Monday, December 29, 2008

Teixeira Helps, But Yanks Need More Bats

It's late December, and the Yankees are doing the Yankee thing. Last week the Bombers locked up free agent prize Mark Teixeira after securing the fearsome lefty-righty combination of C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

Sabathia was the best-known (if not the best) free agent pitcher available for hire -- winning a Cy Young Award and then going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA as a mid-season acquisition while pushing your new team to its first playoffs in 26 years tends to raise one's profile -- and Burnett is an intriguing commodity in his own right, having thrown a no-hitter in 2001 but toiling in relative obscurity in Miami and Toronto since coming into the league. The general perception seems to be that Burnett is a flaky, all-or-nothing type of performer, but it's difficult to ignore his recent production, as he fanned 231 batters in 2008, the third highest total in MLB, trailing only his new teammate Sabathia and the Giants' young flamethrower, Tim Lincecum.

Signing them both cost the Yankees over $240 million, and for the most successful and prolific franchise in the history of American professional sports, it's just another offseason. Depending on where one stands on the Yankees, the signings of Sabathia and Burnett were either tittilating or repulsive. It is expected by both fans and detractors that the Yankees will constantly re-invent by loading up on free agent offerings. It's happened recently with Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui, to cite just a few examples.

Even (and perhaps especially) in this economic climate, the Yankees prefer and are well suited to chase free agent talent rather than wait for internal assets to develop. Yankee fans and players embrace a culture of must-win baseball, and after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, there's no time like the present to loosen the purse strings if it helps usher in a new era of supremacy. The Yankees did not become a force to be reckoned with on and away from the baseball diamond by standing pat. They spend money to make money, and what better way to fill seats at their new, team-financed stadium than by bringing in fresh talent?

Joe Girardi certainly won't mind heading to Spring Training with perhaps just one rotation spot to fill. In the wake of Mussina's retirement and given Andy Pettitte's weird quasi-holdout situation, adding Sabathia and Burnett will alleviate some pressure for younger Yankee starters Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, who could slot in as the No. 4 and 5 options behind the new signees and Chien-Ming Wang. It's worth noting, though, that even the revered Wang (whose record stands, remarkably, 34 games over .500 after only 97 big-league appearances) will be watched closely in his first season after foot surgery. Picking up a pair of aces may well propel them to the playoffs sooner rather than later, but bolstering their offensive output will be particularly crucial for the Yankees in 2009 and beyond, and adding Teixeira is (or should be) just the first piece of the puzzle.

Landing Teixeira was no accident. The 28 year-old first baseman is represented by that fabled wrangler of moolah, Superagent Scott Boras, and the Yankees are one of the few teams that can afford his cosmic salary demands ($180 million). Carrying the Boras brand usually gets a player paid, and in Teixeira's case it's a testimony to both his talent and his track record. After winning the Dick Howser Trophy as the top college ballplayer in 2001, Teixeria was the fifth overall draft choice that same year, and might have been drafted even higher if the Phillies hadn't been burned previously by one of Boras' other draftees (read the amusing summary here on Wikipedia). Teixeira broke into the bigs with Texas two years later and the modest successes achieved in his rookie campaign (60 extra-base hits, .811 OPS in 146 games played) helped the Rangers feel comfortable cutting ties with aging and expensive Rafal Palmeiro, along with their more infamous Boras property, Alex Rodriguez.

Teixeira has continued to excel, if inconspicuously, racking up two Gold Glove Awards and producing at least 30 homeruns and 100 RBI in every season since. The case could be made that he's a perfect fit for the Yankees, who have proven themselves quite deft at acquiring Boras' clients and working to keep them comfortable (A-Rod, Johnny Damon and Teixeria are the big names printed on pinstriped jerseys, but Xavier Nady and Kennedy tithe to Boras as well). Because he performs consistently and quietly, Teixeira projects to be a more bankable and certainly less notorious acquisition than other recent Yankee free agent splashes like Pavano and Giambi. No matter how you slice it, Teixeira was quite a cherry on top of a winter that has already been sweet to Yankees fans.

The spotlight will definitely be on Teixeira, who will be expected to provide lineup protection for A-Rod as the two players play out the rest of their contracts in pinstripes. Gone is Giambi, gone is Bobby Abreu, and after a season in which Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter showed their age and Robinson Cano's early struggles raised eyebrows, who knows where else the runs will come from in 2009? Nick Swisher could bounce back from an uninspiring stint with the White Sox, and Matsui can be counted on for .290-15-80 if he's healthy, but the Boras Boys will need some help if the Yankees are to score runs for their new hired guns.

Should the Yankees find themselves in third place after, say, 50 games, don't be surprised if they go hard after Magglio Ordonez or Matt Holliday to build up a new Murderer's Row. Both sluggers will be free agents after the season (as will be the Angels' Vlad Guerrero), and the Rockies and Tigers may be eager to deal in order to get some type of compensation for their departure.

Such bold moves might have to wait until the winter if the teams invovled can't strike a deal, but that shouldn't stop the Bombers from opening up the bank. After all, it's the Yankee way.