<
>

Can the Empire eventually be reined in?

Headline on IronicTimes.com:

Yankees sign Roy Hobbs, Joe Hardy, Mighty Casey

**************

George Steinbrenner and his Evil Empire All-Stars know they're out there.

The same people who devised the 2002 labor deal -- a deal designed solely to try to keep the Yankee behemoth under control -- are already brainstorming. And plotting. And possibly even conspiring on the framework of the next labor deal. Whose objective will it be to ...

Rein in the Yankees. What else?

The 2002 labor agreement hasn't even phased all the way in yet. (That won't happen fully until 2005.) But it already has made an impact -- on every team except the Yankees.

That agreement has helped the middle-class Angels and Marlins add pieces that won them a World Series. It has inspired every big-budget team except Boston to limit spending enough to stay below the luxury-tax threshold. It has already done wonders for competitive balance in many cases (Royals, Astros, Padres, Blue Jays, etc.).

OK, so maybe it hasn't rescued screwed up franchises like the Brewers and Pirates. But if you really think that's the system's fault -- as opposed to the Brewers' and Pirates' fault -- your knee is still jerking as if it's 1997, purely out of habit.

So when you get right down to it, this deal has had just one serious flaw, at least to the people who crafted it:

It didn't stop those dastardly Yankees from adding A-Rod. And Gary Sheffield. And Kevin Brown. And Javier Vazquez. And every $3-million reliever on the shelves.

It didn't stop the Yankees from nosing their payroll toward the cusp of $200 million. And some day, it won't stop them from roaring right past $200 million, too, if that's what it takes to win.

What this team does in the name of winning isn't cheap, though. You should understand that. One thing you have to say for the Evil Empire: It pays its bills.

Just last year, the Yankees paid almost $53 million into the revenue-sharing pot. They dumped another $11 million into Bud Selig's luxury-tax account. So that's more money paid out, just for the pleasure of being rich, than 14 teams spent on payroll.

And that means there is, in fact, one time that you never hear anyone complaining about the Yankees: "You never hear any complaints," says Yankees president Randy Levine, "when we write the check."

But that $64 million will look like tip money compared to the bills the Empire will get stuck with over the next few years. Remember, the revenue-sharing plan was only 60 percent phased in last year. It goes to 80 percent this year, 100 percent next year.

After that, though, come the tax bills. The Yankees already have about $159 million in salaries committed to 16 players in 2005. Not to mention well over $100 million to eight players in 2006. And nearly $80 million just to five players in 2007.

So they know right now they'll be paying lots and lots of luxury tax over the next few years. They're paying at a 30-percent tax rate this year (nearly doubling their tax bill to about $21 million). And once they go over a third straight time next season, they'll be paying at 40 percent for the rest of the deal.

Now we're not accountants. And we don't want to be accountants when we grow up. But by our calculations, that means the Yankees' revenue-sharing and tax bills this year will be over $80 million. Within two years, they'll no doubt blow past $100 million.

That's $100 million over and above their payroll, which could be more than $200 million. There is only one franchise on earth that wouldn't be phased by that kind of I.O.U. And let's just say it sure isn't the Devil Rays.

"This labor agreement provides a choice," Levine says. "You can spend money and choose to pay the tax. ... We choose to do it because Mr. Steinbrenner chooses to invest in his product. That's a choice he's allowed to make. And if (other clubs) don't like it, they should not have voted for this labor agreement."

The people in baseball who grumble about the Yankees often overlook one tiny little detail: Everything they do happens to be, well, legal. They make more money than everybody else. They spend more money than everybody else. So this labor deal then requires them to pay in more cash to subsidize everybody else. Which they do.

"The agreement sets the rules in the game," Levine says. "Twenty-nine teams voted for it. Only one team voted against it -- the Yankees. So the only team that has the right to complain about it is the Yankees. ...

"But we don't tell anybody how to run their business. And we don't think anybody in the game can say they run their business better than the Yankees. So they should all worry about their own problems and stop trying to scapegoat us."

