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Over the past few years, the Yankees have repeatedly talked about operating under a budget, but the team has always been willing to break through those constraints when push came to shove. Just ask Mark Teixeira. However, according to a recent report by Joel Sherman, the new CBA could make sticking to a budget an offer not even the Yankees can afford to refuse.

In 2008, the Yankees’ decided to exceed their “budget” in order to sign Mark Teixeira. (Photo: Getty Images)

There are several components of the new CBA that could increase the burden for teams whose payrolls exceed $179 million ($189 million starting in 2014). The most stringent is the 10 percentage point increase in the tax rate for habitual offenders. Not only would a team like the Yankees be forced to a pay a 50% penalty for every dollar spent over the limit, but by exceeding the barrier repeatedly, it would become ineligible to receive a new revenue sharing refund designed to return money that in the past would have been earmarked to large market teams that qualified for a payout.

So, does this mean Yankees’ fan should expect the Bronx Bombers to embark on a long-term plan of fiscal restraint? Probably not. Instead of representing a complete reversal of economic philosophy, the Yankees’ aim could simply be to play the 2014 season under the luxury tax threshold. By dropping down below that barrier, the team’s assessable penalty would reset at a 17% rate (and not reach 50% again until 2019, assuming the Yankees exceed the limit in every subsequent season and no changes are made in the next CBA). What’s more, the team would also become eligible for the aforementioned revenue sharing rebate because disqualification is only triggered when a team exceeds the limit in two straight seasons. In a sense, the Yankees’ new fiscal policy could be more about pressing the reset button than completely changing the rules.

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During the winter of 1996, the Florida Marlins shocked the baseball world and altered its financial landscape by spending almost $90 million on new players, including $18 million per season for Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, and Alex Fernandez. Fifteen years later, the now Miami Marlins are at it again.

Days after celebrating the Marlins’ World Series championship in 1997, owner Wayne Huizenga began dismantling the team.

Two days after signing Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million contract, the Marlins also reeled in Jose Reyes, who was inked to a six-year, $106 million deal. The combined amount owed to both men in 2012 is almost 30% more than the team paid its entire roster just four seasons ago. And, if rumors are correct, the team isn’t done spending yet, with several impact names like C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and even Albert Pujols reportedly still in play.

Wayne Huizenga’s lavish Hot Stove spending resulted in a World Series title in 1997, but the championship was largely overshadowed by the fire sale that followed shortly thereafter. Almost immediately after Edgar Renteria’s game winning base hit in game seven bounced past the outstretched glove of Tony Fernandez, the Marlins began slashing payroll. Huizenga cited mounting financial losses for his decision to dismantle a championship team, but subsequent analyses suggested the 1997 Marlins were profitable and the fire sale was nothing more than part of a plan to sell the team. It’s impossible to say how much Huizenga’s decision stunted the growth of baseball in South Florida, but the team’s attendance has never come close to the 2.3 million fans who watched the team in 1997.

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When Jonathan Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies, the move was roundly criticized by those who habitually undervalue closers. However, because of his unique track record of excellence, I suggested Papelbon was the worth the premium. After seeing some of the contracts recently handed out to much lesser closers, that assessment appears to have been accurate.

Heath Bell is the latest closer to strike rich on the free agent market.

In one of the first real surprises of the offseason, the Marlins, whose payroll has average $54 million over the last three years, agreed to pay Heath Bell $9 million per season until 2014. Even though he has consistently ranked among the National League saves leaders since being installed as a closer in 2009, Bell doesn’t even come close to matching the peripheral performance of Papelbon, who is three years younger to boot. So, at face value, it seems as if the Marlins are guilty of excess as they plunge back into the free agent market after a long absence (and, if rumors are to be believed, Jeffrey Loria’s wallet could come out a few more times this winter).

Before the Marlins splurged on Bell, the Rangers signed Joe Nathan to a two-year deal worth $14.5 million. Once thought of as an elite closer, Nathan is now in the midst of battling back from Tommy John surgery. If he regains his form, the Rangers could have a bargain, but considering he will be 37 in 2012, it seems as if Texas has taken an expensive gamble.

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Thirteen new candidates have been added to the 2012 Hall of Fame ballot, but none have overwhelming credentials, which should bode well for Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, and Jeff Bagwell, three eminently deserving players snubbed by last year’s voting. However, it seems as if one of the new eligible players is being written off much too quickly. That’s really nothing new for Bernie Williams, whose career would have never gotten started had he yielded to those who dismissed him.

