Monday, October 09, 2006

Getting Banged for His Buck(s) – Boss Steinbrenner is one unhappy man!!

Imagine how you would feel if you spent $975 million in six years, your baseball team made the playoffs each year, but failed to reach your objective – winning the World Series. No we’re not talking about the Atlanta Braves; we’re alluding to the trials and tribulations of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

In the last six baseball seasons, Steinbrenner has invested nearly one billion in the Yankees payroll. The Yankees biggest accomplishment in the last six years, personally serving as the catalyst for the greatest collapse in baseball history, the Yankees losing the 2004 American League Championship series to the Boston Red Sox, experiencing the Red Sox celebrating on their field, and watching the Red Sox end the 86-year curse of the Bambino. On every possible level the complete collapse of the once great Yankees, has to have Steinbrenner asking a great many questions – and demanding the answers.

The obstacles the Yankees overcame to win the American League eastern division this year was impressive. The Yankees lost Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui for much of the 2006 season. A half game behind the Red Sox on July 30, Steinbrenner did what he does best, provided an opportunity for his team to win. The Yankees traded four prospects (none of whom may ever amount to anything in the major leagues) to the Philadelphia Phillies for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle. Baseball fans from 29 other teams once again had to stare and watch as George Steinbrenner’s shock and awe campaign proved once again at least when it comes to the business of baseball -- Darth Steinbrenner is The Boss.

The rationale for the Phillies was simple – the Yankees where the only MLB franchise prepared to assume the financial obligations the Phillies had with both Abreu and Lidle. The Yankees assumed one-third (the remaining two months of the 2006 season) of the contractual obligations owed to Abreu (4.5 million) and Lidle (1.1 million). The Yankees also took on Abreu’s $15 million 2007 contract. The Yankees also agreed to pay Abreu $1.5 million to waive his no trade clause. Lidle is a free agent at the end of the 2006 season.

Financially the Yankees did more then add 7.1 million to their 2006 team payroll. Because the Yankees surpassed the MLB team salary payroll threshold of $136.7 million, and since the Yankees surpassed the team payroll threshold level for the fourth consecutive season in 2006, Abreu and Lidle cost the Yankees an additional 40 percent ($2.82 million) in luxury tax fees.

The Yankees opening day payroll was projected at 198,662,180. While the bill has yet to be sent by Major League Baseball to Steinbrenner and the Yankees, the Yankees can expect a luxury tax bill for the 2006 season in excess of $28 million. George could care less, he had the money and Abreu, and to a much lesser extent Lidle, he believed they were the missing parts his team needed to win. In 58 games regular season games for the Yankees, Abreu hit.330 and collected 42 rbi’s – all for nothing.

The Yankees if nothing else prove unequivocally no matter how much money you toss at building a baseball team, unless you have the right mix of players you cannot win by spending, spending and spending more money.

The finger pointing has begun in New York. How and why could a lineup that featured eight everyday players that at one time in their careers had started in an all-star game had failed so miserably? Easiest question to answer – the Yankees of 2006 where a team built on money, not with chemistry. The 2004 Boston Red Sox and the 2005 Chicago White Sox World Series winners, built with not only money but with the right blend of personalities.

Steinbrenner gave Yankees general manager Brian Cashman a blank check, and Cashman signed any and everyone regardless of whether or not the team he put together had any chemistry. Cashman bears a great deal of the responsibility for the fall of the Yankees. Cashman has wanted more and more control of the Yankees personnel in recent years. One World Series in eleven years, a billion dollars in the last six years and nothing to show for it, Cashman has to be held accountable. That however is not going to be the case.

Sunday morning The New York Daily News and New York Newsday reported that Cashman’s job is safe, and Joe Torre is going to be fired unless he resigns. Citing unnamed sources, both papers suggested former Yankee manager and player Lou Pinella will replace Torre. Steinbrenner issued a statement Sunday. Big George wouldn’t comment on media reports that Torre would be fired, lending credence to the man who has managed the Yankees for eleven seasons, winning four World Series titles and making the playoffs each year.

The 1996 World Series, Torre’s first season as Yankees manager, was the Yankees first in 15 years. Torre has one year and $7 million left on this contract.

"I am deeply disappointed at our being eliminated so early in the playoffs," Steinbrenner said in a statement issued Sunday by spokesman Howard Rubenstein. "This result is absolutely not acceptable to me nor to our great and loyal Yankee fans. I want to congratulate the Detroit Tigers organization and wish them well. Rest assured, we will go back to work immediately and try to right this sad failure and provide a championship for the Yankees, as is our goal every year."

Most media reports Sunday suggested Steinbrenner is looking at dismantling the current Yankees roster. Spending a billion dollars and not seeing a World Series title in six years can lead any MLB owner to make that decision. If indeed Steinbrenner intends to break up the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez’s future has to be at the top of any decisions Steinbrenner and Cashman make about the Yankees roster.

