11:13 am Jan. 21, 2011
For the New York Yankees, the signing of Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million contract is alarming for many reasons. For one thing, the deal was made by ownership against the wishes of General Manager Brian Cashman, putting him in the awkward position of explaining why he didn't want Soriano at Soriano's introductory press conference.
For another, it isn't clear that the reliever Soriano displaced in the setup role—Joba Chamberlain—is actually the worse of the two pitchers. By xFIP, which measures earned-run average without the variables of fielding and luck on balls put in play, Soriano checked in at 3.81 last season, while Chamberlain's mark was nearly a half-run better, at 3.34.
But the biggest problem with the deal is the increased pressure it puts on the team's budget—something that hasn't been relevant to the Yankees for decades. The team now has a huge percentage of its budget in some poor bets, and if the new ownership is serious about maintaining a roughly $200 million payroll, New York could suddenly find itself in the unfamiliar position of missing out on its desired targets—and not just when someone simply decides he prefers Philadelphia to New York.
Let's start with the budget itself. The expenditure on players has remained remarkably static recently—$207.9 million in 2008, $201.4 in 2009 and $206.3 in 2010. Baseball-reference.com estimates the Yankees' current 2011 payroll at $193.8, with a few remaining signings likely to bring that up to right around $200 million once again.
Of that $200 million, the Yankees are committed over the next three years to paying an average of $29.3 million to Alex Rodriguez, $16.5 million to A.J. Burnett, $16 million to Derek Jeter and $11.7 million to Rafael Soriano. That's $73.5 million on four players—roughly 40 percent of the payroll. And what will the Yankees get for their money?
In Soriano, they'll get the age 31-33 seasons of a pitcher who didn't manage to stay healthy for any three consecutive seasons in his twenties.
In Burnett, they'll receive the age 34-36 seasons of a pitcher whose xFIP has risen steadily over the last three years. In Jeter, they'll get the age 37-39 seasons from a shortstop whose .710 OPS and awful range made him below-average at a position that is unkind to players Jeter's age. And in Rodriguez, they'll get the age 35-37 seasons of a hitter whose OPS+ numbers the last four years read this way: 178, 150, 138, 123.
In other words, there's ample reason to be concerned about these four players, never mind if there are problems with any of the other 21. Don't forget, Mariano Rivera and his 40-year-old arm make $15 million each of the next two seasons. And the current fourth and fifth starters are the forgettable Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre. So the roster is hardly bulletproof.
Naturally, the Yankees tend to have problems the way Mr. Burns has problems. The team has five pitching prospects within a year's throw of the major leagues, three of which are among the best in baseball (Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman) and another two (David Phelps, Adam Warren) who would vault to the top of the prospect list across town. Jorge Posada will turn 40 in August, but the Yankees have arguably the best catching prospect in baseball (Jesus Montero), and another just behind him that many scouts feel is even better (Gary Sanchez). And even if they need to replace production from Rodriguez, Jeter, Burnett, Soriano and Rivera, they'll have roughly $110 million to do it—more than the entire estimated payroll of nine major league teams.
But merely existing in the upper third of payroll hasn't been the Yankee way for some time. That means applying the same rules that every other team does, and going after some but not all of the players on their off-season wish list. Taking salary into account when making trades. And counting on young players, cheap and cost-controlled, to shoulder some of the burden. If they fail to do any of those things, now without George Steinbrenner around to increase the budget, the consequences would be as serious as they would be for any other team.
Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, run efficiently by Theo Epstein, spent $162.3 million on players last season, with an estimate of roughly the same amount in 2011. If Rodriguez, Jeter, Soriano and Burnett don't provide value—and it would take a significant reversal of both recent past histories and baseball's aging curve for the four of them to do so—the Yankees could find themselves not only outsmarted by the Red Sox, but outspent.
And the one man who could, and did, turn the Yankees into a richer version of the Red Sox, Brian Cashman, no longer has the authority to stop it from happening.