But obviously, that will never happen. So what's baseball's solution? Well, we'll tell you what won't be the solution. Steinbrenner's pal, John (The Scarecrow) Henry, can sing the Salary-Cap Blues round the clock for the next three years, and this sport still will never sneak a cap past this union. So that ain't the answer.

Which means the conspirators are already burning brain cells, trying to devise an anti-Steinbrenner defense system that's at least a variation of the current system. But there are still people in the industry who haven't given up hope that eventually, this system will be able to erect a stop light at every intersection inside the Evil Empire.

We've been hearing that MLB still has one last major card to play. And it could be coming to a cable TV clicker near you, by hitting the Yankees where it hurts -- at YES network headquarters.

The way the Yankees' critics see it, the YES network has been, essentially, a license for the Yankees to print funny money. They're reporting $50 million a year in rights fees. But MLB suspects the true value of YES to this club is actually much higher.

To determine how much higher, sources say that MLB is ready to bring in an independent auditor to determine YES's true market value to the team. If that value turns out to be more than $50 million, the Yankees would have to pay another 40 percent of that difference. Not just this year. Every year. Retroactively.

And if that new bill arrived on Steinbrenner's desk, it's possible even the Yankees might notice that the cost of doing business was getting kind of steep. Even for them.

Ah, but not so fast. Let's just say the Yankees have noticed that they aren't the only team mixed up in some kind of partnership with a big media company.

The Yankees' arrangement with YES, Levine contends, "is no different than the Red Sox and NESN, the Braves and Turner, the Cubs and the Tribune Company. ... They're all doing the same thing."

So if MLB tries to single out the Yankees on this front, the Yankees would look at that as "offensive and discriminatory," Levine says. Which suggests their response probably wouldn't be: "OK, where do you want us to send that check?"

We're not sure where the Empire invaders would attack next if the YES assault doesn't fly. But you can bet they're already trying to think of something, anything. What they're most likely to spend the next few years thinking of, though, is some whole new-fangled economic system that would finally cause the Empire to hit the brake pedal.

But if that's what they're pushing, then head for the fallout shelters -- because that would just about guarantee there's another labor crisis waiting, right over the horizon.

Hey, great. We can hardly wait.

Phillies Rumblings

  • Dallas Green once managed the only Phillies team ever to win a World Series -- the 1980 juggernaut, with a staff fronted by Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw. But after looking over the current Phillies this spring, Green says this staff is, potentially, the best pitching staff in Phillies history, top to bottom.

    "You look at the 1950 (World Series) team, and they had (Robin) Roberts and (Jim) Konstanty -- but after that they pasted it together," Green told Rumblings. "In '80, we had Carlton and (Dick) Ruthven, and we had Tug and Ron Reed at the end. ... But we also had a lot of question marks.

    "This team might not have a Carlton. But it does have guys with a known history, with a proven track record: (Eric) Milton ... (Kevin) Millwood ... (Brett) Myers is young, but he's already proven he's capable of winning 12-15 games ... (Randy) Wolf has come into his own ... (Vicente) Padilla ... and the guy at the end (Billy Wagner). This staff can match up with a lot of them in baseball today -- and in the past."

    In fact, the Phillies and Mariners are the only two teams in baseball whose five prospective starting pitchers all have winning records in their careers (with at least 40 starts). The bullpen is one of only two (Phillies and Padres) with two 200-save men (Wagner and Roberto Hernandez). It also includes a guy who saved 38 games last year (Tim Worrell), plus the reliever with the lowest ERA of any National League left-hander (Rheal Cormier).

    "We look good on paper, but we haven't won anything yet," says GM Ed Wade. "Unfortunately, they still make you play. They don't run parades down Broad Street for good offseasons. But they sometimes do run parades out of town for bad seasons. Hopefully, none of us will have to worry about that."

  • Phillies hitters have figured out already that the best thing about acquiring Wagner isn't those 40 games he's about to save. It's not having to face him anymore.

    As we listened one day to those hitters tell their best I-faced-Wagner-and-lived-to-tell-about-it stories, we awarded first prize to fabled Phillies quotesmith Doug Glanville.

