No Holding Back This Holliday Season

Illustration by Dan Goldman

The common theme that emerged from the baseball commentariat in the wake of the Yankees’ title was “They bought it”—one of those arguments that is impossible to refute. The $423.5 million the Yankees spent last December brought three key contributors to town, sure, but the Yankees spent dramatically more than any team in baseball every other year this decade, and, as we all know, that didn’t lead to ten championships.

The Yankees’ success this season, however, disguised a fundamental defect with the team as currently constructed: The players are old. Ancient, really, by baseball standards. Five of the regulars in the lineup were 33 or older. They stayed remarkably healthy but can’t be counted on to do so in perpetuity. Or even next season. The core of this team was the graybeards, the Jeter-Rivera-Posada-Pettitte quartet, the same core of the titles a decade ago. This team desperately needs to get younger.

But where’s the youth going to come from? As much as they might love to promote their farm system—it’s cost-effective, and even the Yankees don’t mind saving money if they can—they have few pieces ready for the big leagues. Their top-ranked prospect is 20-year-old catcher Jesus Montero, who won’t be ready to replace Jorge Posada until 2011, at the earliest. What about that phenom center-fielder you remember reading about in the Times? Although Austin Jackson had a solid season in Scranton, he still hasn’t shown much power and won’t be more than a speedy defensive replacement next year, Brett Gardner plus. This is not a new core.

Which means that if the Yankees are going to turn 2009 into the starting point of another string of championships—and Lord knows the holders of those $2,000-per-game seats expect nothing less—they need to use, again, their most powerful ammunition. They need to spend. But not where you might think.

A strong argument could be made that the two most valuable players in the World Series were Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Damon’s mad dash to third base in Game 4 is already Yankees legend, and Matsui took home the World Series MVP trophy despite starting only half of the games. Not surprisingly, sentiment is running strong to bring back one or both of them, particularly Damon, who clearly wants to return, if only to keep taking advantage of that handy right-field porch. The Yankees are obsessed with their own hagiography, and the Series transformed them both into True Yankees. But re-signing either is a mistake.

Back before he was going for it on fourth-and-2 deep in his own territory, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick built his reputation on a total lack of sentimentality in his personnel decisions. Players like Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel were beloved by fans, and Belichick unceremoniously shipped both of them out of town the minute he felt they had outlived their usefulness. There was little uproar because football is a hard-hearted, impersonal sport; in baseball, we see these guys every day and consider them family. We grow fond of their idiosyncrasies—Damon’s wacky posing in left field, Matsui’s taciturn consistency. The thought of letting them go to another team hurts.

Well, we’ll have to get over that. The Yankees need to get in touch with their inner Belichick: It’s time to thank Damon and Matsui for their service and tell them they’ll always be welcome back for Old-Timers’ Day. Because the Yankees need to use the money that could be theirs to sign Matt Holliday.

This early in the free-agent season, it’s worth remembering that just about every story you read is full of spin or outright lies. Agents are spinning/lying, players are spinning/lying, general managers are spinning/lying. It’s called negotiating in public, posturing, through leaks to reporters, platitudes about admiring the local fan base, nods toward “budget restraint and responsibility.” So it’s difficult to know exactly where the Yankees stand vis-à-vis Holliday. Remember, in December last year, the Angels were the clear favorites to sign Mark Teixeira, and the Yankees were whispering to reporters they couldn’t imagine going after him when they’d already signed CC Sabathia. So it means little that the Yankees are, for the time being, staying open to re-signing Damon and Matsui and showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Holliday. Perhaps even the Yankees have some shame: In a top-heavy free-agent market, flooding the zone for the consensus best player will get them pilloried by the rest of baseball.

To which I say: Bring it on. Holliday is exactly the player the Yankees need, a relatively young, high-average, hit-to-all-fields complete player who would look downright gorgeous batting fifth, behind A-Rod. He won’t turn 30 until January, and he’s a proven postseason performer (if you ignore his unfortunate dropped fly ball that cost the Cardinals Game 2 of their NLDS) and a sturdy lineup fixture. He’s not a Gary Sheffield/Jaret Wright type looking to cash in after a big year. He’s a cornerstone. The market is currently depressed for him, but only because the Yankees haven’t yet entered the bidding. If they want him, the Yankees can have him.

The money is in the budget. Dropping Damon and Matsui clears $26 million from the payroll, and, post-championship, the Yankees aren’t likely to experience a drop in attendance next season. More to the point: If you’re going to pay for the best players in baseball, this is who you want. You don’t purchase the waning years of Damon and Matsui as a reward for services rendered. With a thin farm system, the Yankees’ advantage is their payroll. If you’re not paying for someone like Holliday, why do you have the money?

The Yankees’ window isn’t exactly slamming shut—Alex Rodriguez is going to be here until 2017—but the Jeter-Rivera-Posada-Pettitte quartet has, at best, a season or two of high productivity remaining (assuming Pettitte re-signs with the team, which is expected). Jeter’s contract is up after next season, but the Yankees are likely to take care of the Captain before spring training, probably for around five years. That’s five more chances to add luster to Jeter’s Hall of Fame career. After that, who cares? Maybe by then, the Yankees’ farm system will be rebuilt, or maybe President Palin will have banned baseball and declared the Iditarod the new national pastime. Planning for this distant future is something other teams have to worry about. The Yankees are a perennial win-now operation. Last year proved that investing obscene amounts of money works if you pick the right players. It’s the Yankees’ way. Keep it going.

Heck, while they’re at it, John Lackey, the top free-agent pitcher, would look awfully nice in pinstripes, and he’s only 31, younger than A.J. Burnett. Sure, the Yanks have been saving rotation spots for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, but they could figure out a way. The problem with Yankee spending in the past was that it was reactionary: We need a pitcher, this exact second, so let’s get Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano because they happen to be available. In this year’s market, Damon and Matsui are Wright and Pavano. Bringing in Holliday and Lackey is the opposite of reactionary. Do it for Jeter. Do it for Rivera. Do it because you can.

Oh, and the Mets? Their first move after their catastrophe of a season was not, as some expected, the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and front office. No, it was introducing a new throwback home uniform, available at the Mets team store just in time for the holidays. One hopes this won’t be the most interesting thing the Mets do all off-season. They’re the wild card in the Holliday sweepstakes. He is as poor a fit in Flushing as he is a perfect fit in the Bronx—he’s not good enough a fielder to handle that massive outfield, and his power would be neutralized the same way David Wright’s has been. But overwhelming Holliday with an exorbitant offer is the type of move the Mets love to make, especially since they need a fresh face to inspire fans to keep schlepping out to New Shea. The question is whether the Wilpons have enough money left after the Madoff scandal to give Omar Minaya the liberty of making such an impetuous move. Who knows: Maybe they’ll sell millions of those fancy new jerseys.

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No Holding Back This Holliday Season