Friday, December 26, 2008

How Do You Solve A Problem Like The Yankees?

Ah, the Yankees, so maligned, so hateable. As a Toronto fan, it is beyond easy to blame the success and failure of the Jays on the free-spending ways of the "Evil Empires:" the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It's not unreasonable to suggest that the success of those two franchises has had a large effect on the fate of those aforementioned Blue Jays. Recently with the Tampa Bay Rays' run at success for the first time in their dozen year existence commentators are suggesting that it is not unfair to be in the same division as the heavyweights; afterall, if the Rays can do it, so can the Jays, right? Shockingly, the Jays management doesn't seem too keen about the prospects of a decade of last place finishes to restock their farm system and get lucky in one year. According to many metrics, the Jays were better than the Rays last year.

But whether or not the Jays can improve their chances, there's still the problem of the Yankees. They are fresh off the signing of AJ Burnett, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira now and a lot of people seem to believe they have bought their way into contention yet again. Remarkably, since the start of this decade the Yankees have not won a World Series ring to speak of, since they began their ridiculous spending spree. They have a strategy but a lot of people don't realize what it is. Let's go over it now.

Player Inflation

You know how it is, every free agent season there seems to be something like every person in baseball waits on baited breath for the big guys to sign? This year no chips would fall until CC Sabathia lanked with the Yanks. Year in, year out, this is what happens. This is no surprise: the best free agents set the markets for the lower classes. Teix signs for 180/8 and players agents' now have a standard to compare to. The more the top free agents get paid, the more everyone else down the line gets paid. This is what I refer to as player contract inflation.

The top dollars go up every year, natural due to inflation but far outpacing it because baseball's a boom industry right now. This is not sustainable in the long run as you have a hard cap after which the owners just aren't making enough money to justify the spending increases year after year. Or, well...

The Grand Yankee Strategy

Notice how the top free agents, the ones who set the market, usually seem to fall into the hands of the Yankees? Teixeira and Sabathia this year, A-Rod last year, Pavano, Giambi, etc. It doesn't happen every year, such as AJ Burnett's contract with Toronto or Barry Zito's with San Fran, but in the long run there is one driving factor to the dramatically escalating contract inflation: the New York Yankees.

With the money they throw around this is no shocking revelation. Steinbrenner wants a winning team so he pays top dollar for the top players, right? Well, that's almost like a side effect. It's more about Brian Cashman, Yankee GM, than anyone else as far as I can figure. It pays for him to pay top dollar, even if they're crap players. He has a blank check for his payroll and he can afford anything, so it's in his best interest to keep contract inflation skyrocketing. Players get signed to ridiculous contracts on other teams because their GMs want to compete with the Yankees in the FA market. They can't afford them and ownership forces them to trade them to whoever can pay their salary. But it's only the Yankees who can afford them, and they've had a couple years to look at the players and see if they're good enough for the team.

The prime example here is Alex Rodriguez. He became a free agent after his six years in Seattle and the Rangers signed him to a ridiculous ten year contract. If they hadn't, the Yankees would have. A few years in, the Rangers still aren't a great team and they have to trade A-Rod. They got a decent return for him in Soriano, sure, but A-Rod might be the best player to ever play the game. What would be happening now if Barry Zito didn't suck so much? The Giants probably would have moved his contract already to the Yankees, but now the Yankees don't want him. The risk is on the signing team, not the team that can pick up the salary dump.

So there you have it: the Yankees drive up player contract inflation so that only a few teams can afford the top players. It forces the mid-market teams who hope to contend via free agency into dumb contracts that they can't afford, and the Yankees can pick apart the carcass. That is how the Yankees compete, because baseball is like a business and like every business you need a strategy.

Tune in soon to hear the drawbacks and why it's headed towards a fall.

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