    "I remember facing him with the Cubs last year," Glanville said, "and he threw a pitch that went like 48-50 feet -- behind me. At my feet. I had to check afterward to see if I still had my feet. Fortunately, I did. The next day, he came over and said, 'Hey, sorry about that. I got the ball, and it was loaded with pine tar, so I figured I'd grab it and see what happens.' Yeah, what happened was, I got a 40-foot, 100-mile-an-hour slider. I was somewhat concerned. But I lived."

    Astros Rumblings

  • There may be some people in baseball debating whether it's right for the Astros to give Roger Clemens permission to leave the team on occasion to go watch his sons, Koby and Kory, play baseball this spring and football in the fall. But if understanding the human side of Clemens' equation was the big sacrifice Houston had to make to sign a 310-game winner, what's the problem with that?

    "The whole thing was, we just felt this was a unique opportunity," said GM Gerry Hunsicker. "And one of the things that allowed him to come out of retirement was his kids and still being able to watch his kids. That's why this was one of the only places he would have considered coming out of retirement to pitch. It's not something I would advocate as a trend. But this was one way to make this happen."

    If Clemens planned to miss 50 games, this might be an issue. But it's more likely that about all he'll miss is some occasional pregame shagging while his sons are playing in the afternoon. Then he's expected back by game time.

    "He's not the type of guy who's going to flaunt it," Hunsicker said, "who's going to come in and say, 'Hey, look at me.' In fact, before we agreed to this, he made a couple of calls to (Jeff) Bagwell and (Craig) Biggio and asked how they felt."

    Obviously, they knew how to answer that question.

    "Hey, they aren't getting any younger, either," Hunsicker laughed.

  • Roy Oswalt on what it was like to meet Clemens and Andy Pettitte for the first time: "I didn't realize how big they were."

    We found it fascinating that Oswalt could see those two so many times on TV without realizing they were big men. But when Rumblings asked about that, the 170-pound Oswalt replied: "Everyone looks big when they're on the field. I know I get that all the time: I look so much bigger on TV. I never hear I look bigger in person."

    Contract Rumblings

  • Albert Pujols' contract was announced at seven years, $100 million, but Pujols agreed to defer $19 million of that at no interest. So the contract is actually being valued by Major League Baseball at just over $90 million in current-day value.

  • Let it never be said that the Brewers aren't thinking positive. They gave World Series MVP incentive clauses to five players this winter -- Ben Sheets, Wes Helms, Ben Grieve, Danny Kolb and Gary Bennett.

  • The Astros not only gave Roger Clemens an attendance clause (kicking in at 2.8 million), they included the postseason in it. Considering that every 100,000 fans after 2.8 million means $200,000 for Clemens (up to 3.5 million), that clause could actually cost the Astros as much as $1 million extra dollars in incentive payments to Clemens if they win the World Series and play all 11 postseason home games. So why do we have a feeling they wouldn't feel too lousy about writing that check?

  • The Orioles have the right to subtract up to $100,000 from Javy Lopez's annual performance bonuses if he fails to make his top-secret designated weight in four weigh-ins a year. He'd get docked $25,000 per eating binge.

  • And we're not sure quite what this means, but four prominent Japanese players signed new contracts this winter. Kazuo Matsui (Mets) got eight round-trip business class tickets a year to Tokyo. Shingo Takatsu (White Sox) got six business-class tickets. Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners) got four first-class tickets. And Akinori Otsuka (Padres) got one business-class ticket. We don't know about you, but we got jet lag just typing this note.

    Still More Rumblings

  • Yankees-Red Sox insanity may be standard stuff for Joe Torre. But imagine being dropped into the middle of this madness for the first time, like the man who will manage the Red Sox, Terry Francona. Given all the wild twists and turns in this rivalry since he took the job, you wouldn't blame him if he sought treatment for vertigo. But Francona says he's just letting it all unfold.

    "The way I look at it, I haven't lived through it yet," he told Rumblings. "I've heard all the stories. I've got cable TV. But for me to talk about it when I haven't lived through it doesn't make sense to me. I've heard all the questions. But I haven't sat in the dugout and had Zim charging Pedro."

