2019 Predictions

American League East

The Yankees and Red Sox are on equal footing in the East, so just about anything could tip the balance. Boston’s bullpen looks to be its biggest weakness, and a few extra blown saves could make the difference in the division race. The rotation is the Yankees’ Achilles heel, and if Luis Severino isn’t healthy, Boston should take the top spot. All things considered, the Bronx Bombers have a little more depth, so if health treats each team equally, the Yankees should celebrate their first division title in seven seasons. The Rays will spend most of the season looking up at the Yankees and Red Sox, but with a good young rotation and solid lineup, Tampa should have enough to claim a wild card spot. All three teams’ position in the league should be bolstered by beating up on the Blue Jays and Orioles. Even if the Blue Jays surprise with an early season improvement, chances are the organization will look to deal veterans for prospects at some point, making them a second half laggard. The only suspense regarding the Orioles is whether they will become the second team in MLB history to have consecutive 110 loss seasons (1962-63 Mets).

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Can anything to be gleaned from team records during the exhibition season? Or, does Opening Day truly wipe the page clean? Conventional wisdom scoffs at those who pay too much attention to spring training games, but maybe a team’s pre-season performance shouldn’t be completely ignored?

Distribution of Spring Training and Regular Season Winning Percentage Divergence, Since 1984

Note: Tie games excluded from winning percentage calculations.
Source: baseball-reference.com,
mlb.com and springtrainingmagazine.com

The correlation between exhibition and regular season winning percentages has historically been low. Since 1984, the correlation coefficient is only 0.16, and from 1998 and 2010, the relationship is a similarly weak 0.20. In terms of the difference between winning percentages, over the longer span, just over 30% of teams had regular season records within 10% of their spring training results. So, in aggregate, the convention wisdom seems to be correct. However, an anecdotal look at the best and worst records suggests a link that may be more than just coincidental.

Top-10 and Bottom-10 Spring Training Records Since 1984

Note: Excludes the 1990 and 1995 exhibition seasons, which were shortened by work stoppages. Tie games excluded from winning percentage calculations.
Source: baseball-reference.com,
mlb.com and springtrainingmagazine.com

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The Yankees’ spending freeze was expected to thaw this winter. With two of baseball’s brightest young stars on the market and reportedly eager to shine in the Bronx, almost everyone assumed at least one would be wearing pinstripes. Conventional wisdom was wrong. In fact, the Yankees didn’t even make a formal offer to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Free agency, it seems, has become too rich for the team with the highest revenue in the game.

Although some fans will undoubtedly feel betrayed by the Yankees’ refusal to spend at levels commensurate with the league average, the team’s reluctance to invest in elite free agents has become a well telegraphed aversion. Throughout the winter, Hal Steinbrenner bemoaned the team’s operating costs and warned about the need to save up for the future commitments that will be needed to retain the team’s young core. No one should take Steinbrenner’s first lament seriously because the high cost of operating in New York is greatly mitigated by the tax-preferred financing and anti-trust protection that have helped the team’s enterprise value balloon. But, what about the appeal to future cash flow? Is the Yankees’ reluctance to spend on free agents justified by the looming cost of retaining its own star players?

To effectively evaluate this claim, we first need to identify the players the Yankees hope to extend. Since Steinbrenner’s comments were made, the team inked Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks to long-term, team-friendly deals, so that leaves Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres as young stars who have the potential to command exorbitant salaries as their careers progress. How exorbitant? The chart below attempts to put a price tag on the team’s new core four.

Projecting the Future Cost of the New Core Four

Note: Current service time records are Bryant at $10.85mn, Betts at $20mn and Donaldson at $23mn. Blue shading represents arbitration eligible years. Torres has four years of eligibility, but a free agent contract after year three is assumed.

