I honestly don’t know how beat writers and others who travel frequently do it. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a big deal to me in my twenties, or at least if I’d started then, but the travel of the last two weeks took a lot out of me. From New York to Boston to Denver to New York to Phoenix, I didn’t spend more than three days in any bed, racking up about 8000 air miles, a couple hundred more by train, and an encyclopedic knowledge of how Expedia and Hotwire work.
Not that I’m complaining; I went to the World Series (!!!!, still, and probably always), then followed that up with a great week watching Arizona Fall League games and seeing friends at Ron Shandler’s First Pitch Arizona. Being home again, though, I can feel myself crashing physically, drained by the time on the road, the stress of flying-not my strong suit-and the loss of adrenaline, not to mention the lack of any baseball to watch. It was an absolutely amazing stretch of fun, and will be followed by an absolutely amazing stretch of sleep.
Now, a word about process; today’s column is a bit dated, covering the events in and around the Yankees‘ universe since their season ended. I’ve been taking notes for weeks, but haven’t had a chance to write the whole thing up; in fact, I haven’t written in this space since the World Series ended. I have to write this article, though, because what can happen is that an unexecuted column idea can stick in the pipeline and prevent others from happening. I’m aware that I’m covering old ground, but if I don’t, I can’t get to new ground. That’s going to sound like gibberish to some of you, but believe me, I need to write about this stuff to get the wheels turning again.
Let’s start with Alex Rodriguez, the presumptive AL MVP who will now hit the free-agent market, having opted out of the final three years of what was a record-breaking 10-year contract. Let’s make that clear: he opted out of a three-year deal, not a ten-year one. At least one headline indicated that he was doing the latter, which is clearly a biased presentation of the facts designed to paint Rodriguez as greedy. I appreciate that the numbers we’re dealing with here are beyond the scope of many people, but Rodriguez left up to $81 million on the table (the actual amount is a bit unclear due to the deferred-money/accelerated bonus machinations that happened when he was traded to the Yankees) in making this decision. The minimum contract he can be expected to sign is something like eight years at $30 million per season, or $240 milllion total.
Had Rodriguez not opted out, he would have been leaving nearly $160 million on the table. It’s just not rational to expect anyone to turn down that much money. If you argue that it’s more than anyone can spend, I would suggest to you that you’re not thinking big enough; what if Rodriguez wants to endow a middle school, or cure a disease, or own a baseball team? For that matter, why question Rodriguez, or any baseball player, while not challenging countless entertainers and executives who make as much or more a year? It may be difficult to relate to the amounts, and easier to simply wave it away, paint the player as greedy, and take other shots at his character. When you get past that, though, you see that Rodriguez’s decision not only makes sense, it is the only decision that does so.
Think, for a second, of Juan Encarnacion. Encarnacion, a veteran outfielder with the Cardinals, was standing in the on-deck circle on August 31, waiting his turn to hit, when a foul ball off the bat of Albert Pujols struck him in the eye. (Ed. note: It was actually Aaron Miles who fouled the ball off, not Pujols. I apologize for the error.–JSS) Encarnacion’s career almost certainly ended in that moment, and with it, his chances of earning baseball player-level money. He’ll be paid the $6.5 million he’s owed in 2008, and after that, he’ll be like any other thirtysomething going through a career change, only in his case, he’ll be downshifting into careers that don’t carry the kinds of minimum and average salaries that being a baseball player does.
In talking about Encarnacion with some writers, the man’s intelligence, business acumen, and sense of humor came up frequently, so there’s no reason to pity him-he’ll be successful after baseball-but what happened to him points out the stark truth of being a professional athlete: it’s a job that you can do for a limited time, and one that can be taken from you in an instant. You can never blame an athlete for looking for the best deal, because no one is going want to pay them this kind of money for very long. Alex Rodriguez is making the only correct decision for him, his family, and his future.
With that said, the timing was strange. It’s not so much that the announcement came during Game Four of the World Series; the story had broken that Rodriguez would opt out, leaving the player and his agent, Scott Boras, playing defense. If it’s wrong to upstage the World Series, than shouldn’t writers covering the Series also not look to break non-Series stories? I don’t think the latter will fly, so you can’t criticize Rodriguez and Boras too heavily for their part in this.
