Vernon Wells

hot tub time machine

Yankees Hot Tub Time Machine


It just gets better and better with the New York Yankees. They just signed Brian Roberts.

I wrote before (in my Ichiro Suzuki essay for the 100 greatest players) that this Yankees team would look awfully good … in 2006. But by essentially replacing Robinson Cano with Brian Roberts, they have — in a weird way — gotten even older. Roberts best year was probably 2005, which you will note is actually BEFORE 2006.

Here is the Yankees starting lineup … and what was probably each player’s best season:

C: Brian McCann (2006 with Atlanta): .333/.388/.572, 24 homers, 93 RBis.

1B: Mark Teixeira (2005 with Texas): .301/.379/.575, 43 homers, 144 RBIs, 112 runs, Gold Glove.

2B: Brian Roberts (2006 with Baltimore): .314/.387/.515, 45 doubles, 18 homers, 27 steals, 92 runs.

SS: Derek Jeter (1999 with Yankees): .349/.438/.552 with 24 homers, 102 RBIs, 134 runs, 219 hits.

3B: Alex Rodriguez: (2007 with Yankees): .314/.422/.645, 54 homers, 156 RBIs, 143 runs, 24 steals.

LF: Alfonso Soriano (2002 with Yankees): .300/.332/.547, 39 homers, 41 steals, 102 RBIs, 128 runs.

CF: Jacoby Ellsbury (2011 with Boston): .321/.376/.552, 32 homers, 105 RBis, 119 runs, 39 steals, Gold Glove.

RF: Ichiro Suzuki (2004 with Seattle): .372/.414/.455 with 262 hits, 101 runs, 36 steals, Gold Glove.

DH: Carlos Beltran 2006 with Mets): : ..275/.388/.594, 41 homers, 116 RBIs, 127 runs 18 steals, Gold Glove.

In case you’re wondering, that averages out to the year 2005. This team would have peaked in 2005, even if Ellsbury was playing for Lowell of the New York Penn League at the time.

And, don’t forget, this team still has Vernon Wells (best year probably 2003 — .317 with league leading 49 doubles, 215 hits and 373 total bases) and Brett Gardner (best year a more recent 2010 — .383 OBP, 97 runs).

Oh, if only the Yankees had a Hot Tub Time Machine — or the phone booth from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — they could put together one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Heck, let’s say it, if they could have all nine of those players, in their prime, that would be the greatest team ever. You have (by performance) three SURE Hall of Famers (A-Rod, Jeter, Ichiro), a possible Hall of Famer (Beltran) and four All-Star superstars.

Instead, Tex is old and played just 15 games last year, Jeter is old and played in 17 games, A-Rod is old and with a pending suspension that would last more than a year, Ichiro is old and has not even managed a .300 average since 2010, Roberts is old and is hitting .231/.289/.344 the last three seasons. Soriano and Beltran are old too, though they still had something left last year. Even McCann and Ellsbury, who are like One Direction compared to this gang of Rolling Stones, will be 30 on Opening Day.

Michael Schur and I argue about the Yankees all the time. I believe this team is about to become an all-time fiasco … something that has been building for a few years now with these gigantic and back-loaded contracts that, sooner or later, come due. I look at this creaky team — and the fact the Yankees had to pay a huge luxury tax just to put it together — and see doom.

He does not. He believes that there is some sort of evil empire nectar that they give players when they arrive so that as bad as the Yankees may LOOK to outsiders, they will always find a way to win. Always. Ichiro will suddenly hit .350 again. Roberts will become a .300 hitter, Tex will win the Triple Crown. Whatever miracles have to happen, Michael believes, will happen. He has his points. Even last year, when just about every single thing that could go wrong for the Yankees did, the Yankees still won 85 games and were mild postseason contenders into September.

I guess we’ll find out. I don’t know, to me this team looks like one of those Steinbrenner specials when the aging corpses of Jesse Barfield and Claudell Washington and Jose Cruz and Steve Kemp and Mike Easler and Steve Sax and Andy Hawkins and Scott Sanderson and Pascual Perez were clanging around. But, hey, you know, some of those teams did win a bit. And when you put together a team of players who were, at least at one time, great players …

… you can’t tell me the Yankees aren’t looking into buying one of those hot tubs on Ebay.

When will the Yankees regret the Jacoby Ellsbury contract?


These huge, later-career deals never turn out great. The best you can hope for when you sign a 30-something baseball player to a hugely expensive long-term deal is that he will have a couple of good years on the front end to boost up his value, have a nice rebound year somewhere in the middle, and not be utterly useless and difficult to deal with at the end.

