May 17, 2011
The BP Broadside
The Bronx Blame Game and the Posada Psychodrama
Being risk-averse can kill a great team dead. Let’s begin with the Yankees’ lineup in 1950:
Fast-forward through ten years of moves, from ’50 through 1960. Keep in mind that this was a team that won the pennant in eight of the ten years listed here and the World Series in five of them, and if they had wanted to keep a set cast of characters for the entirety of the run, no one would have blamed them. Yet, the hitters on the1955 Yankees were fractionally younger than the 1950 Yankees, and the 1960 hitters were fractionally younger than both.
Of the players listed here, the Yankees stuck with only four, the future Hall of Famers Berra, Rizzuto, and DiMaggio, as well as Bauer, into their mid-30s. The rest soon disappeared or were moved into a reduced roles. As for the aforementioned Holy Four, they weren’t indulged past the point of usefulness. DiMaggio retired at 36—the Yankees offered him a boatload of money to return, but only as a pinch-hitter, which is to say that they didn’t want him back. Rizzuto lost his starting job after his age-35 season and was unceremoniously released in August of 1958. Berra stayed on until he was 38, but saw his playing time gradually reduced and his spot behind the plate given to Elston Howard.
Everyone else was fair game to be benched or traded, and all of them were. Consider third base: in relatively short order the Yankees moved through Johnson, Bobby Brown, Gil McDougald, Andy Carey, Hector Lopez, and Clete Boyer. There were some extenuating factors, like Brown’s military service and medical career, the need for McDougald to play in the middle infield, and Carey’s affinity for the disabled list and inconsistent bat, but they probably could have arrived or settled for any number of interim solutions prior to landing on the defensive genius Boyer, but they kept pushing on.
These were proactive changes, most taking place before the players were very far into their thirties. When a prospect looked better than what they had in the majors, they made room. If they didn’t have a prospect, they made a deal. Thus did the productive first base platoon featuring Collins give way to Moose Skowron, DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle, and Bauer to Roger Maris. In all of the dynasty years, the only player general manager George Weiss and Stengel pushed past the point where Branch Rickey’s aphorism, “Better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late” was the aforementioned Bauer, whose slippage at age-35 in 1958 was too mild (.268/.316/.423 against prior career averages of .282/.354/.452) to provoke alarm; the next year he slipped .238/.307/.375 and was traded away.
Today, long-term contracts make it difficult for teams to be as aggressive with player moves. That makes Rickey’s dictum even more crucial—as teams dole out multi-million dollar deals, they are under pressure to guess the aging curve correctly and get out from under before the player fades. That is why, just to point out one example, Albert Pujols’ next deal is so difficult to figure: maybe the first three or four years are fine, but what about the three or four or five after that?
The administration of the present-day Yankees has blithely ignored the precedent set by their ancestors and one-time Yankee (well, Highlander) Rickey. Unable to develop their own position players and reluctant to trust the few they have, or even to trade some of their surplus pitching prospects for youthful hitting (admittedly easier said than done with today’s starved farm systems, but not impossible) they doled out lengthy contracts to veterans, ensuring that at some point in what they undoubtedly hoped would be the distant future, they would be paying a roster of old-timers. Current position-player contracts include:
In the context of the other four deals, the Teixeira contract seems like a conservative bet. If you’re the Yankees, it’s probably very easy to justify almost any reckless expenditure of this kind as a bonus for the player and think, “When the time comes, we’ll just eat the money/sell more luxury hot dog seats.” (Yankee Stadium Luxury Brand Hot Dogs: rendered filet mignon, tallow from Harvard-educated heifers, and caviar, wrapped in a casing of $10 bills). That’s fine insofar as it goes, but the time has come to chow down, it becomes much harder to swallow $13 million than it is to talk about it, even if the money is gone regardless.
The pity is that when the player gets old a year too early rather than a year too late, frustration with a lack of performance accrues to the player instead of to the minds that agreed to the contract in the first place. It is difficult to foresee many things, but surely the quick slide on the part of both Posada and Jeter was not difficult given the defensive shortcomings of both and a long historical record of shortstops and catchers burning out rather than fading away. If either player was unprepared to accept an offer of a shorter term than they received, for the good of the team, the Yankees needed to be prepared to move on.
It should be noted that, unlike Jeter, who picked up a three-year extension coming off of last season’s career-worst performance, when Posada received his current four-year deal he was coming off of his best season, 2007’s .338/.426/.543. However, that season was obviously a wonderful fluke even then. As I wrote in the following BP annual:
It was a superlative season, but it would be a mistake to assume it means that Posada can play forever. Think of Dwight Evans, who busted out career highs in all three rates (.305/.417/.569) as a 35-year-old in 1987, or Chili Davis, who had back-to-back .300 seasons at 34 and 35. In neither case did the player's strong age-35 showing alter their course toward obsolescence, nor the rate at which they traveled it.
That did not mean the Yankees could avoid a difficult choice at that moment. Here’s how I finished the thought:
This very likely applies to Posada as well, but due to an imbalance of supply and demand in the backstop market, the Yankees were obligated to re-sign Podada for four years if they wanted to stay out of the Johnny Estrada aisle at Wal-Mart. If they can get two years of the four at 75 percent of Posada's 2007 value, it will be money well spent.
Note I was assuming even then that the Yankees might have to write off part of the deal. They did get their two good seasons, in 2009 and 2010 (2008 was an injury year, and Posada played in only 51 games), but now Posada is going through the equivalent of a midlife crisis while on the payroll, while the Yankees have the worst production in the league at DH, while Jesus Montero rot at Triple-A hitting .336. However inappropriate Posada’s tantrum, whatever its true dimensions, there is only one author to this crisis, and it’s the guy in the Yankees chain of command who signed off on the four-year offer. If you want a coauthor, it’s whoever is perpetuating him on the roster and in the lineup now. Posada is in no way the victim, but he’s not the villain either.
When you ask people to do things they are incapable of doing, everyone suffers. Ask the miserly to be generous, the selfish to be loyal, the heartless to be loving, the old to play like they’re young and you will reap only pain. Posada, Jeter, perhaps A-Rod, are puzzle pieces being contorted to fit spaces they are no longer flexible enough to occupy. Of course they react with fear, anger, and confusion—they’re undergoing a kind of torture. It’s a lucrative torture, but torture nonetheless.
There is no way of knowing how history would have differed had the Yankees not blinked when it came to negotiating these contract extensions. It likely would have been very similar to what they have now—short-term turbulence and dislocation followed by a solution, at least we hope so. The difference is that they would have spent less money, been better positioned for the future, and everyone could have parted as friends, dignity still intact.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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