19 February 2004


Scooter, eat your heart out.

Let’s talk about the Alex Rodriguez deal. Why not, right? Everyone else is.

Alex Rodriguez is now a Yankee, having been traded by the Rangers, with a huge pile of money, for 2B Alfonso Soriano and a PTBNL. I cannot, for my life, figure out why the Rangers would do this. Alex Rodriguez is the reigning AL MVP, probably the best player in the AL, and possibly the best shortstop in history, and the Rangers couldn’t wait to get rid of the guy? Why?

They have argued that his enormous contract (all together now: $252 million over ten years) was a millstone around the organization’s collective neck, preventing them from acquiring the pitching they needed to compete. This is ridiculous. As Baseball Prospectus pointed out a few days ago, the problem isn’t the $20-25 million they pay A-Rod each year to vie for the MVP award. The problem is the $12 million they pay Chan Ho Park to put up ERAs higher than, well, than almost anybody. The problem is the $3 million they’ll pay Jay Powell each of the next three years. The problem is manifold, and it is not named Alex.

The trouble is that perception often trumps reality. The fact that Alex is paid so much to play for a team that doesn’t win makes him (and agent Scott Boras, who negotiated the deal) out to be the bad guy, when really the guys who gave him the deal, and gave much more detrimental deals to lesser players, are to blame. Tom Hicks can’t, or won’t, fire himself, so he figures that if they can rid themselves of this contract, no matter how good he may be, it’s got to help them create fiscal flexibility in the future.

This year’s basically shot, since there wasn’t a ton of pitching talent available on the free agent market in the first place, and the last of it, Greg Maddux, just signed with the Cubs. I’m not sure who’ll become available at the trading deadline or after the season, but you’d have to think that the Rangers will be sellers rather than buyers in July, given their already terrible pitching and their tough competition in the AL West. So how does this help them?

Supposedly, in the “long run”, it allows them to sign the talent they need to compete, without one player taking up such a significant portion of the payroll. In reality, while they may have overpaid more than a little for A-Rod, having misinterpreted both the projected market and the existing competition for his services, he’s still worth it. Or at least he’s more worth his $25 million/year than Manny Ramirez is worth his $20M. And more than Jeter’s worth his $19M, etc. because there isn’t anybody else as good as A-Rod is.

Of course, the other “real problem” with A-Rod’s contract was that if he were to be signed now, he wouldn’t get anywhere near that kind of money or that length of commitment. Rumors out of ESPN’s Jayson Stark indicate that the Cardinals may be about to sign Albert Pujols to a 7-year, $100M, and that probably sounds about right. Amazingly, the Yankees worked it out so that this is about what they will pay him. Actually it’s more like $90 million over seven years, which seems like a bargain. That’s less than $13M/year, less (on average) than Vlad Guerrero, Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Delgado, Barry Bonds, Shawn Green, Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Mike Hampton, Todd Helton, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Jeter, Gary Sheffield, and maybe a few other guys, none of whom will do as much to help their teams win games over the next half a decade or so than Rodriguez will. He’ll still be the best player in the AL, but the Yankees have the advantage, if he’s good, of having their competition pay him to beat them. And if he’s bad, they have the advantage of pointing to the Rangers and saying, “Well, at least we’re not paying his whole contract!”

Usually the Yanks are on the other side of the dump, sending aging, overpaid players, with some cash, to other teams to free up space for someone better (and often more expensive.) In this case, the Yankees somehow managed to convince the Rangers not only to give up the best player in the AL to its wealthiest team, but also to help pay his contract, to the tune of about $67,000,000. You could maybe see doing something like that if A-Rod had prematurely aged and started to suck, but he’s still young and awesome, so I just don’t see how it makes any sense at all for the Rangers.

While the Yanks did have to give up a pretty significant and talented player (plus a PTBNL from a list of about five) to get him, what they lost is nowhere near the value of what they gained. Don’t get me wrong: Alfonso Soriano is great, one of the ten or 15 most valuable players in the game right now, but he’s no A-Rod. He’s got power and speed, hits for average and plays a key defensive position, but he’s no A-Rod. His defense is actually better than he gets credit for, and improving, but he’s no A-Rod. Poor strike zone judgment, leading to enormous amounts of strikeouts with few walks mean that, you guessed it: He’s no A-Rod.

In fact, the only real (or apparent) advantages he had over Rodriguez at the time of the deal were that he was cheaper (making $5.4 million this year, with one or two more years of arbitration before hitting the free agent market) and that he was younger, 26 to Rodriguez’s 29. Well, now it turns out that Soriano is actually 28 himself, having lied about his age, but only finally admitting it now. Lee Sinins reported this a few days ago, and says that the Rangers were aware of it during negotiations, which makes the fact that the deal actually happened all the more unfathomable.

Sinins’ stats (Runs Above Average) indicate that Rodriguez is a much better player than Soriano, and he is, but since they don’t play the same positions, it’s a little tough to compare them. Baseball Prospectus has Rodriguez making about 10-15 more runs than Soriano in each of the last two seasons, roughly one win’s worth, over the course of the season. However, since there are fewer shortstops than second basemen who can hit, A-Rod comes out about +80 runs above replacement level for shortstops, whereas Soriano’s only about +55 for 2Bs, a much greater disparity. If Rodriguez moves over to play 3B, then obviously his RAA and RARP numbers would drop a little, since 3B’s can usually hit better than shortstops. Similarly, if Soriano is moved over to SS (where he played throughout his minor league career, and where it makes the most sense for the Rangers to put him) his RAA/RARPs increase, actually making him more of an asset, assuming that he continues to hit as he has the last few seasons.

