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Much of what I have to say about the Alex Rodriguez trade shows up in an e-mail exchange between Gary Huckabay and I that was posted here yesterday. We kicked around a few of the issues the trade brought up, and I encourage all of you to check out that piece.

One issue we didn’t really cover was defense. I’m coming around to the idea, which a number of people inside BP have proffered, that the initial announcement of Rodriguez’s shift to third base will be forgotten by Opening Day, and that he’ll soon take over shortstop from Derek Jeter. I think the announcement was a necessary subterfuge to keep the controversy of “who plays short?” from overwhelming the trade talks. As I said on the radio yesterday, I don’t think there’s much chance that Rodriguez plays 160 games at third base for the Yankees this year.

This isn’t a matter that requires a lot of study. It’s not one of those, “six of one, half-dozen of the other” debates that gets stirred up sometimes. This is a no-brainer, complicated only by Jeter’s popularity and the mythology that surrounds him. Rodriguez should be the Yankees’ shortstop, and Jeter should be offered his choice among second base, third base or center field. (If you’re willing to move Alex Rodriguez to third base, then you should be willing to make Kenny Lofton a fourth outfielder and Bernie Williams a full-time DH. For that matter, you should be willing to move Mariano Rivera to left field.)

Here are the two shortstops’ career defensive numbers as regulars, expressed in Fielding Runs Above Replacement, per Clay Davenport:

Year   Jeter    Rodriguez
1996       5           32
1997      11           11
1998      16           23
1999       8           18
2000      -2           34
2001       4           36
2002       4           34
2003      -3           31
Total     43          219

That’s just one statistic, but Jeter ranks poorly by every defensive metric and evaluation system you care to choose, and has for four years running. He’s a good baseball player and a replacement-level defensive shortstop; athletic, but lacking certain core skills that are necessary to make someone a positive contributor at the position. Over the past few seasons, Rodriguez has been three to three-and-a-half wins better defensively than Jeter has been. Having the two of them on your team and choosing Jeter to play shortstop is baseball malpractice.

The idea that the Yankees can’t move Jeter because he’s DEREK JETER!! is silly. He’s not being asked to move for some journeyman, or even for a young suspect like Erick Almonte. Maybe Jeter is one of the 10 best shortstops ever, a Hall of Famer who will reach 3,000 hits and 2,000 runs scored. Rodriguez isn’t in that class; he’s so far above it that he buried the idea of The Trinity somewhere back in the late 20th century. He’s in the running to be one of the greatest players ever, and to potentially shatter Barry Bonds‘ career mark of 782 home runs.

It’s not an insult to ask Jeter to move. It is an insult to put on a charade that he should be playing shortstop in the same infield as Rodriguez. He’s just not qualified.

Personally, I want Rodriguez to stay at shortstop not just because of my Yankee fandom, but because I want to see what he can accomplish. He has a chance to find himself in the discussion of greatest players ever, but he needs to play shortstop for as long as he can to help that case. Just eyeballing some WARP figures, the best seasons for the game’s best third basemen seem to come in at about 2-3 per year less than the best seasons for the game’s best shortstops. If Rodriguez is a 12 WARP guy at shortstop, he’ll be a 10 WARP guy at third. That’s still a hell of a player, but the value he loses over a period of years–say, between now and when he might “naturally” change positions in his mid-30s–would keep him out of the Bonds/Honus Wagner/Babe Ruth/Ted Williams group.

There’s a lot of attention being focused on the fact that the Yankees got Rodriguez while the Red Sox, who pursued him throughout much of the offseason, didn’t. While this trade certainly doesn’t help the Red Sox’ chances of finishing ahead of the Yankees, it also doesn’t bury them. The gap between Rodriguez and Soriano in ’02 and ’03 was 3.7 and 2.5 WARP, respectively. With Soriano coming into his peak and Rodriguez exiting it, a conservative estimate of the gap between the two players is three wins a year (assuming Rodriguez at shortstop). PECOTA’s estimated WARP for the two players over the next five years:

Year  Soriano    Rodriguez
2004      5.6          8.7
2005      4.1          6.8
2006      3.9          6.6
2007      3.0          6.4
2008      3.2          4.7

PECOTA is smarter than I am, but all of those figures look low. Rodriguez has been worth at least 11.6 WARP in every season since 2000, and projecting such a drastic falloff from age 27 to 29 doesn’t seem realistic for a player of his caliber. I think Soriano may never be as good again as he was in ’02 and ’03, but there’s a lot of room between that and losing more than half his value in th enext two seasons.

Three wins a year is nothing to sneeze at, but the Yankees still have to survive three rounds of playoff games to make this plan a success in the eyes of George Steinbrenner, and even adding Rodriguez doesn’t make them an overwhelming favorite to beat anybody in a postseason round.

The interesting question that won’t be answered for nine months is what if, after pushing his 2004 payroll close to $200 million, Steinbrenner is again forced to watch the Yankees lose a short series in October. It could happen, because even the very best teams can only gain so much of an edge over other good teams in five or seven games. While this trade increases the Yankees’ chance of being in the playoffs, it does much less to enhance their chance of actually winning three best-ofs in a row, because there’s little that can be done to enhance that beyond a certain point.

If the Yankees end 2004 in any fashion other than damp, mildly buzzed and reeking of Korbel, the fallout could be even more outrageous. Steinbrenner could sign Kerry Wood, Carlos Beltran and LeBron James next winter in an effort to win in 2005. The Yankees could have an ’05 payroll of close to $250 million, and if you think that sounds nuts, understand how ridiculous a $190MM payroll would have sounded a year ago.

While some people speculated that Bud Selig would block the Rodriguez trade, I think he’s perfectly happy to watch Steinbrenner run his payroll miles past his nearest competitors. Much of the disinformation campaign in 2002 centered on a payroll disparity that wasn’t nearly as pronounced at the top of the scale as was widely believed. Thanks to Steinbrenner’s frustration and an investment tax that constrains the other 29 teams, we now have just that disparity.

When the new CBA comes up for negotiation, Selig may have the example he needs to not only convince fans and media that an industrywide cap on labor costs is necessary, but to convince the MLBPA that such a device is actually in their best interests. If the Yankees going nuts leads to a more forceful restraint on labor costs, then, as crazy as it sounds, George Steinbrenner will have been the best thing to happen to baseball owners since depreciation.

Thank you for reading

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