Projecting how aging Yankees stars will do in years ahead
The Yankees have several stars who will be making huge money well into their 30s
Five-time champions Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter are struggling at the plate
Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira might hold some value but will still decline
The Yankees' success over the last two decades was largely built around a core of home grown stars in Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada, but it's clear that the end is nigh for each of them. Williams and Pettitte are retired, Posada is 39 and batting just .179 in the last year of his contract, Jeter is hitting a career-worst .255 as he approaches his 37th birthday and Rivera, though still pitching brilliantly, is 41 years old.
The decline of those players has brought attention to the advancing age and cost of the Yankees roster, which currently boasts five players who are at least 34 and earning eight-digit salaries and two other players earning annual salaries north of $20 million signed through or beyond their 34th birthdays. Setting aside Posada, who will turn 40 in August and is in the final year of his four-year, $52.4 million deal, here is a look at the six players the Yankees have signed through their age-34 season or beyond.
Note: The statistical projections below are my own. They are informed by a variety of factors, including recent performance, age, the careers of comparable players, and other, established projection systems but are not derived from any specific mathematical formula. Player ages are as of June 1. Wins Above Replacement comparison graphs are not available for pitchers.
Remaining Contract: 1 year, $15 million
2012 Projection: 1.86 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 35 SV
Rivera may be the oldest man on the team, but there's really no risk here, particularly not by Yankees standards. Rivera is the highest-paid closer in the game, but he has retained every bit of his value. Though he has had some small year-to-year fluctuations (primarily in his strikeout rate and, as is the case for every pitcher, his hit rate as a result of luck on balls in play), his value remains constant. He has given no indication that he is losing his effectiveness, and there is no decline to trace to forecast his 2012 season. The ERA and WHIP above are Rivera's cumulative rates from 2003 to 2010, and, thus far this season, he is bettering both (1.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP). The strikeout rate is roughly what he has done thus far this year, the K/BB is a tick below his current ratio, and the save total is his average from 2006 to 2010 minus one. He can't do this forever, but there is no reason to believe he can't do it for one more year after this one.
Comparable Player: None, though Trevor Hoffman comes closest
Remaining Contract: 2 years, $33M; 2014 player option ($8.5M/$3M buyout)
2012 Projection: .255/.325/.340, 7 HRs, 57 RBIs, 12 SBs
2013 Projection: .240/.310/.320, 5 HRs, 48 RBIs, 10 SBs
The contrast between Jeter and Rivera couldn't be more stark. While Rivera has improved on his career ERA in seven of the last eight seasons (the exception coming in 2007), Jeter had the worst year of his career in 2010 and has thus far failed to live up to even that standard in 2011. What's more, there are trends. Jeter's second-worst season was 2008, and his failings at the plate are easy to pinpoint. Though he has always hit an above-average number of ground balls, Jeter has set career highs in groundball percentage the last two seasons, leading the major leagues in 2010 and surpassing even that rate thus far this year. What's more, he hasn't hit right-handed pitchers since 2009, batting .246/.307/.309 against righties since the start of the 2010 season. Seeing as the vast majority of the pitchers in the major leagues are right-handed (69 percent of Jeter's at-bats over that span have come against righties), that's a major problem.
All of which is to completely avoid the issue of his defense, which was suspect even during his prime. Furthermore, the list of shortstops who managed even a league-average OPS+ in a season in which they were 38 or older and qualified for the batting title includes just four names, only one of which belongs to a player who played in the live-ball era. That man, Chicago White Sox Hall of Famer Luke Appling, was productive straight through to age 42 without showing any signs of decline. Jeter has shown those signs, and if he doesn't retire before his option year arrives in 2014, he will be doing both his team and his legacy a great disservice. Jeter's combined performance since the start of the 2010 season (.267/.334/.358) is the starting point for the projections above.
Comparable Player: Barry Larkin
Remaining Contract: 6 years, $148M
2012 Projection: .280/.360/.520, 30 HRs, 110 RBIs, 3 SBs
2013 Projection: .275/.350/.505, 28 HRs, 102 RBIs, 4 SBs
If Jeter's contract is unfortunate, Rodriguez's is a potential disaster, both because of its duration, which will take Rodriguez into his age-41 season, and its price, an annual average of $24.7 million, not counting another potential $30 million tied to home run milestones starting at Willie Mays' career mark of 660, which Rodriguez is just 39 away from. The projections above, which use as their starting point Rodriguez's performance since his 2009 hip surgery (.274/.366/.515), attempt to split the difference between being optimistic and conservative, as they expect Rodriguez to remain healthy and productive but at a somewhat diminished level. Indeed, looking at the "Upside By Year" projections on Rodriguez's PECOTA page over at Baseball Prospectus, that popular projection system believes that Rodriguez could remain a four-win player (roughly his value in 2010) through 2013.
However, PECOTA sees a sharp drop-off to a two-win upside thereafter, and sees Rodriguez's upside as just one win above replacement in 2017, the final year of his contract. That's respectable for a 41-year-old infielder, but is completely out of line with the $20 million Rodriguez will make that year (again, not counting potential home run milestone paydays). There's also the question of how much longer Rodriguez can remain an infielder. John Dewan's defensive plus/minus system rated Rodriguez as five runs below the average third baseman in 2010. With Mark Teixeira blocking first base, and Rodriguez notoriously bad at tracking balls in the air, A-Rod could be pulling down $20-plus million for being a two-win DH in a few years, or he could be undermining that reduced value at the plate by costing his team a significant number of runs in the field.
Comparable Player: Frank Robinson