THE BIG HIT | So your favorite team signed a big free agent…

by Ken Napzok

Ok, let’s get honest. 

This is a baseball column that is designed to celebrate baseball while also providing valuable — like 99 Cent Store value — insight and opinion on the comings and goings of this great sport. The purpose here is to look at the stats, stories, and history of the game. I, the humble narrator of this story, always aim to approach this column from the most neutral point of view. 

But for this piece… nuts to that. I’m a New York Yankee fan to the core and I am nervous as hell. 

That’s a weird thing to say a few days after my favorite franchise signed the most coveted free agent of this offseason and perhaps all offseasons. (With all due respect to Dave Winfield in 1980.) The Yankees needed an ace so they tossed 324 million at him over the next 9 years and there was much rejoicing. However, I’m nervous. 

I’m sure I’m not alone. 

Fans in Washington have to be thrilled with Stephen Strasburg opting out for the sole purpose of staying home at a higher rate. Fans in Anaheim (or the greater Los Angeles area???) should certainly be jumping for joy like a rally monkey because of Anthony Rendon preparing to get fitted for his halo. And, yes, Yankee fans have a lot to be celebrating too this week.

Yet every conversation I have had with fans of these teams and others has a tinge of something I like to call Big Contract Induced Paranoia. (or BCIP for those at Statcast that want to track the stat with me.) This is what happens when your team — fortunate enough to have the funds or just not be afraid of the luxury tax — dump a lot of money at a star player therefore pinning ALL OF THEIR WORLD SERIES HOPES on them. 

There are a lot of things to be paranoid about when one of these big contracts get dished out like glasses of Ensure at a retirement home. The pressure on both player and team jumps up tremendously and when there is pressure there is often cracks starting to form from the high tension. 

You. Just. Don’t. Know. 

Is one player really worth all of this? And I’m not talking about the big dollar amounts being thrown around today. It’s all relative. We all remember when players like Ryne Sandberg and Kirby Puckett were signing record breaking contracts that barely surpassed what Gerrit Cole will get per start or Bryce Harper will get per at-bat or question about the Nationals winning the World Series. 

That’s not what I mean. What I DO mean is the team using so much of the budget for ONE piece of the puzzle. Is THAT worth it? 

Baseball history seems to indicate that the big headline inducing free agent signings don’t necessarily translate to postseason success… and I’m not using statistics here. Just to be clear. I’m writing for the point of a fan. Yes, numbers are part of being a fan, but this all about gut instinct. 

And my gut instinct says I’m not sure this is the way. 

As confessed, I am a California-born New York Yankee fan. Weird, sure, but that love of the Bronx Bombers found me in my youth while growing up in a small coastal town three hours away from the Dodgers and Angels and four away from the Giants and A’s. With four “local” teams to choose from I happened to get placed on a school softball team using the Yankee name. (Definitely without permission, so I’m surprised George Steinbrenner didn’t come after us.) I didn’t know the history of the team. There no Babe Ruth posters on my wall growing up, but I just started to gravitate toward the team because I felt I was playing for them too as a fourth grade softballer. 

However, soon I did learn their history. In large part because as a seventh grade junior high kid I read a two thousand page book on the Yankee dynasty because why try to be a normal kid? And in learning that history I learned that after that Yankee dynasty came to a close in 1964, the franchise struggled to find their way. This led to a new owner with a desire to open up his big, ship building pocket book to the big names in this new thing called free agency. 

And it worked. 

And then it didn’t. 

The Yankees of the 1980s were a collection of future stars (Mattingly, Righetti… and Bobby Meacham?) trying to mix with a cavalcade of big time free agent signings and trade acquisitions and, aside from 1981, getting nowhere. Even those names that put up the big numbers like a Winfield or Ricky Henderson we’re right there alongside the players that showed up to the Bronx and left as fast as they came like Ed Whitson, Jack Clark or Rick Rhoden: nowhere near the World Series. 

