Recently a lot has been made about how the Yankees will get their 2014 payroll below $189 million. The logic of avoiding onerous luxury taxes in the future is sound and no Yankee fan in his right mind should complain about a team that will be competing with only a $189 million budget. But those arguments won’t make the process of shedding excess fat any easier. If free-agents to-be Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson must remain in pinstripes (provided they perform) then certain key Yankees of the past few seasons may fall through the cracks. One such player is Nick Swisher.
Swisher may not be the biggest name or the flashiest player on the Yankees, but in his three years in pinstripes he’s been reliably strong. Swisher has hit 29, 29 and 23 home runs in each of his seasons in Pinstripes. He’s posted wOBA’s of .375, .377 and .358. His wRC+ has been 124, 132 and 122. Perhaps most impressively, his OBP has been .371, .358 and .374. Adding in defense that is better than advertised, and Swisher has consistently been a 3 or 4 fWAR player, not just as a Yankee, but every season since 2006 save his miserable 2008 season with the White Sox.
There are no negatives to Swisher. By every account he’s a model clubhouse citizen and popular with his team mates. He may be a bit goofy (something that is welcomed on the otherwise staid Yankees) but he’s a consummate professional. He’s durable, playing in at least 150 games every season since 2006. All in total, this means that he’s valuable. He’s also a free-agent this year.
Swisher’s most recent contract paid him $36 million over six years, far more than you or I could ever hope to make, but an absolute steal given that Fangraphs estimates his value at $84 million over that stretch. Even if you feel that estimate is generous, it’s clear that Swisher has been underpaid relative to his production. If he puts another quality season on the field Nick may be looking for the only chance he’ll have at a mega payday.
Given all this, what is a fair payday for Swisher, and should the Yankees keep him, even at fair market values? If all of the above are reasons why Swisher should get a solid contract, his age is a glaring strike against him. Most players who have gotten large, long term contracts recently in baseball have been roughly 30 or younger at the time they inked the contracts. Swisher will turn 32 at the end of this year. Any new contract for Swisher will begin in his age 33 season, also known as the start of the decline years. The first couple of seasons of that contract will be fine, but the latter half poses big risks for the team who signs Swisher. (Has that ever stopped baseball teams from writing up stupid contracts? No, it has not.)
An annual salary of $16 million feels like fair value for Swisher at his recent level of performance. The question is simply how many years. Frankly, anything more than three seems dangerous. I can easily imagine how Swisher can continue to play well through his age 34 season, but ages 35 and beyond are less convincing, especially for a player who likes to sacrifice his body as much as Swisher does. While three years at $48 million is crazy money for any of us, it might not seem as fair as five years and $80 million to a competitive professional athlete.
A few recent contracts stand out in my mind as possible benchmarks for Swisher. The first is Jayson Werth‘s $126 million deal. Werth’s contract left me stunned and aghast. After a history of injuries longer than my arm, Werth managed to put together three solid seasons in Philadelphia (only two of which were injury free) and flip those into a seven year mega payout. The deal was eyebrow raising at the time, especially since Werth was turning 32, and after a miserable first season in Washington the next six years seem potentially laughable.
Carl Crawford‘s execrable $142 million contract from the Red Sox also comes to mind. Readers of the old Yankeeist site know that I was vehemently against Crawford’s contract. Its not that I thought Crawford was bad, just that I thought he was incredibly overrated for a player who has a career .333 OBP. He’s certainly better than his first season in Boston but there is no way this contract finishes as anything other than an epic overpay.
Crawford and Werth were both younger than Swisher will be when they signed their deals, and both were playing a bit better than Swisher has over the last few seasons, but with teams like the Marlins and Nationals seeming desperate to waste large sums of money anything is possible. My prediction is that Swisher will go the way of Johnny Damon. As good as Swisher is, his position and most of his production are replaceable on the veteran market. I see the Yankees offering Swisher a deal that is at best fair, and possibly somewhat below market value to see if he’ll accept it to stay in New York. The problem is that while I don’t know who it will be, in my bones I believe some idiot team looking to make a splash quickly will offer him $80 – $100 million over five years, which the Yankees would be stupid to match.
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