (33 years old, $13 million). Oh yeah, don’t forget about Soriano. He will still be around … there’s nothing really to say about this signing that Brian Cashman didn’t intimate on the day Soriano was signed. Middle relievers. Big money. Bad idea.
So that’s $97 million just for 2013. And then there are three others who could be with the team:
C.C. Sabathia (33 years old, $23 million). There a general feeling out there that Sabathia will opt out of his deal after this season. Considering that the Yankees rotation is shaky enough WITH Sabathia, the Yankees need to hope that he will not opt out.
Robinson Cano (30 years old, $15 million). The Yankees actually have a club option on Cano in 2012 and 2013. Unless something drastic happens, I cannot imagine them not picking up Cano’s option.
Curtis Granderson (32 years old, $13 million). Hey, one more thing I might be right about — I wrote that the Yankees made a steal when they got Granderson. It looked shaky at times last year, but now Granderson has 14 homers in 41 games and is slugging .600 and has had times when he’s basically carried the team. I suspect he won’t sustain those power numbers, but he’s a great guy, and a positive force, and at this point I would think the Yankees would probably pick up his option.
And that makes $148 million for eight players. Even in the best-case scenario — even if Jeter and A-Rod somehow find a way to get younger, even if Soriano seamlessly replaces Mariano Rivera as closer, even if Sabathia sticks around and pitches great, and Burnett settles in and becomes a good starter in his mid-30s, even if Tex ages well, even so — the Yankees still look like a financial train wreck. Just that $148 million would rank the Yankees fourth on this year’s payroll list. How much more money would it still take to fill out a pennant contending team?
And, realistically, what are the odds that those best-case scenario things will happen?
My friend John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press reminded me of a classic thought uttered by Sparky Anderson years and years ago when he considered what is the hardest thing for a team to overcome. His answer: “An aging star.” The Yankees have a bunch of them. Those aging stars have made 2011 an eventful year already, though the season is still young and the Yankees are, this minute, leading the wildcard race. There’s a whole lot of accomplishment on that team. It could be foolish to write them off.
But, the Yankees will go on after this year. And the contracts will go on. And as the line from Citizen Kane goes: “Old age … it’s the only disease you don’t look forward to being cured of.”