The Yankees are already in a tough situation with respect to Swisher’s looming free agency, as Hal Steinbrenner’s directive for the team to get below the luxury tax threshold by the start of 2014 makes it difficult to see how the team could resign Swisher to a long term deal while leaving enough money to fill potential holes at second base, catcher, and centerfield as well, to say nothing of bringing in reinforcements for the starting rotation. Most of us have more or less assumed this is Swisher’s last season in the Bronx, but there was some hope that they might be able to find a way to work something out at a reasonable dollar amount. Ethier’s new contract likely puts that hope to bed.
First and foremost, one thing that stands out when examining the two players is how similar they are in productivity. Ethier is certainly off to a much better start to 2012 than Swisher is and is about 19 months younger than Swisher, but from 2009-2011 the two were more or less even in terms of their offensive productivity, while Swisher was probably a touch better than Ethier in the field. What’s more, he was certainly more durable than Ethier, playing in exactly 150 games in each of his three seasons with the Yankees, something Ethier has done just two times in his career, the most recent being the 2009 season. So if you believe in a contract “setting the market,” it would appear that Swisher is in line for a similar deal when he hits the market after this season.
That said, I don’t really believe in that concept for a couple of reasons. First, not all decision makers are created equally, and even if they were, that wouldn’t mean they necessarily view all potential acquisitions through the same prism. Ethier is both a popular player who’s been with the Dodgers his entire major league career and he has a reputation for being a “clutch” hitter, all things that potential substitutes wouldn’t have going for them that probably drove his value up in L.A. Secondly, there’s just no theoretical basis for the notion that the selling price of one asset should necessarily affect the price of a subsequent, similar, asset. Sure, it could affect what potential buyers think they might have to pay to acquire something later, but baseball free agency is a system that obviously entails a very limited number of potential buyers, and if anything you would think that whatever upward pressure Ethier’s deal has on the market for other corner outfielders would be at least partially offset by the fact that it presumably removes the Dodgers from bidding on those subsequent free agents.
More than that, this contract seems like a pretty clear overpay to me. Given Ethier’s problems with staying healthy and playing the outfield, and the fact that his career best wRC+ is the 133 mark he registered in 2008 (he’s got a 131 wRC+ so far this season), Ethier just doesn’t look like someone who’s worth $85 million to me, let alone someone who merits a potential nine figure investment. It’s hard to quantify the more intangible value Ethier has as a marketing tool for the new ownership group in Chavez Ravine, to be sure, but even if we allow that that inflated his value in this situation, it’s also true that that would not be the case for other free agents this winter.
All of that said, players and agents are generally pretty good at extracting top dollar from team’s with the ability to pay it for free agents they want, and if this deal proves nothing else, it’s that there’s still a lot of available money for teams to play with out there. That alone probably means that someone in need of some additional offense is likely to come along and make Swisher an offer above what the Yankees are willing to pay for him, so this comes pretty close to confirming what we already suspected: Nick Swisher is probably playing his last season as a Yankee.