They say you can’t buy a championship. Just look at the Yankees, who are out of the playoffs (again) with a $200 million payroll (again). But here’s the thing: you probably CAN buy a championship, but you have to do more than just spend money.
Look, the Royals could pay their current roster $200 million next year, and they would still suck. I’m not saying the Yankees’ talent level isn’t higher than the Royals’, but let’s call a spade a spade. George Steinbrenner may be paying his team $200 million for 2006, but the 2006 Yankees are (were) not a $200-million team.
Here’s a breakdown of the Yankees’ payroll (courtesy Baseball-Reference.com):
* Alex Rodriguez $21,680,727
* Derek Jeter $20,600,000
** Jason Giambi $20,428,571
* Mike Mussina $19,000,000
** Randy Johnson $15,661,427
* Johnny Damon $13,000,000
* Hideki Matsui $13,000,000
* Jorge Posada $12,000,000
* Gary Sheffield $10,756,171
Mariano Rivera $10,500,000
** Carl Pavano $8,000,000
** Jaret Wright $7,666,667
Kyle Farnsworth $5,416,666
** Shawn Chacon $3,600,000
* Ron Villone $2,250,000
* Octavio Dotel $2,000,000
* Tanyon Sturtze $1,500,000
Bernie Williams $1,500,000
* Aaron Small $1,200,000
Mike Myers $1,150,000
Miguel Cairo $1,000,000
Kelly Stinnett $650,000
Robinson Cano $381,000
Nick Green $356,700
Bubba Crosby $354,250
Chien-Ming Wang $353,175
Scott Proctor $352,675
Andy Phillips $333,150
Wil Nieves $328,600
One star means the player is possibly overpaid; two stars means he is definitely overpaid. Let’s talk about a few of them, and let’s start where everyone else starts: with Alex Rodriguez.
I know A-Rod gets a lot of the blame for the Yankees’ lousy play, but here’s the bottom line: he drove in more runs than anyone else on the Yankees, and he was second in homers (two behind Giambi). He batted .290 with a .392 on-base percentage and a .523 slugging percentage. Despite all the talk about his failures in the clutch, he batted .302 with runners in scoring position, .313 with RISP and two outs, and .474 with the bases loaded. Despite all the talk about how he was lousy most of the season, he had only one truly bad month: June. In every other month of the season, if you quickly multiply his numbers by six to emulate a six-month season, you will get between 30 and 48 homers and between 96 and 168 RBI. Yes, he had a lousy season defensively, tying his career high with 24 errors. And no, no one is going to argue that he had a great offensive season by his lofty standards. But anyone who thinks he had a terrible year is simply a fool.
Is A-Rod overpaid? Sure. No one player is worth what he gets paid. And he was more overpaid than normal because his season didn’t live up to the expectations set by his remarkable greatness over the past eleven years. But he is not the biggest payroll problem for the Yankees, because there is a reasonable expectation that he is going to be great again next year — the last time he went back-to-back seasons with fewer than 40 home runs was 1996-97.
So who are the bigger payroll problems? I’m only going to look at the guys who a reasonably intelligent person could have known would be drains on the checkbook.
Here is what I wrote on December 31, 2004, at the beginning of the Big Unit’s Yankee career:
Am I the only one who still remembers that Randy Johnson is 41 years old and has a history of back problems? I totally understand wanting him for 2005, but to give him a 2-year extension with crazy money? My favorite thing about this Johnson deal is playing the odds on how much money the Yankees will pay Johnson to sit on the bench, injured.
Johnson is now 43, and he is about to have surgery on a herniated disc in (SURPRISE!) his back. The Yankees paid him almost $16 million this year to put up a 5.00 ERA; they will pay him the same next year, and he will either a) not play at all, or b) not be much (or any) better than he was this year.
Before 2004, Jaret Wright had had exactly one season in which he had a winning record and more than ten wins — and in that season (1998), he had an ERA of 4.72. Then in 2004, he ended up with the Braves, and he somehow put together a pretty good season, going 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA. So the Yankees signed him to a big-money contract, despite the fact that all evidence pointed to 2004 being the fluke, rather than the previous seven years. In two seasons, the Yankees have paid him over $13 million, and he has pitched 204 innings. Now, I’d pay $13 million for 204 innings of a great pitcher, but this is 204 innings of 4.99 ERA!
In seven years, Pavano had more seasons with an ERA over 5.00 (three) than under 4.00 (two). He had started over 30 games in a season only twice. He had a career record of 57-58, with a 4.21 ERA. But he had a great season in 2004, so the Yankees threw money at him. Lots and lots of money. They paid $9 million for a 4-6, 4.77 season in 2005, and then paid him $8 million to be injured through all of 2006. That’s $17 million for 100 mediocre innings over 17 starts. And the signs were there.
This may seem like blasphemy to Yankee fans, but there’s no denying that Posada is overpaid. Yes, he has been solid throughout his career. But look at his 2006 stats, and then look at Mike Piazza’s 2006 stats. Pretty similar, eh? Where’s the big difference? Down at the bottom, in the salary section, where we learn that Posada made $12 million this year, while Piazza made $1.25 million. In reality, they probably each deserved somewhere between three and five million.
So there’s over $40 million that could have been spent more wisely, without ever touching the salaries of A-Rod, Jeter, Giambi, and Mussina. The Yankees have an advantage in bidding wars, but the problem with bidding wars is that they drive up the price for players who probably don’t deserve that much money. Would the Yankees be a lot better off if they had been outbid for the “services” of Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano? You bet your sweet bippy.
So A-Rod shoulders a lot of the blame, and Joe Torre almost got fired for not winning the World Series. But neither A-Rod nor Torre had anything to do with the pitchers the Yankees had on staff. It is very hard to win it all without good pitching, and the Yankees did not have good pitching. Their five main starters combined for a 4.35 ERA, thanks mostly to a surprisingly good season by Chien-Ming Wang (which he may or may not be able to duplicate) and an above average season by Mike Mussina (which he probably won’t duplicate, since he’s turning 38 this offseason). The other three starters (who combined to make about $25 million) combined for a 5.14 ERA.
Final analysis: the Yankees can spend $200 million every year, but until they start spending it on the right players at the right time, they will not match their previous success. That means no more signing (or trading for) players who are past their prime, and it means focusing on drafting and developing players internally. If George Steinbrenner can’t figure that out, he will continue to be disappointed.