Will the Yankees Ever Learn from Repeated Megadeal Disasters?

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Will the Yankees Ever Learn from Repeated Megadeal Disasters?
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
What can the Yankees learn from megadeals that have partially, or fully, backfired? No. 1 starter CC Sabathia (left) was signed for eight years prior to '09, and A-Rod agreed to 10 prior to '08.

The New York Yankees finished third in the AL East last season and missed the postseason for the first time since 2008, prompting the front office to make several big-money moves. Some contracts this winter were reminiscent of the "megadeals" that, prior to 2008, secured Alex Rodriguez for 10 years, and, prior to 2009, locked down CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira for eight years apiece.

As of late June 2014, however, A-Rod remains out of baseball, Sabathia is injured and Teixeira has played 55 of a possible 75 games and struck out 45 times. Of the most recent crop of winter signings, neither Carlos Beltran (three years) nor Brian McCann (five) is batting above .225, mega-signing Jacoby Ellsbury (seven) is at an unremarkable .277 and only Masahiro Tanaka (seven) has achieved immediate success (11-2, 2.11 ERA).

Heading into Tuesday, and nearing baseball's halfway point of this season, the Yankees are just three games above .500 in the middle of the AL East. If they miss the postseason again, their continued reliance on free-agent signings over in-house development could be called further into question, leaving many fans to wonder whether they'll ever learn from these megadeal mistakes.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Perennially choosing gigantic contracts over drafting and developing younger options only becomes a greater issue when the star players burn out. And the Yankees are no strangers to witnessing several of their megadeal signings repeatedly become busts a few years into their deals via declining health and production.

To fundamentally improve long-term, the Yankees would first have to learn from their mistakes. Then, what may ultimately benefit them most is a re-imagined vision that places heavier focus on first selecting, and then developing, advanced talent.

Based on the last three years of Yankees draft patterns and scouting, as a matter of fact, there's a likelihood they've already learned and begun to take steps away from their propensity to correctively spend hundreds of millions each offseason. 

By beginning to make a habit of selecting from the pool of more advanced, polished NCAA prospects, the Yankees appear to already be in the seminal stages of retooling their long-term backup plans—by emphasizing the development of in-house products, the smartest security for the big league team when spending and relying on the free-agent and trade markets is often not the most pragmatic way to fill a roster.

 

Ill Effects of Previous Yankee Megadeals: A-Rod, Sabathia, Teixeira

USA TODAY Sports
Third baseman Yangervis Solarte, the current replacement for Rodriguez, disagrees with a third-strike call on June 8 in Kansas City. The spring training star has slumped of late.

In addition to missing the entirety of 2014 to suspension, maligned third baseman A-Rod's production has diminished since 2010, the year after their 27th title.

In 2007, in the largest in their most recent string of megadeals, the Yankees handed out 10 years and $275 million—including multimillion-dollar offensive milestone incentives—to Alex Rodriguez in order to secure him through the age of 42, per Spotrac.com. But five years removed from their championship, A-Rod's contract is at the least questionable, with the third baseman missing all of 2014 and playing just 402 of 648 possible games from 2011-13.

A-Rod's current successor/backup, Yangervis Solarte, has come back down to earth since his spring training and early-season explosion; he sits at .266/.347/.406 (110 wRC+) through 67 big league games, per FanGraphs, and continues to slump in June (.164, 4 RBI, 9 K).

Following 2008, after missing the playoffs for the first time since '93, the front office dove head-first into a ripe free-agent class, delivering to the Bronx several of the team's top targets. The services of two marquee players came via megadeals—Mark Teixeira (eight years) and CC Sabathia (seven years)—that effectively wiped out the stingier competition, installed a new core for the next decade and then delivered immediately.

The immediate success of the retooled team's first year together in '09—a staff headlined by Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and the re-signed Andy Pettitte (one year), and a lineup with Rodriguez, Teixeira and Nick Swisher—seemingly gave credence to the Bombers' propensity to spend at will and land players via megadeals

But now, since the start of 2013, No. 1 starter Sabathia has amassed a 17-17 record, 4.87 ERA (4.21 FIP) and struck out only 7.81 batters per nine innings. His velocity has steadily declined, while his ERA has inflated and his current absence—dating to May 10 because of a knee injury—has had a large effect on a fledgling starting staff.  

