Monday, January 10, 2005

Supersized Contracts
In one of the most fitting displays of Gotham excess since, well, probably the Republican Convention last summer, the Mets and Yankees tomorrow introduce their shiny new toys within hours of each other: centerfielder Carlos Beltran, relocating to Queens after signing a seven-year, $119 million contract, and pitcher Randy Johnson, a surly 41 year-old strikeout machine who comes to the Bronx from the wreckage of the Arizona Diamondbacks at the cost of $57 million (three years at $16 million per, and a $9 million payment to the Snakes) plus a pretty good haul of talent in pitchers Javier Vazquez and Brad Halsey and catching prospect Dioner Navarro.

This isn't the place to read laments about baseball's unfair economics, much less the bloated salaries its superstars regularly fail to "earn"... especially considering that the Phillies had the sixth-highest payroll in the game last year and boast two sluggers pulling down eight digits in Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome. But there's using your market advantages wisely, as the Yankees have often done in the past and the Red Sox are starting to do with regularity, and then there's just flat-out overpaying. That's what both New York teams have done with these silly deals. Beltran is a legitimate star with power, patience, speed and a great glove, who rose to the occasion big-time in the playoffs last year and is just 27 years old. But damn--the guy hit .267 last year and was quite pedestrian down the stretch in September, failing to homer in his last 87 regular season at-bats. Had the Chicago Cubs not suffered one of the more severe cases of windpipe constriction down the stretch and held on for the wild card, Beltran wouldn't have entered free agency with that record-setting (eight homers, 20-plus runs scored) October wind at his back, and his payoff probably would have been closer to five years at $55 million or $60 million; at most, he would have gotten the five-year, $75 million deal Vlad Guerrero won from the Anaheim/Los Angeles/California Angels of Purgatory last winter... which, after Vlad carried his team into the postseason and won the MVP award, is looking like a pretty sweet bargain.

The Mets overpaid, but they are likely to get value out of Beltran for years yet; he makes them probably four wins better in 2005 and could stay at or close to that high level for the length of his contract, assuming that he takes well to the pressures of playing in New York (talk about not being in Kansas--or Kansas City--anymore). Johnson, on the other hand, could quite easily be a major albatross for the increasingly desperate Yankees. He'll be 44 by the time his contract expires after 2007, he's just one year removed from a season where injuries limited him to part-time work. As Jayson Stark points out in his column about the Yanks' ongoing vulnerabilities, Johnson is bidding to defy history by continuing to perform at such a high level into his 40s; the only previous pitchers his age to do so were knuckleballers. And Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus rightly observes that a year ago, nobody in their right minds would have traded Javier Vazquez for Johnson straight up, much less adding in $9 million and two prospects, one of whom (Navarro) is highly regarded.

Just as the Mets overpaid for Beltran based on what he did in October, the Yankees made a potentially disastrous move in dealing the 20-something Vazquez, coming off a bad three months and a lousy October, for the 40-something Johnson. Of course, neither team is likely to garner much sympathy if these deals go sour.

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