Exodus in the Bronx?

The New York tabloids may consider Joe Torre‘s fate worthy of the headlines, but the more pressing issues in the Bronx lie just around the corner. Whether or not Joe’s presence has an impact on the team’s win-loss record, his effect pales in comparison to that of three potential free agents from this year’s club.

You probably know by now: Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera can become free agents, and Alex Rodriguez has the right to opt out of his contract. It’s hard to believe that all three would end up elsewhere; perhaps it’s likely that each one will sign a new deal with the Yankees. But it will be expensive: it doesn’t take much analysis to see just how desperate Brian Cashman should be to retain their services.

Best of the best

For teams with $150+ million payrolls every year, free agent math works differently. Those last several marginal wins, getting them from a projected 88-90 win club to a projected 95-100 win club, are way more expensive than the rest.

The biggest problem, when it comes to putting a 95+ win team on the field this year, is how to get all those wins into the lineup. There are only so many free agents out there, and there are only so many places to put them.

That’s what makes A-Rod more valuable than, say, Derrek Lee and Brian Roberts put together. Rodriguez’s offensive production may be similar to the sum of Lee’s and Roberts’s, but he only takes up one spot on the roster and, more importantly, one slot in the starting lineup.

What compounds that value is the scarcity of available players each offseason. That certainly drove the high prices of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, and Barry Zito last year; I’m sure we’ll see the same phenomenon in the deals that Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones, and even Aaron Rowand sign this offseason. While this winter’s crop of center field options is three deep, the menu for an impact catcher ends with Posada. If you’re looking for a difference-maker in the middle infield, you’ll have to turn to the trade market.

Scarcity in context

These factors combine to make the Yankees three big-name free agents extremely valuable.

A-Rod is the obviously valuable player. If the Yankees have to replace him this winter—presuming that Wilson Betemit isn’t going to start on Opening Day next season—the closest they are likely to come is Mike Lowell or, perhaps, a trade for Aramis Ramirez.

In either case, the loss to the Yankees is immense. Measured by VORP or Win Shares, the difference between Rodriguez and the best of the rest last year was about five wins. Of course, there’s no guarantee that A-Rod will put together another MVP-like season, but there’s also no warranty that comes with whoever they choose to play third in his stead. If anything, the replacement is a bigger gamble.

The story behind the plate is, if anything, even more dramatic. Measured by Win Shares, Posada was about five wins better than a bench player. Barring a trade, it’s not clear that the Yankees could find a replacement above that bench threshhold at all. Someone like Yorvit Torrealba or Ramon Castro might come within four wins of Posada’s ’07 production, but that’s about as much as is reasonable to expect.

As with A-Rod, there’s no guarantee that Posada matches his 2007 season—in fact, it’s much less likely. But even projecting a modest decline for the aging backstop, Cashman would be lucky to find someone within three wins of what he would get next year from Posada.

Two players, and we’re looking at a loss of 8-10 marginal wins. If Johan Santana cost only money, that gap might be fillable. As it is, there aren’t enough roster spots for the Yanks to make up that difference with free agents.

One Mo

The third high-impact Yankee is Mariano Rivera. He’s not the absolute best closer in baseball that he was a few years ago, but he’s still a top-tier option. Re-signing him should be less of a priority than bringing back Rodriguez or Posada, but that just makes him #1B after #1 and #1A.

There are two reasons why Rivera isn’t quite so important. First, Joba Chamberlain is a plausible in-house replacement. If a top-tier closer would otherwise cost $12-$15 million per year, it would be appealing to give Chamberlain the role and spend the money elsewhere (but again, where?). Second, the difference between Mo and the rest of the field isn’t nearly as dramatic as the drop-offs at third and catcher.

But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be expensive to replace him. Considering Eric Gagne‘s recent struggles, the choices for teams looking for an impact ninth-inning guy are Rivera and Francisco Cordero. There are plenty of possible conversion projects out there, as always, but if you want a gold-plated “proven closer” with a solid recent track record, your options are two.

Given the makeup of the rest of the team, Rivera/Cordero is a much better choice for closing duties than Chamberlain. Not only does disaster loom if it turns out Chamberlain isn’t good enough, but the Yanks could use him in the rotation. Or the eighth inning. Really, there’s not enough pitching in the system, or available on the market, for a $180 million team to pass up on an elite reliever.

85 wins or bust?

If A-Rod, Posada, and Mo all leave—even if Cashman procures the best possible replacements at each position—we’re looking at an emasculated team. It doesn’t help that much of the rest of the crew is getting older, with the likes of Pettitte, Mussina, Jeter, Matsui, and Abreu all heading deeper into their 30s.

Of course, the Yankees’ farm system is stronger than it has been. I’ve already mentioned JChamberlain’s potential usefulness; a full analysis of 2008 fortunes in the Bronx wouldn’t be complete without a whole section on what to expect from Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.

But I suspect that the benefits to be gained from more playing time for the youngsters will largely be cancelled out by losses unrelated to the big three. The Yanks probably won’t get 17 (admittedly mediocre, but well above the DeSalvo line) starts from Roger Clemens, and they won’t be getting anything from Scott Proctor. On the offensive side, one or more of Jeter, Abreu, and Matsui will start a noticeable decline compared to their career-average-ish performances in 2007.

In other words, the Yankees would have plenty of questions to answer even if the big three were locked up through 2008. But so long as they are unsigned, every other issue ought to take a back seat.

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