Rodriguez has four years and $64 million left on the $252 million contract A-Rod signed with the Texas Rangers before the 2001 season. The Rangers traded A-Rod to the Yankees before the start of the 2004 season. The Rangers couldn’t make the contract work for their team and the same fate seems to be the Yankees destiny with A-Rod.

A-Rod won the American League MVP in 2005. His contract includes a no-trade clause. Unless A-Rod agrees to a trade, the Yankees will be forced to keep A-Rod on their team for four more seasons. Given Steinbrenner’s spending habits, would the Yankees consider giving A-Rod is unconditional release, paying the balance of his contract and making A-Rod a free agent – unlikely but funny to consider. A-Rod’s contract does include an option for A-Rod to opt-out after the 2007, 2008 or 2009 season, creating the possibility the Yankees could keep A-Rod for one more season and then attempt to have his agent (Scott Boras) negotiate a settlement with the Yankees. A-Rod would then be a free agent.

A-Rod did not have a good 2006 season, at least in the rarified air Alex Rodriguez’s occupies. A .305 career average in a 13 year career, A-Rod hit .290 in 2006, collecting 121 RBI’s, and 35 home runs. Playing his third season at third base for the Yankees, Rodriguez led American League third basemen in errors with 24. His .937 fielding percentage was the worst of his career. The ALDS against the Tigers was an entirely different story. Joe Torre batted A-Rod fourth in one game, sixth in another and eighth in the other two games. Rodriguez didn’t respond to Torre’s indecision hitting an anemic .071 one hit in 14 at bats.

Trading A-Rod is easier said than done. However, here’s how the Yankees can trade A-Rod. The days of the $20 million contract are gone and no the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t going to trade Alex Rodriguez for Manny Ramirez. There are however, a few teams that might consider A-Rod’s contract and see it as an opportunity to dramatically increase their teams’ marketability.

Topping that list are Frank McCourt’s Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers 2006 opening day payroll stood at $98,447,187. The Dodgers will have some room to work with for the 2007 season. The club has a $12 million option they’ll not likely exercise with Eric Gagne whose injury plagued career is at best a question mark. Cashman might take J.D. Drew’s $11 million contract and Derek Lowe’s $9 million contract. The Dodgers get a franchise player; A-Rod flourishes in So-Cal. Lowe went 16-8 for the Dodgers. The one consistency throughout Lowe’s career has been his inconsistency. The best time to trade Lowe is after he’s had a good season. Lowe offers solid trade value. Drew hit .283 (eerily close to A-Rod). Drew collected 100 RBI’s and hit 20 home runs for the Dodgers.

The keys, the Yankees are trading a $24.5 million contract for two contracts valued at $20 million and both teams lost in the first round of the playoffs. Dollars and cents it makes perfect sense.

Alex Rodriguez may be the most talented player in baseball today and he undoubtedly will be among the greatest players in the history of the game, but in the Yankee clubhouse he has become too much of a distraction. The Yankees’ relationship with A-Rod took a decided turn for the worse after Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci fractured portrayal of A-Rod’s relationship with his Yankees teammates in a mid-September Sports Illustrated cover story. Proving at times great people can offer inane comments, the article offered the impression A-Rod was aloof and believes he’s better than his teammates.

"I can't help that I'm a bright person," he told Verducci in August. "I know that's not a great quote to give, but I can't pretend to play dumb and stupid." Regardless of whether or not Rodriguez believes he’s smarter than the rest of the world suggesting you’re smart isn’t a very bright comment.

A great deal of Verducci’s cover story focused on comments Jason Giambi offered Sports Illustrated on A-Rod. Giambi didn’t play in the final two games of the Yankees – Tigers series.

"Skip," Giambi told Torre after the Yankees/Red Sox five game series at Fenway Park, "it's time to stop coddling him."

"What Jason said made me realize that I had to go at it a different way," Torre says. "When the rest of the team starts noticing things, you have to get it fixed. That's my job. I like to give individuals what I believe is the room they need, but when I sense that other people are affected, teamwise, I have to find a solution to it."

“We're all rooting for you and we're behind you 100 percent,” Giambi recalls telling Rodriguez, "but you've got to get the big hit."

"What do you mean?" was Rodriguez's response, according to Giambi. "I've had five hits in Boston."

"You f------ call those hits?" Giambi said. "You had two f------ dinkers to rightfield and a ball that bounced over the third baseman! Look at how many pitches you missed!

"When you hit three, four or five [in the order], you have to get the big hits, especially if they're going to walk Bobby [Abreu] and me. I'll help you out until you get going. I'll look to drive in runs when they pitch around me, go after that 3-and-1 pitch that might be a ball. But if they're going to walk Bobby and me, you're going to have to be the guy."

After sweeping the Red Sox and taking firm control of the AL East, the Bronx Bombers went to Seattle. According to Verducci Torre let A-Rod have with both barrels.

