Imagining Crawford and Lee on the payroll

As we learned this morning, the Yankees are talking to Carl Crawford. This shouldn’t strike us as surprising. All season long we heard how much the Yankees liked Crawford. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to sign him. Cliff Lee still appears to be the first priority, meaning Crawford is only a backup plan — and a tough backup plan at that, since it still leaves a hole in the rotation and a surplus in the outfield. Chances are the Yankees are just trying to drive up the price for other teams.

Still, it’s tough not to wonder what the Yankees would look like with Crawford in the outfield and Lee on the mound. In terms of baseball skill, they’d have to be the instant AL favorites. Yet we know the company line on payroll: it won’t rise significantly. The Yankees had about $209 million on the payroll last season ($214 million, per Cot’s, minus the $4 million for Igawa). They then added some salary at the deadline. So maybe, just maybe, we could see the payroll hit $215 million. Can the Yanks fit both Crawford and Lee under that cap?

As it stands, the team has $144 million committed. We can add another $15 million for Mariano Rivera, and we can presume $19 million for Jeter. That brings payroll to $178 million. What about arbitration raises? Baseball-Reference estimates it at just under $11 million, so let’s add that in. The Yanks are now at $189 million, with a few holes still to fill. Now comes the fun part. Let’s add in Lee at $23 million. Payroll would then be $212 million. That appears to be the limit, and that’s before they sign Pettitte. If they bring him back that’s another $12 million or so. In this scenario, the Yankees would have a payroll of nearly $225 million. What’s crazy is that I don’t see what they can do to get it much lower, short of abandoning their Lee pursuit.

At that point it’s tough to see the Yankees, even with all their riches, going any further. Even $225 million seems way above where they’re willing to go. I’d bet that they get that number lower by making a chunk out of Lee’s first-year salary and making it a signing bonus. Even then, payroll would still be over $214 million, and that’s without signing a single bench guy.

Adding Crawford to that might seem like a ton, but it wouldn’t come on its own. Chances are the Yankees would deal Swisher or Granderson in that case, which would knock $8 or $9 million off the salary. They’d probably have to take prospects in return, since adding a major league player would mean adding even more payroll. But signing Crawford and dealing Swisher would be a net add of around $9 million, bringing the total to $234 million. With a few signing bonus manipulations, which will only hurt future years, the Yanks might be able to get that in the $220 million range. Is that something they’re willing to do just in order to put together a behemoth 2011 team?

There might be something else at play here — for all we know, the Steinbrenners could be thinking about selling the team. The Yankees could also think that the added revenue from another long playoff run would help justify these contracts in the future. But given the information we have currently available, signing both Crawford and Lee is a long shot. Talent-wise I don’t think anyone would be against it. But that creates some difficult payroll situations in the future. Are the Yankees ready to start committing $225-plus million to the club every year in the future?

email

Olney: Yankees are talking to Carl Crawford

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees are “very much engaged in discussions” with free agent outfield Carl Crawford, though it’s unclear if they’re looking at him in combination with Cliff Lee, or as an alternative to the lefty. I suspect it’s the latter, and they’re just covering all their bases. Should they miss out on Lee, they could attempt to sign the other CC and then deal one of their spare outfielders for a sorely needed starting pitcher.

It was pretty busy last night, so in case you missed it: Mariano Rivera is on the verge of re-signing for two-years and $30M, and the Yanks came dangerously close to trading Frankie Cervelli for the since non-tendered Russell Martin. That would have been awesome.

For the Yanks, Carl Crawford just doesn’t make sense

Carl Crawford is set to grab millions of dollars this winter. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

In the 1971 film version of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Veruca Salt, the most spoiled the children who found golden tickets, belts out an ode to greed. “I want the whole world,” she sings. “I want it now.”

To be a Yankee fan the 21st Century is to embrace Veruca Salt’s attitude. Our favorite team is the most successful in the game’s history, and it is positioned as the leader in the biggest market in sports. It has more money to spend than anyone else and do so with abandon, covering up mistakes with dollars in a quest to win. As long as baseball’s financial structure doesn’t limit the Yanks’ spending, they’re not doing anything wrong.

But within that construct is the need to spend wisely. The Yankees might have more money than everyone else, but they still seemingly have a budget. This is a point seemingly lost on many, and nothing has highlighted that belief in the reams of dollars more than this off-season. First, we’ve seen people call for Derek Jeter to get paid whatever he wants, but as Joel Sherman explained this morning, the Yanks and Jeter have to come to deal that makes sense for both parties. They can’t sacrifice winning — still their primary goal — at the expense of one player, and they should try to make the most out of their dollars.

The other example is even better. Based upon a report in The Post that says the Yankees have “reached out” to Carl Crawford’s agent, the clamor for Crawford has grown a little louder. It’s tempting to demand Crawford in that Veruca Salt way. He is a premier offensive player who had the good fortune, like Mark Teixeira, of hitting free agency while 28. The team that signs him will end up with a few years of decline at the end of the contract but will get Carl Crawford on offense and defense in his prime.

The Yankees know Carl Crawford well. He’s played 138 regular season games against them and has hit .301/.329/.419 with 47 stolen bases in 56 attempts. He plays a mean left field, and as R.J. Anderson explored a year ago, Crawford will get and deserve a deal in excess of $100 million. Since the Angels seem willing to spend that much, Crawford will probably wind up there. But what of New York?

The Yankees’ outfield was a great source of value for the team last year. Based on Fangraphs’ WAR valuation, the entire starting outfield put up a combined 13.1 WAR valued at $52.2 million. Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson combined to make a whopping $12.8 million. While those totals will rise in 2011, there’s a very good chance that Carl Crawford will be making more than Yanks’ three Opening Day outfielders combined.

