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September 2, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Human beings are, by nature, selfish creatures. On most issues, they'll advocate the position that is most beneficial, or the least harmful to themselves, unless some other motivation--love, faith, morality, justice--overcomes their instinctual self-centeredness. It's just the way we are.

Sports--all entertainment, really--are one of those trivial aspects of life that most people don't apply reason to, and let their passions sway their judgments. We want our team to be the most successful team, and we want to keep our favorite players. There is no "good enough" for your team--just the other guy's team. When we see our favorite player leave town for more money, and see the other team win, it is, to us, extraordinarily unfair. It is of no concern to us that going to the other city was the best thing for the player, or that the fans of that team were happy--it's not what we wanted, and so it's unfair.

And so most fans hate free agency. It "ruined" baseball, because their favorite players leave at will. Fans rue the lack of "loyalty" in sports today, as if their perverted idea of loyalty--in which past players were subjugated to the whims of owners who were exempt from the laws that protect us all--was somehow a good system, just because it made you happy.

Spending a lot of money on stars doesn't always ensure success.In fact, the current system--or rather, the system in place before revenue sharing and luxury taxes--was an extremely fair system that promoted competitive balance, fair compensation for players, and a degree of stability that appealed to fans. The owners, whose greed has blinded them to the long-term economic impact of their actions, have focused entirely on limiting player compensation through revenue sharing and payroll caps, and after forcing the players into a season-ending strike in 1994, nearly caused another one last year before the players submitted to their demands. Of course, the owners have done this all in the name of "competitive balance", trying to appeal to the fans, while the players can only tell the fans that the owners' demands are unfair and wrong. The average fan sees the massive paychecks of the elite players (ignores the massive paychecks of every owner), and fails to see the injustice. The owners claim to be working for something that benefits the fans, and the fan thinks, if the players would only cow to the owners' demands, I would get to see baseball, they would get their money, and I'll be happy. If they go on strike, I don't get baseball, and I don't care if it's right or wrong, I don't like it.

Last year, of course, the fans were able to see, for the most part, that the owners were full of crap. This brought a great deal of hostility down on the owners, but alleviated none of the pressure on the players, not that one would expect it to. The fans will never be on the side of the players, because there is no benefit to them in it. If they were in the same position as the players, they would of course go on strike, too--but they're not, and most don't care enough to think about what they would do if they were in that position. They just want to see baseball.

If fans did spend more time thinking about where the MLBPA is coming from, not only would they be more likely to support their actions, but they would probably take it a step further, and see the benefits of the system in place.

While the Yankees are able to use their enormous financial power to sign elite free agents year after year, they still have to give up top draft picks to sign those players--leaving the Yankees' farm system looking like South Carolina after General Sherman passed through. The system also allows teams to keep their young players for six seasons below market value--six seasons which are often the best of the players' career. No matter how much money the Yankees have, they can't pry players with less than 6 years of experience from teams unless the team lets them go. The A's have been so enormously successful largely on the strength of the their pitching, and when people use that fact to chalk the A's success up to luck, and say that their run will eventually end when the pitchers leave, they ignore that the A's will get draft picks in return for those pitchers, which they can use to draft other pitchers, which they will in turn control for the first six years of their career. With smart drafting, smart player development (and careful treatment of young arms), and of course, luck, the A's can keep churning out excellent players to keep at the top of the success cycle.

The core of the Yankees' championship teams was home-grownOf course, sometimes the system fails, and players get hurt or don't pan out, and you have to start all over again. But the "buying a championship" route often fails, too (see: late-90's Orioles and 2002-03 Mets, among many, many others). But the difference with this system is that when it fails, you're not left with a $100 million fifth-place team.

The ideal system, of course, is a combination, where you develop your own players and fill in the holes from free agency. This is the system that the Yankees used in the late 90's. The core of those championship teams was home-grown: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. The Yankees then used their vast financial resources to fill in the blanks with quality players all around, but had they been forced to acquire a shortstop, centerfielder, catcher and starting pitcher as well, they would have had to spend far more, and probably would have gotten lesser production. As it was, they got All-Star caliber production at a cheap price, and it won them four World Series.

If the Yankees are going to stay at the top, they're going to have to replicate that success in player development. Giambi and Mussina are elite players, but they're also getting old, and when their contracts run out they'll likely be average players, but still making elite salaries. Derek Jeter is also dramatically overpaid, and when his contract runs out, he'll likely have as much defensive range as second base. The Yankees can go out and sign Vlad and Colon and Carlos Beltran and Kaz Matsui and Eric Chavez--and whoever else they feel they need--but eventually, they'll have an average team with a massive payroll and they'll collapse, just like the Orioles, just like the Mets. They need to develop stars from within.

Hackzilla is sure fun to watch, but he's not as good as most fans think.Alfonso Soriano is a good second baseman--at least on offense. He's horribly unsuited to his role as leadoff hitter, but he has tremendous power for a middle infielder and is a great baserunner. But he's not a superstar ballplayer, and without a dramatic change in his approach at the plate--a la Sammy Sosa--he'll never be one. Because his traditional stats make him look more valuable than he is, he is almost certain to be tremendously overpaid when he becomes a free agent, although, just like with Derek Jeter, the Yankees are better off overpaying him than having someone else overpay him. But he's not the player the Yankees should build around.

"He's turning into a mini-Giambi, which is what everyone thought he was.  It's not going to be fun facing two Giambis. One is bad enough." - Billy BeaneNick Johnson might be, however. Although he's a first baseman--which are fairly easy to find--he is already one of the best hitters in the game.

Now, to those of you who are still stuck on AVG and RBI, .305, 11 HR and 42 RBI in half a season are nice looking, but hardly elite. But his OPS--.967--if he qualified, would be ninth in MLB, 5th in the AL--and most of the players ahead of him play in hitters' parks. His OBP of .447 is 3rd in MLB, 1st in the AL. He is a dangerous weapon in the Yankees' lineup, and its about time that Joe Torre started batting him second. Johnson is only 24, and he'll probably develop more power in the next couple of years, become Don Mattingly with a much higher OBP. He's good with the glove, and although he suffered his third wrist/hand injury in four years, it could be more bad luck than something inherently wrong with him physically.

It's not ideal to build around a first baseman, but Johnson is good enough to do it with. While it's only his second season, the Yankees should avoid making the same mistake they made with Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter, and sign him long-term now, to avoid having to pay a superstar salary when he's an MVP candidate in a few years.

There's not much else in the Yankees' farm system to build around. Brandon Claussen was really the last good prospect the Yankees had in the high minors, and he's in Cincinnati now. Dioner Navarro, a 19 year old catcher, was excellent in A and AA this year, and might be ready to take over for Jorge Posada in a couple of years. But really, there's nobody else close enough to see as a major leaguer yet.

It may seem unfair that the Yankees can buy up the players they want in the offseason and trade for the ones they want in the regular season, but the cost to the Bombers isn't just money, which isn't much of a cost at all. They lose payroll and roster flexibility down the road, they lose prospects who could help them in a couple of years for a player who can help them now, and they lose draft picks that get those prospects that they were trading. Maybe Jason Giambi, Derek Jeter and Mike Mussina won't decline as much as expected, and maybe Alfonso Soriano will learn to control the strike zone and turn into Sosa, and earn the huge paychecks he has coming to him anyway.

But the Yankees would be lucky to have that happen, just like the A's would be lucky to have all their top prospects turn into stars. And I think that the A's upside is more likely to happen--and the Yankees' downside is worse.