The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, October 29, 2007

 

Swept Away

The Boston Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies right out of the World Series on Sunday night, but before the game was even over, news from Yankeeland swept that off the front page. Late in Fox's broadcast, Ken Rosenthal reported that agent Scott Boras had informed the Yankees of Alex Rodriguez's decision to opt out of his contract, foregoing the remaining three years and $81 million of his landmark 10-year, $252 million deal in order to test the open market. No sooner had the sun risen on that news than a leak from the Yankees revealed that they've offered their vacant managerial job to Joe Girardi, bypassing favorite son Don Mattingly as well as first base coach Tony Peña.

Where to begin with all of this?

Start with the Rodriguez situation. The announcement was an utterly tacky play by Boras; frankly, it was horseshit. Nobody, not even the Red Sox, deserved to be upstaged at a moment that should have belonged to them alone. Rodriguez had until 10 days after the end of the World Series to make his decision, so there was little urgency to the matter. With the free-agent filing period yet to begin, no team can begin negotiating with him yet, even if there may be some back-channel deal already outlined. Why show your cards before the betting has begun?

The Yankees didn't even get the chance to negotiate. They had prepared a five-year extension to his current contract, said to be worth around $150 million, but Boras wouldn't let them present the deal to his client before breaking the news. The stated reason for not waiting was the instability of the Yankee organization, from the lack of a manager to the status of free agents Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, but frankly that insults everyone's intelligence, given the imminence of the team's managerial announcement and the strong likelihood that the players in question will stay to play for their former teammate.

Even as a Yankee fan, it's tough to know who to root for here, or who to blame. In some ways, the Yankee organization is getting its just desserts, both for the way it embarrassed Rodriguez during the 2006 stretch drive and for the clumsy way they handled the departure of Torre, offering him a one-year, incentive-laden, take-it-or-leave it deal. In the transition from George Steinbrenner to sons Hank and Hal, the common denominator is the Yankees' public stance of ultimatums and inflexibility. By their way of thinking, the Yankee brand is an infallibly desirable commodity, and anyone who dares question the terms of their offer simply doesn't want to be a Yankee, so screw them. It's as though the Steinbrenner kids are a pastiche of the old man, operating via cues gleaned from watching Oliver Platt's bravura performance in The Bronx Is Burning. The my-way-or-the-highway bullshit doesn't work anymore, kids, and frankly, it hasn't since about 1978.

Not that the Yanks didn't have reasons — not necessarily good ones — for ousting Torre, or for declaring that if A-Rod opted out, they would no longer negotiate. The Texas Rangers, who traded Rodriguez to the Yankees in February 2004, were slated to pay some $21 million of the remaining dough on his contract, but once the contract no longer exists, that debt is gone. Simply to replace that money with Yankee dollars would cost the team closer to $30 million once the luxury tax is factored in. That $21 million trumps any suggestion that there's a double standard between retaining born-and-bred Yankees Posada and Rivera and the itinerant Rodriguez.

As for Rodriguez, opting out is certainly his right; that's the purpose of having the clause in the first place, and coming off a 54-homer, 156 RBI season in which he's likely to garner his third MVP award, he may never have better leverage. Whatever you think of Boras, don't confuse his ruthlessness with stupidity; he's as good at his job as Rodriguez is at his. And whatever you think of Rodriguez's party line that he loved playing in New York, loved the team and the fans, you have to figure he still bears a grudge for being booed and buried in 2006, and that he's been dying to stick it back in their faces. As I wrote back in July, when Rodriguez and Boras rebuffed any attempt to extend the contract before the season ended:
Of course, what A-Rod could have said is that the team and its fans deserve to sweat a bit for the shoddy treatment they afforded him last year; he owes them no discount for the times Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, unnamed front office officials (you think that Post cover happened naturally?) and a certain segment of the fan base (to say nothing of the rabid media) have thrown him under the bus. I'm reminded of the great Simpsons "Trash of the Titans" episode, where Homer's stint as sanitation commissioner ends with the re-election of the man he deposed, Ray Patterson. Upon returning, Patterson tells the crowd, "You know, I'm not much on speeches, but it's so gratifying to leave you wallowing in the mess you've made. You're screwed, thank you, bye."
But the problems for Rodriguez are just beginning. First, no matter whether it's the Angels, Dodgers, Tigers, Giants, Cubs, Red Sox, or some other team who signs him, he will be hard-pressed to match the deal he walked away from -- eight years and around $230 million -- without the Yankees being involved in the bidding. There's simply no other team that can afford him the way the Yankees can, and no one Boras can use to raise the stakes into the stratosphere. The Yankees' opening day payroll according to USA Today was $189 million, and that's not even counting the in-season signing of Roger Clemens. The Red Sox were next at $143 million, followed by the Mets at $115 million, the Angels at $109 million, and the White Sox and Dodgers at $108 million. If any of those teams decided to add Rodriguez, they'd instantly be bumping up their payroll 20 to 30 percent, which appears rather unlikely.

