Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Trite Utterances of Subpar Sports "Fans," Volume Three

You're allowed to hate the Yankees. It's a free country. Go ahead. But just have some legit reasons for it. If you want to hate them because of A-Rod or Roger Clemens or the Steinbrenners, that's fine. If you say you hate them because you got real tired of seeing Paul O'Neill throw fits after third strikes back in the day, or because you don't like how Derek Jeter has more hot female celebrities' numbers in his phone than Ari Gold, I won't jump all over you for it. If you even want to say you hate them because of how they treated Joe Torre at the end of his run, I may even agree with you on that. But do the sports-watching world a favor and cease with the "They buy their championships!" shit. I know it's going to hurt for a minute to draw some fact-based conclusions and not just regurgitate everything you hear on ESPN or Comcast Sportsnet or Philadelphia talk radio, but bear with me. Take Advil for any headaches, Midol for any cramps.

My whole thing starts with this. People say the Yankees try to "buy" a championship every year as if they're Montgomery Burns putting together the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant company softball team. Well, doesn't building a contending team entail putting together a roster of good players? And last time I checked, guys that can actually hit the ball squarely on a consistent basis or throw the ball over the plate with regularity don't generally play for the league minimum. Quality players cost money, and you need to spend in order to win. In the 2000s, the only World Series champion with a payroll in the lower half of all major league teams was the 2003 Marlins, an exception that I'll get to in a minute. If you want to blame something, blame Major League Baseball and its lack of a salary cap. Don't blame the teams that spend as much money as they can, because if you ain't buying, you ain't trying.

You can try to catch lightning in a bottle like the Marlins did or the Rays did in 2008, but that will eventually catch up to you. The Marlins won titles in 1997 and 2003 and had to fire-sale after each one because the talent they had stockpiled was due to make a ton of money. Look at the salaries that a few of the 2003 Marlins would eventually make with other teams (scroll down to the bottom of the linked pages for salary figures):

Josh Beckett - $11.167 million with Boston
Brad Penny - $9.25 million with Los Angeles
Derrek Lee - $13.25 million with the Chicago Cubs
Miguel Cabrera - $14.38 million with Detroit
Ivan Rodriguez - $12.38 million with Detroit
Mike Lowell - $12.5 million with Boston
Juan Pierre - $10 million with Los Angeles

And this is leaving out players such as A.J. Burnett (he was injured that whole year), Luis Castillo and Dontrelle Willis (generally accepted as bad contracts), Carl Pavano (because I don't feel like puking), and Ugueth Urbina (because we don't promote guys who attack servants with a machete and threaten to torch them with gasoline). My point is, you can only get away with paying players below their worth for a short period of time. If you are out to be perennial contender, it gets expensive. The 2008 Rays benefited from several years' worth of high draft picks all reaching the majors within a short time of each other (Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, James Shields) as well as players obtained via astute trading (Scott Kazmir, Dioner Navarro, Matt Garza) to produce a low-cost AL champion. But even now they've already traded one of those players away (Kazmir) for eventual contract purposes and may have to do the same with Carl Crawford, arguably the best player in team history.

I know what you're saying - "wait, isn't this guy disproving his own argument right now?" In a way, yes, because I've reaffirmed the economic imbalances that create something of a caste system in baseball. But what I want to point out off of that is there is a lot more to building a winning team than throwing money at free agents - just take a look at some of the recent Mets and Cubs teams, or the Dodgers and Orioles of the late '90s-early 2000s. What separates the Yankees is that they have been able to retain their homegrown talent even as they became worthy of top-dollar contracts - Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte (excluding his 3-year stay in Houston where he played for less money to be closer to home), and eventually Robinson Cano, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes. No one can say that the Yankees never develop players and just wait until everyone else's players become free agents. You want numbers? The Yankees had 11 homegrown players in the 2009 World Series, while the Phillies had 8.

Also, I don't see where making trades qualifies as "buying a roster." I'll use the guy with the biggest bull's eye on his back as my example. Commoners forget that the Yankees did not simply sign Alex Rodriguez back in 2004 - they traded Alfonso Soriano (a 28-year-old, five-tool player at the time) to the Rangers to get him. In fact, Texas even paid about $9.5 million of Rodriguez's $25.2 million salary for his first four years in New York because they were that bogged down by the contract. It's certainly not the Yankees' fault that Texas gave A-Rod a bigger contract than it could ultimately handle, is it?

Listen, I know that no other team can afford to spend the way the Yankees do, and that no other team has as much margin for error to whiff on a bad contract, but let's stop acting like they're the only ones spending money out there. I don't recall such a big stink when Boston won two World Series in four years with baseball's second highest payroll, dished out to players like Manny Ramirez ($20 million+ per year free agent deal), Johnny Damon (free agent signed from an Oakland team with zero chance of retaining him), Pedro Martinez (traded to Boston from Montréal when it became evident they wouldn't be able to afford him), and Curt Schilling (traded from Arizona when they could no longer keep both him and Randy Johnson). I guess since they were darling Boston and they had players with long hair and dreadlocks and chin straps that they just had to be a bunch of lovable lugs, right?

By the logic that most people use, if the Yankees "bought their championships," then didn't Boston too? And didn't Arizona in 2001? Hell, that D-Backs team went into so much debt by deferring salaries that within 3 years they were a 111-loss shell of their former selves. I get how you can gripe if you're a Kansas City or Pittsburgh fan, but still don't most of the complaints belong at the feet of your own front offices that trade away talent, spend nothing, pocket all the revenue-sharing money, and essentially make their city's interest in baseball dissolve by about June 1 every year? Or, if you insist on churning out the "buying championships" line, then you're going to have to apply it not just to the Yankees, but to everyone who wins with anything other than a team of David Ecksteins.

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