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Why the Yankees should pay up for Mike Cameron

I'll warn you up front: This is going to get a bit complicated.  Partly because I'm going to talk about somewhat complicated things, and partly because I haven't entirely worked it out in my head.  That's part of the reason I'm writing this out.

If you want to skip the rest of it, my conclusion is that, because the Yankees have an astronomical payroll and want to be extremely competitive every year, they should jump at the opportunity to get a good player (and a predictable, known quantity) like Cameron on a one-year deal, because you usually can't get good players on one-year deals, and the longer the deal, the higher the risk.

The Long Version

Ok.  The Yankees payroll was over $200MM last year, and it could well end up there this year.  I've seen talk that they'd like to come down around $180MM, but given their activities so far (CC, AJ, still in running for guys like Tex) and the fact they are opening a new stadium next year and would surely like to win, I wouldn't be surprised if the payroll actually went up.  Let's use $200MM as a benchmark number, though it doesn't really matter.

Clearly, this is a LOT more than any other team.  For the Yankees, this is a good thing, but it's also a challenge.  If you assume a 25-man roster that includes 12 pitchers, 9 position player starters (including the DH) and a 4-man bench, that ought to create at least five or six players who will usually be cheap -- a bullpen arm or two, at least two or three of the bench players, and presumably one or two more players who are young and homegrown (like Wang or Hughes in the Yanks case). 

Slot $10MM for those six players and you're left with an average of $10MM for *the other 19 guys on the roster.*  Think about that for a second.  The Brewers broke all sorts of club records for a four-year Suppan deal with an annual value of about $11MM, and the Yankees can have more than 15 guys like that.  Insert comment about it just not being fair.

It's actually even more extreme than that.  Of those 19 players at $10MM each, four or five are non-cheap relievers.  Even in today's market, relievers just don't go for that much.  You probably couldn't get more than 2 $10MM relievers if you tried, because the only guys who go for that much are closers, and closers want to close...so Kerry Wood isn't going to sign with you if you already have Mariano Rivera and somebody else slated for the 8th inning.  That means, even if you spend mightily on three more relievers, you probably only get to about $10 or $15MM, meaning that, instead of $190MM for 19 guys, you have as much as $180MM for 16 guys.

If you have more homegrown players (not a problem for the Yankees!), the salary per remaining player keeps going up.

So, we're talking about an average salary over $11MM for the starting rotation, the closer, and the starting lineup, plus maybe one platoon mate or pinch-hitter.

Why $11MM/player is a problem

In short: 8-figure per year players aren't available on one-year deals.  Gagne was, much to our regret, but that's very, very rare.  In fact, with the exception of relief pitchers (like Kerry Wood's $20MM/2 deal with the Indians), you're not going to find very many 8-figure per year contracts shorter than three or four years.

So, if the Yankees are going to spend all of their $200MM in any given year, they're going to have to make long-term commitments.  That's how they end up with albatross contracts like they always seem to have.  (Giambi through last year, Damon now, Burnett starting next year, etc.)  Every time that happens, they look dumb, but frankly, if you're going to have a $200MM payroll, you're going to have some nasty-looking contracts at any given time.

The natural solution to this, it would seem, would be to focus on shorter deals with higher annualized values.  That's nice in theory, but again, with the exception of relief pitchers, that doesn't seem to be something players want.  We discovered that with CC, and plenty of other negotiations (like Burnett's and maybe Furcal's right now) seem to come down to who gives the player the extra year, rather than the extra $1MM per year.  Players want security, and the only way teams can give it to them is to accept more risk.

In other words: If the Yankees are going to sign a whole bunch of 8-figure per year players, they are going to take on a whole lot of risk.  To make that more concrete, consider that the Yanks have promised at least $10MM to each of the following players in each of the following years:

  • A-Rod, 2017
  • CC, 2015
  • Jeter, 2010
  • Burnett, 2013
  • Rivera, 2010
  • Posada, 2011
  • Damon, 2009
  • Matsui, 2009
  • Swisher, 2011 (ok, only $9MM, but...dude!)

Some of those will work out, some of them won't.  But again--In any given year, if the Yankees are going to spend their $200MM payroll, they are going to be spending a whole lot of their future payrolls too, and they won't be spending their future payrolls as intelligently.  They'll be accepting a whole lot of risk for the 2011, 2013, and 2015 Yankees to deal with down the road.

What this has to do with Cameron

The Yankees would like to have a center fielder who doesn't suck.  They have money to spend.  Look at this list of available FA center fielders and tell me what their options are.  (Hint: Laughter is the correct response.)

If they want to trade for a CF other than Cameron, the only better ones (defined by 2008 OPS, which will have to do) are Hamilton, Sizemore, Beltran, Granderson, McLouth, and Torii Hunter.  There aren't any great defenders (I don't think) among the next half-dozen on the list, so even if you think Cam isn't as good as some say, those six are your options if you want Cam-or-better production.  I'd personally throw out McLouth because I think he had a flukish year at the plate and that his glovework is massively overrated, but keep him if you want.

So...fair bet that Hamilton, Sizemore, and Beltran aren't going anywhere.  (Even if the Yanks had signed Beltran by outbidding the Mets awhile back, they'd be on the hook for $18.5+ for each of the next three years.  Maybe--probably, even--worth it, but again, more risk for the rich kids.)   Maybe there's a world in which Hunter can be had, but like Beltran, we'd be talking $18MM per year, in his case through 2012.  Granderson and McLouth would command more and better prospects in trade than the Yankees have in stock.

Unless I'm missing something, the Yankees are extremely unlikely to put a center fielder in the lineup who will give them more than Mike Cameron will.  If they don't trade for Cam, it seems fairly likely that CF will be a glaring hole for at least the first half of the season (until somebody sells their CF to the Yanks at the deadline.)

To me, given my estimation of Cam's value at well over 2 wins above replacement, that's enough to tell me that Cam is worth $10MM.  Probably more.  But even if you don't think he's worth that much -- say you think he's worth 1 or 1.5 wins above replacement, the Yankees should probably still take the deal.

This is why I've been talking about risk and payroll all this time.  The Yanks are going to spend a lot of money this offseason.  They certainly aren't done yet.  Of all the realistic ways that they can up their 2009 commitments by $10MM, Cameron is almost certainly the safest.  Alternatives include things like handing out a $48MM/4 year deal to Jon Garland, signing Ben Sheets for $50MM/3, giving Manny Ramirez the four-year deal nobody else will (translation: another $20MM+ commitment for 2012), giving Derek Lowe $50MM+, or signing FUentes for $30MM/3 to be Mo's set-up man and heir apparent.

Cameron is an upgrade for the Yanks, but--more importantly--he's as close to a *guaranteed* upgrade that they're going to get without spending a *lot* of future dollars.  The deeper they have to dig in the free agent pool, the more they'll be spending money on risky ventures, both risky now (Sheets, especially) and risky in the future (every big-name FA by the end of his contract).

For the Yankees, those long-term contracts, and the risk associated with them, are the cost of doing business.  In a Cameron trade, they can avoid that cost of doing business and improve their team.  They'll even get a draft pick in the supplemental round, which will conveniently replace all the picks they give up by signing other guys.  I'd rather the Crew kept him, but from NY's perspective, it seems like a no-brainer to me.