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December 24, 2008

Prospectus Today

A Holiday Surprise

by Joe Sheehan

It's not a classic, or even a movie I would describe as one of my favorites, but if I stumble upon Quiz Show while I'm flipping channels, I usually stay there for a while. The movie features a great story, some fantastic performances by the members of an ensemble cast-I'm partial to Rob Morrow as the self-made investigator dealing with issues of class and education in his interactions with the Van Doren family; and Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren, the elite, even effete, academic father of the dashing protagonist-and some tremendous dialogue, particularly between Scofield and Ralph Fiennes as father and son. The movie, a docudrama about the 1950s scandal in which the game show Twenty-One, among others, was found to be rigged, with the producers supplying answers to contestants in advance and deciding which ones would win and for how many shows, holds up well over multiple viewings.

There's a scene in the film in which a contestant who has been told to give a wrong answer instead supplies the correct one, foiling the plot while on live television. Host Jack Barry, played convincingly by Christopher McDonald, is all set to turn to the opponent to get the correct response when he catches himself, pauses, turns, and goes back to the first contestant, asking in disbelief if he heard correctly. You can see the wheels turning..."You weren't supposed to say that, sir. Now what do I do?"

That was me at 3 p.m. yesterday. After expecting the wrong answer for months, I was astounded to learn that the Yankees had signed the best free agent on the market, a player who fills a need for them and who upgrades their team on both sides of the ball. The signing of A.J. Burnett seemed to close off the possibility of adding Mark Teixeira, given that it was their second major commitment to a pitcher in the previous two weeks. With $40 million per year worth of starting pitchers in hand, a $20 million-or-more per season first baseman didn't seem within reach. By inking Mark Teixeira to an eight-year deal worth $180 million, the Yankees cemented their position as the game's evil empire to the other 29 fan bases, and reaffirmed their commitment to their own. They made a decision that might eventually cause even more targeted rule changes, but one that is clearly the right one for their franchise.

This is the Yankees at their best: signing the top free agents on the market. They're leveraging not only the greater marginal revenue that can be generated by each win in New York City, but also their massive cash flow in an industry in which many, even most, teams are hoarding cash in an unsure economy. Other fans and other owners may complain, but the money is coming in; it can go into the team's pockets, or it can be used to improve the baseball team. If the scale doesn't work, change the scale-fix the revenue-sharing formulas to factor in market size and potential revenues, as Keith Woolner suggested forever ago-but don't blame a team for trying to win. Ever. For all of the focus on the $420-odd million the Yankees have committed to three players, their 2009 payroll won't be much more than the 2008 one, due to the absence of so many eight-figure salaries: Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Bobby Abreu, Andy Pettitte, and Carl Pavano all combined to make nearly $80 million last year.

Teixeira is at his peak, one he's expected to maintain for a few more seasons. Check out his PECOTA card, generated prior to the 2008 season, and both the stable performance expected in 2009-11 and the tiny rate of decline. Teixeira's fantastic 2008 season did nothing to lower expectations. He is as safe a bet as exists on the market, and when you also consider the defensive upgrade-Teixiera is generally a +10 to +15 defender, and he's replacing the brutal Jason Giambi-few teams had as much to gain from signing Teixeira as the Yankees did. Teixeira may lose a few points of batting average in the move to the AL East, but everything else will be the same. He's an inordinately safe investment for a free agent, which is a contrast to the contracts of Sabathia and Burnett.

This was simply a great baseball decision, and a great business one. The Yankees' focus on signing starting pitchers will do little more than maintain the status quo. Sabathia and Burnett replace Mussina and Pettitte, who combined to throw 404 innings of 3.90 ERA baseball last season. With Sabathia moving to a much tougher competitive environment and Burnett not pitching for a new contract, it's far from a lock that the two will combine to improve upon those rotation slots. The Yankees are paying just shy of $40 million next year just to maintain the run prevention they got at the front of the rotation a year ago. For the Yankee pitching to improve, the young starters-Joba Chamberlain, Philip Hughes, and Ian Kennedy should someone get hurt-will have to stay in the rotation and perform to expectations.

It's easy to say that these moves make the Yankees the favorite in the AL East, but it's not clear that's the case. The Red Sox have certainly had a quiet winter, but they also had many fewer holes to fill. From the primary contributors on the team that fell six innings shy of the World Series, the only guys they're losing are Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek; in both instances, the players are replaceable, and can even be improved upon. The Yankees have been active by necessity; the Red Sox have been quiet by choice. The Yankees appear to be basically even with the Red Sox now; the Sox' edge is in their defense, while the Yankees' lies in the likelihood that they'll score more runs. Both are ahead of the Rays, who are likely to regress a bit in '09 before being scary good in the years that follow.

If this winter signals that the Yankees are going to narrow their focus to the very best talent available and use their deep pockets to bring them into the fold, that's a very good thing for Yankee fans who spent too many years with Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright instead of Carlos Beltran. What it means for the industry is less clear, although the most shrill voices are almost certainly out of key.

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

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