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May 17, 2011

The BP Broadside

The Bronx Blame Game and the Posada Psychodrama

by Steven Goldman

Being risk-averse can kill a great team dead. Let’s begin with the Yankees’ lineup in 1950:
 

1950

AGE

Yogi Berra

C

25

Joe Collins

1B

27

Jerry Coleman

2B

25

Billy Johnson

3B

31

Phil Rizzuto

SS

32

Hank Bauer

OF

27

Joe DiMaggio

OF

35

Gene Woodling

OF

27

 

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. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

eighteen

"When you ask people to do things they are incapable of doing, everyone suffers."

Like asking your manager to not bat you 9th when you're the worst hitter in the majors?

The issue with Posada isn't that he's being asked to do something he can't - it's that he's asking for preferential treatment to produce something nobody wants.

May 17, 2011 10:44 AM
rating: 2
 
bumphadley

It seems to me that letting Posada go after his great season, and especially letting Jeter go after last season, would have put tremendous stress on the Yankee front office. First, there would have been an apocalyptic PR hit. Second, the Yankees did not have replacements for Posada or Jeter on hand. I think that PR and sports media were very different in the 50s and those 50s teams always had adequate replacements on hand. And, another thing to consider has to be the effect on the branding of the team.

May 17, 2011 11:01 AM
rating: 2
 
Shaun P.
(676)

If the Yankee brand could not survive the loss of Jeter or Posada or both, then the Yankee brand is worthless.

I think your other arguments carry a lot more weight and reasonableness. I'Il add one more-given how great Posada was in 2009 and 2010, the Yanks probably don't win the Serious/make the playoffs without him.

May 17, 2011 15:37 PM
rating: -1
 
Matt Kory

As Steve pointed out, the Yankees have Montero in AAA. He could certainly have replicated Posada's pathetic slash line. As for Jeter, well he's just not very good anymore. Replacing him wouldn't be too difficult. Just off the top of my head I'm sure the Yankees could have picked up JJ Hardy.

May 17, 2011 21:04 PM
rating: 0
 
devine

Posada is my favorite Yankee, but I'd never argue that the Yankees shouldn't make some cold-hearted decision on him, and likely soon.

Jeter? There's one angle to that story that few people seem to credit, but I think it makes all sorts of sense. The $51 million, and the reduced chance of winning this year by batting him leadoff, are (perhaps) reasonable prices to pay for the future marketing value of a living, telegenic, lifetime-Yankees who is the only man to ever have 3,000 hits as a Yankee.

It's a *business* decision - an investment in a marketing asset. Winning is a great way for teams to make money, and we often discuss it as the *only* way. But it isn't, and the Yankees, more than any other team in the league (and perhaps in the country), know how to turn history, Mystique and Aura, and other related goodies into sponsorship dollars and brand equity. God knows I'd love to be the marketing guy tasked with leveraging Brand Jeter for the next 40 years. DiMaggio (with help from Paul Simon) was great for marketing the Yankees, Yogi has been great, Jeter? He'll be better than either.

Which, I submit, is why he is leading off.

May 17, 2011 11:21 AM
rating: 10
 
SaberTJ

I find it hard to believe that the $51 million given to Jeter to stick around is worth more because of future mystic than if the team had a quality player at SS whom helped them win another WS or two in the next couple years.

May 17, 2011 11:44 AM
rating: -2
 
dianagram

Unfortunately, that quality SS didn't/doesn't exist on the Yanks roster (apologies to Nunez and Pena), and Cito Culver isn't due til at least 2013.

Also, the 2010-11 free agent market at SS consisted of: Juan Castro, Craig Counsell, Bobby Crosby, Adam Everett, Cristian Guzman, Cesar Izturis, Julio Lugo, Augie Ojeda, Jhonny Peralta, Nick Punto, Edgar Renteria and Miguel Tejada. IOW, nobody who could match Jeter's (reduced) offense, and only capable of providing marginal improvements defensively.

As for trading for a SS, which team had a SS to deal, and was going to deal a SS to the almighty Yankees, when they KNEW the Yanks HAD to re-sign Captain Jeter?

There was no real way around this ... Jeter needed the Yanks, and the Yanks needed Jeter.

May 17, 2011 12:16 PM
rating: 5
 
SaberTJ

A fair point about the availability of other SS options, but why not sign Jeter to a one year deal, and try grabbing someone like Reyes for future seasons? Or put a lesser body out there to start the season and trade for Reyes or another option? The Yankees seemingly have plenty of pitching in the minors to trade for such a player.

Perhaps the Yankees dug themselves a hole by being proactive in preparing a replacement for Jeter's obvious deteriorating skills.

I don't understand this HAD to sign Jeter mindset. This is strictly a media created idea. The Yankees don't need Jeter to put fans in the seats. If they were able to get someone like Lee in place of less offense/better defense at the SS that would certainly be forgivable by the fan base.

