Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the New York Yankees, desperate to unload an aging, once-elite player, eat the majority of said player’s salary in order to trade him off the roster.
This very scenario played out last winter for the great benefit of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who scooped up pitcher A.J. Burnett from the Yanks. Burnett went on to effectively anchor the Bucs’ starting rotation and serve as an unlikely mentor to the team’s less-experienced players.
You may question my sanity over the next few paragraphs, but I can envision a similar scenario playing out this offseason with regards to struggling Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
The one-time best position player in baseball is now 37 years old and going through an athletic decline that usually befalls gentlemen of his age. I’m assuming a bit, but you may have heard about this recently.
In 2012, Rodriguez turned in the worst full-season offensive performance of his 19-year MLB career. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound attention magnet produced lifetime lows in slugging percentage (.430) and OPS (.783), followed by a disastrous postseason that saw him ride the bench for much of the Yankees’ four-game loss to the Tigers in the ALCS.
But although he came nowhere near validating his bloated $29 million salary, Rodriguez was still an above-average player this season, as shown by his OPS+ of 112. For those unfamiliar with that metric, a score of 100 is exactly league average, so A-Rod was 12 percent better than your typical MLB third baseman in 2012.
Two large factors severely mitigate Rodriguez’s trade-ability, starting with the five years remaining on his mammoth contract. He is owed $114 million over the duration of the deal, including $28 million next year and finishing with a pair of $20 million seasons in 2016 and ’17.
In addition to that massive millstone around Rodriguez’s neck, he also has a no-trade clause, which could possibly limit his suitors. However, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has already told the New York media that he would “have to listen” if someone asked about acquiring Alex in a trade. That sounds like a GM who is trying to expand the market while sending a message to his former star that he may not be a part of future plans.
Cashman and Pirates GM Neal Huntington (assuming he is retained for 2013) have had a productive trade relationship, highlighted by the aforementioned Burnett deal and the 2008 swap that brought Jeff Karstens and Jose Tabata to Pittsburgh in exchange for Xavier Nady.
So there is reason to believe Huntington may at some point give Cashman’s cell phone a buzz this winter. Yes, it’s a stretch to expect the Yankees to cover nearly two-thirds of Rodriguez’s contract like they are with Burnett’s – New York picked up $11.5 million of $16.5 million this year and will cover $8.5 million in 2013.
If the Yankees are willing, and that desperate, employing A-Rod for about $8-10 million per year may be palatable enough for Pirates principal owner Bob Nutting to give Huntington the go-ahead. However, Rodriguez also has up to $30 million in marketing bonuses coming to him if he continues to climb the all-time home run ladder.
Rodriguez coming to Pittsburgh seems unlikely, but so did the Burnett acquisition last offseason. The Huntington-Cashman relationship may be enough to insert the Pirates into a market that may already include higher-revenue teams like the Marlins and Phillies.
A final factor that makes me think Rodriguez in a Bucs uniform could work is strength of competition. There may have been psychological forces involved, but the 35-year-old Burnett went from a below-average starting pitcher to Cy Young contention in August after moving from the AL East to the less-stacked NL Central.
Perhaps that hidden value, along with escaping the cauldron of New York, will be enough to reunite former teammates – and fellow 2009 champions – in Pittsburgh next spring. If the Yankees really want to jettison A-Rod, I believe PNC Park would make a nice landing place for all parties.
All salary information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.