Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Yanks Signings Reek of Desperation

After missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Yankees appear desperate.

First, they gave CC Sabathia—listed by the Brewers as 311 pounds—the largest-ever contract for a pitcher. And then they gave AJ Burnett—who has been on the disabled list nine times since 2000 -- a five-year contract.

It’s hard to understand why the Yanks gave Sabathia an out clause after just three years. What’s in it for them? If he’s successful, he’ll simply opt out for a longer, richer deal. And if he hates NYC, its fans, its media, and the pressure-cooker environment, he’ll also opt out. But if he’s injured, or otherwise a bust, the Yanks are on the hook for the whole seven years.

I always believed that any talk of the Red Sox signing Burnett was nothing more than a smoke screen. His injury history is a virtual red flag. At 32, he has won more than 12 games exactly once and made more than 30 starts just twice. It’s hardly a coincidence that his two best seasons came when he was either entering the final year of a long-term deal or entering a year in which he could opt out of a contract. His injury history and lack of motivation were more than enough reason for any team not to grant him a five-year, $82.5 million deal. But these are the uber-wealthy New York Yankees. And they are clearly desperate.

They are opening a new ballpark this spring, and they are a team that has always used marquee names to sell seats. They need to do that now more than ever. All that new construction means that there are rather large bills to pay. Yet the team just committed more than $243 million to just two pitchers in the span of just 48 hours. Or, put another way, they're on the hook for nearly a quarter-of-a-billion dollars. Wow. They must have their own money printing machine in the Bronx. Perhaps the most striking aspect is that these two players will only take the field every five days.

So far, the 28-year-old Sabathia has proven reliable, making at least 30 starts in all but one of his eight seasons. But how long that trend will last is anybody's guess. Perhaps some of the concern is overstated. Prior to 2007, the huge righty had thrown 200+ innings just once (2002). However, over the last two seasons, Sabathia has tossed a whopping 494 innings; that's the core of the concern. And it's not just the stress on his left shoulder and elbow, either. Scouts wonder how his knees will hold up under the stress of his 300-pound mass. That's anybody's guess. Though you can train muscles to become stronger, the same cannot be said for knee joints. Daisuke Matsuzka's knees are just as strong, and they're only supporting 185 pounds. You can't change the inherent design, or limitations, of the human knee structure.

Even as the Yankees doled out $161 million to Sabathia, there were plentiful cautionary tales for them to have considered.

Long-term contracts for pitchers are generally considered risky by baseball executives, and seven years is one hell of a commitment. But when it comes to $100 million deals, teams are simply flirting with disaster. Prior to this week, there had been only four $100 million contracts for pitchers, all of whom have been plagued by injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

Kevin Brown got a seven-year, $105 million deal from the Dodgers before the 1999 season. For their investment, the Doggers got 58 wins and 32 losses over five years. That prompted them to deal the disappointing Brown to the Yankees, for whom he went 14-13 in two years. That amounts to a 72-45 record over seven seasons, or roughly ten wins per year. Can you say bust?

The Rockies gave Mike Hampton an eight-year, $121 million deal before the 2001 season. For their money, the Rox got 21 wins and 28 losses. That had to hurt. Speaking of hurt, Hampton missed the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons and was slowed by injuries in other seasons, as well. Colorado gave up on Hampton, shipping him to Atlanta, where he proceeded to go 35-24. For the record, Hampton recorded 56 wins and 52 losses over the span of his monster pact. Put that one in the "bad investment" column.

Barry Zito won the 2002 AL Cy Young award with the A's, which got him a seven-year, $126 million pact from the Giants after the 2006 season. In return for this largesse, Zito has gone 21-30 in two highly disappointing seasons in San Francisco.

Finally, last winter, the Mets gave ace lefty Johan Santana a six-year, $137.5 million contract. After going 16-7 with a 2.53 ERA this year, he is the only one who has panned out -- so far.

None of the four previous $100 million pitchers -- Brown, Hampton, Zito or Santana -- has pitched in the playoffs for the team he signed with. In fact, none of the teams that have signed a pitcher to a nine-figure deal has made the playoffs while that pitcher has been on their roster.

However, the Yankees were unfazed, offering Sabathia an initial six-year, $140 million pact. Yet, Sabathia was also unfazed; he ignored it. Though the offer was one-year and $40 million better than the Brewers' offer -- the only other offer -- he wouldn't bite. He really wanted to go home to play on the West Coast and, more specifically, to play in the National League, where he could hit. That's old school. Yet, for all their talk, the Angles, Dodgers, and Giants never even made formal offers.

More determined than ever, the Yankees continued bidding against themselves, and raising the stakes. With only two offers to choose from, and $40 million separating them, Sabathia took the offer he couldn't refuse -- along with his three-year out clause. The Yankees got suckered.

And when they signed AJ Burnett to a guaranteed five-year, $82.5 million deal two days later, they got suckered again. But they did it to themselves.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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