Projecting how aging Yankees stars will do in years ahead
The Yankees' success over the last two decades was largely built around a core of home grown stars in Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, but it's clear that the end is nigh for each of them. Williams and Pettitte are retired, Posada is 39 and batting just .179 in the last year of his contract, Jeter is hitting a career-worst .255 as he approaches his 37th birthday and Rivera, though still pitching brilliantly, is 41 years old.
The decline of those players has brought attention to the advancing age and cost of the Yankees roster, which currently boasts five players who are at least 34 and earning eight-digit salaries and two other players earning annual salaries north of $20 million signed through or beyond their 34th birthdays. Setting aside Posada, who will turn 40 in August and is in the final year of his four-year, $52.4 million deal, here is a look at the six players the Yankees have signed through their age-34 season or beyond.
Rivera may be the oldest man on the team, but there's really no risk here, particularly not by Yankees standards. Rivera is the highest-paid closer in the game, but he has retained every bit of his value. Though he has had some small year-to-year fluctuations (primarily in his strikeout rate and, as is the case for every pitcher, his hit rate as a result of luck on balls in play), his value remains constant. He has given no indication that he is losing his effectiveness, and there is no decline to trace to forecast his 2012 season. The ERA and WHIP above are Rivera's cumulative rates from 2003 to 2010, and, thus far this season, he is bettering both (1.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP). The strikeout rate is roughly what he has done thus far this year, the K/BB is a tick below his current ratio, and the save total is his average from 2006 to 2010 minus one. He can't do this forever, but there is no reason to believe he can't do it for one more year after this one.
The contrast between Jeter and Rivera couldn't be more stark. While Rivera has improved on his career ERA in seven of the last eight seasons (the exception coming in 2007), Jeter had the worst year of his career in 2010 and has thus far failed to live up to even that standard in 2011. What's more, there are trends. Jeter's second-worst season was 2008, and his failings at the plate are easy to pinpoint. Though he has always hit an above-average number of ground balls, Jeter has set career highs in groundball percentage the last two seasons, leading the major leagues in 2010 and surpassing even that rate thus far this year. What's more, he hasn't hit right-handed pitchers since 2009, batting .246/.307/.309 against righties since the start of the 2010 season. Seeing as the vast majority of the pitchers in the major leagues are right-handed (69 percent of Jeter's at-bats over that span have come against righties), that's a major problem.
All of which is to completely avoid the issue of his defense, which was suspect even during his prime. Furthermore, the list of shortstops who managed even a league-average OPS+ in a season in which they were 38 or older and qualified for the batting title includes just four names, only one of which belongs to a player who played in the live-ball era. That man, Chicago White Sox Hall of Famer Luke Appling, was productive straight through to age 42 without showing any signs of decline. Jeter has shown those signs, and if he doesn't retire before his option year arrives in 2014, he will be doing both his team and his legacy a great disservice. Jeter's combined performance since the start of the 2010 season (.267/.334/.358) is the starting point for the projections above.
If Jeter's contract is unfortunate, Rodriguez's is a potential disaster, both because of its duration, which will take Rodriguez into his age-41 season, and its price, an annual average of $24.7 million, not counting another potential $30 million tied to home run milestones starting at Willie Mays' career mark of 660, which Rodriguez is just 39 away from. The projections above, which use as their starting point Rodriguez's performance since his 2009 hip surgery (.274/.366/.515), attempt to split the difference between being optimistic and conservative, as they expect Rodriguez to remain healthy and productive but at a somewhat diminished level. Indeed, looking at the "Upside By Year" projections on Rodriguez's PECOTA page over at
However, PECOTA sees a sharp drop-off to a two-win upside thereafter, and sees Rodriguez's upside as just one win above replacement in 2017, the final year of his contract. That's respectable for a 41-year-old infielder, but is completely out of line with the $20 million Rodriguez will make that year (again, not counting potential home run milestone paydays). There's also the question of how much longer Rodriguez can remain an infielder. John Dewan's defensive plus/minus system rated Rodriguez as five runs below the average third baseman in 2010. With Mark Teixeira blocking first base, and Rodriguez notoriously bad at tracking balls in the air, A-Rod could be pulling down $20-plus million for being a two-win DH in a few years, or he could be undermining that reduced value at the plate by costing his team a significant number of runs in the field.
