"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Plant A Tree

Entering the new year, the Yankees had four arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man roster. Of the four, the two who will see the largest increase in salary this year are second baseman Robinson Cano and starter Chien-Ming Wang. Even if they are awarded the salaries they requested ($4.55 million and $4.6 million, respectively) Cano and Wang will continue to be bargains considering their contributions on the field.

Reliever Brian Bruney requested just $845,000 while the Yankees offered $640,000, a $205,000 difference that, in the big picture of the Yankees’ team payroll, is little more than petty cash. The Yankees should be thinking seriously about signing Cano and Wang to long-term contracts to control their salaries over the ensuing two years of arbitration and to delay their arrival on the free agent market (reportedly both players are interested in making long-term commitments to the team). Bruney, however, is dangerously close to pricing himself off the team, not because he’s so terribly expensive, but because his primary value over the past two seasons was that he was a player earning the league minimum who was obtained at no cost to the team. Bruney has pitched well for the Yankees at times, but entering his age-26 season, and with the team essentially holding open auditions for what will now be less expensive relievers, he’ll have to step up his game this year or the very thing that made him valuable in the first place–the fungibility of relief performance and the ability of teams to obtain solid relief contributions from replacement-level acquisitions–will make him expendable, possibly even before the year is out.

The Yankees most compelling arbitration case, however, is that of infielder Wilson Betemit. Betemit and the Yankees have already settled their case, with Betemit signing a one-year deal for $1.165 million, but what makes Betemit’s case so interesting is that unlike the team’s other three arb-eligible players, Betemit’s future is much more difficult to discern. Cano and Wang are already stars and are headed for eight-figure paydays be they in the Bronx or elsewhere. Bruney is a marginal reliever who will either establish himself as a go-to journeyman or fade from the major league scene. Betemit, however, is a former top prospect locked into a reserve role, but who still retains some promise of emerging as a starter. The problem is that Cano, Wang, and Bruney could all fulfill their potential in pinstripes, but Betemit can’t.

Betemit is blocked at third base, his natural position, by the largest contract in baseball history, at his original position, shortstop, by the immovable icon that is Derek Jeter (whose lifespan at short is a whole other issue, but one that seems unlikely to be addressed by the team in time to help Betemit), and at the keystone by fellow arbitration case Cano. He’ll get his chances this year at first base, but limiting a player like Betemit who can play all around the infield to first base is a considerable misallocation of resources, as it both reduces the player’s value while simultaneously increasing the offensive standard against which his value is measured.

The irony is that if Betemit were to serve as little more than a utility infielder this year, he’d be hard pressed to get much more of a raise when arbitration rolls around again a year from now and thus would still be a good value given his price, power bat, and versatility. However, if he fulfills the Yankees’ best hopes for him this year by earning a share of the starts at first base while experiencing a spike in production because he’s properly used as a lefty-hitting platoon player (a switch-hitter his career marks are .268/.347/.464 batting left and .232/.281/.353 batting right), when arbitration comes around next year he could price himself off the team, particularly if the Yankees block him at first base by signing Mark Teixeira or Adam Dunn, as they should.

What’s strange is that the latter scenario, in which Betemit plays his way off the team by proving too valuable to keep, would be the best for Betemit, who at age 26 still has time to establish himself as starting third baseman in the major leagues (though one gets the sense that he’s likely to be the sort of player who would start for a second-division team but ride pine for a contender), but it would likely send the Yanks back to the good-field/no-hit barrel, where their current best hope for a 2009 replacement for Betemit is former Diamondback prospect Alberto Gonzalez, a career .278/.329/.383 hitter in the minor leagues. It’s something of a lose-lose situation for the Yankees, which is an odd way to look at the best reserve infielder they’ve had in recent memory.

Random Facts Department: Even if he loses his arbitration case, Cano will become the most expensive second baseman the Yankees have had since Chuck Knoblauch earned $6 million to play the position in 2000. Alfonso Soriano earned $800,000 in his final year in pinstripes. Miguel Cairo’s top Yankee contract was for $1 million, and that was to serve as Cano’s backup in 2006. The only other second baseman the Yankees have paid seven figures for this century was Tony Womack, who was paid $2 million in 2005 (you can’t say he “earned” it), but spent most of the year in the outfield.

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--Earl Weaver