Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The $423 Million Media Frenzy and Why It Must Stop

Let me put it right out there - I don't really mind the New York Yankees' offseason land-grab. And that's certainly what it was. The Pinstripes used the deep Steinbrenner pockets to alter the landscape of Major League Baseball. They went from middle of the packers heading into 2009 to the prohibitive World Series favorite by grabbing the two crown jewels of free agency - CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira - as well as AJ Burnett.

They jumped right over the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies (the defending champs still play baseball), and all the other clubs who figured to be in contention for baseball's most glittering trophy.

They leaped over these clubs and landed smack dab in the realm of superpowers. Smack dab and all alone. With a great,big, blinding spotlight about an inch from their heads.

And that's the primary reason I'm enjoying Brian Cashman's orgy of expenditure.

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks that this whole episode is much ado about nothing. For starters, how's this any different from any other free agency period?

Gotham's gents have led MLB's payroll race for the last decade, literally. Second place hasn't been closer than $15 million since 2002. The gap's gotten a whole lot bigger since then. Yet all this money on the field has translated to exactly one Word Series trip, which they lost in 2003.

To a team that spent over $100 million less and had the sixth lowest payroll in baseball.

Nor are the Yankees the only team to have unsuccessfully tried to buy a Word Series ring.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Cubs have all tried to outspend the competition rather than outplay it in recent years. Only the Sox (both colors) have been successful since the Angels payroll was not outrageous when they won in 2002.

Several have been miraculous failures.

What makes all the furor even more confusing is that several of the smallest markets have produced franchises that prove being and staying competitive doesn't require hundreds of millions of dollars. Clubs like the Oakland As, Rays, Florida Marlins, Minnesota Twins, and Milwaukee Brewers have shown that endless futility cannot be blamed on economics.

As much as the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals would love you to believe the opposite.

To be sure, the large markets and huge revenue streams help the big boys stay competitive with a wider margin for error. That perhaps should be trimmed by heating up the luxury tax while requiring owners to put a portion on the field. Still, the wider margin for error is just an advantage and an obviously surmountable one, if such is demanded of ownership.

And that margin is not getting bigger, yet. New York's junior circuit ballclub has trimmed quite a bit from its books this year, which it's now replacing quickly. However, the point remains that the franchise is not adding these contracts to its 2008 payroll.

I guess the fuss is because people think the Yanks got the right guys this year.

I'm not so sure.

Sabathia looks to be the real deal. But I've thought about the guy long and hard since my beloved San Francisco Giants seemed to be chasing him. My conclusion was that the guy is a stud, but he raises enough flags to be wary of anointing him as a sure thing worthy of a huge/long contract.

There's his weight, which has been covered extensively. I don't see that as a huge problem since he can choose to control it if the extra poundage ever becomes an issue. More significant in my mind is the wear he's recently seen.

That'd be 494 innings worth of wear in the last two years with another 192+ in 2006. In fact, since entering the Show in 2001, he's never thrown less than 180 innings in a campaign.

I realize he'll only be 28 next year and the flip side to this is that he's a reliable innings eater. But those are a lot of innings with a lot of pitches already eaten by young arm. Furthermore, a substantial portion of them came on short rest last year.

But there's one other thing...what was it? Oh yeah.

CC Sabathia has gotten torched in the postseason. Check it: 25 innings, an earned run average a hair under 8.00, a WHIP over 2.00, and only two more strikeouts than walks.

Now look at the other shiny new toy, Mark Teixeira.

Again, another unquestionable stallion. He's splendid with the splinter and glorious with the glove. And, again, he was underwhelming in the playoffs last year. I know he hit .467. You know what his slugging percentage was? That very same .467.

Furthermore, I watched that Boston-Los Angeles series. I'm sure a lot of you did as well. Did any of us come away thinking, "man, if only that Mark Teixeira had a little help." Frankly, I don't remember a damn thing about his series except for that one amazing defensive gem he flashed.

What about AJ Burnett?

What about AJ Burnett - he's a quality arm that's injury prone and unproven on the highest stage.

So what do I think? I think the Yankees just spent $423 million to almost guarantee they make the playoffs. Of course, 2008 was the first year they missed the playoffs since 1995 so I don't see how that's reason for general hysteria.

Other than that? I'm not sure.

That's the reason I LOVE baseball. Talent is only half the story, maybe not even half. You can have all the talent in the world and it won't help you if you can't handle the pressure. It won't matter if you can't access it while staring down a Major League pitcher or hitter with 40,000+ in the stands and millions more watching on television.

It is not a game where you can simply let your athletic instinct and prowess take over.

You must think. You must process. You must relax. You must have control of your mental faculties otherwise $432 million worth of talent looks like a high school junior varsity squad on an all-dirt infield.

Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett could all flourish in the New York pressure cooker and into the playoffs. I'm judging them on little or no sample size at all. But, despite Scott Boras' assurances and despite their price tags, nothing is certain.

Well, one thing is certain.

The New York Yankees will be expected to win the World Series in 2009. To win it easily. Anything less will be a colossal failure. The shorter they fall of that expectation, the more absurd and ridiculous they will become.

Oh, and they'll be hated by every single fan not sporting the royal emblem or pinstriped jerseys.

Now that I think about it, that spotlight might actually be ON their heads.

It's gonna make seeing those October pitchers even harder.

And I think we'll get the last laugh.

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