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(This updated post was originally published on February 16, 2011)

For over 20 years, Tampa has been the Yankees’ spring training home, but it still seems like just yesterday when the team’s camp was located down the coast in Ft. Lauderdale. I am sure most fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s still reflexively harken back to those days of yore, while the real old timers’ memories take them all the way back to St. Petersburg, where Yankees’ legends from Ruth to Mantle toiled under the Florida sun.

Over the years, spring training has evolved significantly. Once upon a time, it was a pre-season retreat designed to help out-of-shape ballplayers shed the pounds added over the winter. In the early part of the last century, before even reporting to camp, players would often attend spas in places like Hot Springs, where they would purge their bodies of the iniquities from the offseason. Then, games would either be played among split squads (in the old days, the camps would be split into teams of veterans and hopeful rookies, the latter often called Yannigans) or against local minor league and college ball clubs. Finally, the teams would barnstorm their way back up north before finally kicking off the regular season.

Today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Thanks to the growing competition between cities in Arizona and Florida (each state now hosts 15 major league clubs), teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals, allowing them to turn the exhibition season into a significant profit center. Still, at the heart of spring training is hope and renewal as teams begin the long journey that is the baseball season.

The Yankees’ spring history has been a journey all its own. Below is an outline of some significant mileposts along the way.

Yankees’ Spring Training Homes Since 1901

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For the second straight winter, baseball’s hot stove has run cold. With the free agent market in a deep freeze, unthawed by the superstar talent of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and the game’s former big spenders conspicuous by their inactivity, whispers about pending labor strife have grown louder. Some have even mentioned the “C” word. But, it’s not collusion that has thrown a damper on the off season. Another “C” word is at the heart of the game’s transactional malaise…Competition…or the lack thereof.

Throughout the history of baseball labor negotiations, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) has been an advocate of the free market, at least to the extent one can exist in a sport with an anti-trust exemption. The union has consistently resisted artificial means of sharing the game’s wealth, such as salary caps and floors, because it believed the biggest piece of the pie could be obtained by allowing free agents to be valued by the highest bidder. And, until recently, they had been exactly right.

So, what has changed? After having the pendulum swing completely in their favor, the MLBPA has gradually ceded its advantage by making concessions. Limits on amateur pay, which increase the value of young players relative to veterans, as well as a more punitive competitive balance tax (CBT) system are two examples that have had a chilling effect. But, they alone are not responsible for the rapid cooling caused by the burgeoning crisis of competition.

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AP has released MLB’s official salary data for 2018, and in many stories there is some conflicting data, particularly with regard to the percentage of revenue allocated to salaries. Following are some clarification and interpretation.

You will often see Scott Boras quoted with a claim that players get a mid-40% share, but it seems like the revenue figures are gross and include MLBAM contributions. Also, only payroll is included (i.e., not benefits and post season share).  This makes sense from an agent perspective.

The union is frequently quoted as saying the share is about 50%. That seems to jibe with a net revenue figure compared to MLB total compensation. I am guessing the revenue excludes Stadium debt, but includes contributions from related businesses.

An owners’ spokesperson will usually cite a mid-50% number, but that includes minor league player expenses and excludes MLBAM contributions (but, reportedly, does not exclude Stadium debt).

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Major League Baseball may be in the midst of a free agency paradigm shift, but Yasmani Grandal’s contract is not the tipping point.

After the 30-year old catcher signed a one-year deal, instead of the multi-year deal he expected, many have wondered whether this will be the last straw that breaks the back of baseball’s recent run of labor peace. Unfortunately, such hyperbole (see below for why Grandal’s contract is not, by itself, unreasonable) distracts from the broader issues that are not only impacting free agency, but also threatening the integrity of the game.

For the first time since 2010, player payrolls and total compensation, including benefits and postseason bonuses, did not grow. As a result, the player’s share of total revenue, as estimated by Forbes, is likely to dip below 50% for the first time since at least 2001 (note: the MLB and MLBPA come to different percentages based on their calculation of applicable revenue and compensation). That’s not a cause for panic, but if the pie continues to shift, there very well could be a labor reckoning down the road.

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