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November 30, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Yankee Drama

by Christina Kahrl

Well, they don't refer to the American League East as the drama division for nothin'. In this corner, we've got two of the most recognizable stars of a generation: the Captain, Derek Jeter, face of the game's marquee franchise, plus Mariano Rivera, perhaps the greatest closer in baseball history as a matter of common perception and acclamation. And in that corner, we've got Brian Cashman, a canny money manager, even for the steward of the game's great cash cow, and a man pondering how much Steinbrenner gold he can dish out to employ the pair of grand old men.

Beyond their value for name-brand recognition and whatever that might mean in terms of tickets sold and spin generated, Jeter and Rivera both offer prospective employers those timelessly unquantifiable, subjective qualities of leadership, example, and experience. Perhaps not inconsequentially for any club wrestling with expectations, both also offer a lot of value as famous dudes who can handle any level of microscopic media coverage—something that will end up mattering, because wherever they go, the cameras as well as the expectations will follow. It's also easy to anticipate that neither guy is looking for a modest “gray eminence”-type sinecure, providing just an example, a fistful of personal jewelry, and an endless supply of Clay Bellinger anecdotes.

In terms of pure performance, both Jeter and Rivera have lost a lot to Father Time. Rivera's 2010 season ranked as his 14th-best via ARP, and after finishing 16th overall in WXRL in the majors last season, his 2010 campaign ranked as his personal 12th-best by that metric. However, his 2008 and 2009 seasons both scored out well among his personal bests. But whatever his long-standing reputation for being Death in cleats, and the reaper who scythes down batters and last chances, he provides his own warning additional signs.

While Rivera is still cruising, and likely to pass Trevor Hoffman as the all-time saves record holder in 2012—and thus potentially with his next employer—his strikeout rate fell below 20 percent for just the second time in the last decade, and his pitches per plate appearance and first-strike percentage climbed to heights it hasn't seen since Monica Lewinsky was just somebody with a fondness for berets. That's not to say he's cooked, but to note that he's becoming mortal at a time when a big part of what he's shopping is his own immortality.

Meanwhile, Jeter was not among the most valuable shortstops in the American League. Nor was he among the most valuable Yankees—per WARP, he ranked 10th on the team overall, and just seventh among the regular batsmen. More troubling still, it had little to do with the now-standard statheads' complaint about his fielding, whatever the Gold Glove voting suggests. Indeed, 2010 was his best season afield in the last three, per Colin Wyers' nFRAA, “just” -22 runs, although that ranked as the fifth-worst season afield from any shortstop, with his previous two seasons both ranking lower. Since Total Zone and Plus/Minus don't have any additional kindnesses to contribute to his cause, sticking with the now-ancient argument that Jeter is just not one of the better gloves at short seems like it's still a fair proposition.

No, the real problem is that Jeter had his second jarringly un-star season at the plate in the last three, a tale of adequacy disturbed only by his tremendous 2009 rage against the dying of the light. His 2009 campaign was tremendous for anyone at any point in his career, ranking 23rd overall in offensive value at short, one of eight Jeter seasons you'll find among the top 100 shortstop seasons of all time. Unfortunately, that 5.6 WARP2 season was bookended by a pair of marks around 3.0, in his age-34 through age-36 seasons. These things generally don't get better with age. In baseball, as in wine, whether you're talking about a '61 Chateau Margaux Bordeaux or the Captain—or you and me, against a bottle of three-buck Chuck, I suppose—it all winds up as vinegar at some point. But consider his total performance via total WARP2 across these last three seasons:

WARP2 Tally
Hanley Ramirez 20.2
Troy Tulowitzki 14.9
Marco Scutaro 14.9
Yunel Escobar 14.7
Rafael Furcal 12.4
Stephen Drew 11.8
Derek Jeter 11.7
Jose Reyes 10.3
Jason Bartlett 10.1
Alexei Ramirez 9.9
J.J. Hardy 9.6
Jimmy Rollins 9.6

Set against that decidedly mediocre spread despite one historic season, Jeter's representation somehow seemed to walk into this winter expecting a pay raise, up to $25 million from last year's crest at $21 million, as his just desert. As an argument for his value earlier in his career, that's not an unreasonable proposition, but his employer banked that performance while he “settled” for $189 million over the last 10 seasons. That isn't the value any investor is going to realize now, not without leaning heavily on the argument that he'll somehow add that much in value in terms of marketing his employer's ballclub, helping generate local revenues through better ticket sales, advertising, and whatever else you care to mound up—except that's a value he won't realize to anything like the same extent as he would if he simply stayed in New York, in front of an already fond and forgiving fan base.