May 17, 2011 13:10 PM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

Should say (not being proactive)

May 17, 2011 13:11 PM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

I concur about the one-year deal aspect of this. The Yanks really only HAD to have Jeter at SS for his 3,000th hit, which (fisted to right field willing will happen this year). It really is the last 2 years of this new deal that are so untenable.

If I were the Yanks, I would have offered him $35 million for 2011 (as a "to hell with the 2011 luxury tax, we're giving you this golden parachute"), and then a *club* option for 2012 at around $9 million. Take it or leave it. (And I doubt Jeter would have passed it up).

May 17, 2011 13:18 PM
rating: 4
 
bumphadley

I'm not a sentimental Jeter fan, but still these are very delicate negotiations. He is human and he would have been offended by an offer which suggests one more season and then out (at the very least, he would have been offended by the comparison of the terms of his deal with the terms ARod received).

If players were droids, I would agree with SaberTJ. But, given human reactions, not re-signing Posada and Jeter and all of the concomitant distractions is taking a tremendous risk. I think that the costs are higher than Steve is willing to admit.

May 17, 2011 16:10 PM
rating: 2
 
SaberTJ

I agree with this. Give Jeter his last hurrah, and start worrying about winning the year afterwards.

May 18, 2011 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
SaberTJ

I really don't think the Yankees would have any trouble branding their team if Jeter and Posada were left off the roster for 2011.

They could have offered even more to Cliff Lee, signed a defensive whiz at SS, and put Montero at DH. Problem solved.

May 17, 2011 11:31 AM
rating: 1
 
randolph3030

This is not meant to be confrontational at all...but, I've got a suspicion that you aren't from Yankee-land. I think that you are missing the real-politic of the Jeter situation. The guy is The Prince of New York, he's not only the face of the organization, he's a symbol of NYC. Allowing Jeter (or forcing Jeter) to walk away from the Yankees certainly makes sense on the field, but its nonsensical in the larger picture. I love Jetes, he's The Guy for my generation of Yankee fans. I'm also well-aware that his "winner's mentality" is hurting the Yanks, and that he can't play SS anymore, and all of his hits a dinkles to short right field. But, until he falls over like a dead oak tree, he's going to be there.

And as for the "problem solved", in this alt-universe when that SS is crushed under the weight of replacing The Captain (i.e. Juan Bell/Cal Ripken) and Montero slumps through May and Jeter hits .300/.350/.350 for the Dodgers, that is a HUGE problem for all on the Yankees end.

May 18, 2011 05:16 AM
rating: 1
 
randolph3030

And to just clarify, I agree with your other statements (in this and other comments above), in almost all other cases. For instance, signing Ryan Howard in Philly...when he's 37 and can't hit, he's not a fan-favorite anymore. The 25-year would be replacement who would be hitting would be the fan-favorite. Same goes for Posada, or others like Bernie Williams, there was an outcry when the Yanks jettisoned Bernie, but nobody cares now (except Mike Francesca). Jeter is different. When Montero comes up and starts hitting, the bozos in the Yanks radio booth will wax lyrically about his abilities the same way they do about Hip-Hip on his occasional successes.

May 18, 2011 05:21 AM
rating: 0
 
copperfield

"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."
This is perfectly stated, and like so many things Steve writes, concisely points out the irony of the reasoning behind these types of deals. I always think of these contracts in terms of our inability as fans to accept decay as a part of the game, to wish for the immortality of a player's skill. Conversely, baseball has really taught me to appreciate just how fleeting skill or performance can be. It actually enhances my appreciation of what I watch. Boston.com's Red Sox page headline today- "Time to Re-sign Papi?"

May 17, 2011 16:08 PM
rating: 1
 
whanson

Jeter needed the Yankees for marketing purposes just as much as they needed him. There was no easy replacement for him, but where was he going. Nobody else would have given him the term, the money, signed him to start at SS, and given him the chance to win a championship. They did the right thing in signing him, but the length of the deal and the price wasn't necessary. He played the off season game better.

And I am a sentimental Jeter fan.

May 17, 2011 19:04 PM
rating: 0
 
devine

Jeter may have needed the Yankees as much as they needed him - for the next 4 years. After that? Jeter could just retire to St. Jetersburg and play with starlets and skip the old-timers games and spring-training appearances and the like. And the Yankees will definitely want him to do all of that, for the next 40 years.

May 18, 2011 19:16 PM
rating: 0
 
roadawg

Also, the 2010-11 free agent market at SS consisted of: Juan Castro, Craig Counsell, Bobby Crosby, Adam Everett, Cristian Guzman, Cesar Izturis, Julio Lugo, Augie Ojeda, Jhonny Peralta, Nick Punto, Edgar Renteria and Miguel Tejada. IOW, nobody who could match Jeter's (reduced) offense, and only capable of providing marginal improvements defensively.



Agreed on most, except this isn't correct. Peralta is a lot better hitter than Jeter this year, and its not even close.

May 18, 2011 07:09 AM
rating: 0
 
dianagram

Point taken.

May 18, 2011 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
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