"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Hey, Big Spender

Has everyone lost their minds?

Look, we all knew Alex Rodriguez was going to get a ridiculous contract. He didn’t get the $300 million guaranteed he was aiming for, but he came close enough, landing a record setting deal that has the greatest total worth ($275 million guaranteed) and greatest annual salary ($27.5 million) in baseball history and won’t expire until Rodriguez is 42 years old.

We all knew Jorge Posada was going to get a ridiculous contract for a 36-year-old catcher, and he did, landing a four-year deal with an average annual salary of $13.1 million that won’t expire until Posada is 40 years old.

One can justify overpaying those two because their value so greatly exceeds the other available players at their positions, and in Rodriguez’s case, so greatly exceeds all other available players, period.

On top of those two deals, the Yankees offered Mariano Rivera a three-year, $45-million contract that would give him an annual salary nearly 43 percent higher than the next highest closer in baseball (Billy Wagner, $10.5 million) and would cover his age 38, 39, and 40 seasons. That’s a legacy deal, a contract that has more to do with what Rivera has done for the Yankees than what he’s likely to do over the next three seasons. It’s the Yankees showing respect and saying “thank you” to the greatest closer the game has ever seen. Yet, somehow, Rivera thinks he deserves a fourth year despite the fact that he’s coming off his worst season.

Maybe it’s because Posada got a fourth year. Maybe it’s because Hank Steinbrenner just couldn’t keep his mouth shut (in confirming the Yankees offer to Rivera on Tuesday, Steinbrenner said, “He’d be, by $4 million a year, the highest-paid relief pitcher. To say that’s a strong offer would be an understatement. . . . The ball’s in their court. If they still want to look for more somewhere else, that’s up to them.” With those kind of diplomacy skills this guy could be president.) Whatever it is, Rivera is holding out for more, and I’m not sure the Yankees should give in.

To begin with, the ability to close ballgames is overrated. Just look at the Blue Jays. Two years ago, the Blue Jays gave B.J. Ryan a contract that everyone thought was ludicrous. (Ryan was 30 at the time of the deal, which was for $47 million over five years. Compare that to what Rivera seems to be asking for on the verge of his 38th birthday.) In the second year of the deal, Ryan’s arm blew out on him so, after a brief period of trial and error, the Jays made Jeremy Accardo, a third-year reliever making the league minimum who was picked up in the Shea Hillenbrand dump trade the previous year, their closer. Accardo converted 30 of 35 save chances over the remainder of the season while posting a 2.79 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. Compare that to Rivera’s 2007 season in which he converted 30 of 34 save chances while posting a 3.15 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP. Similarly, Rule 5 draftee Joakim Soria was more effective closing games for the Royals than veteran free agent Octavio Dotel, and the A’s got on just fine with journeyman LOOGY Alan Embree closing games when Huston Street hit the DL.

If you look around the majors, you’ll see that, outside of Rivera, Wagner, Trevor Hoffman, and Jason Isringhausen, closers are either players who have yet to hit free agency (Accardo, Papelbon, Ray, Nathan, Jenks, Soria, K-Rod, Street, Putz, Otsuka, Lidge, Gregg, Chad Cordero, Capps, Valverde, Corpas, Saito, Hennessey) or underwhelming veterans who have found success in a role that’s not nearly as demanding as the mythmakers would have you believe (Jones, Borowski, Reyes, Weathers, Dempster). It seems that the word is getting around that it’s easier to make a new closer than pay an old one (we should be able to add Chad Qualls and Rafael Soriano to the former list for 2008, and it seems likely that the Tigers wouldn’t have thrown $7 million at free agent Todd Jones if Joel Zumaya hadn’t hurt his arm attempting to evade the wildfires in Southern California this fall).

Of course, the Yankees need good relief pitchers, period, and Mariano Rivera is still one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, even if he had his worst year as a closer this past season. He is, however, less than two weeks from his 38th birthday, and greatly overvalued because of his history and his role. Unlike Rodriguez and Posada, Rivera isn’t worth such an extravagant contract relative to his peers. Francisco Cordero, who is currently a free agent, made just $5.4 million last year and is five years younger than Rivera. Cordero will certainly get a raise, but he won’t get anything near $15 million a year, and I doubt he’ll get more than three years either. The gap between Rivera and Cordero in the closers role is not nearly big enough to justify the giving Rivera a fourth year at what is likely to be double Cordero’s salary.