No, the surprise was that the two would effectively end the Yankees’ window of exclusivity, and theoretically their interest, by announcing the opt-out 10 days earlier than necessary. It seems like a tactical blunder, taking $21 million that the Rangers owed Rodriguez out of the picture, and angering the team to whom Rodriguez means the most on the field, and also the one with the most money to commit to him. Scott Boras has an enviable track record, and there’s no reason to believe he’d make a move that wasn’t well thought-out, but nearly two weeks later, it still seems strange.
Rodriguez’s decision to opt out is crippling to the Yankees. The man carried the team in 2007, and his performance was the difference between the team making the playoffs and not doing so. Even with expected improvement from the pitching next season and the likelihood that Rodriguez would not repeat his 2007 numbers, the loss of their starting third baseman leaves a yawning void in the lineup. You simply cannot fill the hole he leaves, not with any combination of free agents, and not even by trading for someone like Miguel Cabrera (creating other holes by doing so). Worse still for them is that the luxury tax may actually make it unreasonable for even the Yankees to sign Rodriguez, given the 40 percent tax rate they’ll likely pay on his salary. It’s here that you can see the payroll-dampening effects of the tax most clearly, and when you affect the top of the scale, you affect the entire scale.
I’m not certain who Rodriguez will play for in 2008 and beyond, although like most people, I see Anaheim as the best fit. There’s a motivated, well-capitalized owner, and a competitive team that sits in the “sweet spot” for signing free agents, where revenue gains are maximized; it’s also an attractive place to play. Not that the Dodgers, Cubs, and Yankees couldn’t sign Rodriguez-I don’t consider the Mets an option because of their already-super left side of the infield-but the Angels are the favorites. There are very few players who can swing the balance of power in a league, but if Rodriguez does go across the country, it is his new team, rather than his old one, that will present the greatest challenge to the Red Sox over the next few years.
The Yankees will challenge those Sox with a new manager in Joe Girardi, hired in the wake of the team’s shameful handling of the Joe Torre departure. Girardi was considered the favorite for the job, if not the most popular candidate, having played and coached under Torre, and having also come back to the Yankees in 2007 as part of their 32-person broadcast team. This was after Girardi was named the NL Manager of the Year in 2006, his only season with the Marlins, and that award has become such a part of his identity that no one really looks back to see what kind of job he did.
I don’t know if Joe Girardi is a good manager or not. What I do know is that the available evidence doesn’t really swing the argument one way or the other. The 2006 Marlins went 78-84, including a 5-13 closing stretch. Without looking, I’ll bet everything in my pockets that that’s the worst finish ever for a team run by the Manager of the Year. What came out at the time was that Girardi had enough conflicts with owner Jeffrey Loria that he was dismissed even after that surprising season. What cropped up in his wake was the team suffering through a 2007 season in which the starting pitchers Girardi managed in ’06 were either hurt or much less effective. How much of the blame for that should be placed in Girardi’s lap, and would the connection be clearer had he not been fired after one season? Again, we don’t know, but given that the Yankees’ future success is almost entirely dependent on the health and performance on young starting pitchers, it’s a question that has to be asked.
The hiring of Girardi instead of Don Mattingly has led to the departure of Mattingly from the organization, which won’t help the new manager with the fan base. Mattingly is the most beloved Yankee since Joe Dimaggio, and should the team get off to a poor start in ’08, not only will Girardi not have a decade of success to fall back on, but he may find himself the target of those who will paint him as the guy who forced out Donnie Baseball. Let’s be clear about this-2008 is likely to be the Yankees’ least successful season since 1993. Bringing in Girardi may add to the difficulty the Yankees have retaining Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera, three of the best players on the 2007 team. Already, Pettitte has declined his 2008 option, and while Rivera will likely be back, Posada is in line for the biggest contract he’ll ever sign; if some team goes crazy and offers five years and $70 million-not out of the question for player coming off of Posada’s 2007 season-can he really turn down $25 million to stay in New York?
Let’s make this clear: the Yankees aren’t going to drift into the 1964-1975 period, or even the 1980s, again. But everything over the last month-from the handling of Torre to the opt-out to the newfound verbosity of Hank Steinbrenner-creates an uncomfortable tinge of “circus” around the franchise. Combined with the likelihood that the 2008 Yankees will win between 84 and 89 games and not reach the postseason, the stage is set for at least a brief period of turmoil that recalls the darker moments of the General Von Steingrabber era.