Bernie Williams’ Hall of Fame campaign faces an uphill battle on two fronts because he appears like a borderline candidate to both the traditional and sabermetricly-inclined factions of the electorate. On the one hand, the older members of the BBWAA are likely to balk at Williams’ relatively deflated counting stats, while those voters in tune with the latest sabermetric trends might be swayed by his less than eye-popping WAR. Both first impressions are worthy of a second look.

Hall of Fame Centerfielders and Upcoming Candidates, Ranked by OPS+ (click to enlarge)

Note: Includes Hall of Famers who played at least 50% of total games in centerfield as well as Bernie Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jim Edmonds.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com

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No Love for Valentine

Bobby Valentine is the new manager of the Boston Red Sox. For a franchise trying to overcome the perception of dysfunction, that might not have been the best decision. Valentine is alternately one of the most revered and hated managers in all of baseball, so his presence in the volatile powder keg of Red Sox Nation is sure to provide a spark. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is matter of wildly varying degrees of perspective.

Is Boston ready for the song and dance that usually accompanies Bobby Valentine? (Photo: AP)

During his long managerial career, Bobby Valentine has probably made as many enemies as he has won games. And, it hasn’t taken long for some of them to rear their heads. One former adversary, blogger-extraordinaire Murray Chass, recently suggested (with stats to back it up) the Red Sox hired themselves a bona fide loser. Of course, Chass’ post is dripping with personal dislike for Valentine, not to mention disdain for his former employer the New York Times, so his sentiments can be taken with a grain of salt. However, one element of Chass’ hit piece is based on truth: Valentine is a very unpopular figure because of his outspoken, often arrogant manner.

Even though a figure like Valentine in a media market like Boston could become a distraction, likability probably wasn’t item number one on the Red Sox’ wish list. Otherwise, there would have been no need to part company with Terry Francona. However, there is a strong indication of discord within the Red Sox’ organization. If GM Ben Cherington really did prefer Gene Lamont, but was overruled by Larry Lucchino, then the reports of dysfunction within the Red Sox hierarchy might actually be understated. With all the rumors swirling around the Nation, Valentine could turn out to be one of the least controversial figures in Boston over the next few months.

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Jim Crane has begun his tenure as Houston Astros’ owner, and the franchise’s 50th year, by firing Tal Smith, a long-time baseball executive who had been with the team off and on since its inception. Although the more significant move was the dismissal of general manager Ed Wade, whose four years in Houston were punctuated by losing, Smith’s pink slip symbolically represents a new era in Houston baseball.

Astros' GM Ed Wade (c.) and President Tal Smith (r.) will not be a part of the new era in Houston baseball.

Older Yankees’ fans might recall that Tal Smith served as the team’s executive vice president and right hand man to de facto GM Gabe Paul from 1973 to 1975. However, the relationship between Paul and Smith went back long before the two joined forces in the Bronx. The two men first met in 1960, when a then 27 year-old Smith was trying to land his first job in baseball. Paul, who was GM of the Cincinnati Reds at the time, rebuffed the solicitation, suggesting Smith first learn shorthand if he wanted a job. At the second meeting, however, Paul was forced to relent when the young would-be executive triumphantly returned three months later having acquired the skill.

Smith followed Paul to the expansion Houston Colt 45s (as the Astros were then called) in 1962. Although Paul quickly moved on a few months later to become GM of the Cleveland Indians, Smith made Houston his home. For the next 13 years, the young executive gradually climbed the ladder with the Astros until his former boss, who had been instrumental in brokering George M. Steinbrenner’s recent purchase of the Yankees, came calling.

In November 1973, Paul hired his former protégé to be his top assistant. Paul had just spent his first season in the Bronx, and was still trying to get a handle on how the organization structure would work, particularly in light of Steinbrenner’s growing involvement. Considering the franchise’s rapidly expanding front office, Paul was probably as much in need of an ally as an assistant, but regardless, the two men proved to be a very effective team as they gradually rebuilt the Yankees over the next two seasons.

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Last year, the Yankees took a low-risk gamble on Freddy Garcia that paid off handsomely, so this year, they’ve decided to roll the dice again.

Freddy Garcia will be returning to the Yankees’ rotation, but whom will he be joining?