Torre looked at Rodriguez squarely and said, "This is all about honesty. And it's not about anybody else but you. You can't pretend everything is O.K. when it's not. You have to face the reality that you're going through a tough time, and then work from there."

The unquestioned leader of the Yankees clubhouse remains Derek Jeter. Before Rodriguez joined the Yankees prior to the 2004 season, his entire career with the Seattle Mariners and then the Texas Rangers had been at shortstop. Jeter, the Yankees captain was the Yankees shortstop forcing A-Rod’s move to third base, a position he had never played since becoming the Mariners regular short stop in 1996. While a member of the Rangers, A-Rod was selected as the American League’s gold glove award winner at short stop in 2002 and 2003. Two consecutive seasons as the AL golden glove winner, agrees to a trade to the Yankees only to have to learn how to play third base for the first time in his professional baseball career. That was a recipe for disaster.

Jeter didn’t do Rodriguez any favors when he spoke with Verducci regarding how Yankee fans where treating his teammate.

“My job as a player is not to tell the fans what to do," Jeter said. "My job is not to tell the media what to write about. They're going to do what they want. They should just let it go. How many times can you ask the same questions?"

Had he ever seen such persistent criticism? "Knobby," he said, referring to error-prone former second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. "[Roger] Clemens for a whole year. Tino [Martinez]."

One ongoing debate is Alex Rodriguez’s contract, the largest ever offered to an athlete who plays in a team sport is an albatross around his neck, especially with baseball fans for the two teams he’s played with since signing the contract. Rangers’ owner Tom Hicks believed offering Alex Rodriguez a 10-year, $252 million made sense for his team. You can be critical of Hicks for making the offer, but you can’t fault Rodriguez or his agent Scott Boras for signing the contract.

"But I don't expect people to feel sorry for me," A-Rod told SI. "My teammates get more upset about the criticism and booing than I do. A hundred players have come to third base and said, 'This is bulls---. You're having a great year.' You wonder why it bothers players so much. Tim Salmon, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Garret Anderson ... I could throw you a hundred names. They're looking at the scoreboard and saying, 'This guy's got 90 RBIs and I've got 47, and I'm getting cheered?'

"My agent, Scott Boras, was talking about [Oakland third baseman] Eric Chavez, who's a great player. He's hitting .235. He's got 16 home runs, 43 ribbies? This guy is getting cheered every time he comes up to the plate. If I can look back on 2006 and see I made 25 errors, hit .285 and drove in 125, I mean, has God really been that bad to me?"

The Yankees 2006 payroll blasted through $200 million. While Rodriguez was the highest paid Yankee at $24 million, Jeter ($21 million), Giambi ($19 million) and righthander Mike Mussina ($19 million) -- and a fourth, lefthander Randy Johnson, to whom they pay an equal amount ($16 million). Next year the Yankees will pay outfielder Bobby Abreu ($17.5 million).

Yankees fans have supported the Bombers buying more than 4 million tickets each of the last two seasons. The Yankees are building a new billion dollar stadium set to open for the 2009 season. According to Forbes Magazine the Yankees are worth more than a billion dollars. Yankees fans have every right to demand their team stands and delivers, and if the brunt of their criticism is directed at Rodriguez that’s the price he’ll have to pay if he wants to play in New York. Since the greatest collapse in baseball history, game four of the Yankees—Red Sox 2004 American League Championship Series, A-Rod has five hits in 46 at bats, a .108 batting average. That’s not just bad, that’s not just terrible it’s pathetic.

As great an athlete as Alex Rodriguez is maybe as a person he just doesn’t ‘get it’.

"Mussina doesn't get hammered at all," he said. "He's making a boatload of money. Giambi's making [$20.4 million], which is fine and dandy, but it seems those guys get a pass. When people write [bad things] about me, I don't know if it's [because] I'm good-looking, I'm biracial, I make the most money, I play on the most popular team...."

Torre will meet with Steinbrenner and Cashman Monday. It’s unlikely he’ll be fired today. Major League Baseball has unwritten rule prohibiting franchises from announcing major personal decisions during the playoffs and World Series. Red Sox owner John Henry wanted to fire then Red Sox manager Grady Little following game seven of the 2003 ALCS (he actually wanted to fire him during the game). Days after the Florida Marlins defeated the Yankees in six games to win the 2003 World Series Little was fired. It remains to be seen if the Yankees will respect MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s unwritten rule.

Trading a player with $64 million remaining on his contract isn’t going to be easy for the Yankees. However, count on Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to be very proactive in trading A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez days as a New York Yankee, the dynasty that never was are over.

Two more moves you can expect the Yankees to make, both based on the economics of the game, the $30 million in salaries they can cast away when they decide to not pick up the options on Mike Mussina ($17 million) and Gary Sheffield ($13 million).

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: Sports Illustrated and the New York Times