It’s Better to Dump a Player a Year Too Early

If you’re a baseball fan, or if you happened to watch ESPN for more than a minute in the past five days, you’ve likely been bludgeoned with the sledgehammer that is the Jorge Posada-New York Yankees soap opera.

For those of you unfamiliar, here’s what went down…

Jorge Posada is the long-time catcher of the Yankees, a great player in his prime and part of the core that won multiple World Series titles between 1996 and 2009. Currently, he’s 39 years old, in the final year of a four-year contract that pays him a total of $52.4 million and is struggling mightily at the plate. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is .653 which puts him 144th out of 189 players that qualify for the batting title.

Translation: He stinks out loud.

Because of this, Yankees manager Joe Girardi had the audacity to drop him to 9th in the lineup this past week. Posada was originally reported to be livid with that injustice, pulled himself out of the lineup, and it became the only topic of discussion around Major League Baseball for the remainder of the weekend, complete with the national media asking fans whose side they were on.

Further complicating matters was the fact Yankees icon and starting shortstop, Derek Jeter, came to the defense of Posada in the following days. Jeter, of course, was involved in a very public, and at times overly dramatic, contract negotiation in the offseason that resulted in the 36-year-old receiving a three-year, $51 million deal despite the fact he is clearly on the downside of his career. This only added to the controversy because the Jeter-front office relationship was already considered to be on the rocks because of this past winter’s dealings.

Instead of parting ways with popular players that once helped lead the team championships and are now on the decline, the Yankees dug into their bottomless pit of money and drastically overpaid for decreasing production.

I happened to (unintentionally) catch part of Mark Madden’s show on Tuesday as he was talking about this story and brought up an interesting comparison: the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers never find themselves forced to play aging, once-great players that no longer are because their approach seems to be one of “it’s better to get rid of somebody a year too early than a year too late.”

The Yankees and Steelers, of course, operate in different sports with different rules. The Yankees, a cash cow that hasn’t been restricted by a salary cap, can spend any amount of money they want on any player without having to worry about how it could hurt the rest of their team (even if it does). If they make a $20 million mistake and miss on a player, it doesn’t matter as much as it would a team in a salary cap sport (or a team that doesn’t have their financial resources).

But it still matters.  Opportunity cost is still at work.

By paying Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada over $15 million per year at this point in their career, it makes it impossible for them to be benched, and there’s no way they’re going to bring in somebody else to replace them. Had they done the unpopular thing and simply moved on, they would have been able to fill that spot with a younger, better player. Would Yankees fans have been pissed? In the short term, yes, but they would have quickly gotten over it and still had the memories.

The Steelers aren’t afraid to move on. Can it be cruel? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.

This kind of goes back to the argument from last week about whether or not the Steelers should have kept Alan Faneca, and what, if any, difference he could have made for the 2011 Steelers. Faneca was a great Steeler, a Hall of Famer, and one of the best offensive lineman to ever suit up for the team. He was also a popular player that fit the “image” of a Pittsburgh Steeler: Tough, hard-working, no-nonsense, etc., etc., etc. That also made him extremely popular, which didn’t stop the Steelers from parting ways when it became obvious his price was going to go beyond his current level of production. And for as loathed as the interior of the Steelers offensive line has been over the past three years, they were still probably better off, both in a football sense as well as a financial sense, to let Faneca go.

The biggest thing I remember about the Jeter negotiations was the public perception (mainly from the media) that they HAD to pay him because of everything he did, what he meant and how unfathomable it would be to see him in another uniform. And that’s just crazy. Franco Harris and Mike Webster finished their careers in Seattle and Kansas City respectively, and the world didn’t spin off of its axis. Thirty years later, it’s not even a blip on the radar screen.

