The record for the biggest free-agent contract ever handed out to a reliever was set on the first full day of this year’s Winter Meetings. It lasted all of 48 hours.
On Wednesday night, as MLB’s week-long expo and media gathering wound down, the Yankees sent everyone home with a bombshell contract for closer Aroldis Chapman, the best reliever on the market: five years and $86 million, according to Fox Sports’s Ken Rosenthal. That pact shatters the industry record for a reliever set just two days earlier by new Giants closer Mark Melancon, whose four-year, $62 million deal had itself topped Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million contract back in 2011 as the new No. 1. New York’s new deal for Chapman—who was the team’s closer for the first half of 2016 after being acquired last December from Cincinnati—reflects the new, borderline ludicrous value that top-flight relievers now hold. And while Chapman is and should continue to be one of the most dominant relievers in the game, the Yankees are taking a real risk in years and dollars with this deal.
That Chapman was able to score himself this kind of contract isn’t that surprising. In a season split between the Yankees and Cubs, the 28-year-old Cuban lefthander struck out 90 men in 58 innings—the latter figure truncated by a month-long suspension at the start of the season for a domestic violence incident last December—and posted a 1.55 ERA with 36 saves. That marked Chapman’s fourth year out of the last five with an ERA of 2.00 or below, and since becoming a full-time closer in 2012, he has posted a strikeout-per-nine rate of 14.0 or higher every year. Featuring a fastball that routinely breaks 100 mph and a wipeout slider, Chapman is borderline unhittable at times, and after being acquired by Chicago at the trade deadline, he was a key piece of the team’s World Series run, throwing 15 2/3 innings over 13 games, including a bravura eight-out performance in Game 5 of the Fall Classic.
All those stats are well and good, and Chapman will pair with fellow flamethrower Dellin Betances to give the Yankees an enviable 1–2 punch in the later innings that will be hard for any team to counter. But he’ll be doing so for a team that, unless everything breaks right, likely won’t have much need for a shutdown closer. Mired in .500-level mediocrity throughout the first half of 2016, the Yankees chose to sell and rebuild, dealing Chapman, fellow elite reliever Andrew Miller and veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran; that tack continued this winter, with the team trading catcher Brian McCann to the Astros for two minor leaguers. All those deals have brought back a plethora of good prospects—Chapman returned top young shortstop Gleyber Torres from Chicago—but all of those players are at least one or two years away from making a real impact.
That isn’t to say that the current edition of the Yankees is a skeleton crew. Betances, catcher Gary Sanchez, shortstop Didi Gregorius and ace Masahiro Tanaka are all excellent under-28 players who form an enviable core. But the cast around those players is lacking, particularly in the rotation. The rotation behind Tanaka is a mess, comprised of the perennially disappointing Michael Pineda, the aging CC Sabathia and a host of young pitchers who have yet to prove they can handle a major league workload. How often will that group—including Tanaka, who remains a persistent injury risk—be able to deliver a lead to Chapman?
Adding Chapman, then, is strange if you look at the 2017 Yankees as the franchise’s bridge to future contention more than anything else. That idea seemed to be reinforced on Sunday, when New York signed Matt Holliday to a one-year deal to be the team’s new designated hitter. Adding Holliday was as much about what he brought to the team as who he wasn’t—namely, Edwin Encarnacion. As they did last off-season, the Yankees were seemingly going to steer clear of handing out big contracts to expensive veterans this winter. Instead, they would invest in youth supplemented by short-term contracts and keep trying to get under the luxury tax limit they have surpassed for every year of its existence (and had to pay a hefty penalty as a result).
Chapman is a hard move to understand in that light. As part of the new CBA, the luxury tax limit is rising (albeit by a small amount, from $186 million this year to $195 million next, and with penalties rising commensurately), which gives the Yankees more wiggle room. Just as important is the fact that the team will be saving millions of dollars annually in revenue sharing payments that it will no longer have to make. Those coins found in the cushions, as it were, can help a contract like Chapman’s be that much more palatable. (And yes, it is odd to act as if the Yankees, the titans of garish overspending, have any kind of financial constraints or conscience.) But New York already had $149 million in salary committed to the 2017 roster, not including arbitration costs and what needed to be spent to fill out the team; Chapman will now eat up a big chunk of that leftover space.
