Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lupica: I can link anything to Derek Jeter

While I can't find a print copy of that actual quote, I'm invoking a couple of notions known as "logic" and "common sense" - after all, that's his life's work.
Cliff Lee may turn out to be the most rare of free-agent starting pitchers, which means that he may be worth as much at the end of his contract as he is at the beginning of it.
Lee does strike me as the sort of pitcher that could thrive well into his late-30s. He survives on the edges of the plate, inducing weak contact, avoiding walks, and striking out batters at a solid rate. While his groundball rates leave a bit to be desired, he's improved in that regard and, as a southpaw, he'll stifle left-handed power to some degree.
So Lee might still be worth $25 million a year to the Yankees when he is 37 – the age Derek Jeter turns next year – or 38 or 39. So Lee might turn out to be the exception rather than the rule with insane contracts, money and length, for starters that often turn out to be a complete waste at the back end.
A mere sprinkling of Jeter here - a sign of things to come.

I should also point out that there haven't been too many long-term deals given to pitchers. Johan Santana and CC Sabathia are works in progress, and have mostly lived up to their lofty contracts. Santana's missed some time, but he's been very good to great when on the field. Mike Hampton and Barry Zito were panned from the get-go, but those seem to be the standard for "the rule" that Lupica infers. Kevin Brown had two excellent seasons, two above average, and two lost seasons - Carlos Zambrano appears to be on a similar path, though his numbers have been quite solid.
Lee might be pitching as well in his late 30s as he is now, even dial things up a notch at that point in his career the way Roger Clemens once did. Or he will offer the kind of part-time brilliance that Andy Pettitte did last season at the age of 38.
I'm not sure that Clemens is a fair comparison, as some of his rebirth could be linked to his PED use. Pettitte, on the other hand, works somewhat. Since his age 32 season, Pettitte has averaged 180 IP along with a 117 ERA+, 3.76 FIP, and 2.55 K/BB - and he wasn't coming off of his best seasons at that point. Worth $25 M a year? No. An albatross? No.
Who knows, Cliff Lee – if the Yankees get him – may turn out to be as smart a free-agent buy as Mike Mussina once was, be pitching so well at the end of a long-term contract that the Yankees want to sign him up again. He may be as durable as Greg Maddux once was, and that's why the Yankees want him the way they do.
Mussina and Maddux are fair comparisons, in that they didn't depend on dominating stuff. Both had longer track records of success, however, and neither completely reinvented themselves in their late 20s. That Lee is a lefty cannot be discounted, though, particularly in Yankee Stadium.
But here's the key thing: The Yankees have no idea if Lee will hold up or not. Don't know, don't care. They just care about next season.
For some reason, whether or not Lee can hold up for the duration of his contract is a unique issue, as is his impact on 2011.
The Yankees don't care how much they have to spend on Lee because the Red Sox now have Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford locked up. When the Yankees absolutely have to have somebody, can't live without him, they spend whatever they need to.
This is a competition that has gone on for quite some time, and, while silly, it is somewhat prudent. Looking at the AL as is, it'd be difficult to imagine the pennant winner not coming out of the AL East. At the same time, though, the Yankees did pass on Carlos Beltran several years ago. They passed on Matt Holliday and John Lackey last year. They don't spend money just to spend it ... with the exception of Kei Igawa.
They were supposed to be done a couple of years ago after spending $240 million on CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and then they found another $180 million on a shelf in a closet for Mark Teixeira.
Teixeira fit into the budget that the Cashman had discussed, and the Yankees were looking for a first baseman at the time. I'm not sure how filling a need is relevant to the questions of Lee's long-term viability.
But, man oh man, the Yankees sure did have to hold the line on Jeter. Various Yankee executives and accountants nearly tore rotator cuffs patting themselves on the back for saving Hal Steinbrenner and Hank Steinbrenner and all Steinbrenner heirs everywhere some money on the captain of the team. Who is getting up there in age, you bet.
Jeter will make $48 MM over the next three years - this coming off of the worst season of his career. Sure, he was great in 2009, but the year before that was the worst season of his career to-date. His value lay in his bat, as he has limited range at short, and his bat didn't look too strong in 2010.
Only now they are willing to commit a lot more money, whatever they have to spend, on Lee when he is 36 and 37 and 38. They are willing to bet that money because they have to have the guy to keep up. Because the Red Sox decided they were willing to spend Yankee-like money on Gonzalez and Crawford.

Key differences include - Lee is coming off of three great seasons with no signs of decline; the Yankees currently have three starting pitchers (one of whom was atrocious throughout 2010); Lee is not a 'surprise' target.
Because the Red Sox found $142 million for Crawford the way the Yankees found all that money for Teixeira.
This could be an SAT question - Red Sox need an OF'er:Yankees need a 1B :: Carl Crawford:Mark Teixeira.
We always hear before the winter meetings that there is just so much money the Yankees are allowed to spend, that they have to stay in the "200 million-ish" range. That Hal Steinbrenner – who's running a business, dammit! – has given Brian Cashman a "budget." We got that a lot in the Yankee media over the last couple of weeks that the Yankees were being brave and strong and practically noble for holding the line on Jeter.
So far as I can tell, the Yankees haven't broken their self-imposed budget - they freed up a fair bit of space in letting Vazquez, Johnson, and Wood walk, didn't they? I'm also fairly certain that Jeter will be making an average of $16 MM over the next three years, making him the highest-paid middle infielder in the game - this following the worst season of his career.
We hear that the Yankees are terrified, that's what they are, about having too much money tied up with aging ballplayers. Except now they are prepared to commit a ton of money to Cliff Lee when he is……an aging ballplayer!

