For the last seven years, Mark Teixeira has been paid large sums of money to play ball for the New York Yankees. It's good work if you can get it, and the stars are aligned in such a way that 2016 might not be the end of the road.
Teixeira is coming off a renaissance season in 2015, as he finished with a .906 OPS and 31 home runs in only 111 games. After a year like that, it's hardly an eyebrow-raiser that the soon-to-be 36-year-old first baseman who is going into the final year of his contract has a hop in his step and big plans for his future.
"I think I have a lot of good years left in me especially after last year," Teixeira told reporters last week, per Wallace Matthews of ESPN.com. "I’d love to play five more years; I’d love to play until I’m 40. My body feels so good, why not play until I’m 40? Being the kind of hitter I am, I can be a DH the last few years of my career, which could really prolong it. I would love to play that long.”
As to whether Teixeira would prefer to stay in pinstripes for the duration, well, duh.
"That's the easiest question you could ask me," he said. "I'd love to stay here, but we'll see what happens at the end of the year."
The Yankees have paid Teixeira north of $20 million per year throughout the eight-year, $180 million contract they signed him to in 2008. Now, one presumes he's so gung-ho about staying with the Yankees because he knows how deep their vaults go and, also, what kind of position he's in.
At the prospect of Teixeira earning another big-money contract with a huge walk year in 2016, two versions of history are throwing back their heads and doing the Ganondorf laugh.
One is Teixeira's own recent history. He's an old man by baseball standards, and 2015 was the first time in a while that he didn't look the part. Injuries limited him to just 261 games between 2012 and 2014, in which he also OPS'd just .751. After a stretch like that, 2015 looks suspiciously like an outlier.
Then there's baseball history. Teixeira may have redeemed himself in his age-35 season last year, but the track record of 36-year-olds doesn't like his odds of a repeat. Only 11 players have topped a .900 OPS and 30 homers in their age-36 season. For that matter, only 35 players have ever done so well as an .800 OPS and 25 homers.
While we're checking off reasons not to be optimistic, we should also address the theory that players in walk years are likely to benefit from extra motivation. Studies done on that subject—such as the one that the St. Louis Cardinals did on their own, as reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—have generally concluded in shrugs. For every Zack Greinke, there tends to be an Ian Desmond.
So why be optimistic about Teixeira, then? Oh, you know. Reasons and such.
Despite his recent trouble with injuries, it's actually easy to take Teixeira's word for it that he's feeling good going into 2016. The injury that ended his 2015 season was a broken leg brought about by fluky circumstances. Up until then, a new diet and enough time to recover from previous injuries had him feeling the best he'd felt in years.
“I’m just very thankful,” Teixeira told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News last June. “I’m very thankful for the health and I just hope that continues."
Teixeira also benefited from taking a different approach into 2015. After getting routinely humbled by infield shifts in previous seasons, he told Erik Boland of Newsday that his plan to fight back against the shift was to render it moot.
The plan in his own words: "Hit more home runs, hit more doubles and walk more."
And it worked. Teixeira's 12.8 walk percentage was his highest since 2010, a byproduct of his lowest chase rate (25.4 O-Swing%) since his first year in pinstripes in 2009. And he did indeed turn up the power, posting his best slugging percentage in years.
As Dylan Higgins notes at FanGraphs, that had a lot to do with Teixeira turning fly balls into home runs at a career-best 23.5 percent clip. Considering his advanced age, that makes it too easy to wonder if a regression is in order.
However, Teixeira didn't just say he wanted to hit for more power and make it happen with a snap of his fingers. He helped himself by pushing his overall fly-ball percentage back over 40 in just the way he needed to. With an assist from FanGraphs, here's a graph that shows he pulled a lot more fly balls without sacrificing any hard contact on fly balls:
That's a combination that would lead to more power. A healthy fly-ball habit is the best baseline for a consistent power stroke, and a pull habit produces more power than an opposite field or up-the-middle habit. As for the benefit of consistent hard contact, well, use your imagination.
If Teixeira's plan for 2016 is to stick with what worked in 2015, it could work again. That would help his case for a new contract, and what might help even more are various circumstances that could make his production look especially important.
As impressive as Teixeira's turnaround in 2015 was, it got overshadowed by what Alex Rodriguez was doing. Despite being sidelined for all of 2014 and posting steadily dwindling numbers even before then, he OPS'd .842 with 33 home runs while serving as the Yankees' everyday designated hitter.
But where Teixeira's return to relevance in 2015 passes the believability test, it's harder to give A-Rod's season a passing grade.
Rodriguez completely ran out of gas at the end of the year, by which point he was striking out in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances and struggling to make consistent hard contact. Basically, he finally started looking like a 39-year-old on the downswing of his career.
And for A-Rod's age-40 season in 2016, he'll be attempting to repeat production (.840-plus OPS and 30-plus homers) that only one player in history has achieved at such an advanced age. That is, the odds would seem to be way more against him than they are against Teixeira.
If Teixeira indeed continues to rake while A-Rod plummets, the Yankees are inevitably going to find themselves wary about cutting Teixeira loose and trusting A-Rod to be their primary slugger in the final year of his contract in 2017. That could inch them closer to satisfying Teixeira's wish of a new contract.
Of course, the alternative would be to hand Teixeira's first base gig to his heir apparent, Greg Bird. But with the 23-year-old out for all of 2016 following shoulder surgery, doing so would require a leap of faith on his health and readiness.
With Teixeira openly—and likely strategically—expressing his willingness to move into a full-time DH role down the line, the Yankees could re-up with him on a multiyear deal and then play some musical chairs after 2017. They could wave goodbye to A-Rod, move Teixeira into his vacated DH spot and move a fully recovered Bird into Teixeira's vacated gig at first base.
As for what kind of contract could keep Teixeira around, there's not exactly a clear picture of what constitutes fair compensation for a slugger heading into his late 30s. But two recent deals stand out: Victor Martinez signing for four years and $68 million coming off his age-35 season and Carlos Beltran signing for three years and $45 million coming off his age-36 season.
A new deal for Teixeira could fall somewhere in the middle of those two. To throw something out there, perhaps three years in the $50-55 million range. To sweeten it, the Yankees could throw in an option for a fourth year that would keep him in New York through his age-40 season.
It may not sound like much relative to the $180 million deal that Teixeira will be wrapping up this season. But it would make him a significantly richer man all the same, and it would fit reasonably well in the Yankees' future.
Now that we have it all figured out on paper, all Teixeira has to do is go and do more or less exactly what he did in 2015. If he can manage that, he may retire a Yankee after all.