For potential landing spots, you need to consider three broad factors to make either Jeter or Rivera attractive to the other 29 teams: affordability, opportunity, and ambition. To go with the most obviously laughable suitor, the Pirates make a terrible dance partner for either man—thanks to revenue-sharing and low payrolls, either guy might be affordable, and the opportunities for an established closer or for a shortstop better than Ronny Cedeno obviously exist. But with no viable ambition for relevance likely to be realized in the next two or three years, the Steel City isn't really a viable end destination for either player.

So who does that leave as far as viable alternatives to the Bronx? Even in a hot stove market short on shortstops—a fact that's contributing mightily to the rumors swirling around J.J. Hardy, Jason Bartlett, and Marco Scutaro, all potential 2012 free agents—it appears as if Jeter has fewer likely suitors than Mo. A lot of that has to do with the initial salary figures bandied about—Jeter might be able to put figures north of $20 million per annum into the conversation as long as it's a New York team he's talking to, but that figure is an automatic non-starter anywhere else. Hence Cashman's confidence in allowing his club's Captain the opportunity to explore the possibilities of employment on the left coast or in flyover country—only the boldest bidders are going to get in for something north of the Yankees' initial three-year, $45 million offer.

Set against that, to Mo's benefit there's a lot more potential fluidity as far as the relief market, not least because two of the most obvious potential candidates, the Red Sox and the Mets, have their own respective dissatisfactions with their current closers. However, practical considerations make the Mets less likely—while they would very much like Francisco Rodriguez to be somebody else's ballplayer after last season's off-field distractions, because of his low-threshold option for 2012—55 games finished, plus a doctor's note—in such a scenario they would almost certainly have to pay K-Rod's next employer a big chunk of the $29 million he'll end up being owed. The wild card is his potential incarceration over the criminal assault and contempt charges against him, so while keeping Mo in the Big Apple would be a public-relations coup for Sandy Alderson's new crew, it's probably too expensive to be realistic to entertain.

Against that, the Red Sox have Jonathan Papelbon's disappointing 2010 and potentially self-spiting determination to go into free agency after 2011 to deal with. Trading away their closer's last season before departure and swiping the Yankees' great hope-strangling closer would spite both the player and their greatest foe, so I wouldn't consider it beyond the realm of possibility. Adding Papelbon to any package that gets the unloved Jacoby Ellsbury out of town might even merit Theo Epstein a pre-season ticker-tape parade.

Beyond the big spenders, you could see how a couple of divisional rivals like the Rays or the Blue Jays might want to get in on Mo. The former's more likely, but both could inspire one wee Bossling or another to vent over the “injustice” of revenue sharing, since Bronx bucks would help write the checks paid to their former closer as he tries to cut his former employer down a peg.

Beyond that, I suppose I could see cases to make for the Angels, Cardinals, or Rockies moving their current closers—all quality set-up men in their day—back into their old roles to give the all-time great a shot. I wouldn't rate any of those three scenarios as that much more likely than the Mets', but if Dan O'Dowd or John Mozeliak or Tony Reagins gets a bee in his bonnet on the subject of acquiring a famous save-generator to ease his manager's late-game worries, and if Rivera's contract comes well down from his previous three-year, $45 million deal in late January, I wouldn't rule any of the three out. For a potential wild card, I'd note that the White Sox ranked 20th in team WXRL, better than the Red Sox's 25th-place finish, but their dissatisfactions with Bobby Jenks goes back further than just one season. And, as with Papelbon, Jenks is a free agent-to-be, and likely gone one year hence. Replacing the Human Barrel with Mo would get a lot of play in Chicago, unlikely though it might seem to be.

