The Yankees know: don't sign players until you have to

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It’s safe to say I’ve given up on my hopes of becoming a major league GM. But if a reader hits the lottery, buys a team and decides to give me a shot, know that there’s a couple of rules I’d live by:
1. Never give multiyear deals to bench players
2. Don’t re-sign veterans until it’s absolutely necessary

The Yankees already seem to follow both. No. 1 may be an accident, but No. 2 is team policy: the Bombers don’t negotiate with their free-agents-to-be until they actually become free agents.
Now I’m certainly not against giving long-term deals to youngsters. That strategy has saved major league teams tens of millions of dollars over the last decade, not only in avoiding arbitration hearings and early free agent years with the players that sign them but by holding down the arbitration awards of those that don’t.
But giving veterans long-term extensions when they still have one or two years left under team control is a losing proposition more often than not. The potential gain — saving money over what it would cost to sign the player closer to free agency — just isn’t worth it. More information leads to better decisions, and there’s a lot of information to be gained by waiting that extra year until the player nears free agency.
For one thing, the players getting these extensions are already in their prime and likely at the peak of their value when they sign them. After all, the player isn’t going to want to sell low on himself by signing after a bad year or a rough first half. Teams, on the other hand, have no problem buying high by signing players immediately after a career year.
Look at the Yankees. Obviously, they have a huge advantage in these circumstances, since they don’t have to worry about being outbid in free agency. But they made no attempt to re-sign Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera last winter. Their policy probably cost them some money when they had to re-sign Jorge Posada as a free agent after his career-year in 2007, but it’s worked out well overall and the team has fewer bad contracts now than probably at any point in the past 15 years.
It’s something the Phillies should have looked at very carefully before committing an additional $125 million to Ryan Howard on Monday. Howard was already signed through the end of next year, and it’s hard to imagine that the Phillies are saving any money over what it would have taken to sign him a year from now. Howard pretty clearly wanted to stay in Philadelphia. Was he really going to turn down $25 million per year next April? Or even next November for that matter?
Ponder that while looking at a few examples of bad deals signed by players under contract and still one to two years away from free agency. I won’t count arbitration-avoiding signings like Detroit’s Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson deals, since while I think they fit, they weren’t contract extensions.
Travis Hafner – Indians
Old deal – Four years, $11.5 million for 2005-08 (2008 was a club option)
New deal (Signed July 2007) – Four years, $57 million for (2009-12)

Hafner was maybe baseball’s biggest bargain for two years in 2005 and 2006. The Indians gave him his huge extension even though his play had fallen way off in the first half of 2007, and it’s proven to be a franchise killer since the moment it was signed.
Mark Kotsay – Athletics
Old deal – Three years, $16 million for 2004-06
New deal (signed July 2005) – Two years, $15 million for 2007-08

Hit .214/.279/.296 in 56 games during an injury-ruined 2007. The A’s paid $5 million to get the Braves to take him for 2008.
Eric Chavez – Athletics
Old deal – Five years, $17.65 million for 2001-05 (2005 was a club option)
New deal (signed March 2004) – Six years, $66 million (2005-10)

Seemed like a pretty good idea at the time, and Chavez went on to put up a career-best 898 OPS in 125 games in 2004, so he would have been at least as expensive to re-sign that winter. However, he lost 100 points of OPS in 2005.
Scot Shields – Angels
Old deal – One year, $3.4 million for 2007 (wouldn’t have been a free agent until after 2008)
New deal (Signed March 2007) – Three years, $14.6 million (2008-10)

Shields was worked about as hard as any reliever in baseball from 2004-06, so the Angels were either foolish or simply overly generous for committing to him when they still had him under control for two more years. He went on to have his worst season in 2007, and while he had a fine 2008, he’s contributed nothing since.

Seattle Mariners to make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani

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Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a team-sponsored podcast the other day that the M’s will make a “full-court press” for Shohei Ohtani. To that end, Dipoto said that the M’s would be willing to let the two-way star to pitch and to hit, which is something Ohtani is interested in doing in the United States. Not all clubs are likely to let him do this, with most likely seeing him as a starting pitcher only.

Ohtani, who is expected to be posted by his Japanese team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, possibly as early as today, can sign with anyone he wants. He is, however, subject to the international bonus pool caps, so the bids on him will be somewhat limited. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have the most money available: $3.535 million for the Rangers and $3.5 million for the Yankees. The Twins ($3.245 million), Pirates ($2.266 million), Marlins ($1.74 million) and Mariners ($1.57 million) are the only other teams with more than $1 million left. Twelve teams — including the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros — are limited to a maximum of $300,000, having met or exceeded their caps for this signing period already.

Ohtani, however, is said to be less motivated by money than he is by finding the right situation. While a lot of guys say that, the fact that Ohtani is coming over to the U.S. now, when his financial prospects are limited, as opposed to waiting for two years when he is not subject to the bonus caps and could sign for nine figures, suggests that he is telling the truth. As such, a team like the Mariners that is willing to allow him to hit and pitch could make up for the couple of million less they have in bonus money to spend.

As for how that might work logistically, Dipoto said that the team would be willing to play DH Nelson Cruz a few days in the outfield to accommodate Ohtani, allowing him to DH on the days he’s not pitching. That might be . . . interesting to see, but given how badly the Mariners could use a good starting pitcher, they have an incentive to be creative.

Ohtani, 23, suffered some injuries in 2017, limiting him to just five starts and 65 games as a hitter. In 2016, however, he hit .289/.356/.547 with 22 homers in 342 at-bats and went 11-3 with a 3.24 ERA, and a K/BB ratio of 146/51 in 133.1 innings as a starter.

Five clubs have more money to spend on Ohtani than the Mariners do. None of those teams are on the west coast, which some Asian players have said in the past they preferred due to faster travel back home. The Mariners, owned for a long time by a Japanese company which still retains a minority interest in the club, and long the home for high-profile Japanese players such as Ichiro and Hisashi Iwakuma, likely have a better media and marketing reach in Japan than most other teams as well, which might be a factor in his decision making process. Is all that enough to sway Ohtani?

We’ll find out over the next couple of weeks.