We Yankee fans spent the early 90s watching players that were traded away like Doug Drabek or Jay Buhner helping to revitalize their new franchises. 

That all changed when the Yankees made a change in philosophy — in large part because George had to take… uh… some time off from baseball — and started winning with a core group that was built not bought. This is NOT to say that big trades and signings didn’t come along the way. The Yankees still had the money to make the moves they needed like bringing in David Cone or David Wells, but even then the moves were of a different ilk. New players like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, or Scott Brosius weren’t the big splashy trade pick-ups that “guaranteed” championships. They were smart and somewhat risky moves that seemed to add to the homegrown core group and paid off tremendously. 

We Yankee fans paid attention AND adapted to this new way. We watched Jeter come up through the system. We grew with Bernie Williams as he went from quiet afterthought to quiet leader. And we smiled as the starting pitcher that seemed to only have one pitch became Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time. And we reaped the benefits. 

Then it started to change again. The contracts around the league got bigger and bigger and the gap between the Yankees and the teams chasing them closed. The upstart Marlins beat “us” in 2003 (I never got to play that season. Still waiting for the call.) and the Red Sox broke the curse in ‘04. The old ways seemed to return. 

Oh we got the big players. In came A-Rod, Kevin Brown, and Randy Johnson and out went our championship runs. They went big in 2009, pulling in Sabathia, and we got one again. The Yanks win in 2009 was not just the last championship — it was the last World Series appearance. A decade without a World Series appearance is a hard pill to swallow in New York and this offseason is proving it. 

Gerritt Cole pitched his heart out in 2019 and deserved his place in the driver’s seat. He works hard. Respects the game and the process it takes to win. And he’s a Yankee fan.

I’m very happy he’s on the team. All Yankee fans are happy he’s on the team. But will he be enough? Is this tempting the baseball fates again and taunting the karma gods? 

The Yankees roster in 2019 was a reminder of the dangers big contracts can bring. The tale of Jacoby Ellsbury is a sad, but timeless one. Big contract, big injury, bigger bust. Not his fault at all, but the money wasn’t just still on the books, it clogged the books right up. Giancarlo Stanton is the story of the big market team being able to afford the top of the charts talent… and the story of what happens when all the hopes of your team rests on the shoulders of one giant. 2018 was a great season, but not enough to overcome a more well-rounded team of players in Houston. (Video feeds and trash can thumps notwithstanding.) When Stanton went down with an injury in 2019 alongside most of the team it just felt like the end result of a long decade of grasping at (expensive) straws. Even CC Sabathia — the departing legend — only gave the team four top flight seasons after coming over a year younger than Cole. 

So now Yankee fans are staring down the barrel of nine seasons for one arm. Angel fans are excited for Rendon to start swinging for the fences alongside Mike Trout, but are wondering who will be pitching when they’re in the field. National fans are riding high from a World Series win, but when those big arms (Scherzer and Corbin are in this as well) start aging out while Soto and Robles are still lighting it up will the warm, fuzzy memories of 2019 fade away faster than those big contracts? 

And that’s not even getting to fans in Philadelphia or San Diego still hoping the recent flurry of transactions by their teams means Harper and Machado are getting the pieces they need to justify those big contracts of last year.

I know… it must be so difficult to watch your team sign the best players. 

 I get it. 

But I watched the Kansas City Royals win a World Series more recently than the Yankees. I watched the Rays pick up steam this season and take a giant step forward as a team. I watched the Astros go from a flailing franchise to a juggernaut built around a core of stars. 

I watched all of that happen and more while watching a lot of high priced contracts show up in the Bronx and leave as they came — championshipless.. 

So here’s to you, Gerritt Cole, may my high BCIP rating be wrong. 


Walk Off Quote

“I haven’t always made the right decisions.” –  George Steinbrenner, decision maker. 

***

Ken Napzok really thought Kevin Maas was going to be the next big thing, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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