Some are certain Alex Rodriguez has played his last game as a Yankee. You’ll find no such certainty here. There’s all that money left on his contract, and though it’s a sunk cost, the 37-year-old can still provide non-zero value in the Bronx over the next five years. In other words, there’s no way it makes sense for the Yankees to swallow the entire remaining $119 million on his contract for him to play somewhere else.
But would it make sense for the team to eat some of the contract? It would, but only if the front office believes they can get Rodriguez-like production for less than they would save by jettisoning him. Then the non-on-the-field value of trading him away —- call it chemistry concerns, if you have to —- can tip the balance.
To do this, we’ll have to do a quick-and-dirty projection of Rodriguez for next year. MARCEL may only be a monkey, but he hangs with most projection systems well enough by using a 5/4/3 weighting of the past three years. Let’s use A-Rod’s last three years of wins above replacement totals. Though that only provides us a rough, top-down view of his value, using those numbers will help us wrap his defensive and playing time issues into one number. A quick MARCEL-like projection using those numbers produces about a 3.3 WAR value for next season. MARCEL projected Rodriguez for a .348 wOBA this year, and he managed a .342 — so the monkey has thrown this particular dart pretty well, recently. We have to age that number, though, so let’s call him a three-win third baseman in 2013.
Some might scoff at the number. Rodriguez only barely put up more than two wins in 2012, and he was 37 years old. When he was 36, though, he managed a good defensive year and offense that was 25% better than the league and was worth twice as much as he was worth at 37. The year before that he was worse. Aging isn’t a linear process even if we project it as such. A healthier year could easily produce better numbers. A year facing lesser pitchers or in an easier division could produce better numbers. A year with better luck with the glove would produce better numbers. A change of scenery could help — we all like going to work with people who respect us and think we are useful members of the workplace.
And as bad as Rodriguez has looked in the playoffs, there are reasons to think this particular nadir is temporary. For one, Rodriguez hit the ball harder in 2012 than he did in 2011 — his batted ball distance on homers and flies jumped from 275 to 299 feet. And despite another injury, he put in 100+ more plate appearances in 2012 than in 2011. He also stole a few more bags in 2012. His overall offense was still 14% better than league average. It wasn’t all bad.
But his platoon splits. Yes, Rodriguez has looked bad against righties late this season —- and really not up to his lofty standards all season. He was below-average against righties for the first time in his career in 2012. Zoom out and look at his platoon splits since he joined the Yankees, though, and it’s not so clear that he’s already strictly a platoon player:
For a while there, he was better against righties than lefties. He has a career reverse platoon split (140 wRC+ v LHP, 148 v RHP). Though that’s not really enough reason to say he actually has a true-talent reverse platoon split — the sample for that has to be huge — it might be enough to say he hasn’t shown a bad traditional platoon split during his career, and this current traditional platoon split might be a one-year blip. In his first year with the Yankees, Rodriguez was only 18% better than the league against righties, but he managed to right the ship for some stellar years, and a muted version of that process could happen again. And are we really torn up about offense that was 5% worse than league average against righties if he’s going to be a decent third baseman who can still tear up lefties?
If you’re still not convinced he’s a true-talent three-win guy, let’s try this from with a more pessimistic projection. Dan Szymborski, the father of ZiPs, produced this slash line as a first go at a 2013 projection for Rodriguez: .256/.339/.425. Approximate a wOBA from that slash line, and you get a .334 wOBA. That’s a healthy decline from this season’s .342, but it would still have been above average this year (.315 wOBA). The joy of having a wOBA now is that we can produce a few rough projections based on different playing time:
What’s nice about breaking it up this way is that you can see how each assertion affects the final result. He could be anywhere from a two-to-three win player depending on mostly his playing time and defense — more than his bat. There are teams out there that might salivate over an average bat that could play average defense at third base for an average amount of PAs — Philadelphia, Florida and Anaheim have been in the discussion so far. Though the most delicious rumor is Vernon Wells for Alex Rodriguez, Philadelphia and Florida are extra-motivated by the fact that neither of them had a third baseman that managed to accrue two wins last season. (Alberto Callaspo had 2.7 of them for the Angels.)
Let’s start at three wins, since it’s in the range of our more optimistic and pessimistic projections. A generic free-agent third baseman who can put up three wins might expect about $40 million for five years on the open market — you typically want to age that late-30s position player about .7 wins per year and that means you’d pay for eight wins (at five million per) during those five years. Rodriguez is due $119 million in the next five years, so could the Yankees give $80 million to a team willing to take the third baseman? The other team would want a discount, most likely. What if the Yankees throw in $85 million? $90 million? (They’re willing to talk, maybe.)
Even that last number would give them $30 million of savings in the next five years, as well as a three-win hole at third right now. Their trading partner would get a three-win third baseman for five years at less than market price.
If Alex Rodriguez is only worth two wins next season, it gets more complicated. Then a five-year deal with .7 aging would expect to pay for about four wins, and he’d be worse than replacement after the third year. Then other teams might only see about $20 million of value in Alex Rodriguez, and after a discount, the Yankees would have to pay over $100 million to save ten million or so. That doesn’t seem like a good deal for either side.
There are ways for the Yankees to cobble together two-to-three wins for less than six million dollars next year, but none of them are guarantees and it’s not easy. The best in-house option is probably former second baseman David Adams. According to Brian Cartwright’s OLIVER, the twenty-five year old’s work last year in his second attempt Double-A — .306/.385/.450 with eight home runs in 383 plate appearances — had a major league equivalency of .278/.343/.415. It’d be folly to project him for that or anything, but if you put the young righty in some sort of a platoon with the 35-year-old lefty Eric Chavez — who cost less than two million dollars last season once the performance bonuses kicked in — you could see how you could get close to three wins. Chavez managed 1.8 wins in 313 PA last season, and with an adequate glove or adequate bat (maybe not even both at the same time) to keep him healthy, they could make it work.
If you squint hard enough, you can see a place where a trade could make sense for the Yankees and their trade partner. There are teams that see Alex Rodriguez as an upgrade over their current situations if the price is right. And if the Yankees think they can save some money and clear up their roster and clubhouse, and want to keep their manager, they might pay another team $80 million (in some combination of cash and/or bad contracts) in order to accomplish those goals.
Maybe this trade will happen — we’ve hopefuly used believable parameters to find situations that work for both sides — but $80-plus million is a lot of money to pay another organization to take an asset off your hands that has non-zero value on the field.