Second, the most sensible suitor to pursue Rodriguez, the Red Sox, seem to be getting along pretty well without him, having won two titles since their failed attempt to acquire him in December 2003. They were upstaged on a special night for the organization and their fans, who could be heard chanting "Don't Want A-Rod!" even as the team dogpiled. Their incumbent third baseman, Mike Lowell, is a pending free agent who's among the team's top run producers, not to mention the MVP of the World Series, and a scenario where the team lets him depart to sign A-Rod, only to see their hero wind up in Yankee pinstripes as his replacement, won't fly very well at Fenway Park.

Third, the opt-out does nothing but harm Rodriguez's public persona. If he was unclutch because of his October failures -- 4 for 50 from his home run in Game Four of the 2004 LCS to his first at-bat in Game Three of this year's Division Series -- now he's leaving because he can't handle the pressure, can't win the big one. If he was a mercenary for leaving a very good Mariners team for a lousy Rangers one, he's an older and none-too-wiser mercenary for leaving a very good and much wealthier Yankees team for whatever's behind door #2. If he lacked leadership skills before, he lacks them even more now having waited for Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte to make their decisions instead of boldly stating his intentions and suggesting they follow suit. If he was a more palatable potential all-time home run leader than Barry Bonds, now he's lugging around a whole new set of Samsonite. No matter what he does, he's the villain here, subject to hatchet jobs from media hacks. Even by kicking the team that most of the baseball world loves to hate squarely in the groin, he simply can't win.

Meanwhile, the news that Girardi is in as Torre's successor isn't exactly unanimously positive. The former Yankee catcher, who played on the 1996, 1998, and 1999 champions, is more of an intense Buck Showalter type than a calm Torre clone. He won Manager of the Year honors in 2006, his sole season at the helm, going 78-84 with a young, cheap team that appeared ticketed for much worse. While his feuds with ownership -- the execrable Jeffrey Loria -- can be excused, his handling of the team's young pitching staff should be enough to make Yankee fans uneasy. The five pitchers under 25 who made up the bulk of his rotation -- Dontrelle Willis, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez -- all suffered either arm injuries or a precipitous decline after his departure:
         --------2006---------    ------2007------
Player Age IP ERA ERA+ IP ERA ERA+
Willis 24 223.3 3.87 112 205.3 5.17 83
Olsen 22 180.7 4.04 107 176.7 5.81 74
Johnson 22 157.0 3.10 139 15.7 7.47 58
Nolasco 23 140.0 4.82 89 21.3 5.48 78
Sanchez 22 114.3 2.83 152 30.0 4.80 90
Johnson, whom Girardi sent back into a game following an 82-minute rain delay on September 12, 2006, suffered a forearm strain and was shut down for the rest of the season. He developed ulnar neuritis during his rehab, and amid his abortive return, blew out his UCL and underwent Tommy John surgery, costing him all of 2008. Sanchez required arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in late June, while Nolasco was held back by elbow inflammation. There's no proof that Girardi's handling was responsible for any of these, but a team staking its hopes on a bevy of young pitchers like Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy might have done well to think twice before choosing Girardi.

In making their choice, the Yanks have cost themselves the services of Mattingly, who spent four years on Torre's staff, the last as bench coach, preparing himself for the day he might succeed his mentor. More popular than just about any Yankee this side of Derek Jeter, Donnie Baseball may have represented the most palatable way out of the public relations nightmare the team is experiencing this fall, and his stewardship could have provided more continuity with the Torre days. But he had zero managerial experience, and that was likely the deciding factor, the reason that while George Steinbrenner favored him, Brian Cashman did not.

For all of the well-deserved fallout from this double whammy, it's clear that the Yankees are in a position to remake themselves. Their ownership has new faces, they've got a new manager, and they're shedding a significant chunk of payroll and a cornerstone of their lineup, with perhaps more to follow. They can continue to cut costs, go younger, avoid locking themselves into the bloated contracts which ballooned their payroll over $200 million, and bill themselves as the underdog to the big bad Red Sox, who've won twice during thir interminable seven-year championship drought. After all, Hank Steinbrenner, who showed no patience with Torre's desire for more than a one-year deal and no tolerance for anything less than a championship, apparently feels that such patience and tolerance are necessities for his new skipper.

So the Yankees are leaner and decidedly meaner. It remains to be seen whether they can turn those new traits into assets as they try to build another champion.

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