You can go down the list of players signed longterm after the age of 30 – Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Ryan Howard, Jason Giambi, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, on and on — and you will find, over and over, deals that teams regretted t some point or other.

So the Yankees will inevitably regret signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal — the real question is when. If they don’t regret the deal until 2018 or 2019 — when Ellsbury is a 35-year old coming to the end of his deal, struggling to stay in center field, constantly battling some nagging injuries — then you would have to say that they should feel pretty good about things. The trouble with these deals is that the regret often happens much earlier than you expect. I’m sure the Angels KNEW they were going to regret the Josh Hamilton deal at some point. I just don’t think they expected it to be the first year.

Ellsbury, when healthy, is a fabulous baseball player. I’ve seen him compared pretty often with Carl Crawford, and Crawford was pretty great as a young player. But I think Ellsbury is an even better player than Crawford was in Tampa Bay. For one thing, he plays centerfield while Crawford played left. They were both superior defenders, but a superb center fielder is quite a bit more valuable than a superb left fielder. Ellsbury also gets on base more and might even be a more potent base stealer (last year, Ellsbury stole 52 bases and was caught just four times all year — Crawford led the league in steals annually but would get thrown out a bit more).

Also, Crawford never had a season like Ellsbury’s 2011, when he hit .321/.376/.552 with 32 homers, 105 runs scored, 119 RBIs and 39 stolen bases (though that year he was caught a lot — 15 times).

Then again Crawford was also much more durable than Ellsbury. From 2003 to 2010, Crawford played 140-plus games every year but one, and even in the year he was hampered by injuries he played 109 games. Ellsbury meanwhile has had two of the last four seasons destroyed by injuries — he played just 18 games in 2010, just 74 games in 2012. Nobody can say if those injuries project anything for the future but they are part of his history.

The Yankees have so much money — and so much money on the line — they figure he’s worth the risk. I can see their point. If the Royals or Mariners or Brewers or some team like that had given Jacoby Ellsbury a seven-year, $153 million deal, you could say without any hesitation that they had lost their minds. That’s exactly the sort of deal that can paralyze a smaller franchise for a half-decade.

But the Yankees are a different category. The Yankees in that too-big-to-fail category — they have money on top of money, and they are constantly aware that if they put a losing and uninteresting team on the field, everything crashes. Nobody buys their absurdly high-priced tickets. Fewer people watch their cash cow Yes Network. The back page of the Post and Daily News looks elsewhere. The Yankees brand — the most lucrative in America — starts to devalue a little bit and then a little bit more and … they just can’t let that happen. Money, they have. Wins, they need.

And so the Yankees are playing a different game. If they get even one superstar year and maybe a couple of good years from Ellsbury, they will probably be pretty happy.

How good a bet is Ellsbury to have one more season like he did in 2011? I’m not sure. That was an unusual power surge from a player who has never hit double-digit homers any other year. Then again, that’s a very short porch in right field at New Yankee Stadium.

Truth is, we can spend a lot of time trying to compare Ellsbury to other players — his Baseball Reference comps of Phil Bradley, Tony Gonzalez and Roberto Kelly do not strike an encouraging note — but it’s hard to find many players like Ellsbury in baseball history. He stole 70 bases in a season. He hit 30 home runs in a season. There’s only one other player in baseball history who pulled off those two feats in a career, Eric Davis. And he had a rebirth in his mid-30s, even while battling colon cancer.

My gut instinct is that it will work out for the Yankees. But I say this in part because things always seem to work out for the Yankees.

I can say this with more confidence: If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano … that won’t work out.

Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler, and mouthwatering moves

Prince Fielder

Opening monologue: How many players in baseball history have a name as incompatible as “Prince Fielder?” Crazy, right? It would be like Bud Harrelson being named “Crown Batter” or Randy Johnson being named “Elfin Junkballer,” or Alex Rodriguez being named “Innocent victim.” Am I right? And what’s the deal with all the questions they ask when you try to pay for your gas at the pump these days? I’m trying to get fill up my car not join a dating service. Do you have a discount card? Do you want a car wash? Are you using credit or debit? What’s your zip code? Who was your favorite member of the Monkees? Why did they make Grown Ups 2?

There was something about the Detroit Tigers the last couple of years that irked me. You can’t call those Tigers underachievers, not exactly, because baseball is now a playoff-based game and the Tigers have done pretty well in the playoffs. They went to the World Series in 2012, and they were only a couple of plays away from making this year’s championship series with Boston interesting.

