The Yankees emerged from the winter meetings as the big winners having landed CC Sabathia, the biggest fish (literally and figuratively) in the free-agent pond. Just a day later, they've spoiled the broth by signing A.J. Burnett to a ludicrous contract completely out of synch with his past performance or future projection. While signing Sabathia was a no-brainer for a team that can afford his record-breaking contract, signing Burnett was unnecessary and betrays a worrisome lack of self-awareness on athe part of the Yankees.
With Sabathia in place, the 2009 Yankees rotation projected as Sabathia, Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Alfredo Aceves. While its certainly true that the Yankees needed to upgrade on Aceves, and that the 22-year-old Hughes could use some more seasoning in Triple-A following an injury-shortened season, signing Burnett is pure overkill for a team that has some rather desperate needs on the other side of the ball that are being ignored.
Rather than committing five-years and $82.5 million to Burnett (at an average annual salary of $16.5 million), the Yankees should have looked for shorter-term, more cost effective alternatives. Andy Pettitte,who may yet return on a one-year deal at a salary below the $16 million he earned last year, is one option. Former Sabathia teammate Ben Sheets, whose injury history resembles Burnetts, is would have taken a two-year, $30 million deal. Even converted reliever Braden Looper, who threw 199 innings of league average ball for the Cardinals last year and would be a perfectly acceptable, budget-rate fifth starter behind Sabathia, Wang, Chamberlain, and either Pettitte or Sheets.
Such less expensive, short-term deals would have allowed the Yankees to maintain the flexibility in their rotation that would have allowed the conga-line of starting pitching prospects in their organization to work their way up to the major leagues. Behind Chamberlain and Hughes are Ian Kennedy (24), Zach McAllister (21 and set to start 2009 in Double-A), 6-foot-8 Dellin Betances (a 21-year-old Brooklyn native set to start 2009 in High-A Tampa), 21-year-old lefty Jeremy Bleich (a 2008 draft pick out of Stanford who dominated in Hawaiian Winter Baseball and could move very quickly), 19-year-old Dominican Jairo Heredia, and assorted lesser prospects such as George Kontos (23 and set to start 2009 in Triple-A), Christian Garcia (23 and ticketed for Double-A), and the 6-foot-10 North Carolina State product Andrew Brackman (23), who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
With Sabathia, Wang, and Chamberlain already in place, the Yankees would only need two of the other nine pitchers listed above to pan out as back-end starters in order to field a young, cost-controlled rotation in the wake of shorter deals to pitchers such as Pettitte, Sheets or Looper. Instead, they've committed a rotation spot to an aging, injury-prone Burnett for the next five years (he'll be 36 in the final year of the deal) and are paying $82.5 million for the privilege. That's bad business.
To make matters worse, the investment made in Burnett is desperately needed on the other side of the ball. The Yankees are coming off a season in which they were eighth in the American League in runs scored and are losing 62.4 runs over replacement (per VORP) with the free agent departures of right fielder Bobby Abreu and first baseman Jason Giambi. Though the Yankees still have Alex Rodriguez playing at the top of his game, the rest of their offense is highly suspect. Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui will be 35 in 2009. Damon hit the DL for the first time in his career in 2008 and is no longer viable in center fielder. Jeter has seen his power and speed fade away in recent years and is coming off his worst offensive season since 1997. Matsui is coming off knee surgery and has failed to play in 100 games in two of the last three seasons. Behind them, the Yankees have huge question marks in 37-year-old catcher Jorge Posada, who is coming off shoulder surgery and lacks a viable backup (Jose Molina posted a .263 on-base percentage in Posada's stead this year), and second baseman Robinson Cano, who had by far his worst season at the plate last year. Indeed, the loss of production from Cano and Posada were the principle reasons for the Yankees' decline this past season.
The Yankees have made some modest attempts to reload by trading for Xavier Nady at the trading deadline and buying low on Nick Swisher in a swap with the White Sox last month. Swisher is also coming off his worst major league season, but there are reasons to expect him to rebound in 2009. Still, Swisher at his best will only replace the production of one of the two departed Yankee veterans, while Nady stands a very real chance of regressing to his league-average career rates (.280/.335/.458) after experiencing a career year at age 29, making him something less than an adequate replacement for the other departed vet. The Yankees can certainly hope for rebounds from any of a number of their other starters, but with the possible exception of Cano, the chances are slim. As a result, the Yankees need offense, and after the Sabathia signing, they needed offense much more than they needed another big-money pitcher.
The money spent on Burnett would have been better spent on offers to hitters such as Adam Dunn or Pat Burrell, neither of whom come with Burnett's health concerns, and the older of which is just a few moths Burnett's senior. Either of those two could play first base in the Bronx, allowing Swisher to enter the outfield picture, freeing the Yankees to try to work out a trade involving Matsui or Damon (both of whom will make $13 million in 2009), or to sell-high on Nady. Another smart option would be Jim Edmonds. The Yankees currently have slap-hitting rookie Brett Gardner penciled into center field and have been in talks with the Brewers about acquiring 36-year-old Mike Cameron for failing prospect Melky Cabrera. Edmonds, however, wouldn't cost them Cabrera, or nearly as much as Cameron's $10 million 2009 salary (Edmonds made $8 million this past season), and could provide similar if not superior play on both sides of the ball.
Of course, the ideal solution to the Yankees' production problems would be Mark Teixeira, a player who fits the Yankees' needs about as perfectly as can be given his position, youth, and defensive reputation, the last of which stands in stark contrast to the Yankees 13th place finish in defensive efficiency among AL teams in 2008. With Sabathia off the market, Teixeira is now the belle of the free agent ball, and while it would be obscene for the Yankees to land both CC and Tex, modesty didn't stop them from giving Burnett an obscene contract.
After landing Sabathia, the Yankees should have focused on chasing Teixeira or cheaper alternatives for improving the lineup, then reacted to the resulting signings by fleshing out the back-end of their rotation with short-term signings and working to trade one or two of their aging or overvalued veteran bats. Instead, they got carried away and gave Burnett a contract they're almost sure to regret, possibly as soon as the All-Star break (Carl Pavano didn't make it that far in 2005).
Still, even after the Burnett signing, chasing Teixeira is not out of the question for the Yankees. With big contracts including those of Giambi, Abreu, Pettitte, Pavano, and the retired Mike Mussina coming off the books, the Yankees still have, by my math, $23.5 left over from their 2008 payroll, which is very close to the average annual salary Teixeira's is likely to make under his next contract, which is likely to resemble Sabathia's and its $23 million annual average.
Would the Yankees dare hand out another nine-figure deal after spending $242.5 million on a pair of starting pitchers? Stay tuned.