Before the 2011 season, Garcia wasn’t a lock to make the team, much less the rotation, but the veteran right hander wound becoming a key cog, going 12-8 with a 3.62 ERA in nearly 150 innings. On any team, that kind of production from a fifth starter would be exemplary, so it’s not hard to see why the Yankees would want to bring Garcia back on a one-year deal worth a reported $5 million. The only problem is Garcia currently ranks much higher on the Yankees’ rotation totem pole.

You could make the case Garcia was the Yankees’ second best starter in 2011, so, it’s not too farfetched to think he might be the same in 2012. C.C. Sabathia remains the rotation ace, but after the big lefty, not much else is certain. A.J. Burnett has been so bad for two straight seasons that any positive projection has to be considered blind optimism. Also, although the Yankees may be quietly confident about Phil Hughes having a bounce back year, his struggles over the last season and a half are hard to ignore. Finally, Ivan Nova’s breakout 2011 campaign seems to bode well for the future, but the 2010 performance of Hughes is a reminder about how inconsistent young pitchers with little big league experience can be. In other words, the 2012 Yankees’ rotation is full of question marks, and the return of Garcia doesn’t really provide any definitive answers.

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Even in peace, MLB finds a way to get bruised. Instead of focusing on the unprecedented 21 years of labor peace that will result from yesterday’s new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the focus of many, if not most, has been on elements of the deal they don’t like. Interestingly, the strongest objections have been for items like draft slotting and expanded playoffs, which just so happen to be heralded in other sports. In some ways, that’s unfair, but baseball has always been held to a higher standard (see steroids) because it is the National Pastime.

We are headed for massive problems in the next CBA. Competitive balance is going to get progressively worse.” – Anonymous GM, quoted by Ken Rosenthal, November 23, 2011

The most repeated criticism of the new CBA is it has the potential to dampen competitive balance by restricting the amount of money that small market teams can spend in the draft and international free agent market. Because teams like the Royals, Pirates, Royals, and Padres have become the most prolific spenders in the draft, the theory goes, curtailing the amount of money spent will limit their ability to be competitive. However, there is a flaw to this logic. The reason those teams have spent more is twofold: they have amassed more picks and bonus payouts at the top of the draft have been increasing exponentially.

Top-10 Spenders in the Rule IV Draft, 2007-2011

Team Total Bonuses
Pirates $52,057,400
Nationals $51,084,600
Royals $45,204,900
Red Sox $44,097,250
Orioles $41,219,700
Rays $40,582,200
Blue Jays $38,429,600
Mariners $36,055,900
Padres $35,768,100
Diamondbacks $35,261,000

Source: baseballamerica.com

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Labor peace in baseball has become a given, which is remarkable considering the contentious history between the players and owners. However, after reading a summary of the new CBA unveiled this afternoon, it appears as if the partnership between owners and players is even stronger than imagined.

In the past, negotiations between the two sides were more like a battle of attrition in which changes were enacted only by give and take. This time around, both parties seemingly took a more pro-active approach, co-authoring some of the most sweeping changes in recent history. Although many of the final details have yet to be revealed, enough information is available to make an early assessment about the new CBA. A summary of the key changes is listed below, with an analysis provided after each section.

Baseball's new CBA was the product of a partnership, not battle, between the owners and players.

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Is Feliz being moved to the rotation because of his blown save in game 6? (Photo: Getty Images)

The Texas Rangers made a surprise move by agreeing to terms with Joe Nathan on a two-year deal worth $15 million in guaranteed money. After making the announcement, the team decided to kill two birds with one stone by also letting it be known that former closer Neftali Feliz will be joining the rotation in 2012.

The pair of moves seems to make sense, especially because free agent C.J. Wilson appears to be on his way out of town. Considering the lack of comparable starters available (and affordable), and the glut of relievers on the market, moving the 24-year old Feliz’ electric arm into the rotation should give the Rangers the best chance to remain competitive in the A.L. West.

But, is that the only reason the Rangers are moving Feliz to the rotation? According to Buster Olney, the lingering effects of Feliz’ blown save in the sixth game of the World Series might also be a factor. In a series of Tweets, Olney expressed sentiments that are probably widely believed throughout the game: young closers who blow big games become damaged goods. So, if the Rangers had any concerns about Feliz’ ability to stare down the barrel of the ninth inning going forward, it would make sense to usher him into the rotation.

History tells us that young closers who blow postseason leads in big moments rarely recover; it’s a good time for TEX to shift Neftali Feliz.” – Buster Olney on Twitter

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