Yankees on Decline Since '09 Championship
2009 Stats 20010-13 Stats 2014 Stats
Alex Rodriguez .286/.402/.532 (.933 OPS); 30 HR, 100 RBI; 141 wRC+, 4.0 WAR .269/.351/.463 (.814 OPS); 71 HR, 263 RBI; 120 wRC+ --
Mark Teixeira .292/.383/.565 (.933 OPS); 30 HR, 100 RBI; 142 wRC+, 4.9 WAR .249/.345/.479; 99 HR, 315 RBI; 121 wRC+ .246/.363/.465 (.828 OPS); 12 HR, 35 RBI; 0.8 WAR
CC Sabathia 19-8, 3.37 ERA, 3.39 FIP; 7.71 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 0.70 HR/9; 6.1 WAR 69-34, 3.56 ERA, 3.45 FIP; 8.12 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 0.88 HR/9 3-4, 5.28 ERA, 4.74 FIP; 0.3 WAR

FanGraphs.com

Teixeira has only played 69 of a possible 236 games since 2013 and has raised red flags related to his health—with a surgically repaired wrist this past offseason—as well as to his production—from .292 and 122 RBI in 2009 to .242 and 131 RBI from 2012-14.

His struggles have had a tremendous domino effect in the infield, where we saw utility man Kelly Johnson fill in at first base for some time; the former Tampa Bay Ray is hitting only .222/.294/.389 with four homers and 16 RBI (87 wRC+) in 56 games. 

 

Tanaka: A Diamond in the Rough of Recent Megadeals

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
All smiles for Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, who's leading MLB with his 11-2 record.

At the three-month mark, an argument could be made that early Cy Young favorite Masahiro Tanaka is the sole smart move of the offseason at $155 million.

New York is currently 39-36 and in third place in the AL East. The team's larger deficiencies (no backup for Teixeira; missing three starters to injury), have often been quieted by timely play but at other times have been obviously exposed. 

The patchwork rotation, streaky offense and shaky, post-Cano and post-Rodriguez infield have reared their heads time and again. 

Jacoby Ellsbury has been an offensive bright spot at times, swiping 21 of 23 bases, but his batting line tells a more underwhelming story at .280/.350/.396, and his defensive metrics, per FanGraphs, tell a darker side for the $153 million man, with a negative-12.1 UZR per 150 innings.

New Yankees' Slow Starts in 2014
Career Average Stats 2014 Stats
Jacoby Ellsbury .296/.350/.396, 54 SB, 109 wRC+, 8.4 UZR/150 .280/.350/.396. 21 SB, 106 wRC+, -12.1 UZR/150, 1.4 WAR
Brian McCann .274/.346/.467, 25 HR, 96 RBI, 115 wRC+ .222/.285/.360, 8 HR, 34 RBI, 77 wRC+, 0.8 WAR
Carlos Beltran .282/.357/.494, 28 HR, 104 RBI, 121 wRC+ .220/.279/.412, 7 HR, 23 RBI, 85 wRC+, -0.3 WAR
Masahiro Tanaka 99-35, 1315.0 IP, 2.30 ERA, 8.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 1.108 WHIP 11-2, 106.2 IP, 2.11 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 10.04 K/9, 1.43 BB/9, 0.93 HR/9, 0.956 WHIP, 3.0 WAR

FanGraphs.com

In the face of early and significant injury (Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova) and team-wide underperformance for baseball's first half, the Yankees' new Japanese ace has compiled an MLB-best 11-2 record and 2.11 ERA, good for fourth in the majors among starters. 

Since the start of the 2014 season, Brian McCann, their new catcher signed for five years and $85 million, is batting just .222 with eight home runs and 77 wRC+. Carlos Beltran, another marquee signing for three years and $45 million, is hitting only .220 with seven homers and 85 wRC+. Veteran second baseman Brian Roberts is batting a below-average .244/.326/.344 (88 wRC+) in 64 games.

 

More NCAA Draft Picks: The Yankees May Already Be Learning from Their Mistakes

Phil Sears/Associated Press
The Yankees' first pick of the 2014 draft, LHP Jacob Lindgren, a reliever from SEC powerhouse Mississippi State

Based on recent trends, particularly of the last three years, the Yankees have shown a new willingness to draft more advanced talent in their first 10 picks. One of the key indicators of the Yankees' pursuing the free-agent market in the past has been the repetitive busts of their young, prized draft picks (like Brien Taylor in 1991, or Tyler Austin in 2010).

But having drafted more pragmatically since 2012, New York has begun to reap the benefits of more mature NCAA talent, who, for the most part, see a lesser development gap to the bigs than high school players. 

If you're looking for more evidence that the Yankees have learned from their past mistakes, remember that their first pick in 2014, Jacob Lindgren out of Mississippi State, has enough polish to be discussed for a September call-up this year, as Baseball America's editor-in-chief John Manuel told the YES Network following draft night.

