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Beyond Moneyball: How the Yankees have constricted pre-free agent spending

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The Yankees’ lack of interest in extensions, coupled with near-constant roster churn, leave younger players with little leverage.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Earlier this week I talked about how the Yankees, and baseball as a whole, have shifted focus from raw production to value, performance relative to pay. Not only has this affected the team’s thinking in free agency, it’s also changed the way they develop and deploy younger players on the roster. The best examples of that are the two brightest young stars on the current Yankee team, Aaron Judge and Luis Severino.

These are the kinds of players you dream of. They each come with multiple years of control, have established themselves as top 10 players in the game – Judge probably a little higher than that – and play an aesthetically pleasing style of baseball. It’s easy to fall in love with Sevy blowing a 101 mph fastball by a hitter, or Judge hitting balls to parts of Yankee Stadium nobody has reached before.

They’ve even been remarkably similar in value, with Severino accruing 12.7 fWAR and Judge 13.0 in the early goings of their careers. Want to guess at how much they’ve made, combined, in the majors? $2,933,409.

This strikes at the heart of the problem MLB and the Player’s Association face. As teams have grown more sophisticated in their free agent spending, they’ve also continued to strangle salaries at the lower end of service time. They’re not violating any rules by doing that, but it is one cause of a disproportionate distribution in player compensation.

The union bears some of this blame as well. One of the common flaws all unions have is a deference to seniority, and an accrual of benefits toward older members. In the case of a trade union, where years of experience generally do make you a better and more valuable worker, this is mostly fair. In the case of Major League Baseball players, who hit their peak production about a decade before they expect to retire, it leaves the game’s best players relatively out in the cold.

The Yankees serve as a particular example of this constriction of early career earnings. They’re enjoying the best young crop of players in recent memory, and has anyone heard even a whisper around extensions for Judge, Severino, Gary Sanchez? How about Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres? The team seems quite happy to renew pre-arb players year to year, and take full advantage of the arbitration process, even for young ace pitchers who filed a mere $800,000 more than the team did.

Again, this goes back to the team’s focus on value over raw production. Although in the long run, the course of five or six seasons, the total value for a pre-arb player signed to an extension will be staggering. In the short term, however, the immediate raise a player receives hurts the value calculation. Chris Sale makes for a strong example of this.

Right before the 2013 season, Sale signed what’s now one of the most laughable, team-friendly deals in baseball history, agreeing to five years and $32 million, plus two team options. That meant in the space of a calendar year, he went from earning $500,000 to $3.5 million, or septupling his salary. In the span of two calendar years, he went from $500,000 to $6 million per year, more than double what Sevy and Judge have made in their careers so far.

On a percentage basis, that’s a pretty significant sticker shock. If you’re evaluating players with more weight on value, or production relative to cost, a 600% increase in cost in 12 months, or an 1100% increase in 24 months, would make your eyes pop. But in absolute terms, and even relative to league terms, nobody would argue that Sale is anything less than a bargain.

The fact that the Yankees are seemingly so uninterested in these kind of bargains is telling. On the one hand, you could accuse them of being penny wise and pound foolish. It does us well though to examine the way the Yankees have been able to develop minor league talent over the past couple of seasons. They’ve done a great job of balancing early-round picks — Judge was a first rounder, Jordan Montgomery a fourth — with high-ceiling signings like Sanchez and Severino. Their ability to evaluate talent has also helped in this respect, finding players like Didi Gregorius and Luke Voit in the middle of nowhere. In a way, Voit perfectly encapsulates what the Yankees are trying to do long term.

Greg Bird was, at a point, considered the best hitter in the Yankees’ system. He’s still only 26, and could have a viable career in the majors. As he’s struggled with injury and ineffectiveness, though, the Yankees turned to outside help. But they didn’t do it in a traditional way, signing a big free agent, trading for a well-known name, or even scouring the waiver wires.

They traded two relatively bad relievers for the definition of a Quad-A player their analytics told them could be something more. And boy howdy, he was. Conveniently, Voit also came with five seasons of team control, two years away from arbitration, which Bird just entered this winter.

Voit is an analytical success story, and I feel much more confident in his abilities in 2019 than I do Bird. I’m glad he’s on the team! His success highlights the dangers facing young players, though, and is a source of their lack of leverage.

It’s never been easier to find unheralded players in the minors, or stuck as a Quad-A type, that a swing change or shift in pitch usage turns into a productive player. All that for just dimes on the dollar, even when compared to already cheap, young players. Bird is only going to make about $700,000 more than Voit this year, but Voit is eminently more valuable because of the control.

You can see the Yankees attempting this in the farm system too. From Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs, to our own Jake Devin, the consensus around the Yankees prospects is just how many high-ceiling, hard throwing right handed starters there are. They’re fairly young, with ETAs in 2021, or 2022. Hey, how many years of control does Sevy have left?

The point I’m making is that the Yankees don’t need to worry about extending young talent. They have enough confidence in their development and analytical tools that they can find cheaper, more controllable replacements for any of the players we would conventionally see as super-valuable, like Judge and Severino. While the Yankees aren’t going to kick them to the curb, there’s not much incentive for a team to spend big on players for which they think they can manufacture replacements.

Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about what the Yankees’ players should be campaigning for, to stave off this kind of constriction and balance the leverage a bit. See you then.