Some think that Alex Rodriguez returned to the Yankees because he couldn’t get the money he was after anywhere else. I’m not so sure. I still believe that Angels owner Arte Moreno would have given him $30 million per year (and until Rodriguez’s signature is on his Yankee contract, I won’t feel confident that his contract talks with the Yankees aren’t just an elaborate plot to force Moreno’s hand). I’m utterly convinced, however, that if Mariano Rivera shops himself around, he will not get a single offer to rival the three-year, $45-million deal the Yankees have offered him. Rivera has threatened to join Joe Torre in Los Angeles, but the Dodgers have a good, inexpensive bullpen (their closer, Takashi Saito, the highest paid of the bunch, earned an even million bucks in 2007). Any team would benefit from adding Mariano Rivera to their pen, but there’s no reason for the Dodgers to pay Rivera much beyond the going rate for established closers, which seems to be about $7 million a year, and there’s really not much reason for them to even offer that much. Heck, the highest paid starter on the Dodgers staff will make $12 million in 2008.

To their credit, the Yankees don’t appear to be budging. Here’s Hank again from yesterday: “[Rivera and his agent, Fern Cuza] haven’t rejected it outright, as far as I know. It’s pretty much known that they’re seeking a fourth year, or more [money] for three years.I want him back, and that’s why the offer is as high as it is. We don’t have to change anything. Everyone in baseball knows it’s a great offer; we’ve even gotten a couple of complaints about it.”

If Rivera bolts, the Yankees can go after Cordero at half the cost, or they can let the kids audition for the job. I’m sure the Yankees have an Accardo of their own among the young arms on the bubble of the major league roster. The requirement is that the Yankees avoid the temptation to make Joba Chamberlain the closer in Rivera’s absence. Yes, Chamberlain would excel in the role, but, as we’ve just seen, finding a closer isn’t hard. Finding an ace starting pitcher, which Chamberlain has the potential to be as early as the 2008 season, is.

But wait, there’s more. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe reports that the Yankees are one of four teams (also the Angels, Cardinals, and Braves) who have offered Mike Lowell a four-year deal worth between $55 million and $60 million. On Wednesday I considered the possibility of signing Lowell to a Posada-like deal for $52 million over four years and concluded that it would be worth giving Lowell a four year deal in the $40-$44 million range, but classified even that as “overpaying.” That, however, was for a team without Alex Rodriguez that would use Lowell as a third baseman. The Yankees want Lowell to play first base. A significant portion of Lowell’s value comes from his defensive play at the hot corner. Move him to first base, a position he’s never played in the major leagues, and he’s a barely league-average bat (Lowell career: .280/.344/.468; average MLB 1B in 2007: .276/.357/.463) and a complete unknown on defense.

The most mind-blowing part of this idea, however, is the concept of a team that would play both Alex Rodriguez and Mike Lowell, a pair of legitimate Gold Glove winning defenders at shortstop and third base respectively, out of position to accommodate the erroneously gold-plated glove of Derek Jeter. If you ask me, the Yankees don’t need a first baseman. Between Jason Giambi, Wilson Betemit, Shelley Duncan, Andy Phillips, and Juan Miranda, the Yankees should have the position covered just fine in 2008 and should save their money for a run at Mark Teixeira next winter.

Just for good measure, the Yankees gave Jose Molina, a career .243/.279/.345 hitter, a two-year, $4-million contract. As I wrote on Tuesday, I agree with the decision to bring Molina back, but that is on the assumption that Molina could be sent the way of Wil Nieves or Kelly Stinnett should he fail to provide the bare minimum replacement-level production over the first half of the season. Four mil is chump change to the Yankees, but I’m guessing it’s enough to keep Molina in pinstripes through Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium, no matter how much he might struggle this year.

Of course, this entire post is moot if Hank plans to out-do his father by running up a 2008 payroll that will dwarf Alex Rodriguez’s ten-year contract (perhaps Papa George has some kind of wacky Brewster’s Millions-type clause in his will). In reality, the Yankee payroll has been heading in the other direction in recent years as, according to Forbes, the team has been operating at a loss since 2004.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver