Friday, December 15, 2006

Smartest winter season = the Yankees?

In the face of long-term, high-dollar deals, Seth Mnookin says the Yanks have had one of the best winters in baseball. Why? No overpaying for underachievers and no long-term flyers. Instead, the Yanks are actually developing their own talent.

Mnookin's analysis came before the Yanks' concluded their deal with Andy Pettitte, but that contract is maximum of two years and went to a proven veteran who is a #1-#2 starter, not a #4 type like Lilly or Meche and not a career stiff after a breakout year like Gary Matthews, Jr.

So, what's a savvy baseball executive with an overstuffed wallet and a dearth of attractive options to do? One choice is to take a flyer on an old or injury-prone player like Moises Alou or Kerry Wood. Another is to take a big gamble on a young foreign star, as Boston is doing with Daisuke Matsuzaka. But those all-in opportunities are both rare and risky. If weaker free-agent classes do become the norm, teams that want to crash the postseason party should resist the urge to spend, say, more than $25 million for three years' worth of a below-average starter like Adam Eaton. Instead, they should devote more of their resources to player development. The model of this approach is the Tigers, who resisted trading away their up-and-coming stars even during a five-year stretch in which they went 307-502. Last year, Detroit relied on Zach Miner (24), Jeremy Bonderman (23), Justin Verlander (23), and Joel Zumaya (21) to anchor a pitching staff that led the team to the pennant.

But the team that's playing today's market better than anyone is—no joke—the Yankees. After years of binging on overpaid veterans, the Bronx Bombers have developed a sudden fondness for developing and acquiring young players. Cy Young runner-up Chien-Ming Wang was a rookie in 2005. Catalysts Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera are 24 and 22. And the Bombers executed one of the better trades of the offseason when they picked up a trio of hard-throwing pitching prospects in return for 38-year-old Gary Sheffield, to whom the Yankees owed $13 million for the 2007 season. The team that gave up those prospects? The Detroit Tigers.

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