That’s the thing though: If he’s already 28 years old, it’s likely that he’s already hit a plateau, that he won’t get much better. Of course, you can more than live with .290/.340/.520 from a middle infielder, especially one who steals 30-40 bases with a high success rate. If that was his peak though, if he’s about to start sliding, then you’d be a fool to sign him to an expensive, long-term contract. Or at least you’d be a fool to sign him to the same, expensive, long-term contract you might have signed him to a couple of weeks ago. Soriano will continue to be a pretty darn good player, and will probably be even better if they don’t have him batting leadoff, since we all know that working the pitcher is not where his strengths lie. He just won’t likely be as good as a lot of people expected, and he might even be a lot worse than Lee Sinins expected.

On the other side of the trade, the Yankees got an All-Star, MVP-caliber shortstop, which, as you may have heard, was not something they needed. What they did need was a third baseman, and the current plan is for Rodriguez to shift over to 3B, with Jeter continuing at short. Since Jeter’s the Captain, I guess the prerogative to move is his.

Almost anyone with any sabermetric background, or whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Slim Lickstarver”, will tell you that Jeter is not a good defensive SS. In fact, if Baseball Prospectus’s defensive stats are to be believed, Jeter’s been between 19 and 24 runs worse than a replacement level SS each of the last four years, including –22 in only 119 games this season.

So why keep him there? Why let the lousy defender stay at the tougher position and move the better player to a different, easier position? Rob Neyer has pointed out that A-Rod really isn’t that great with the glove, though he is slightly above average. But his +5 fielding runs coupled with Jeter’s –20 means that the Yankees risk a deficit of about two wins over the course of the year, just due to their defense at shortstop, assuming that Jeter would otherwise be an average fielding third baseman.

Once again, though, we reach an assumption that may not be accurate. The main reason for Jeter’s defensive ineptitude is his lack of range, his inability to reach that ball hit up the middle, bouncing past him into center field. At 3B, you don’t need as much range as you do at SS, since there’s less ground to cover. But if Jeter’s got such lousy range because he has such a slow reaction time, then he might be an even worse defensive 3B than he is a SS. And perhaps having a decent defensive 3B in Alex will help to decrease the range Jeter needs at short, which could allow him to cheat a little toward the bag at second base, making the entire infield defense better. Not good, but better, anyway.

Somebody I read the other day indicated that he thought it fairly likely that Jeter will not spend the whole season at short, that A-Rod will take over there a few months into the season, once it becomes apparent that he’s still terrible there at that they now have a better option, about 40 feet to Jeter’s right. I doubt this.

I think that if Jeter is going to spend any significant time playing third base this season, the Yankees are going to have him getting ready to do so in February and March, not in July. There’s no way that the New York Yankees, the most storied and successful franchise in all of professional sports, in the midst of a pennant race with their hated rivals, the Boston 1918’s, er, RedSox, will take any chances that they don’t have to take. There’s no way they go out on a limb in June or July and put an unknown out there at third base on the off chance that Jeter will suck less at third than he does at short. They’d rather have one guy who’s good and one who’s consistently bad than one who’s good and another who’s erratically, unpredictably bad. Game implications aside: the politics, the hype, the second guessing and back-page, tabloid pressures would be too great to even think about taking such a chance.

There’s too much riding on this season, and it looks much better, if they don’t win in the playoffs, to have Joe Torre quoted as saying something like, “We did what we’ve always done, what we’ve done for years, and they just plain beat us.” Than to have to read him saying, “Well, we tried something different, on a lark. We took a gamble, and it didn’t work.” Such a gamble would probably cost Torre his job, and I just don’t see that happening. Torre didn’t get to be the longest tenured manager in the history of Steinbrenner’s Yankees by taking chances. He got there by going with what he knows, what already works, and if he wants to keep doing so, he won’t let chance come between him and his next contract any more than necessary.

Of course, now they need a secondbaseman, and to answer your question, Mom, no, Miguel Cairo isn’t any good. Not sure exactly what they’re gonna do about that, but I’m pretty sure that Cairo/Almonte/Whomever they have in AAA Columbus is not the answer.


A few plugs:

Al Bethke, over at the Milwaukee Brewers blog, Al's Ramblings, has got a couple of new posts you might like to ckeck out. One of them is an interview with Brewers AAA catcher (and book/blog writer) Chris Coste.

He's also got a roundtable discussion he posted last Wednesday (2/11). Interesting even if you're not a Brew Crew fan.

Christian Ruzich, the Cub Reporter/Transaction Guy, has revamped the All-Baseball.com website, and they've got quite a few different, interesting and excellent writers. Almost anything you could ask for, except me. And you've already got me.

Seth Stohs has a post comparing traditional to Sabermetric baseball stats, which is over at Seth Speaks.

On a more personal note, I have had the good fortune to be added to the list of another baseball website, the brandy-spankin-new BaseballOutsider.com. Four other columnists (maybe more...) and I contribute, as do other bloggers to whom Outsider links. I'm honored to be a part of their effort. Go check them out.

And lastly, but not leastly, I will be adding a few more advertisements for baseball tickets this weekend, when I return home from a business trip and have access to my own computer. If anyone else is interested in advertising on Boy of Summer, please drop me a line.

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