Still … the Tigers seemed to me like major underachievers both years. In 2012, with the league MVP (who, of course, won the Triple Crown), the guy I think was the best pitcher in the American League (Justin Verlander), a complimentary array of All-Stars and near All-Stars, and a spectacularly bad division to beat up, the Tigers won just 88 games (seventh best record in the league) and took a staggering amount of time to finally dispatch the talent-challenged Chicago White Sox in the division race. I thought it was one of the great under-performances in recent memory, but it was mitigated when they beat Oakland in a Game 5, and crunched the bloated and almost helpless Yankees in the championship series to get to the World Series (where they were trounced by a San Francisco team I think was clearly inferior in talent).

This year, the Tigers were better — but again, they seemed to punch way below their weight. They had the American League Cy Young and MVP winner, three dominant starters, a high-priced lineup that finished second in the league in runs scored, and they still finished with the third-best record in the league and again found themselves locked to the end in a divisional race with a team (Cleveland this time) that did not have the means to buy in their neighborhood. The Tigers, again and again the last two years, seemed to me to be less than the sum of their parts.

In my mind — and I admit right up front that this is wrong and utterly unfair — I blamed Prince Fielder.

When the Tigers gave Prince Fielder that nine-year, $214 million deal before the 2012 season, it seemed like one of those lousy moves rich teams make only because they can. The Tigers had just won 95 games and they ran away with a terrible American League Central division (no other team in the division was even .500). They won the division by 15 games, they scored many more runs than anyone in the division, they hit more home runs than any team in the division, they already had Miguel Cabrera (who led the league in average, on-base percentage and doubles) at first base. Prince Fielder seemed like the last thing the Tigers needed.

But it wasn’t a question of NEEDING Fielder. The Tigers had the money to get him. They had the package to convince him to come. So they got him. Fielder was coming off a monster year in Milwaukee where he hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 homers and 120 RBIs and was a key player in the Brewers reaching the NLCS. The Tigers did not need him but the thought of a Cabrera-Fielder middle of the lineup was mouthwatering.

It was so mouthwatering, in fact, that the Tigers were willing to do drastic and unsound things to make it happen. There was, of course, the humongous and seemingly interminable contract they gave him. It’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that long-term contract to players in their late 20s or early 30s pretty much never works. Here are the biggest contracts ever given to everyday players 28 or older (the age represents how old the player would be in his first season of the contract)*:

*I chose 28 because, best I can tell, players peak at 26-27, and so 28 is often the beginning of the decline. But I should note here that by choosing 28, I did leave out a couple of good long-term contracts — the Yankees first big deal with Derek Jeter and the Tigers deal with Miguel Cabrera.

1. Alex Rodriguez, age 32, 10 years, $275 million.
– You want this contract? Anyone?

2. Albert Pujols, age 32, 10 years, $240 million.
– How about this one?

3. Joey Votto, age 30, 10 years, $225 million.
– This contract hasn’t even started yet and — I say this as one of the world’s biggest Joey Votto fans — I predict there’s almost no chance the Reds will be happy they gave it. I know my friend Marty Brennaman won’t be.

4. Prince Fielder, age 28, 9 years, $214 million.
– More on this to come — at least he was a couple of years younger than the others at the start.

5. Joe Mauer, age 28, 8 years, $189 million.
– Now playing in a theater near you as a power-challenged first baseman.

6. Mark Teixeira, age 29, 8 years, $180 million.
– One of the more overlooked albatrosses on the Yankees.

7. Manny Ramirez, age 29, 8 years, $160 million.
– Funny enough, this might be the best deal in the Top 10.

8. Adrian Gonzalez, age 30, 7 years, $154 million.
– Within a year of its start date, the Red Sox were looking all over America for a place to dump this contract.

9. Carl Crawford, age 29, 7 years, $142 million.
– And the Red Sox wanted to dump this contract even more.

10. Todd Helton, age 29, 8 years, $141.4 million.
– Fangraphs had him worth roughly $105.1 million over length of contract so it wasn’t disastrous.

Look at that Top 10. I’d say the only people who would GO BACK and give out those contracts again are: The Red Sox with Manny (for all the trouble he caused, there are still two World Series championships during the Manny years) and Colorado with Helton (as much for sentimental reasons as baseball reasons). Obviously you can’t count the Votto contract yet because it hasn’t even started.

Giving out big contracts to players coming out of their prime is a loser. It just is. Josh Hamilton. Ken Griffey. Alfonso Soriano. Vernon Wells. Carlos Lee. Ryan Howard. On and on and on. Just about every disastrous contract in baseball history was some long-term deal given to a 28-to-32 year old in the hopes that he would (1) Be one of the few to hold off the effects of time or (2) Would be so good in the early years of the deal that the late years could be written off as collateral damage. It almost never works out either way. Option 2 is what I have to believe the Tigers were thinking about Fielder. I can’t believe they really thought Fielder would age gracefully.

