I spent most of the winter yelling at the free agent market to hurry up, hurry up! When you’re writing a season preview you want all the moves to happen as quickly as possible so your book is as up-to-date as it possibly can be when it hits shelves. All my goading got Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia signed, but it hasn’t budged Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, or any of the dozens of other free agents still on the market. Indeed, this winter has been one of the slowest to develop since the post-strike season, when any number of homeless players began Spring Training in a separate camp for displaced persons. With so many players still available, there are many teams that could look quite different when Spring Training convenes than they do now.
It has long been argued that teams should not shoot themselves in the wallet by overpaying for middle relievers, spot lefties, and the like, because those players are generally so inconsistent, and their roles frequently so marginal, that it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for their services. With the exception of the odd Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, 75 percent of relievers could be shoved into a paper bag at the end of each season and picked out at random until each team had a full bullpen compliment, and the Majors would probably see the exact same distribution of good and bad bullpens as it does now. With the sour economy, it seems likely that teams have finally acquired the discipline to do this, as well as extend the principle to any other suspect class or individual player. This seems the most likely answer for why, for example, so many reasonably good spot lefties are on the market. It’s not that LOOGYs have gone out of style, but that paying them has. The players in turn must adjust to the new reality and diminish their expectations — which, poor lambs, means they’ll still get millions of dollars.
One player who has almost certainly been harmed by the New Fiscal Realities is Bobby Abreu, a player who is undoubtedly looking for a multi-year contract with which to close out his career. So far it ain’t happening, and it’s probably a safe bet that the one-year offers haven’t been to Abreu’s liking either. Say you get hooked into Abreu for his age-35, -36, and -37 season. If Abreu stays right where he is, you’re in good shape, particularly if you’re asking him to be your designated hitter. Unfortunately, 2008 was the kind of termite season that breeds doubters.
It seems strange to say something so critical of Abreu’s .296/.371/.471 season, but there’s a lot to be concerned about. Abreu hit only 20 home runs, not an awe-inspiring total, and while he still took a solid 73 walks, he was less patient than at any time in his career. These two facts — lower echelon power and ebbing patience — mean Abreu’s production will depend heavily on his batting average, and batting average is the least consistent aspect of any player’s production. Throw in a home-road split favorable to Yankee Stadium and signs of declining ability on the basepaths, and there is real cause to worry about getting stuck.
Abreu has been further damaged because 2008 was the year that his defensive problems changed from something that those eccentric fans in Philly made fun of to something that was visible to all and was quickly perceived as a real problem. When Gary Sheffield played right field for the Yankees, I used to make fun of his lack of range and oddly circuitous routes in the outfield. On fly balls to medium or short right field he sometimes looked like water swirling down the drain. Abreu makes the Sheffield of a few years ago look like a master defender, in that Sheffield played his position badly, but at least he attempted to play all of it. Because Abreu cannot go back, only forward, he gives up a whole section of his zone that a right fielder without this unusual handicap would cover. Even a poor outfielder would catch the odd ball at the wall.
This estimation of Abreu’s defense likely restricts him to the American League, where he may be hurt by the fact that a younger, more versatile (sort of), and more productive player in Dunn is still hanging around the market, not to mention Ramirez. A solid year from Abreu could be a godsend for the Angels after losing Teixeira. He could probably help the A’s, although with Matt Holliday in left, two designated hitters in Jason Giambi and Jack Cust, and a first baseman they’d like to get back on track in Daric Barton, it’s hard to see where everyone is going to play. If the Mariners would let Jeff Clement catch and push Kenji Johjima to the bench, Abreu would be a good fit in the Emerald City. The Rangers have this odd idea about letting Nelson Cruz play in right field, so he probably wouldn’t fit in there, and their DH spot is occupied by Hank Blalock.
These are not great choices. There is no automatic fit. Nor is Abreu a good fit for any of these teams at three years, and maybe not even for two. Abreu never got his due as a great player at his peak, but now his game has eroded to the point that it’s far too late to give him the rewards his resume would suggest that he deserves.
Shut up, he explained
Now that Mark Teixeira is in the fold, it feels as if the Yankees can settle back, burp loudly, and wait for spring training to begin. No one would blame them if they felt a sense of completion, having picked up the two best players on the free agent market in Teixeira and Sabathia, and clearly some owners would be happier if they took the rest of the winter off, but it would be a mistake. There is still more work to do.
Before we run down the list of items that should still be on the agenda, is it possible we can have a moratorium on owners calling for a salary cap because the Yankees just purchased a player on whom they weren’t seriously bidding? Sabathia could easily have gone to the Dodgers, Teixeira to the Red Sox or even the bleeding Nationals, and these captains of industry wouldn’t have made a peep. The playing field is not even. There are ways of fixing that have little to do with salary caps, which simply transfer dough from the players to the owners without changing the competitive balance even slightly. If redistribution of wealth meant that much, revenue sharing would have already done the job, but we know what those same owners do with the revenue sharing dough–they pocket it, or use it to pay down debt on their leveraged franchises.
Until such time as these owners are ready to truly address the issues of competitive balance, which will require revisions to basic assumptions about territoriality that go back to the business’s earliest days, they can stop trying to fool the public about the need for a cap and try to beat the Yankees, which we’ve seen can be done by virtue of just being smarter. The Yankees spend, they win regular season games, but they haven’t been to a World Series in five years, haven’t won one in eight, and the Joe Torre run of great teams is a little, glorious island in a long sea of trying and failing, despite enough money to keep Steve Kemp in comic books and champagne for his next several lifetimes.
Meanwhile, the Yankees go about the work of trying to craft a winning team. I should stop there, but I won’t, and not just because I get paid to go on at great length. In a winter in which the Yankees have made great strides in pursuing the obvious, like an ace pitcher for a staff that needs an ace and a first baseman to play first base–as opposed to a designated hitter, or a catcher, or a singles-hitting left fielder, or Miguel Cairo–now are looking to get their outfield in order. They don’t have to trade Xavier Nady, but given that he’s not the hitter that Nick Swisher is, or was, given that he’s not the hitter that the average right fielder is, it makes sense to see what they can get for the overvalued corner-man. He’d make a nice reserve/injury insurance policy, but if they can get anything of long-term value for a player of his minor key skill set, arbitration eligibility, and impending free agency, they should certainly go for it. Current rumor has them doing just that. Again, it’s pursuit of the obvious. Do that often enough, and you’ll get better.
In other news…
The Red Sox signed Brad Penny, who had a truly unpleasant year with the Dodgers, concealing an injury before breaking down altogether. His strikeout rates and general career path don’t suggest that he gives the Red Sox much more than above-average depth, but that’s something. What’s most interesting in the signing is the vote of no-confidence it expresses in Clay Buchholz. One wonders if this is an effect of the Yankees’ aggressive work this offseason–it is more typical of this regime to give the tyro pitcher another shot, and just chalk up the fifth spot in their rotation to development. Given other uncertainties in their rotation, such as the health problems of Josh Beckett, the wildness of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the 42-ness of Tim Wakefield, they needed more certainty. They apparently preferred the younger Penny to old hand Derek Lowe, and one supposes that if anyone knows about Lowe they do, but Penny still seems like a gamble. One can see why they wouldn’t want another wild pitcher in Oliver Perez, but Ben Sheets would seem to have a higher upside. Perhaps the Red Sox, like the rest of us, are overleveraged.
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