When Buster Posey signed his new, eight-year extension last Friday, I wrote the following on SI.com:
Looking to fill the catching position with a high-impact free agent? Well of the top catchers of 2012, per Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, five of the top six and seven of the top 10 (Posey, Yadier Molina, Joe Mauer, [Carlos] Santana, [Miguel] Montero, Jonathan Lucroy, and Salvador Perez) are under the control of their current teams (some via club options) through at least 2017, all having already signed extensions. Of the remaining three, two (Carlos Ruiz and A.J. Ellis) are over 30, and Matt Wieters, who is still in his arbitration years, won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season (and seems very likely to be extended in the interim).
One guess as to what team I was thinking about when I wrote that.
It was just two years ago that the Yankees seemed overrun by catching talent. They had Jorge Posada and Russell Martin the major leagues, Jesus Montero in Triple-A, Austin Romine in Double-A, and JR Murphy and Gary Sanchez in the Sally League. Two years later, only the last three remain. Of those three, only Sanchez looks likely to become a major league starter, and any hope the Yankees might have had of going outside the organization for an established catching star has largely evaporated.
True, the Yankees could try to trade for one of the seven catchers above who have received extensions or Wieters or the Tigers’ Alex Avila, both of whom will be arbitration eligible this winter, or even a younger, up-and-coming backstop such as the Rockies’ Wilin Rosario, the Nationals’ Wilson Ramos, or the Padres’ Yasmani Grandal. They could try, but I don’t imagine they’d have much success.
That’s because every new extension signed by a talented young catcher both shrinks supply and increases demand for those who have not been locked up by their teams, making those teams all the more likely to hang on to those players, thereby accelerating the cycle. This is happening throughout the game. In that same piece on Posey, I compiled this list of players who had signed extensions of five or more years in the last 12 months:
[Justin] Verlander, Posey, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Cole Hamels, Joey Votto, Matt Cain, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Matt Harrison, Jonathan Niese, Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero, Brandon Phillips, Starlin Castro, Adam Jones, Andre Ethier, Allen Craig, and Paul Goldschmidt
I wrote above that Wieters "seems very likely to be extended" before his free agency. Wednesday afternoon, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported that the Orioles have indeed made an initial offer to Wieters. Look for Wieters and Clayton Kershaw to sign extensions before the year is out, and when Wieters signs, it will only make Avila, Rosario, Ramos, and Grandal all the more likely to do so should they build on the promise they’ve shown thus far in their young careers.
Remember Brian Cashman’s masterstroke decision not to trade for Johan Santana prior to the 2008 season because he figured he could get CC Sabathia via free agency the following winter without giving up players in the process? That strategy is being taken out of his playbook. With the new collective bargaining agreement’s restrictions on bonuses for amateur talent, the looming threat of an international draft, and the emergence of the extension as the industry standard, the means for improving a team are being rapidly winnowed down to amateur scouting and trades, with the latter being heavily dependent on the currency provided by the former.
This is bad news for the Yankees, whose farm system is middling (ranked 14th in baseball by Baseball Prospectus) and whose major league roster has no projectability beyond this season (and this year doesn’t project so well, either). As a result, Hal Steinbrenner’s offseason order to target a luxury tax reboot in 2014 could prove to be even more harmful than expected. Resetting the Yankees’ tax rate may increase their spending ability in future offseasons, but with few of the game’s best players reaching free agency, the Yankees might find that money they save might as well be Italian Lira for all of its spending power. In the meantime, the Yankees’ offseason stinginess significantly weakened their roster, even before the injuries started piling up, reducing their chances of pulling out a last-ditch playoff run with the old coots they have on hand.
See, the thing is, with the best players off the market, teams looking to improve via free agency, which the Yankees always are, often out of necessity, need to make smart choices with regard to the second-tier talent available. However, when those teams start nickel-and-diming everything to the degree that they let a useful player like Russell Martin go because they balked at paying him $9 million for the coming season, their grip on contention starts to slip away, and without the ability to course correct the way the Yankees did prior to the 2009 season, that could have an enduring impact.
In terms of catching talent, that puts all of the Yankees’ eggs in Sanchez’s basket. Sanchez is indeed the team’s top prospect, but he also just turned 20, has yet to reach Double-A. Should his star fade as he hits the upper levels of the minors, the Yankees may not find a suitable successor to Jorge Posada until the 2020s.