King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Trade deadline stunner: The Yankees get big star Bobby Abreu for some magic beans. So the system's working, right?


Salon Staff
July 31, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

What a shock! The New York Yankees have made the biggest deal at the trading deadline, snagging the expensive All-Star who could have helped any number of contending teams.

The biggest deal so far, that is. With about four hours to go until the 4 p.m. EDT non-waiver trading deadline, teams are still talking, rumors are still flying, small deals are still being made -- Sean Casey to Detroit! Kyle Lohse and Rheal Cormier to Cincinnati! -- and Alfonso Soriano is still a Washington National.

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The Yankees got outfielder Bobby Abreu from the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, and also right-handed starter Cory Lidle. In return, the Phils got Matt Smith, a 27-year-old career minor leaguer who appeared in 12 games for the big club this year, plus three minor league players, none of whom is a top prospect.

And more important for the Phillies, Philadelphia freed up almost $20 million it would have spent on Lidle and Abreu the rest of this season and next.

This is pretty much a classic case of what's wrong with baseball's economic system. The Yankees, breaking no rules, have a monstrous advantage over everybody else because the franchise is a well-run business that's capitalized on its opportunities for huge profits and is willing to plow all of those profits back into the on-field product, unlike a lot of teams. Most teams. Maybe all teams.

Baseball can deal with this by coming up with an economic system that better evens the playing field. It can do that by increasing the percentage of revenue shared and basing the payouts on market size, a team's handicap in potential income, rather than revenue, a team's ability to mismanage its opportunities into lower revenue and more revenue-sharing payments.

It could introduce a third team to the New York market to cut down on the Yankees' -- and the Mets -- tremendous market-size advantage. Or it could even help matters by taking smaller steps, like allowing teams to trade draft choices as they do in other sports. Without that ability, the Phillies had to settle for B and C prospects from the Yankees, rather than draft picks that might have had a better chance of turning into big-league stars.

All of these solutions face either political obstacles among the owners, collective-bargaining obstacles with the players or both. But it doesn't really matter. Major League Baseball isn't particularly inclined to deal with this problem because as the Yankees -- and, lately, the Boston Red Sox -- go, so goes MLB, businesswise.

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So what baseball has is enough revenue sharing to keep the Kansas City Royals of the world in the cellar unless they're run perfectly, brilliantly, and a luxury tax designed specifically to keep the Yankees from lapping the field in payroll.

"Here's your luxury tax," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner says to commissioner Bud Selig, derisively flipping wads of $100 bills at Selig's chest.

On the field, the trade is a huge win for the Yankees. Much has been made of Abreu's power drought since dominating the home-run contest at last year's All-Star Game, but this is still a guy with a .427 on-base percentage. He's a major upgrade over the squad of washed-up and borderline players the Yankees have been playing in their outfield while Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield have been hurt.

You might look at Lidle, note that he's 34, has an ERA of 4.74 and has never been more than a back-of-the-rotation starter in his nine-year, seven-team career, and you might think, "Eh, throw-in."

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But when you consider that Lidle's ERA, slightly over the National League average, was compiled in a hitter's ballpark, and that the pitcher he's replacing is a four-headed beast by the name of Shawn Chacon Aaron Small Sidney Ponson Kris Wilson, a beast with an ERA about twice as high as Lidle's, you ought to think Lidle's as valuable an upgrade as Abreu, even if Abreu starts dropping home runs into the short-porch seats.

So how'd the Yankees pull it off? They have all the money.

You knew that.

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It's doubtful the Yankees were the only team able and probable they were the only team willing to take on Abreu's $15.5 million salary for 2007. A $1.5 million tip from the Phillies helped Abreu decide that navy pinstripes might look as good on him as red ones and waive his no-trade cluase, even without the Yankees picking up his 2008 option for $16 million.

The Yankees were already going to give most of that money to Sheffield anyway, to pick up his $13 million option, so now they'll have a younger, healthier player for a couple million more. Sheffield is 37, Abreu 32. Lidle is a rental for the rest of the year. He'll be a free agent in the winter.

We won't know for a while if this is a good deal for the Phillies. It depends what general manager Pat Gillick does with the roughly $19.6 he's saving in what was clearly a salary-dump trade. That's Lidle and Abreu's salary this year and Abreu's next year, minus the $1.5 million to get Abreu to waive his no-trade.

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Gillick's being hammered for not getting more for Abreu, but $19.6 million still buys some pretty decent baseball flesh, believe it or not. And while it's easy for Phillies fans to whine that the Phils could have gotten more for Abreu and Lidle, if they could have, why didn't they? Is Gillick, who has a reputation not just as a franchise builder but as a reluctant deadline trader -- his nickname is "Stand Pat" -- suddenly an idiot?

Maybe Abreu doesn't wave his no-trade for just anybody, which is an advantage the superglam Yankees would have even if they didn't have such a clear economic edge. But also, yeah, maybe not just anybody's willing to agree to pick up Abreu's $15.5 million salary for next year just to get two months of pennant-race play from him this year.

This is where the Yankees have it all over the rest of the major leagues. The Yankees can get top talent cheaply -- in terms of the talent they have to give up -- because they can afford to overpay for expensive but useful players when they need help at the trading deadline or in the offseason.

You can whine about how the Yankees are evil and ruining the game, if you're not a Yankees fan, or you can appreciate a team that does what most teams' fans wish the home nine would do, spend the profits on good players. You can do that even while wishing baseball would do something to help out the Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their poor cousins at the bottom of the scale.

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