Not an issue.
The difference between Lee and the current crop of aging players is that Lee has not shown signs of decline. Granted, they will surely come - but it's difficult to know how his career arc will unfold. He's comparable to Pettitte and Mussina - it's not irrational to expect him to be worth a fair amount into late-30s.
The Yankees never do, even when they say they do. It is why the key thing with the people running the Yankees, bless their hearts, is that you must pay attention to nothing they say and everything they do. They paid Burnett $82 million in the great spending baseball winter of a couple of years ago and got one good year out of him and now there is a suggestion, because that one good year helped the Yankees win their first World Series since 2000, that is was money well spent, that anything the rest of the way is a bonus. Well, maybe in the Saudi baseball kingdom of 161st Street, just nowhere else on the planet.
What did they do that they said they wouldn't do? Or what didn't they do that they said they would? When they're looking for pitchers, they sign pitchers. When they're looking for a position player, they sign a position player. This isn't rocket science. Lee has been in their sights for the entirety of 2010 at the very least.

As bad as Burnett was in 2010, it's premature to label him as dead weight going forward. I'm interested in seeing what Rothschild can get out of him - Lupica is only concerned with the Jeter-centric universe.
When the Yankees want somebody the way they want Lee, there is always talk about how much money is coming off the books. We would have heard that if they had signed both Lee and Crawford.
Money coming off the books strikes me as incredibly relevant in an economic sense. It seems quite sensible and rational to base a team's available funds on what's currently on the books.
"As recently as two nights ago," one baseball guy told me this morning, "the Yankees were extremely interested in Carl Crawford."
A baseball guy, eh? What exactly constitutes a baseball guy?
Now the Yankees expect us to believe that they were just trying to drive up Crawford's price. Sure they were. As if making Crawford more expensive was going to make him less of a presence in the Boston batting order if they got him. How does that work?
If Boston is indeed a pauper team as John Henry would lead us to believe, it could serve to hamstring the team's finances a bit - both in 2011 and in the future. Should Crawford's contract turn into a disaster, the extra year(s) and dollars could be a boon to the Red Sox's competitors.

Isn't this sort of common practice anyway? This is what I'm guessing the Red Sox sought to do with Mariano Rivera - unless we assume they wanted to spend $25 MM on he and Papelbon in 2011.
The Yankees didn't come into these meetings conceding Crawford to the Angels or the Red Sox, whatever spin they want to put on this now. Maybe the Crack Accounting Committee (it was the Crack Baseball Committee for a lomg time but, hey, times change) on 161st Street wasn't on top of the fact that Boston had a ton of money, around $37 million, coming off the books. That even trading for Gonzalez and signing Crawford, Boston's current payroll is right around $160 million for the 2011 season. Epstein's payroll will surely go up from there, because he needs to go out and sign some relief pitchers. Just not to $200 million-ish or even close.

Support this with something. When was Crawford truly on the Yankees radar? When did the Yankees hint at shopping an outfielder to make room?

I also think it's funny that he bashes the Yankees for utilizing money coming off the books, then follows it up with the Red Sox financial might due to ... money coming off the books.
This isn't about the Red Sox now being declared the favorites in the American League East. We always do that here, every single winter, when the Yankees make another big splash. There hasn't been a time in 10 years when the Yankees weren't declared automatic champions because of this offseason move or that.
The Yankees have rarely, if ever, been labeled as 'automatic champions.' At least not by any reputable source. It also stands to reason that a very good team adding some great players would gain some ground in the on-paper race to the World Series.
When they got Teixeira and Burnett and Sabathia, it was supposed to be the beginning of another Yankee dynasty, even if it hasn't worked out that way.
Two years in, the Yankees have won a World Series, four playoff series, and 198 games (most in Major League Baseball). Sure, it's not two World Series titles - but it's a pretty good start.
One of these days the owners of the Yankees should go back and look at where the Yankee payroll was in comparison to the rest of the sport when the team was winning four World Series in five years.
I'll take a look for them - perhaps one of them will stumble upon our humble blog.

1996 - 1st
1997 - 1st
1998 - 2nd
1999 - 1st
2000 - 1st

Sure, salaries have gone up and the gap has widened over time - but the Yankees have been the biggest spenders in the game for quite some time.
So now the Red Sox spend like the Yankees. The Yankees are prepared to spend big on Lee. Maybe Lee will be locked up by the end of the day or the end of the week. And the bidding will get even crazier. Six years has now become seven years. Where does it go, what is the final number if the Rangers decide to go all-in, and Arte Moreno of the Angels decides to do the same thing?
I don't think anyone knows where it will go. Lee seems to want to play for the Yankees, and the Yankees coffers know no limits when someone is in their sights - I believe Lupica made that point himself. I'm not particularly concerned with the "mystery teams" either.
One thing is for sure:

It sure is lucky the Yankees held the line on Derek Jeter.
I wouldn't call it luck - I'd call it a fairly good business move, in retaining the team's most popular player for less than his asking price. It puts the team in a decent position, too - if Jeter rebounds, it's something of a steal. If he doesn't, the Yankees aren't handcuffed to a player like the one we witnessed in 2010.

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