The other club I'd bring up are the Marlins, which might sound laugh-out-loud ridiculous at first glance, but consider their lot. They've been embarrassed nationally by last summer's revelations from Deadspin as far as how much money they've pocketed—personally and purportedly to help pay off the club's portion of their new stadium deal. Last offseason, after being scolded for their payroll, they made the reasonable move of giving Josh Johnson a big, multi-year deal, just as they had with their other major building block, Hanley Ramirez. They might have done the same with Dan Uggla early this offseason, but he wasn't interested in their four-year, $48 million offer, so they swapped him away, leaving them short of another bit of positive podium theater to promote the future on the field. You can argue they could use another big-ticket pickup to reassure an angry fan base (one already looking to recall the mayor who signed off on the stadium deal), and with their continued hanging around .500 and near-contention, you could promote signing Rivera as part of an effort to finally put themselves over the top. Given their 27th-place finish in team WXRL, they could use a quality reliever, and it isn't like Leo Nunez can make a federal case out of his being superceded after two seasons of sub-Gregg greatness as the club's closer.

As for Jeter, his problem is that almost anyone looking at shortstops is liable to decide they're better off making a deal for Hardy or Scutaro or Bartlett than trying to cash in on the Captain's cachet. The Cardinals make for an easy proposition, because he's famous, they don't have a shortstop, and maybe they use this as a way to wangle an extension with Albert Pujols. Given the DeWitts' propensity to poormouth their lot, you can anticipate some attempts to restructure or defer some salaries, or make Jeter's contract backloaded... yeah, I'm not really buying into it either, but the Birds are contenders, and positing Jeter over Brendan Ryan seems too easy to bandy about.

Similarly, I could see the Rays getting involved, not just to spite the Yankees, but because with Evan Longoria at the hot corner, they're supremely well-equipped to move Jeter toward the hole a few steps. This would depend on their moving Bartlett, and on Jeter's price taking a major tumble. OK, that's not so likely either, as scenarios go. A courtesy mention for the White Sox might be in order—after all, Team Reinsdorf was involved with helping generate the fame of some previous generation's icon by the name of Michael Jordan, albeit in some other sport—but I can't really envision even the position-shifting Sox moving Alexei Ramirez back across the bag and bumping Gordon Beckham back to third.

The Padres could use a shortstop, and with one of the best strikeout-dependent pitching staffs as well as a supremely pitcher-friendly park, they could endure Jeter's defense better than most. (They did just do fine with Miguel Tejada at short, after all.) They could also stick him in the leadoff slot and count it a major upgrade over a Hairston TBNL, not to mention hide away the Cap'n's increasingly proclivities for hitting into twin killings. But there again, we'd be counting on this somehow being seen as a game-changing event in the market, and worth a price tag as big or bigger than what the Yankees tossed out there initially, for as long or longer. Here, I'd expect Jed Hoyer to focus his efforts on the one-year alternatives.

Which leaves one especially interesting recent contender, a team with a hitter's park, no shortstop, a goodly amount of financial wiggle room for 2011 and beyond: the Reds. Not that Jeter has his Hall of Fame campaign to worry about, but a hitter-friendly park would help his golden years' production. He'd also be joining a club with exceptional defender to his right and left in Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips, and because key components like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce and a good chunk of the pitching staff are years removed from free agency, it might be a rare instance where a club not often associated with bigger big-market plays can make one for this kind of name player. I'll set aside whether or not it's a good idea—OK, I won't, I think it's a terrible idea—but I can see how the Reds might represent the best possible alternative for Jeter if his Bronx banter proves embittering.

All of which is a long way around an argument that I think Cashman has acted exactly as he should. Both Rivera and Jeter may find their price tags far too steep on the open market, and it only takes a bad month or two for that Yankee-brand profile to melt into massive middle-sized market disappointment. If Jeter and Rivera never wear another team's uniform, you shouldn't be the least bit surprised.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Shortstop,  A's,  Derek Jeter,  The Who,  Mo

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