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November 1, 2011

Transaction Analysis

The Yankees Play Pickup

by Ben Lindbergh

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NEW YORK YANKEES
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Exercised OF-S Nick Swisher's $10.25 million option for 2012. [10/29]
Exercised 2B-L Robinson Cano's $14 million option for 2012. [10/29]
Signed LHP CC Sabathia to a one-year, $25 million contract extension with a vesting option for 2017. [10/31]

Both of the Yankees’ option pickups—like most teams’ option pickups—fall into the “no-brainer” category. The more Cano plays, the smarter the Yankees look for locking him up when they did, since circumstances have changed since the deal was worked out. Cano will make $14 million next season and, Mayans permitting, $15 million in 2013. He signed his current extension in February of 2008, three years into his major-league career, and the early returns weren’t encouraging; that season, the second baseman transformed into a below-average hitter who specialized in falling behind in the count and popping up to left field.

We’ll never know whether the additional pressure conferred by his contract played a role in the ugly April and slightly less unsightly subsequent several months of his 2008 season. That narrative is often bandied about when a young player comes into real major-league money, and while it might be true on occasion, you’d think that a player capable of weathering the pressures of making the Show and playing well enough to earn an encore at that level could handle the sight of a few extra zeroes on his paycheck without falling apart. Likewise, we can’t know whether it was the mechanical adjustments that Kevin Long recommended late in that year that put him back on the path to success.

Whatever the origins of his mysterious age-25 slump and subsequent rebound, Cano has improved with each successive season as he’s settled into his prime. His contract doesn’t quite put him in the Longoria class—Tampa Bay’s perpetually underpaid third baseman, the poster boy for team-friendly extensions, is younger, better, and will remain less richly rewarded than Cano through at least 2016, when he’ll make all of $11.5 million (for which he has no one to blame but himself and agent Paul Cohen). Still, having established himself as a five-to-six win player who would have hit free agency already had he not signed the deal, Cano is a bargain in the mid-teens and well within the means of a deep-pocketed team like the Yankees.

Small wonder, then, that Scott Boras made some noises about restructuring the contract last week before claiming that he’d been kidding, suggesting either that he was throwing the agent’s equivalent of a Hail Mary to better position his client for the next round of negotiations or that the New York Posts George King needs his humor detector retuned. (Most likely, Boras decided that he’d been kidding after he gauged the response to his “joke.”) The Yankees’ financial advantage manifests itself not only in their tendency to raid other teams’ rosters but in their ability to hold on to their own homegrown stars, and Cano is a prime example of the latter possibility paying off.

The Yankees also exercised their option on the last year of the contract Nick Swisher signed with Oakland in May of ’07. The acquisition of Swisher (and spare parts) for Wilson Betemit (and other spare parts) in November of 2008 stands as one of the best moves of Brian Cashman’s tenure, a classic buy-low opportunity created by Swisher’s unsustainably low BABIP and ensuing stormy relationship with then-White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.

Since bottoming out in Chicago, Swisher has been a valuable piece in New York, averaging roughly four wins over the last three seasons. That’s been enough to put him among the top five right fielders in baseball in each of the last two seasons (and the top 10 in 2009), but it hasn’t been enough to quell perennial trade rumors in New York, where it seems that no player, however productive, is immune from such speculation.

As Steven Goldman capably covered elsewhere, exchanging Swisher for Carlos Beltran, whose name has been invoked as a potential right field replacement, would be at best a marginal upgrade and at worst a step backward from the dependable Swisher. It’s strange that Swisher’s steady play and effusive personality haven’t made him more beloved by the Bleacher Creatures, but maybe hitting for a high average and perpetually scowling are more endearing qualities than striking out with a smile. That would explain why some Yankees fans are still waiting for the second coming of Paul O’Neill when his equal has already spent three years in his old position. They may have only one Swisher season left to see the light.

Finally, we come to CC Sabathia, upon whose large frame the Yankees' offseason hinged. Given the massive drop-off in talent between Sabathia and the team’s second starter (whoever that might be), the implied threat of an opt-out by the big man was enough to get the Yankees to sweeten his already-rich deal, tacking on an extra season at $25 million and a vesting option for 2017 with a $5 million buyout. The option will vest unless Sabathia ends the 2016 season on the DL with a left shoulder injury, spends more than 45 days on the DL in 2016 with a left shoulder injury, or makes at least six relief appearances that season due to shoulder woes (all of which makes one wonder what the Yankees know about the current state of Sabathia’s shoulder). Thus, Sabathia (who announced his return himself) is guaranteed at least $30 million more than he was when he woke up yesterday, and no less than $122 million over the next five years, with a maximum payout of $142 million over the next six.

If all goes well, Sabathia will be 37 when the contract comes to an end, which means it’s quite likely that something won’t go well long before then. Even if Sabathia’s conditioning weren’t an issue, the contract would still be subject to the usual concerns about over-30 arms. Of course, the Yankees were already committed to shelling out a combined $44-plus million at the very least to a 40-year-old A-Rod and a 36-year-old Mark Teixeira in 2016 (Sabathia can count on seeing Rodriguez around the clubhouse in 2017 as well), so what’s another $20-something million that won’t come due till the end of the next presidential term?

With Sabathia in the fold, the Yankees can concentrate on their real offseason’s work of assembling a solid rotation behind him, something they never quite managed last season. Unfortunately for them, the state of this winter’s starting market suggests that throwing money at that problem won’t make it go away.


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

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