No one really knows what to expect from Burnett next month, never mind two years from now. The Yankees clearly overpaid for him, hoping he could perform up to the quality of his stuff. Now they're just hoping he can perform up to his previous levels following a disastrous 2010 season that ranked among the worst full seasons by a Yankee starting pitcher in history. Burnett has impressed in one way since joining the Yankees in 2009: staying healthy. Prior to 2009, Burnett had made 30 starts in a season just twice, the second time coming in 2008. He has now made at least 33 starts in each of the last three years. However, over the course of those three seasons, and nine starts into this one, he has been no better than a league average pitcher, and a frustratingly inconsistent one at that. His strikeout rate has declined in each of the last three seasons, and the only categories he has led the league in as a Yankee have been walks, wild pitches, and hit batsmen. The above projections are somewhat generously drawn from his composite line with New York (4.54 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 1.97 K/BB, 27-27 record), which is weighed down by that miserable 2010 season.
Teixeira's contract is large in terms of years and dollars, but he will be younger than Jeter and just a year older that Rodriguez in its final season and seems a solid bet to retain enough value to bear it out as a solid investment despite suffering through a down year last year at age 30. PECOTA's Upside projections suggest that Teixeira could remain a four-win player (roughly his value in 2010) for the next four years and could still be worth three wins in his age-36 season in 2016, the final year of his deal.
Though PECOTA no longer publishes full projections for future seasons, I made a note of one when the Yankees signed Teixeira after the 2008 season. Prior to that year, PECOTA projected that Teixeira would hit .284/.384/.502 in his age-34 season in 2014. Teixeira then beat his PECOTA projection for 2008. Most of Teixeira's comparable players (Carlos Delgado, Jeff Bagwell, Will Clark, Jim Thome, Fred McGriff, Paul Konerko, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez) remained productive into their mid-30s. Teixeira is among the more athletic and accomplished fielders on that list, which both bodes well for a slow decline, and adds an extra dimension to his value.
The slash stats in the 2012 projection above are his career marks. The slash stats in the 2013 projection above are his rates as a Yankee. Neither makes any corrections for his 2011, which is perhaps unfair given that he's a notorious slow starter, or his weak and somewhat injury-plagued 2010 season. Don't be surprised if he surpasses those projections, at least with regard to the rate stats.
Sabathia is a curious case because the contract he has now, though it has four years left on it, may not be the contract he has next April. That's because he has the opportunity to opt out of his current deal this winter. Sabathia has said repeatedly that he won't opt-out, but his language has softened on that subject this season, and speculation abounds that he and his agents (Greg Genske and Scott Parker at Legacy Sports) will use the opt-out clause to leverage the Yankees into adding years and money to the current deal, perhaps to bring it in line with the five-year, $120 million contract the Phillies gave Sabathia's good friend and former Indians rotation-mate Cliff Lee, which is guaranteed through Lee's age-36 season with an option for his age-37 season.
As for the contract Sabathia has, it looks awfully good from here. The only pitchers to rank in the top 10 in the American League in Baseball Prospectus's win-expectancy-based SNLVAR (Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement) in each of the last two seasons, Sabathia's first two under his current deal, are Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, Jered Weaver, and Sabathia. Sabathia may be the oldest of that quintet, but not by much, and he has largely silenced the early-career concerns about his weight and more-recent concerns about his innings spikes in 2007 and 2008.
Still, one does worry -- not about Sabathia's arm, but about his knees (he had a minor surgery to repair the meniscus in the right one this past October and had the same surgery on the same knee four years earlier) and his back. Those areas are the parts that typically wear abnormally tall or heavy pitchers, and Sabathia is both. The biggest problem (no pun intended) with projecting Sabathia is that the list of 6-foot-7, 300 pound aces includes just one name: his.
From here, Sabathia looks like a unique pitcher, one who should maintain his ace status at least through the end of his current contract (his projections above are just variations on his first two Yankee seasons), and could well be the major league's next 300-game winner (he has averaged 19 wins over the last four seasons and already has 160 in his career at age 30). However, there is a distinct possibility that his body won't hold up that long, and that any additional years the Yankees add to his current contract will be ones they will regret.