When a baseball team makes an acquisition, all sorts of questions arise. Is there value here for the team? Is there value for the player? How does it fit in with the team's overarching strategy? At what stage of his career is the player?
How good is the player at not committing domestic abuse?
The Yankees have signed Aroldis Chapman for five years and $86 million. He has a full no-trade clause for the first three years, can opt out after the first three years, and, apparently, cannot be traded to the West Coast. All the same questions we ask whenever a team makes a transaction, we ask now too.
Some of the answers are completely different, however. For one, this signing seems to utterly (if not unexpectedly) demonstrate a sea change in how relievers are viewed and valued. That a man who records about 60 innings per year can earn a guarantee in the vicinity of nine figures is unheard of to this point.
Prior to this offseason, the most a reliever ever earned on the free agent market was $50 million. The Phillies guaranteed that amount to Jonathan Papelbon back in 2011. Mark Melancon nudged past that record earlier this week, but Chapman has now put the previous record to shame. Just last offseason, the highest paid reliever was guaranteed $31 million. Chapman will make nearly thrice that.
This represents not a gradual rethinking of how to value relievers, but a quantum leap in terms of what they are able to earn. From the outside, such a massive difference would have to be backed by one of two things: either A) a legitimate shift in how relievers are used or B) an understanding that shutdown ninth-inning guys are fundamentally more valuable than previously thought.
Despite Terry Francona's Andrew Miller experiment in the postseason, relievers aren't actually deployed much differently these days, at least during the regular season. That was no more apparent than right here in New York, when the Yankees had the greatest bullpen known to man, but utilized it in a boring, one-inning-per-reliever fashion. There is some evidence that the best relievers are slightly more valuable than WAR models indicate, but not so much so as to support such a huge escalation in value. This signing stands out as different, flying in the face of everything that was previously thought to be true about relievers in baseball.
Not only does this deal stick out like a sore thumb value-wise, it makes little sense from a strategic standpoint for the Yankees. New York has been noticeably frugal in recent years, possibly in preparation to make big splashes when the fruits of their farm system have ripened. This deal feels like a false start, a win-now move that would help put a good team over the top, but instead pushes a .500-ish team, which the Yankees currently profile as, into the 84-win range.
At the end of the day, though, everything is just as it always was. Chapman's signing, by all accounts, was engineered by owner Hal Steinbrenner. Just as in years past, a Steinbrenner saw the shiny object that he wanted and disregarded all notions of value and/or morality in order to get his hands on it. This signing fits in a long line of examples of the Yankees entering the market and paying whatever it takes to get their man.
More importantly, it reflects the long-standing pattern of male athletes being allowed to commit vile acts and not only be free to walk without consequence, but in this case to be showered in glory and fame. Whether it's Jose Reyes returning to Queens to the sound of cheers from doting fans, Josh Brown kicking field goals for the New York Giants, or even New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose posing with jurors after being found not liable in a civil rape case, what has happened with Chapman has happened before, and unquestionably will happen again.
Steinbrenner thinks that Chapman brings a “buzz” to Yankee Stadium. He thinks that the electricity that fills the air when a man throws a round ball especially hard will distract us from reckoning with whether his previous actions are unacceptable. Based on Yankee fans' collective reaction last year, he might be right.
For Yankee fans with a conscience wondering how to fall asleep at night, take solace in one fact: none of this makes the Yankees unique. There are 29 other MLB teams that would almost certainly jump at the opportunity to do something morally reprehensible, provided they thought that such an action was a savvy business move. Well, on second thought, I'm not sure that notion makes it easier to sleep at all.