I felt my Baltimore Orioles sympathies bubble to the surface this week.
I'm no O's fan, don't get me wrong, but being surrounded by so many Baltimore faithful tends to have one of two outcomes -- if they're a bunch of jerks (think University of Kentucky basketball fans) I skew toward gleeful pleasure at their misfortunes. If they're relatively civil, then I have nothing against reflecting in the happiness of my neighbors.
Orioles fans are cool with me, for the most part, so this past weekend's latest twist in the Alex Rodriguez saga has me feeling a bit sorry for the franchise and especially its fan base.
On the surface, Saturday's decision by an arbitrator to reduce A-Rod's ban from Major League Baseball from the 211 games initially imposed last year by commissioner Bud Selig to a cool 162 might appear a victory, of sorts, for the slugging third baseman. It isn't, of course, at least not for Rodriguez. The New York Yankees, on the other hand, have managed to come out of the whole affair quite nicely and just in time for this season.
Rodriguez, penalized as a user of performance enhancing drugs under MLB's Joint Drug Agreement, does leave a gaping hole in the Yankees' infield. A healthy A-Rod is a force in the middle of that lineup, PEDs or not (probably), and he'll undoubtedly be missed for that potential production. Healthy is a big if with A-Rod, of course, as the 38-year-old has battled injuries when he's been eligible to play. The last real A-Rod type season came in 2010, when he slugged 30 home runs and drove in 125. That's still a far cry from his prime, MVP years (he won three) and its unlikely he's going to capture that form going forward as age continues to erode his skills.
Rodriguez has vowed to continue fighting the ban through the court system, which will cost him $22.13 million in salary for this season. That's a sizable chunk of his 10-year, $275 million contract signed back in 2007. Sitting out another season probably won't benefit his game much, either. The Major League Players' Association has already distanced itself from A-Rod's declaration that he'll continue the fight, and precedent suggests he'll have a hard time even getting a court to hear his case.
A-Rod is a big loser here, no question. But what about the Yanks? Again, losing a starting third baseman certainly doesn't look favorable especially combined with the free agency defection of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners. Shortstop Derek Jeter is pushing 40 and looks to be in decline, and first baseman Mark Teixeira has also been brittle in recent years. As it stands now, the Bronx Bombers might have journeyman Kelly Johnson at third and an injury-prone Brian Roberts manning second until he inevitably breaks down again.
Short term, not too promising for the Yanks. But this decision gives New York a degree of flexibility it simply doesn't deserve -- in effect, it's a do-over. When the Yankees signed A-Rod to that historic 10-year contract, it didn't look like a great bet. Long-term deals of this nature rarely work out, and sure enough Rodriguez's advancing age is starting to show.
At the time, the Yankees didn't care -- A-Rod was the reigning American League MVP and still very much in his prime. He gave New York fans three tremendous seasons following his new dealing, helping the Yankees win the World Series in 2009. Those were the years the Yankees paid for, the prime years.
This is supposed to be the penalty phase. Instead, the Yankees are bailed out of one of those decline years (still two more to go) thanks to A-Rod's PED suspension. What's worse for rival AL clubs, taking that salary off the books this season gives New York real options it didn't have before. Namely, the Yankees have a realistic chance of getting under the $189 million luxury tax limit this season. Following the 2013 season, New York was hit with a $28 million penalty (a 50 percent rate on their payroll overage), a hefty sum even by Yankee standards. That exorbitant rate kicked in because the franchise has been a serial overspender, breaching the luxury-tax limit at least four straight seasons. By getting under it this year, they would reset that penalty at a much more palatable 17.5 percent. Even better for the Yankees, if they resume their frenzied spending in 2015 that number will take another four years to reach the dreaded 50-percent rate.
Of course, this being the Yankees that might not matter. With Japanese free-agent starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in play and New York needing pitching even worse than healthy, young infielders, the temptation to make a big splash just might be too much. Grabbing Tanaka for a typically fat Yankees contract would blow up any hopes of getting under the cap, but that would also probably free up Yanks general manager Brian Cashman to continue to aggressively pursue improvements for this coming season. Once past the threshold and with no chance to reset the penalty rate, New York might well decide to go all-in for this season.
A free-spending Yankees with Tanaka possibly anchoring the rotation is bad news for the Orioles this year, and a frugal Bronx Bombers is probably worse news for the years to come. Either way, A-Rod isn't the only loser in this decision.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>