Three years ago at the 2012 draft, the Yankees took seven of their first 10 picks from college. Although three of their first five off the board were out of high school, the third overall selection was Peter O'Brien, an NCAA catcher from the University of Miami, who sparkled in High-A Tampa this season (.321/.353/.688, 10 HR, 19 RBI) before receiving a promotion to Trenton.

Yankees' 3-Year Draft Trends
NCAA Picks in 1st 5 NCAA Picks in 1st 10 No. of Pitchers in 1st 10
2012 2 7 5
2013 3 7 3
2014 4 9 6

Baseball-Reference.com

In the 2013 draft, the Yanks flipped the script on their first five picks, taking three players from college. And of the first 10, the Bombers deftly selected a total of seven NCAA prospects.

Last year, for the first time since 2007, their first selection was a college player—and in this case, both of their first two picks were from the NCAA: first-round pick Eric Jagielo from Notre Dame, who has 10 homers, eight doubles and 31 RBI in 42 games for Tampa in 2014, and second-rounder Aaron Judge out of Cal State Fresno, who was raking in Charleston this season (.333/.428/.530, 9 HR, 45 RBI) before a promotion.

And it's likely no coincidence that the Yankees just drafted four college pitchers with their first 10 picks in 2014—the same summer the front office is eyeing the trade deadline with significant holes in pitching.

In the most recent draft, the Yankees yet again leaned on the NCAA talent pool early on, taking four of the first five picks—and nine of their first 10—out of college.

 

Sample Size: 1-Year Takeaways vs. Long-Term Conclusions 

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

It's ironic, and a little confusing, that we typically judge megadeals based on the initial year of the contracts (Albert Pujols' and Josh Hamilton's first season in Los Angeles; the fixation with Robinson Cano's production/HR total in Seattle in 2014).

Taking a longer view of these near-decade-long, multimillion-dollar deals will give a clearer picture of their success. In the Yankees' case, a wider, contextualized perspective actually makes the "disaster" scenario worse for this decade's previous megadeals.

Players such as A-Rod, Sabathia and Teixeira did not suddenly slump over the course of 2010; instead, and more gravely, they have all gradually been in declines since '10 into what is now Year 5 since championship No. 27. These are not three premier, everyday starters who, due to the effects of Father Time and wear and tear, have been relegated to supporting roles just five or six years after signing megadeals.

They are players who were signed to be playing everyday positions by 2014 and beyond, and not one of them has accomplished that goal so far (Teixeira is actually the closest).

Take A-Rod, for example: He hasn't played 130 games since 2010, his home run per fly ball rate has been on the decline since 2007, and his strikeout rate has taken a scary nosedive as well: from 16.5 percent in '10, to 18.7 percent in '11, 21.9 percent in '12 and 23.8 percent in '13. On the other side of the ball, A-Rod has been a liability, via his defensive metrics, per FanGraphs: In seven of his last nine seasons, Rodriguez has posted a negative UZR/150.

What's more, he has three years remaining on his megadeal and, after dropping his lawsuit against the team doctor on Thursday night, appears more willing than ever to make a return in 2015—as the Yankees starting third baseman...at age 39. Sabathia turns 34 in July as he eyes the final two guaranteed years on his monster deal, and Teixeira will be 35 shortly after Opening Day next season, with two more seasons on his own contract.

In the first-year player draft each June, teams—somewhat comically sometimes—draft into the 40th round, hoping to come up with a diamond in the rough.

But is there a marked difference with throwing your hat—and half a billion dollars—into the free-agent fiasco at season's end?

In five more years, if Ellsbury pans out as a .280-.285 hitter while the other recipients of megadeals have flamed out, will anyone find fault with the front office for landing Tanaka in the eye of the winter storm?

Will the Yankees learn from their megadeal disasters?

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As the New York Post's Joel Sherman argues, the Yankees should, and will most likely, take aim at correcting their short-term, everyday lineup holes, with a series of keen moves prior to this summer's trade deadline. Behind the outstanding performance of Tanaka and reliable work from the bullpen late in games, the Yanks are far from out of the postseason discussion.

Perhaps just one starting pitcher and one reliable reliever away from appearing a serious threat for the division for the first time since their winter spending spree concluded, the Yankees were both smart and fortunate for signing Tanaka

Their recent trend in drafting more advanced prospects in the early rounds can only bode well if it truly is part of a renewed vision to rely less on their wallets and more on their farm system in the future. 

 

Common statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and advanced stats/metrics via FanGraphs, unless noted otherwise; current through game action on Monday, June 23, 2014. 

Peter F. Richman is a B/R Copy Editor and Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees. For previous work, check out the Yankees' 2014 draft tracker with analysis and scouting reports. For more NYY opinions, discussion, debate and analysis, feel free to reach out via Twitter:  

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