Yankees Lose Their A-Rod Bluff

Part One of the Alex Rodriguez drama ended Sunday night, when agent Scott Boras told the Associated Press that the Yankees third baseman would be opting out of his contract, making the likely American League MVP a free agent.

Now it is up to the Yankees, who vowed not to negotiate with Rodriguez should he opt out, to go back on their word, or suffer the consequences.

By virtue of Rodriguez’s decision, the Yankees are off the hook for the final three years and $81 million of the third baseman’s now-defunct deal. Published reports over the weekend had the Yankees set to offer Rodriguez around a 5-year, $140-150 million extension, bringing the potential total of the contract he abdicated to 8 years and $220-230 million.

Certainly, that’s a lot of money. But Boras and Rodriguez made their decision assuming they can get more than that on the open market, even if the Yankees choose not to participate in the sweepstakes. Either that, or they believe the Yankees will come to see the urgency to retaining A-Rod from a baseball standpoint, regardless of his value off the field.

It’s not an unreasonable assumption.

This season, Rodriguez hit .314, with a .422 on base percentage and .645 slugging percentage. When his on base plus slugging percentage is adjusted for his park and era (known as OPS+), he just completed the third-greatest offensive season for any third baseman in baseball history.

The league average is 100—above 100 is above average. Rodriguez in 2007 scored an OPS+ of 177. It was a better season than the finest by Mike Schmidt, or Eddie Mathews, and just below George Brett’s 1980 season, when Brett hit .390.

And for those who think it was a fluke, Rodriguez’s 2005 was the fourth-greatest ever, at an OPS of 173.

And let’s assume the Yankees let A-Rod walk. Who can take his place?

Well, the best free-agent third baseman is Mike Lowell, who manned the position for the 2007 World Champion Boston Red Sox. It’s hard to imagine they’ll jettison the 2007 World Series MVP. But in the event that the Sox choose to upgrade to Rodriguez at third base, Lowell could be available, and he is coming off of a terrific season, hitting .324/.378/.501, good for an OPS+ of 124.

However, that was supported by a batting average on balls in play of .337. His career batting average of .280 is supported by a more expected BABIP of .288. He’s a year removed from an OPS+ of 104. He’s entering his age-34 season, while A-Rod is entering his age-32 season. He’s going to want a long-term deal, too—and while Rodriguez can lose plenty from his performance while still providing positive value, Lowell has a far smaller cushion.

No one else in the free agent class is nearly at Lowell’s level. The next-best free agent third baseman is Pedro Feliz, whose slugging percentage of .418 was lower than Rodriguez’s on base percentage of .422. Feliz’s slugging percentage? 227 points lower. His 2007 OPS+ of 81 is 96 points lower than Rodriguez’s 2007—larger than the difference between Derek Jeter and Tom Glavine.

The best in-house option is better than Feliz, worse than Lowell: Wilson Betemit. His OPS+ of 101, including 80 with the Yankees, figures to improve somewhat as he enters his peak–Betemit turns 26 on November 2. But he has not displayed the ability to hit left-handed pitching—his career batting average against lefties is .232. Even a dramatic improvement leaves the Yankees with a monumental gap in production.

The only other ways to make up the offense lost by the departure of A-Rod would be by wringing improvements from returning players, or by bringing in reinforcements via free agency or trade.

Of the returning Yankees, it would be tough to expect better results in 2008 from anyone. If Jorge Posada re-signs, he is unlikely to match his career year in 2007—if he doesn’t, no catcher on the market can provide more than a fraction of his offensive value. Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, and Bobby Abreu will all be 34. Jason Giambi is 36. Only Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera are good bets to improve in 2008—but those improvements may be necessary simply to balance the decline of the others, not to make up for the huge loss of A-Rod’s bat.

Even eating some of the veteran contracts and replacing them with free agents is unlikely to work—there are no offensive players close to the level of the Yankees’ own free agents Posada and Rodriguez.

And any trade partner able to provide a top-tier offensive player will almost certainly demand one of the Yankees’ top pitching prospects: Joba Chamberlain, Philip Hughes or Ian Kennedy. But more likely than not, New York will be relying on all three in next year’s starting rotation.

Should they trade one of them and attempt to fill the pitching staff from free agency, the best available arm will be: mediocrity Kyle Lohse, whose career ERA+ (the pitching equivalent of OPS+) is worse than Carl Pavano’s.

And Lohse won’t come cheap, either. He’s represented by Scott Boras.

So the Yankees can hold to their vow to let A-Rod go, or they can be contenders in 2008. In this game, controlled by Scott Boras, there may be no other outcomes.

Yankees Lose Their A-Rod Bluff