Monday, November 07, 2005

Negotiating With Hideki

I knew I’d run into this rut sooner or later, and it is only logical that it would come on the eve of the GM meetings. There’s just nothing to talk about. Everything is up in the air at this point, including the negotiations on Hideki Matsui’s new contract, which must be done by November 15th for those of you not following the issue.

There is no ostensible reason why this deal won’t get done. Matsui wants the Yankees, the Yankees want Matsui. But there are always snags here and there that one side is not willing to budge on, and that’s what leads to stalemates and free agency. There is still a week and a day to consummate the deal, and that leaves plenty of time to work out any potential kinks in the rope.

There have been some numbers discussed in the media: 3 years, $36 mil on the Yankees front, 4 years $48 mil from the Matsui/Tellem camp. In fact, at this point I would find it highly unlikely that Matsui takes anything less than four years, considering the leverage they have in negotiations. I also think that the $12 mil/year price tag may be on the rise over the next week.

So what if a deal cannot be reached? This is the first time I’ve asked the question, since I thought it was a slam dunk for both sides. Even yet, there aren’t any obstacles that have made their way into the multitude of New York tabloids, so we can just assume that things, at the very least, aren’t going badly. But thinkm back to 2003 when news of the A-Rod trade didn’t hit the wire until it was being sent to the Commissioner’s Office for approval.

Don’t get me wrong; I want Matsui back in pinstripes. There is no option, either via trade or free agency, that is more appealing than simply giving Hideki what he wants. Sure, he saw a decline in walks (and therefore OBP) and home runs (and therefore slugging percentage) in 2005, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He posted a career high in hits with 192 (and therefore BA with .305), doubles with 45, and RBI with 116, to go with a career low in strikeouts, 78, which is amplified by a career high in plate appearances (703).

He also posted well above the league average (park adjusted, coming from in average – .305 vs. .272 – OBP – .367 vs. .335 – and slugging percentage – .496 vs. .431. So maybe he won’t be socking dingers at a 50 per season clip like he did in Japan, but he’s still a pure hitter who is invaluable in the lineup.

Another aspect that is rarely discussed is how Matsui hit at certain spots in the batting order. Of course, any argument made here is weakened because usually there is a small sample size. But he had 327 at bats in the five hole, posting averages of .333/.397/.557 while hitting .275/.340/.430 elsewhere in the order (302 AB). And while we’re discussing splits, it is also of note to mention his .321/.395/.557 averages at home.

This could all work against the Yankees, however. Since Hideki has been so stellar in his tenure with the Yankees, he and Tellem have the leverage like Gheorghe Muresan over Joe Pesci in an arm wrestling match. Cashman says that this year is going to be different for the Yankees in terms of handing out contracts, and if they’ve learned anything over the years it’s that giving out long term deals to guys on the wrong side of 30 is risky business. Given a four-year deal, Matsui would be 35 when it expired, which actually isn’t terrible considering the buzz about Brian Giles, who turns 35 in January.

While I realize that a three-year deal is in the best interest of the Yankees, I still think a four-year deal is reasonable enough to bend to, considering the per-year salary doesn’t spike. The Yankees, with their three year offer, is adamantly saying that they want Matsui on their roster for three more years, and are shaky on the fourth. Matsui is half-saying that he wants to be in pinstripes for four more years, half-saying that he wants the financial security of the extra year. In my opinion, ceding to that fourth year is the price a team usually has to pay to keep a guy around.

Look at Mike Piazza, whose seven-year contract has just expired. There was much talk about his drop-off this year, and even about trading his ginormous contract because he wasn’t performing up to it. But remember, absent that seventh year, the Mets don’t secure Piazza. So the price for having this player on your team isn’t just the per-year salary he’s making, but also a portion of that final year, in which he may not be productive. Same goes for Pedro Martinez. Chances are, he’s not going to be very productive in 2008, the final year of his contract. But the Mets had two options: give him that fourth year and sign him, or decline the fourth year and watch him pitch for someone else in 2005.

Bernie would fall under the same category had he not begun his steep decline in 2003. In essence, the Yanks paid Bernie $89 million for four years of service and three years of crappiness (yeah, real mature, right?). That equates to $22.25 million for each productive year, an overpayment of Mo Vaughn proportions. But, absent those years at the end, Bernie plays in Boston.

Should Matsui sign his proposed 4 year, $48 million contract and subsequently only have three productive years, that would equate to $16 million for the productive years, which is still pretty steep. This is no scientific formula I’m presenting, but it’s just to give an idea of how deals like this can backfire at the end. So the real question is: since it’s a distinct possibility that Matsui’s skills will be in decline by the fourth year of this contract, is it worth the extra year and $12 mil to keep him around for three more seasons?

My answer is yes, though I’d probably mull the idea of offering a 3 year, $40 to $42 million contract with a mutual option for a fourth year at around $8 to $10 million (with a raise possible with performance incentives). That should eat a bit of the risk while still handing Matsui the big bucks he deserves.

It would constitute a raise of $6 million over his 2005 salary (if the deal isn’t back loaded), which is less than half of what Kevin Brown made. That leaves $9 million for B.J. Ryan (probably would get $4.5 mil a year) and a center fielder (tendered, Milton Bradley would probably get $3 to $3.5 million). Add Gordon’s disappearing contract to the fold, and that leaves a total of $4.5 mil to play with – and this isn’t even considering Bernie’s payroll relief (his $12.5 million salary minus the $3.5 million buyout equals another $9 million).

Not to beat this into the ground, but even if Matsui got his 4 year guarantee for $12 mil a season, he would be raised $4 million next year. Add that with Ryans 4.5 and Bradley’s 3.5, and that’s $3 million short of the number coming off the books via Kevin Brown, which is surely enough to land a backup first baseman and another reliever.

So the theme of the 2005/2006 off-season becomes clear: Playing With Kevin Brown’s Money.