For more recent examples you have guys like Carnell Lake, Joey Porter and Willie Parker. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, though. The Steelers clearly let Rod Woodson go too soon, which was clearly a mistake, and they’ll be the first to admit it (and they have admitted it). Still, there’s going to come a time, perhaps sooner rather than later, when the Steelers are going to have make difficult decisions on guys like Aaron Smith, Hines Ward and perhaps even Troy Polamalu. Great players, championship players and popular players. Guys you would love to see play their entire career with the Steelers, but If history is any indicator they’re likely — and perhaps rightly — to be willing to let them go as soon as their price tag exceeds their on-field value.

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  • t1mmy10

    nice article

  • Cols714

    The only guy that sort of fits this is Ward. He’s probably just about done as he can’t really get open against man coverage all that often anymore. Sanders would probably start over him this year, but since he’s Hines Ward (and is still very good against zone coverage, a great blocker still, and really not much of a downgrade if he starts) he’ll probably start in what will most likely be his last year.

    Those other guys, Smith and Farrior, are still playing at a starter level. They are both on their way out though and with Hood and Stevenson, I think their replacements are on the team already.

    • Anonymous

      Hines Ward was 25th in Football Outsiders DVOA and DYAR last season (Sanders was 37/55). He’s above a third of the league’s #1 receivers. Subjectively, I agree he’s lost something, but he appeared still to be quite good to me. Are we comparing to Hines Ward of 5 seasons ago (6/6 and Super Bowl MVP)?  He will of course fall short of that today, but that doesn’t mean he’s done. He’s lost speed and quickness, but retains strength, and football smarts. The “start” doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot in the Steelers’ scheme. I expect Ward will get plenty of use in a variety of positions, but a player with his skill set to me suggests he could be one of the best slot receivers in the league for a few seasons.

      He’s got three seasons left on his contract at 3, 4, and 4 million per season. He could fall off a cliff in production at any time given his age, but thus far he’s shown instead a predictable gradual decline. If that continues I don’t think three more good seasons is unrealistic. Young receivers of course could step up and take the job.

      Aaron Smith I think is closer to the line. He is still very good, but injuries are taking his playing time. 2011 is his last contract season.  If he gets anything in 2012 other than a one year deal or a really cheap multi-year contract, that could get upside down.

      • Cols714

         All good points.

  • DJAnyReason

    Ok, let me propose the following hypothetical choice:

    You may either:

    1) Win the Superbowl in year 1, miss the playoffs in year 2
    2) Lose in the AFCC in both years 1 and 2.

    Option 1 involves dumping a player a year too late, option 2 involves dumping a player a year too early.

    Which do you choose?

    • GlennW

      Obviously you’d take Option 1) (winning the Super Bowl in Year 1) given only those two choices, but if the older player is fading and his replacement gets a season of experience under his belt one year earlier, the choices could just as easily be reversed with the team instead winning the Super Bowl in Year 2.  All depends on what you think your team will look like in the upcoming season versus two years from now.  All things being equal though I think the philosophy of moving a player a year “early” is a sound one because 1) the younger player provides better value under a salary-cap system, and 2) the supposed “year early” typically ends up being just on time, at least for the Steelers historically.

  • Nate

     While the article is true, I think it is missing one key point.  The Steelers haven’t overpaid for their veterans.  Guys like Ward and Farrior are making relatively modest salaries (~$4m) so that, even if their production drops a little, they’re still worth their salaries.  I look for Smith and Farrior to retire after 2011, making those decisions easy.  Hines could easily play in 2012 and maybe 2013 and be worth it to the Steelers.  Troy will be a tough call though, with his contract up after 2011 and still playing at a high level, teams out there would be willing to pay him big money.  But with his injury concerns, the Steelers may not be willing to take the risk.  Especially with some other key guys they’ll need to re-sign (Wallace and Timmons come to mind).

  • Anonymous

    i’m a raiders fan yet i have a lot of respect for the steelers and mr. rooney. they have always put the game’s best interests above their own.they charge fair prices and do the best they can to put good teams on the field even though they are a mid-market team at best. they strive to make money but aren’t overly greedy. i wish there were more gentleman owners in the nfl and in sports like the rooneys.

    they have their system and and they stick with it, and it works. congratulations steelers on your stability and success. wishing all the best, except when you play the raiders :)