So, they gave Fielder the big contract. That was the first thing. Second, they moved Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Fielder — one of those rare moves that makes a team drastically worse defensively at two positions.

The first year, Fielder hit more or less like the Tigers hoped he would. He hit 313/.412/.528 — pretty stout numbers. There were a couple of small negative signs. His homers were down and his slugging percentage was down. And while he still reached base a lot, it was in part because he got hit by a lot of pitches and was intentionally walked a bunch and was probably got a bit hit-lucky. Such things have a tendency of turning pretty quickly. Anyway, it was a good offensive season for Fielder, about as good as the Tigers could have wanted.

But were the Tigers a better team because of it? It’s hard to find. They scored 51 fewer runs in 2012 than they did in 2011. This wasn’t Fielder’s fault, of course, but it wash’t something he could prevent either. They were a much worse defensive team. According to John Dewan’s “Team Runs Saves” statistic, the Tigers were a good defensive team in 2011, saving 14 runs. In 2012, they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league, their defense COST them 32 runs. (In 2013, they were even worse with their defense costing them 66 runs). Again, it would be wrong to pin too much of blame on Fielder. But, he is a subpar first baseman. And Miguel Cabrera is a subpar third baseman.

Point is, Fielder had a GOOD year and it was hard to see how this helped the Tigers much.

In 2013, Fielder did not have a good year. His on-base percentage plummeted by 50 points, his slugging by 70, he failed to hit 30 homers for the first time since he was 22, and then he topped it off with another terrible postseason, which did not endear him to the hometown fans.

I hear a lot of people saying Fielder’s struggles were largely because he was going through some personal issues and that might be the big reason. Then again, it’s not like Prince Fielder type players age well. He’s obviously a big guy. I think of Boog Powell — league MVP at 28, dramatic drop at 29, and he had one good year the rest of his career. I think of Greg Luzinski — a 5-WAR player at 27, never a 3-WAR player after that. Kent Hrbek didn’t age well. His Dad Cecil Fielder did not age too well either. It’s hard to compare a player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds with anyone else because, believe it or not, there has never been another player listed at 5-foot-11, 275 pounds. But big, slow, defensively challenged first basemen are not great bets to stay young into their mid-30s.*

*Though it should be said in Fielder’s defense that he has proven to be remarkably resilient and prolific for such a big man. He has played every game for the last three seasons. Among players weighing 235 pounds or more, only Fielder and Carlos Lee have played every game in a full season, and Fielder has done it four times.

All of which leads to Wednesday’s trade: Fielder to Texas for Ian Kinsler. As a pure baseball trade, there are many fun elements to the deal. Kinsler is a soon-to-be 32-year-old second baseman (they don’t usually age well either, but who does?) who plays good defense and was a very good offensive player until about 2011. He’s dropped off quite a bit the last couple of years — his power is down and he’s not finding ways to get on base — and I suspect his offense will fall more once outside the happy hitting haven of Texas*.

*Even when he was a good player, Kinsler didn’t hit much on the road. His lifetime road split is .242/.312/.399.

Fielder meanwhile — it’s fun to think about how well he might hit in Texas. Friend of Blog Brandon McCarthy tweeted this after the deal:

“Wait. Why is the right field fence so close? Quit fooling with me you guys…what? Oh…oh my god” *maniacal laughter* – Prince Fielder

— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) November 21, 2013

The move allows the Tigers to move Cabrera back to first and get a proper third baseman. The move allows the Rangers some freedom to use super-prospect Jurickson Profar. The move frees up money for the Tigers. The move gives the Rangers a major star as their huge television deal gets kicking. It makes sense on many levels for both teams, and it’s a risk on some level for both sides, and that’s what makes it a fun trade.

But I think the Tigers won the deal. They had to throw in $30 million to make it happen, but I still think they won. I think shoring up that infield so it isn’t a sieve, I think having some spending flexibility to work on actual weaknesses, I think Kinsler’s solid all-around play will all help.

Also, I think that the years and money left on Fielder’s contract are radioactive. Brilliant reader Stephen tweeted that Fielder could get a 7-year, $138 million deal on the open market (the Rangers portion of the contract) and that’s probably true because teams spend money poorly. What I see here is that the Rangers brought in s a 30-year-old first baseman who can’t field or run or throw and is coming off the lowest OPS year of his career. Sure, he could rebound. Sure he could put up huge numbers in that hitters’ ballpark. Then again, he could keep on declining. And that contract goes on and on and on.