|NEW YORK YANKEES|
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
Signed LHP Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract. [12/7]
In the NBA and the NFL, the league’s centers of power migrate from one place to another. Football is played once a week, so people from an extremely wide area surrounding a given team’s home stadium can get there when they wish. The league’s television contracts are all national. A team’s quarterback has an undemocratic degree of influence over the total quality of the team. Pro basketball players have the power to choose their destinations—or rather, lack the power to sell their services for anything close to full market value. The league’s lifeblood is its six-week playoff showcase, during which the superstars shine and the prestige of championships and top-level league marketing follow their lead. Both of those leagues also operate under salary caps.
Maybe baseball will one day mimic those leagues. This CBA was a step in that direction. (More on how this deal impacts the Yankees with regard to that CBA and the changes therein to come.) For now, though, baseball remains the American sports league most steadfastly committed to tradition, capitalism, and its cornerstone franchises. Only once in the last 45 years has an MLB team been dislocated. For that reason, however specious this assumption was, it felt inevitable that Aroldis Chapman would sign with the Yankees.
He’s the quintessential Yankee free agent, and perhaps the quintessential Yankee, period. He has ugly baggage, too much of it for some teams’ and cities’ tastes. He has just a bit more style than substance, though given the substance he does offer, that’s really saying something. While his actual value is a matter of considerable debate (he’s no Tom Brady or LeBron James, we know that, and not only because no one on a 25-man MLB roster has that kind of value over replacement), it’s inarguable that he’s a superstar. His demeanor is too, well, mean for the West Coast, and his swagger isn’t quite raw enough for the big Midwestern markets. No, Chapman, the man with the fastball that leaves all other fastballs in this Age Of The Fastball on the second shelf, also knows from which direction the spotlight is shining at all times. He’s defiant and aloof, and yet, he turns on his huge smile every so often, to keep everyone coming back.
On the mound, he’s a very limited asset. He’s unlikely to pitch more than 70 effective innings over a full regular season, and for myriad reasons, he has not even had many full and uninterrupted seasons of work. Perhaps “limited” is the wrong word, though, and “specialized” is the right one. When he takes the mound, as long as it’s a one-inning appearance and he’s been well rested leading up to it, he’s a nearly automatic set of fairly clean outs. The fastball fades a bit if he’s used three times in four days, or four in six, or five in eight. He really isn’t himself when appearing too often over a given stretch. His fastball flattens out, loses the illusion of a last-second hop that makes it unhittable when he’s right. (Big-league hitters could time a 747, they say, but hitting Chapman’s best heat is like hacking away at a fighter jet piloted by one of the Blue Angels.)
He’ll then rely on his slider, which is a very fine pitch as long as the opposing hitter is desperately trying to catch up to the fastball before it’s even thrown, but which he can’t throw for a strike often enough to use as a substitute primary weapon. His changeup, a pitch he seemingly uses only with his back to the wall, is nonetheless a brilliant offering in its own right. Again, though, all is dependent on him being able to enter at a predictable time, with his arm feeling fresh, and unconcerned with anything more than the three outs in front of him.
The rigidity of the role within which Chapman is really Chapman inevitably robs him of some value. His is a relatively low-mileage arm, and he’s an unbelievable athlete, so despite the extreme torque that is part of his delivery, that helps generate all that speed, he’s not an overwhelming injury risk. Nor is he, strictly speaking, durable. He just hasn’t happened to break yet. He can close, but not change the complexion of a game the way other pitchers might. It’s not only the inability to pitch beyond three outs—virtually every high-leverage reliever in the modern game is trained to do that, and only that—but the inability to impact a large number of games over the course of the season.
If that doesn’t sound like the kind of player who normally commands a five-year contract worth nearly $90 million, well, it isn’t. Chapman isn’t worth this money. Nor are the Yankees in any position to leverage whatever help he offers over the next three years, as they appear to be in a quasi-rebuilding mode. (This has been somewhat exaggerated; they could conceivably compete as soon as 2018.) That said, these are the Yankees, and sometimes the Yankees’ acceptability standard is different than everyone else’s. And sometimes that means adding a superstar just for the hell of it, even if that superstar is a superstar only for the way they play, and not their actual contributions to wins and losses.
The Yankees won’t be able to get under the luxury-tax threshold for 2017 after signing this deal. It was always unlikely that they would do so. What they still have a chance to do, though, is to come in under the levels at which surtaxes are added on top of the flat tax rate. Chapman’s deal doesn’t stop them from doing that, and it won’t stop the team from getting under the threshold next winter, just in time to reset their standing with regard to that tax. Repeat offenders are taxed much more heavily for spending above the threshold–which is $195 million this coming season–than are those who didn’t breach the threshold the previous season.
In the winter of 2018-19, when a huge trove of free-agent talent could hit the market, the threshold will be $209 million, and if the Yankees get under the threshold in the winter in between now and then, they’ll get what amounts to a tax break if they spend their way into the stratosphere. If this deal doesn’t interfere with any of that, and again gives the team one of the most dominant bullpens in the league, and doesn’t cost them a draft pick (which, of course, it doesn’t, because the Yankees themselves traded Chapman in July), and doesn’t block the development of any long-term pieces of importance to the Yankees’ future (which, of course, it doesn’t, because there are no such players in a rebuilding team’s bullpen, not even in New York), then what is there about which to complain?
It’s not a smart use of money, but it’s not stupid, either. Chapman could turn into an elite trade chip again for them. He could still be around when the team is good again. In the meantime, he stops Dellin Betances from racking up saves, which helps keep Betances’ arbitration awards down. If all that happens is he generates the murmur peculiar to a sellout crowd that still can’t believe it when people throw 103 miles per hour, though, the Yankees will probably take it. Superstars in New York don’t have to be truly great to be embraced, and they don’t even have to be embraced all that well for the Yankees to make buckets of money off them.