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November 10, 2005

The Posada Problem
by SG

After debuting in 1995 and splitting time with Joe Girardi through 1999, Jorge Posada finally established himself in 2000. He gets lost in the shuffle of players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, as well as Yankee imports like Randy Johnson and Alex Rodriguez. However, Posada has been a key component to the Yankee run for the last six years. His raw stats are impressive enough, but it is even more instructive to look at his VORP and his rank among AL catchers in this category. VORP is an offensive measure of a player's offensive value compared to a freely available replacement level player. Below are Posada's VORP from the year 2000 through last year (with his rank in the AL amongst catchers in parenthesis).

2000: 63.6 (1)
2001: 42.1 (2)
2002: 48.7 (1)
2003: 61.5 (1)
2004: 48.9 (3)
2005: 32.6 (4)

That's a damn good offensive player. Even last year, in a year that was down for him, he provided more offense than all but 3 other catchers in the league.

So why is this a problem?

The first problem is his age. He will be 34 next season, and while many players have excelled past this age, very few of them have been catchers.

The second problem has been his workload. Including playoffs, he's caught close to 1200 games in his career.

The third problem? His contract. From the site, Posada signed a 5 Year contract worth 51M. It included a 15 million dollar signing bonus paid over 5 years. The breakdown by year:

2002: 4M + 1.5M signing bonus
2003: 5M + 2.0M signing bonus
2004: 6M + 3.0M signing bonus
2005: 8M + 4.0M signing bonus
2006: 9M + 4.5M signing bonus

It's tough to say that the Yankees have not gotten their money's worth to this point, particularly if you look at a stat like Baseball Prospectus's WARP1, which is a player's Wins Above Replacement, incorporating offense and defense.

2002: 7.3 wins
2003: 8.9 wins
2004: 6.8 wins
2005: 4.8 wins

The late Doug Pappas, who did a lot of wonderful work in the area of baseball and economics, developed a system to calculate the dollars per marginal wins which showed that a win is usually worth around $2M to a team's bottom line, although for a big market team like the Yankees this may be a low estimate. Using Doug's formula, we can assess that Posada has been worth:

2002: $14.6M
2003: $17.2M
2004: $13.6M
2005: $9.6M

So far, the Yankees have come out ahead if you assess Posada's contract in this manner, as he's provided $55M in marginal win value while costing the team $33.5M.

So how is this a problem again?

The first problem showed up this year, as Posada cost the Yankees $12M for $9.6M in value. Posada will cost the Yankees $13.5M next year, and it is unlikely that he will provide much more value than last year. In fact, more age-related decline should probably be expected. Suddenly, the $16.5M advantage the Yankees have accrued so far will drop down to roughly $11M.

Then comes 2007. Posada's option for $12M will vest if he catches 330 games between 2004 and 2006.

2004-2005 Games caught: 267

Games caught that will trigger the 2007 Option in 2006: 63.

If the option does not vest automatically, the Yankees can buy him out for $4 million. If it does vest, he gets the $4 million buyout in 2008. There are some stories that if 2007 gets vested, he gets an option for 2008, but I can't confirm this anywhere but in this Daily News article, and none of the other MLB salary sites I checked mention this option, so I will assume it is not an issue.

There are rumors around now that the Yankees are actively shopping Posada now. However, if he is not attractive to the team that can most afford him, why would he be attractive to anyone else? Also, if he's traded, who do the Yankees sign to catch? Ramon Hernandez is a decent catcher who will likely be overpaid by the Mets. Bengie Molina is a good defensive catcher who can't hit aside from one fluke season and is not all that young either. The farm is barren. One name you hear fairly frequently now is Kenji Jojima. a 29 year old from Japan with a very good defensive reputation as well as being a talented hitter. There would certainly be communication issues with someone like Jojima though.

This is a mess. If the Yankees trade Posada, they are going to be worse. If the only option is to trade him for another team's bad contract, it makes no sense either. Playing Posada at a position besides catcher is also a less than optimal solution because he probably doesn't hit enough to carry DH or 1B, and then who catches anyway?

It's really unfortunate that the Yankees felt the need to include Dioner Navarro in the Randy Johnson trade. Arizona didn't want him, and ended up dumping him in the Shawn Green trade when Los Angeles would plausibly have taken any warm body just to get rid of Shawn Green's contract. Navarro will probably never hit for much power, but has put up a .356 OBP in his limited major league time at ages 20 and 21, as well as a .366 OBP in AAA for the Dodgers last year. He also gets positive reports on his defense.

I think it's pretty likely that Posada will be the Yankees starting catcher in 2006, and that his option will vest in 2007. Provided he declines only slightly from the level he was at last year for the next two years, it's not the worst situation in the world. For 2006 and 2007, Posada would cost the Yankees about $29.5 million(if you factor in the $4M buyout), for about $15 million in marginal value(WAG). The contract still ends up ahead for the Yankees, but probably only by $1 million or so.