"Got what you wanted, lost what you had" is one of those frightening equations we all face when making a decision. Like the man who divorced his plain but kind and caring wife to marry the beautiful but cold and callous model, we may one day awake to the painful realization that we have not only made a terrible mistake, but that there is no way to fix it.
This is how it has been with the New York Yankees, who spent the 2012-2013 offseason promoting their desire to get their payroll under $189 million by 2014 so as to receive rebates on revenue-sharing that were originally reported to be worth as much as $50 million.
Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees' managing general partner, reasoned that the team didn't need to spend as much as it traditionally had to be competitive:
"I'm a finance geek," he said. "I guess I always have been. That's my background. Budgets matter, and balance sheets matter. I just feel that if you do well on the player-development side and you have a good farm system, you don't need a $220 million payroll. You don't. You can field every bit as good a team with young talent."
Big "if" there, Hal: the Yankees do not "do well" on the player-development side, have largely neglected it during the Steinbrenner ownership and have a general manager who, though he sometimes pays lip-service to that side of the operation, has never wholly embraced it. If you don't have ready prospects and if you are not going to spend money on free agents and you lack the spare parts and willing trade partners to accomplish some kind of miraculously reinvigorating swap, you have foreclosed all possibility of improving your team.
The Yankees allowed Russell Martin, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez to depart without attempting to replace them. It was only belatedly, as it became clear that injuries would make their planned formula of "veteran stars + cheap scrubs = pennant" into "veteran stars + scrubs (-veteran stars) = extended suckage" that they acquired Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells, two veterans so far into their decline phases that they were more like desecrated temples than ballplayers.
The Yankees have remained competitive due to solid pitching, but the offense has been among the worst in the league and home attendance has slipped by approximately 3,400 fans a game ... or about the number of people who on any given day are unsympathetic to folks holding a billion-dollar asset that whinge they're not making enough of a profit and insist on putting a mediocre product on the field.
And hey, the anticipated savings of the austerity program turn out to have been overestimated.
Alfonso Soriano's salad days (Al Bello)
This is the context in which the Yankees have been reunited with an old pal, Alfonso Soriano, who they deaccessioned back in February 2004 in order to get -- you guessed it --- Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers. The rumor at the time was Texas didn't necessarily ask for Soriano, but the Yankees wanted to include him in the deal; although Soriano was coming off two of the best offense seasons a Yankees second baseman had ever had, he was a defensive butcher and just had a difficult postseason in which he often seemed to be swinging with his eyes closed so badly had he lost control of the strike zone (in this he was not unlike Curtis Granderson last fall).
Soriano is a right-handed hitter. Yankees right-handed hitters, principally Vernon Wells, Jayson Nix and Chris Stewart, have combined to hit .221/.283/.311 (or about 31 percent less than the league-average right-hander). Soriano should help with this. Maybe. Sort of. The 37-year-old is hitting .254/.287/.467, which is to say he's getting on base about as often as the right-handers the Yankees have now, but he's hitting with more power. The Yankees, with the second-lowest isolated power on the circuit (.129, ahead of only the Deadball-era Kansas City Royals), can certainly use help with that. Still, the Yankees are a team with an on-base problem as much as a power problem and the former should probably take precedence over the latter, but Soriano only helps half of the problem.
Another note of caution is provided by Soriano's dwelling in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field; he's hit only .242/.273/.400 on the road this year against .267/.303/.541 at home. We can probably dismiss this as small-sample noise -- in seven seasons with the Cubs, Soriano has not received an outsized benefit from his ballpark, averaging .265/.316/.485 at home versus .263/.318/.505 on the road. Given Soriano's age, it is possible his performance at home has disguised some slippage, but if we have learned anything following the Yankees this year, it's that despite seemingly ageless players like Mariano Rivera, late 30s is, as ever, truly old in baseball years.
"You are old," said the youth, "As I mentioned before,/ And have grown most uncommonly fat;/ Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door—/ Pray, what is the reason of that?" (Lewis Carroll/John Tenniel, Wikimedia Commons)
Another possible downside to a Soriano trade comes on defense. Soriano has improved on defense in recent seasons after years of taking routes reminiscent of the Israelites' 40-year trek through the Sinai. That is far from saying he is now good, though, but Soriano is expected to spend a good deal of time at designated hitter for the Yankees so this issue should largely be mitigated. It is worth noting that as bad as Wells has been on offense as a defrocked center fielder, he has been a solid left fielder and, whenever Soriano straps on a glove, the Yankees may lose in defense what they gain in offense.
This year, American League left fielders have hit .253/.317/.403, while designated hitters have averaged .246/.325/.413. Since 2008, Soriano has hit .252/.306/.472.
The price the Yankees are paying is low. The Cubs will pick up $17.7 million of the $24.5 million owed Soriano through the end of next season. The Yankees will supply minor-league right-hander Corey Black in return. (Update: Jon Heyman initally reported via Twitter that right-handed pitcher Tommy Kahnle and perhaps a third player were on the menu as well, but Joel Sherman reports that Black is the sole prospect in the deal). Black, in the starting rotation at High-A Tampa, is 21 and was the organization's fourth-round pick in 2012. He throws hard, touching 100 mph with his fastball last year, but control is an issue for him; in 82.2 innings so far this year, he's walked 45 batters while striking out 88. Baseball America ranked him as the organization's 25th-best prospect. CBS' Danny Knobler quotes a non-Yankees scout as calling Black a future middle reliever.
The bottom line is that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer finally rid themselves of an embarrassing contract held over from the failed Jim Hendry administration (Hendry is now a special assistant to Brian Cashman; make of that what you will) and will get a live arm in return. The Yankees get an injection of badly-needed power and stand little chance of having made another Ken Phelps-Jay Buhner trade. Given how bad their offense has been (Eduardo Nunez is now a No. 5 hitter? Really?), they had to try something, though this move alone has exactly zero chance of solving their problems or even ameliorating them to a significant degree. You could argue that, given the current trajectory of their season that if this was the best the Yankees could do, maybe they shouldn't bother doing it.
A team 2.5 games out of the second wild-card playoff spot, even a weak one, has something worth pursuing, but there's a limit to (a) how many resources it should put towards that goal and (b) how many opportunities it might forego to improve itself in that pursuit. In other words, the Yankees might have more to gain by selling than adding at this point, especially if selling might bring a hitter of any age who has more of an ability to reach base than Soriano does. After all, he may homer with more regularity than the Yankees have experienced to this point, but he can't drive in runners that aren't there.