Alex Rodriguez is a Yankee now, paraded for the world Tuesday at a Yankee Stadium press conference, and I feel like a suicide hotline worker, fielding desperate e-mails from greater New England. This is the last straw, is the general sentiment. Baseball is dead, ruined. The Yankees can just outspend everyone else. What's the point anymore?
As an avowed Yankees hater, I can't say I'm thrilled to see the best player in the game don pinstripes, but I don't agree that the situation is as dire as it seems up Boston way.
Rodriguez, as you surely know, agreed to move to third base and defer some salary interest free to facilitate a trade from the Rangers to the Yanks for Alfonso Soriano and a minor leaguer to be named. This brings the Yankees' projected 2004 payroll to a reported $190 million. According to the New York Times, the Yankees' 10-man starting lineup, including Mike Mussina pitching, will have a higher payroll than any other entire team except the Red Sox, New York's sworn enemy, who spent most of this winter trying to arrange a trade for A-Rod.
That deal fell through because the Sox wanted Rodriguez to restructure his famous $252 million contract to reduce it by $28 million, an idea the players union rejected. Any union worth the name would do the same, lest the deal set a precedent for teams "asking" players to "volunteer" to restructure their contracts downward or else face benching or a trade to Tampa Bay.
The Rangers are going to pay $67 million of the remaining $179 million owed to Rodriguez over the next seven years, something they can do because Soriano is owed only $5.4 million in 2004 and won't be eligible for free agency for another year after that. The Rangers couldn't do that for the Red Sox because Boston was trying to unload Manny Ramirez -- and the $100 million or so remaining on his contract -- on Texas.
So the Yankees can do whatever they want. Even with a higher payroll than Boston's, the Yanks don't have to dump any of their big contracts to be able to work a deal for A-Rod. The Sox were screwed from the get-go.
But here's the thing: The issue that apparently killed the Boston deal was that $28 million the Sox couldn't get the union to allow Rodriguez to swallow. Is there a Red Sox fan anywhere who can put down the razor blade long enough to look me in the eye and say there was no way the Sox could have found that extra $4 million a year to make the deal work? That's third-starter money, good but not great outfielder money, Trot Nixon money.
And while it might be true that Rodriguez would agree to play third base only for the Yankees, do we know that? Did it even occur to the Sox to ask? Or did they just blunder around all winter, pissing off their own All-Star shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, who by the way is a better player than Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop Rodriguez is moving over to accommodate, and more valuable to Boston than Jeter is to New York?
So yeah, the Yankees can outspend everybody else, but there's more to it than that. They're also smart, and they're creative, and they have guts. They have more money than anyone else, but it might be more important that they're willing to spend the money they do have. I don't think you can say that about any other team in baseball. They're all too busy preposterously crying poverty.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not sanguine about this trade. I hate the idea that teams, or especially just one team, can simply buy a championship. What I'm not sure about is that that's whats happened here. If you can simply buy a championship, why haven't the Yankees won one since 2000?
While I think it's true that any given postseason series is a "crapshoot," in Billy Beane's famous formulation, I don't believe that's true over time. I believe patterns emerge, and in the same way it's not just a roll of the dice that Beane's A's get bounced in the first round every single year, it's not just some accident that the superstar-laden, budget-busting 21st century Yankees have been knocked out in each of the last three seasons. The 1996-2000 Yankees, who led the majors in payroll only in 2000, won four out of five World Series.
The rich Yankees getting richer by trading for A-Rod is certainly going to help the argument that baseball needs a salary cap to regulate competition, which is to say to control the Yankees' spending. I still don't agree with that argument though. All a salary cap would do is move profits from players to owners. The Yankees would still be the Yankees.
Even if the Yanks had to limit salaries, superstars would still want to play for them. Rodriguez made some concessions for the Yankees, agreeing to the extra salary deferment and to switch positions. He might have made similar concessions to play in Boston or Los Angeles, but he wasn't going to make them to play in Kansas City or Pittsburgh or Milwaukee if those clubs were trying to get him. Look at how the Lakers were able to get Karl Malone and Gary Payton at massive discounts, even with a hard salary cap. That's not ever going to happen in Memphis or, again, Milwaukee.
So what to do? Well, for one thing, we wait for the situation to play itself out. Teams full of absurdly paid superstars don't exactly have a flawless track record in sports, including teams that play in the Bronx. The Yankees spent like sailors in the '80s too, without winning anything.
The next thing to do is lobby, probably vainly, for real revenue sharing. As it stands, the Yankees paid $60 million into the pot last year between revenue sharing and the luxury tax, and their tax will be higher this year. It would be nice if the shared money went to teams that have low potential revenue rather than low actual revenue. That way small-market teams like the Royals and Pirates, who couldn't generate big-market-size revenues under the best of circumstances, would get some relief, and teams like the Phillies, mismanaged for years in a huge market, wouldn't. But that's another issue.
For the moment, the more the Yankees add to their payroll, the more they pay into the revenue-sharing pot, and that helps, however marginally, the poorer teams. And it does so without necessarily helping the Yankees. How many innings do you have the fragile, aging Kevin Brown down for this year?
Are the Yankees favored to win the American League East and the World Series now that they have Rodriguez? Sure. They probably were before the trade too. But they weren't a lock then and they're not a lock now. Stranger things have happened than a team packed with superstars struggling. Just ask the Lakers. You'll find them holding down fifth place in the Western Conference, Memphis breathing down their neck.
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