Now Crawford, over the last two seasons, has exploded into a high-production player. He posted a 5.7 WAR in 2009 and a 6.9 WAR in 2010. He’s doing all he can to earn and deserve that large contract. But if Brett Gardner, who posted a 5.4 WAR and made $450,000 in 2010, can continue to be a 3-4 win player, and if Crawford is making $19-$22 million next year while maintaining a 5-6 win pace, the Yankees would be paying a whopping premium — somewhere around $17-$19 million — for an improvement of two wins. In economic terms, it would be an inefficient use of resources to sign Crawford, and he doesn’t address a need the Yankees have going into 2011.

The Yanks have clear needs for next year. They need another starter, maybe two, and they want a left-handed reliever. They don’t need an outfielder when they already have three of the top outfielders in the American League. Even for a team with resources as seemingly unlimited as the Yankees, they don’t need to embody Veruca Salt every time a free agent comes a-knockin’.

Yankees talking sense, unlikely to pursue Crawford, Werth

Crawford could round the bases plenty of times in New York, but it doesn't seem likely (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Yankees would be a better team with Carl Crawford. Given his pull tendencies, Carl Crawford might be a better player with the Yankees. But that doesn’t mean that the two sides will match up for a free agent contract. Crawford might have concerns other than how many home runs he hits. The Yankees have to look at the overall picture and determine what positions most need an upgrade. This week the team has met to determine a course of action, and according to a report by Mark Feinsand of the Daily News those plans will not include Crawford or the other big name outfielder on the market, Jayson Werth.

One of Feinsand’s sources nails the issue with two crisp sentences:

“We are better with Crawford, but at that price?” a Yankees source said. “I’m not sure it’s that good of an upgrade.”

The biggest difference between Crawford and Brett Gardner is power, and even then the difference might be overstated with this year’s results. Crawford produced a career high .188 ISO, while Gardner barely cracked the .100 mark. There’s a chance that Crawford, 29, could improve on that mark, especially with the move to Yankee Stadium. But considering his .148 career ISO, I’m not sure that the Yankees can bank on that. Gardner has been the better on-base guy, at least in the past two years, while Crawford again produced a career high this year, .356. Even during his first full season Gardner was at .345, and last year produced a .389 OBP.

There are other issues with Crawford, too. While he ranked just below Gardner in UZR, Gardner can take that excellent range into center field. Crawford has expressed a desire to stay in left. He also prefers not to hit leadoff, which is perhaps the best spot for him. There’s a good chance that Gardner will take over the leadoff spot at some time in the next year or two.

The biggest advantage Crawford has is his track record. Gardner fell off in the second half, which has led many to believe that he cannot handle a full-time starting gig. Whether he can or not remains to be seen, though it’s hard to argue with the numbers he has produced in the past two seasons. Crawford, on the other hand, has been in the league since 2002, at age 20, and has had only a few truly poor seasons. He’s more of a sure thing than Gardner, but he’ll also be roughly nine times more expensive.

There is also the matter of need. All three of the Yankees outfielders produced 4 or more WAR this season, the only MLB outfield unit to do so. They can, in other words, stick with the same guys and look elsewhere for ways to improve the team. Upgrading the pitching staff, in other words, will have more of a net effect on the team’s wins and losses, since there is more room for improvement on the pitching staff. Adding an outfielder would provide improvement on the margins.

Feinsand also mentions Jayson Werth, who recently retained Scott Boras to seek out the best possible deal. He’s said to be seeking a Matt Holliday type deal, but that seems out of reach for the soon-to-be 32-year-old. Werth has thrived during his time in Philadelphia both on offense and on defense, but he faces the same issues as Crawford. Adding him provides only a marginal improvement over the current outfield corps, and he will cost more than any of them — even if he settles for a Jason Bay type deal rather than a Matt Holliday one.

There are many ways the Yankees can improve this off-season, but they should be looking to improve areas where they can realize significant improvement. That falls to the pitching staff. There might be concerns about Gardner’s ability to maintain his high OBP, but those are theoretical concerns. The Yankees have actual pitching issues, and adding an arm can provide instant, tangible improvement. We pretty much knew this heading into the off-season, but it’s nice to hear the Yankees come out and say it.

Sunday Morning Links

Here’s some Sunday morning links while we wait for Yankees-Orioles followed by Pats-Jets (my pick: Pats 27, Jets 13).

In light of the recent news that Joe Torre is stepping down as Dodgers manager, Chad Finn at the Boston Globe takes a look back at the 1998 Yankees.  Finn takes shots at the Yankees from time to time but it’s all in good fun and he’s one of the Boston writers who I can actually read when it comes to baseball.  He gets a shot in at Joe Morgan and calls Tim Raines a Hall of Famer, so he’s good in my book.

Within a piece at AOL Fanhouse Andrew Johnson has an interesting take on the Jeter situation comparing him to the Dave Matthews Band.  Once you read it, it does make some sense.  The best line of the whole piece however, is this “I’m a sportswriter, not an ethicist.”  If only more people that write or talk about sports for a living understood that.

Carl Crawford was upset for the criticism he took after getting thrown out at third base to end Tuesday nights game.  Personally I’m not buying that the Yankees will be all in on Crawford in the offseason, but if he got upset by this and he ends up in pinstripes, he’ll have quite an adjustment to the New York media.  It’s also interesting that the writer notes Crawford seemed pretty stung by the criticism coming from the Yankees.

Ken Burns is back in the baseball business as his new documentary “The Tenth Inning” is set to air on PBS on September 28th and 29th.  “The Tenth Inning” is a sequel to Burns’ 1994 “Baseball”, and will cover new things that have happened in baseball since the last film.  For many of the readers here the past 15 years or so covers a lot of the time we’ve been avidly following the game, so it is sure to be a very interesting watch.