As soon as the World Series ends we will be mired in the long winter slog of the hot stove league. During that time, AL East fans will again be relegated to speculating how much money the Yankees and Red Sox will spend to get back to the top.
The bidding for Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, and other top-end free agents will get the headlines this winter because that will involve the most zeros. But the Yankees ability to sign a marquee free agent — like CC Sabathia, Mark Texiera, or AJ Burnett — in December isn’t really what gives them a competitive advantage over the Rays. Rather, it is the financial flexibility that allows the Yankees to remedy December roster mistakes by adding payroll during the season.
For the Rays to build a strong 25-man roster, they need to spend all the payroll they have allotted for 2011 this winter. The Rays do not have the luxury of saving some of their payroll dollars to adjust the roster as the season progresses. Thus, when a player acquired in the winter doesn’t pan out (see Burrell, Pat) the Rays either have to fish or cut bait. They cannot add anything more than a player making the Major League minimum if they decide to replace a player. (That is why the Rays had Rocco Baldelli and Desmond Jennings starting in RF in games 1 and 2 of the ALDS). New York, on the other hand, has the ability to add payroll as the season goes on to cover whichever shortcomings arise.
Rob Neyer highlights this point over at The Sweet Spot in evaluating the conundrum Jayson Werth’s free agency has caused the Phillies.
But this all goes back to the Raul Ibanez contract, which we hated. If the Phillies hadn’t signed Ibanez for $31.5 million, they’d have a little more cash available for Werth. If the Phillies hadn’t signed Ibanez, they would have the perfect spot for Domonic Brown.
Instead, if they are able to re-sign Werth they’ll have to either eat some of Ibanez’s salary or make Brown wait another few months for an every-day job.
As usual, the real issue here isn’t money. It’s flexibility. When the Phillies were foolish enough to commit $31.5 million to Ibanez, they were also committing three years and 1,800 plate appearances to him. Which, even though he’s played reasonably well through the first two years and 1,200 plate appearances, just never made much sense.
Basically, Ruben Amaro painted the Phillies into a payroll corner. It should be noted that Philadelphia is not exactly a small market and the Phillies do not exactly have financial problems.
That should underscore the value of Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker. They have to spend the next few months not only adding the pieces necessary to win a World Series, but also making sure not to over-commit to any of those pieces. Meanwhile, Brian Cashman has the luxury of pursuing many different options because he knows the risk of missing is mitigated by his in-season flexibility.