With those limits in mind, is Chapman the right man to get that kind of contract? Barring a wild philosophical change in the way the Yankees use their bullpen, Chapman will still only throw 70 or so innings a year (his career high is 71 2/3, set back in 2012). Even if the Yankees did want to get creative with him, he seems like the wrong person to do it, given his stated aversion to coming in before the ninth or taking over with runners on base. Paying $17 million a year for 200 relatively static outs feels like a massive inefficiency, particularly given the presence of the more flexible Betances, who is cheap and under team control through 2020.
There’s also the question of how much longer you can expect a pitcher who throws 100 mph over and over again to hold up. By the end of the postseason, Chapman was clearly gassed; he blew Chicago’s eighth-inning lead in Game 7, and in his final frame of the World Series, he abandoned his fastball—now sitting below 100—and threw his slider almost exclusively. While it’s somewhat unfair to take that outing and project it forward, it’s also instructive to see what Chapman looks like without his über-fastball—that is to say, mortal. A slip in the quality of that pitch could ruin him.
None of which is to say that doom is in Chapman’s future. But as with any pitcher, he carries risk, and that risk is multiplied by the fact that even at his best, he’s still only giving you 70 innings—albeit 70 elite innings that few pitchers can match. But the Yankees have one of those few pitchers already on the roster making peanuts. For a team that has made so much noise over the last three years about fiduciary responsibility and building from within, this feels like the kind of move that the George Steinbrenner Yankees would have made, blowing their rivals out of the water to get The Best Player no matter what.
Unsurprisingly, early reports have noted that this is, in fact, a Steinbrenner move—that of George’s son, Hal, the team’s principal owner. As Newsday’s Erik Boland reports, Steinbrenner “liked the buzz Chapman created at [Yankee] Stadium,” and as such, he was apparently a driving force in bringing the lefty back to the Bronx. So while the Yankees may not be a contender, Hal Steinbrenner at least wants to maintain the illusion of being one, and having one of the best closers in baseball on the roster is part of that. That the Yankees tacked on a three-year opt-out and a full no-trade clause in that span suggests that they believe they’re closer to contention than most believe; it would definitely be something if New York paid Chapman handsomely for three seasons of excellent work for .500 teams, then watched him walk just as the youth movement flourished in full—or worse, had to pay up yet again to keep him.
(I’ll pause to note here the fact that Chapman also presents an ethical quandary, given the domestic violence suspension he served—to say nothing of the frightening accusations behind it—and how forced and insincere his apology for his actions felt. That the Yankees took advantage of his crime to acquire him at a heavy discount, moved him when his value was highest post-suspension and, after he was gone, made a public show of their stance against domestic violence is also upsetting. But while what Chapman allegedly did is awful, he has done his league-mandated time, and to continue to try to punish him accomplishes little; in that vein, I recommend this excellent piece by Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz on how no-tolerance domestic violence policies serve only to hurt further both the abuser and the victim. It’s understandable and perfectly acceptable for baseball fans to want nothing more to do with Aroldis Chapman and for Yankees fans to wish he’d gone anywhere else. But blackballing him won’t help; the best outcome here is that the Yankees make a point of taking their once-and-again employee and get him all the help and counseling he needs to make sure he never again does what he did. But it’s understandable to feel queasy about the way the Yankees played this.)
Given that this is the Yankees, who have a Scrooge McDuck-esque vault of money hidden somewhere underneath Yankee Stadium, it’s hard to imagine they will regret this deal too much. But the same could have been said after they gave $153 million to Jacoby Ellsbury, or handed $202 million to Sabathia, or spent $300 million on Alex Rodriguez. Those contracts were disasters by the end (or have been almost since day one, in the case of Ellsbury), and while Chapman will make a relatively modest sum, it’s also hard to imagine that, by the time a final accounting is done, New York will be 100% happy with the record it set on Wednesday night.