There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately over the three most gruesome contracts the Yankees still have on their books, and how they seem to be sapping the team's financial flexibility. Over the past two seasons, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia have cost $119 million (not including what A-Rod didn't earn during his year-long suspension) and produced a piddling 3.9 total fWAR. Thanks to a frustrating combination of age, decline and chronic injury, more of the same can be expected in 2015. In a chaotic butterfly effect kind of way, an alternate Yankee universe where A-Rod, Teixeira and Sabathia's contracts were never signed would be very different, but not necessarily better.
Alex Rodriguez - Three years, $61 million remaining (2015-17) plus a possible $30 million in milestone bonuses
The general consensus is that Hank and Hal Steinbrenner were off their meds in December 2007 when they pulled rank on their general manager and signed Rodriguez to a ten-year, $275 million deal after he opted out of his existing contract. Though he'd just completed one of the greatest seasons in Yankee history - a 9.6 fWAR, 175 wRC+, 54-homer tour de force - A-Rod was five months past his 32nd birthday and had once again failed to deliver a championship (which, naturally, was solely his responsibility).
It's easy to view A-Rod's contract as the worst of all-time now, but a lot's changed over the past seven years. Back then the Yankees were facing the loss of an unbreakable superstar who'd appeared in 140 or more games in 11 of his 12 full seasons. He'd never been connected to PEDs by anyone not named Jose Canseco and there was good reason to believe that his excellent conditioning and supreme talent would let him age better than most. The Steinbrenners thought they were buying a chase for MLB's home run record, which would have more than paid for their investment in A-Rod's decline years. As we've seen ten-year deals handed out to over-30 stars in Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano in the time since, despite the fair warning of the Rodriguez deal, it's safe to say that if the Yankees hadn't locked up their third baseman through age 42, someone else would have.
If the Yankees let A-Rod go, his immediate replacement could have been Mike Lowell, the only other quality third base option on the market at the time. Lowell, 33, signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Red Sox, during which he was worth just 2.3 fWAR. To pry their former farmhand away from the reigning champs, the Yankees probably would have guaranteed a fourth year. With an aging lineup that scored 179 fewer runs in '08 than in '07, even with A-Rod's .302/.392/.573, 152 wRC+ contribution, the Yankees would have felt the pain of his absence. The 2009 title run - you know, the one where Rodriguez hit six home runs and drove in 18 in 15 postseason games - wouldn't have happened.
Mark Teixeira - Two years, $45 million remaining (2015-16)
After missing the playoffs for the first time in a generation, the Yankees entered the 2008-09 off-season poised to hurl money at anything that moved. Part of that strategy brought an eight-year, $180 million investment in the 28-year-old Teixeira, the consensus top bat on the free agent market outside of Manny Ramirez, a player less sought after due to age and motivation concerns. Teixeira seemed an obvious fit for the Yankees, who finished an uncharacteristic seventh in AL run scoring in '08 and were finally out from under the bad money they owed Jason Giambi.
Teixeira's Yankee career began as promised when he came in second in the MVP race in 2009 and helped the club to its first championship in nine years with an ALDS walk-off. His numbers, particularly his batting average, dipped in 2010 and 2011, thanks in large part to expanded use of defensive shifts, but Teixeira remained reasonably productive, even for his salary, slugging 72 homers with an .840 OPS and .365 wOBA. Then the injuries came. Teixeira's played in just 261 of 486 games since 2012, and when he's been on the field, he's looked like a shell of himself at the plate, most recently crawling to a league average 101 OPS+ in 2014, trolled by a dismal .179/.271/.302 second half.
If they hadn't signed Teixeira, the Yankees may have been content to head into the 2009 season with Nick Swisher at first and Xavier Nady in right. That's the same Nady who played in seven games before missing the remainder of that year with his second Tommy John surgery and went on to hit .234/.287/.353 over what was left of his career. Or they might have signed Ramirez, who managed only 3.4 fWAR and served a 50-game PED suspension during the two-year, $45 million deal he ultimately received from the Dodgers. If they hadn't stepped in, Teixeira's good years would have been in Boston. The Red Sox wouldn't have traded for Adrian Gonzalez, which means they could still have Anthony Rizzo. The Yankees haven't been without a big name first baseman since the emergence of Don Mattingly, so they might have been the ones to pursue Gonzalez...goodbye Montero equals goodbye Pineda...or maybe they'd be on the hook for Prince Fielder's nine-year deal.
CC Sabathia - Two years, $48 million remaining (2015-16) plus a $25 million vesting option for 2017
There's not much to complain about with the seven-year, $161 million contract that CC Sabathia got from the Yankees prior to the 2009 season. That pact by itself would have garnered four top-level ace seasons and one not-so-bad innings eater campaign, and would be expiring after 2015. But the deal included an opt-out after year three, which Sabathia used to get himself an extra guaranteed year at $25 million and an option year at the same rate that's very likely to vest. The no-longer hefty lefty made only eight starts in 2014 due to recurring knee woes, so the $73 million the Yankees will probably pay him over the next three seasons doesn't figure to be money well spent.
If the Yankees had let CC walk post-2011 they'd have been staring down some pretty harsh pitching woes. At the time their rotation consisted only of A.J. Burnett, who everyone wanted gone, along with Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes. The free agent pitching available was headlined by C.J. Wilson (meh) and Roy Oswalt (yikes!). While Yu Darvish was available, the blind bidding system for Japanese players still used at the time was pretty much a shot in the dark. After Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees' advances the winter before, Sabathia held a ton of leverage, so they probably felt they were getting off easy with what they had to pay. Maybe they'd have gone after Darvish and won, or successfully pieced things together with the eventual additions of Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, but without Sabathia's 200 innings of 4.6 fWAR, 3.33 FIP ball, there's a good chance the Yankees' playoff drought would have started in 2012 instead of 2013.
Some argue that the moral of the A-Rod-Teixeira-Sabathia tale is to not hand out gargantuan seven, eight and ten-year deals at all, especially to players nearing or past 30. But the Yankees chose to play it that way with Cano and so far the results of that choice have been brutal. While they're paying for it now, the team rode these players through an era that produced four straight 95-win seasons, five playoff series victories and a World Series ring. The real lesson to be learned is that if you want the luxury of elite players on your roster you need to prepare for the bad years by promoting young players to fill holes cheaply or by just sucking it up and continuing to spend. That's the part where the Yankees have struggled.