NEW YORK — To fully appreciate the impact of the Yankees trading Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda — and why it could signal a shift in the way business is done in the Bronx — it's important to understand why acquiring arms through free agency is horribly inefficient.
Free agent pitchers have often done their best work before reaching the open market. Many don't reach free agency until their late 20s, right in the middle or near the end of their prime. The true cost of signing a free agent pitcher includes accepting a harsh reality that comes with long-term contracts. By the end of the deal, teams almost certainly are forced to shell out big bucks to players whose best days are long behind them.
It has been this way from the dawn of free agency.
Catfish Hunter, the first big-time free agent pitcher, enjoyed perhaps the best year of his Hall of Fame career in his first season with the Yankees in 1975. However, in the rest of his time in New York, Hunter never reached those heights again. History shows that he ultimately did his best work with the Oakland A's, particularly during the four seasons before free agency.
CC Sabathia was a year younger than Hunter when he arrived in New York. He's on track to become the best free agent signing in Yankees history. His first three seasons have been elite, no different than his production with the Indians and the Brewers. But his contract runs until 2017. He'll be in his mid 30s, well past his prime, when the Yankees will be signing the last of his paychecks. By the end, those checks could total in excess of $180 million.
Oh, and there's A.J. Burnett, who in three years after signing a big free agent deal has gone from an electric No. 2 starter to a grossly overpaid No. 5. He's owed $33 million over the next two years.
For years, the Yankees have been caught in this cycle.
On one side of the spectrum are teams that develop their own homegrown pitching talent. For many years, the Atlanta Braves did it better than anybody. The Tampa Bay Rays have remade themselves by perfecting the art. On the other side are teams such as the Yankees, who have been more than willing to poach that talent, as they did with Hunter and Sabathia and a whole lot of guys in between.
But more and more the Yankees appear to be moving away from these long-term pitching deals — or at least attempting to position themselves so they're not forced into them. The Pineda trade could soon have the Yankees working on the other side of the spectrum.
Pineda is 23 next week. He will not reach free agency for another five years. He will make near the minimum salary for the next two seasons, and in the following three, he could make a few million bucks a year through arbitration.
Five years of Pineda's prime years could cost the Yankees little more than one year of Burnett's tear-your-hair-out inconsistency.
How's that for efficiency?
Pineda could be just the start. Another reason that the Pineda trade looks so good for the Yankees is that they only had to part with one of their elite prospects to make it happen, which means Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos remain a part of the Yankees' pitching future.
The Yankees have a surplus of rotation arms entering 2012, which will allow Betances and Banuelos to continue their development in the minors, all without the fear of rushing them into the major leagues. By 2013, Hiroki Kuroda and Freddy Garcia will be at the end of their one-year deals. A.J. Burnett would be in his final season, making it easier to move him if the Yankees choose (assuming, of course, he isn't dealt sooner). The rotation could feature Sabathia, Pineda and some combination of Betances, Banuelos, Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova.
That's four of five starters under team control while making modest salaries.
Will all these young arms work out? Probably not. That's the nature of prospects, even ones that are the subject of endless hype. But so long as some of them pan out, the Yankees have reason to feel encouraged.
(NOTE: @Jbeck73 on Twitter brings up a good point, one that prompts this clarification: "I think the days of giving the CJ Wilson/Edwin Jacksons of the world long term deals are over. But not the CC/Hamels of the world." Indeed, the Yankees are still the Yankees, and if they believe a player to be elite, they'll do what it takes. Can't see that part changing. After all, let's remember the Yankees were willing to hand Cliff Lee a big bag of money. But the Yankees will longer be compelled to do the same for the likes of Burnett.)
Of course, there are financial reasons for the Yankees to move in this direction. Thanks to some new rules in the recently ratified collective bargaining agreement, the Yankees stand to take a chunk out of their revenue-sharing burden if they get payroll below $189 million by 2014. An affordable rotation makes the goal possible.
Also, by avoiding the money pit of constantly pursuing free agent pitching, the Yankees would be free to use their resources in more efficient ways. That could help soften the impact of a tightened payroll.
The baseball reasons are also sound. The Yankees are positioning themselves to enjoy the benefits of elite-level pitching for a much longer period of time than what could be expected out of free agency.
Soon, the Yankees could enjoy the best of both worlds. Unlike other teams who have carefully developed their own arms — and then watched in anguish as they left for free agent riches — the Yankees would have the choice of using some of their financial flexibility to eventually keep their homegrown players around.
It's all part of a new reality emerging in the Bronx. Some of it is familiar, some of it isn't. The Yankees have the highest payroll in the game. It's a title they will likely keep even as they reduce payroll. But they will keep working under budgets, strange as it sounds, because regaining control of spending will remain a priority.
Indeed, the Yankees may not spend as they did in the old days. But after last night's blockbuster, it's possible that they've never been in better position to get more bang for their buck.
Marc Carig: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/MarcCarig
I hope he is right excellent article. That would mean If pineada pans out then he may never hit FA and the yanks would have money to sign him again...........
The Yankees are still in position to sign Matt Cain or Cole Hamels next offseason, could have a great rotation.
Hopefully Pineda stays healthy, hes not a prospect like the yankees have to baby him he was brought up the right way by the Mariners so he is ready for a 200+ inning workload since he had 170+ innings last season. If he develops a change up, he could be really nasty. Rothschild should be the man to help him with that, he did a great job with our staff last season.