  • Alex Rodriguez ought to know that no player has ever won a Gold Glove at two different positions. And, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one reigning Gold Glove infielder (Bobby Grich) has ever changed both teams and positions the next season. But you can add Mike Schmidt to the list of people who think A-Rod will have zero difficulty making the transition from shortstop to third base.

    "You field half as many balls, you have half as much pressure, and most of the balls that come at you are just do or die," said Schmidt, an all-American shortstop in college who switched to third base in the minor leagues. "I mean, you really think A-Rod is worried about this? He's not going to have any problem at all at third base. It's almost a waste of time asking about it."

  • The Cubs don't have many holes, or even potential holes. But one NL executive says his one question is their commitment to Michael Barrett as the primary catcher.

    "I'm not sure I understand that move," he said. "Michael Barrett has a lot of talent, but he hasn't proven anything. He's a great kid, and he works hard. But he's never turned into the player I thought he would. This guy was a good-looking offensive player when he first signed. He just hasn't developed into that kind of player. Personally, I'd rather have Damian Miller."

  • How close did the Cubs come to not signing Greg Maddux? Maybe closer than anyone suspects.

    A week before he became a Cub, Maddux phoned his old friend, Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti (who once worked for the Cubs when Maddux arrived in the big leagues). The purpose of the call: to tell Colletti how interested he would be in the Giants if they had interest in him.

    The Giants had already slammed into their payroll ceiling. But for a chance to sign a Hall of Fame pitcher closing in on 300 wins, they decided this was a special case.

    So they offered Maddux three guaranteed seasons (unlike the two the Cubs guaranteed), for an amount believed to be slightly less than $21 million, plus other perks.

    Maddux mulled that offer for a week, then called back to say he'd decided to go back to Chicago. Colletti, who had already begun salivating over what Maddux could do for Jason Schmidt and the Giants' young pitchers, knows exactly what this man might mean to the careers of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano.

    "Heck, 200 innings and 15-16 wins might be half of what he brings to a staff," Colletti said. "I've known this guy since he was 18 years old. I know his value, on and off the field. He's as smart a pitcher as anybody I've ever seen. He borders on genius when it comes to pitching. And it doesn't matter how young or old your pitching is. He relates to everybody."

  • How much better are the Tigers, after trading for Carlos Guillen and committing a potential $60 million to six free agents (Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, Fernando Vina, Jason Johnson, Al Levine and Mike DiFelice)?

    "We have some genuine, authentic, actual ballplayers," Dmitri Young told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler. "Not some fake, imitation, B-rated (crap)."

    Which is true. But what that will mean in the standings, who the heck knows.

    "They've got two major issues -- their rotation and their durability," says one GM. "You look at the players they've brought in -- Guillen, White, Vina, Pudge -- and they all have durability issues. No matter what, they're better. But they'll only go as far as their starting rotation takes them."

  • Everybody who was waiting for the Dodgers to make a big charge after Frank Thomas after their sale to Frank McCourt can chill out.

    That was a rumor bubbling under the watch of former Dodgers GM Dan Evans. And all rumors generated in the previous regime can be officially considered null, void and defunct.

    "I think we're starting over," says new GM Paul DePodesta.

    DePodesta found himself in spring training in Vero Beach less than 48 hours after learning he'd gotten the job. So expect him to take a while just to watch his team play before he plows into any major deals.

    "When you're on the outside, it's easier to assess what a team team needs," he said. "But it's more difficult to assess what they actually have. So I'm spending time right now trying to assess what we actually have."

    The one thing he knows is that, if Darren Dreifort is as healthy as he has looked so far, the Dodgers still have too many starting pitchers. Which gives them an opportunity to deal for offense late in the spring. But DePodesta doesn't sound a whole lot more anxious to trade the best of his young pitchers (Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller, Joel Hanrahan) than Evans was.

    "The likelihood is, I'd want so much for those kinds of guys," DePodesta said, "that I doubt there'd be a deal. But I'll never say never."

  • Finally, one last Roy Oswalt quip. Even Oswalt was surprised that Jimy Williams and Hunsicker decided to start him over Clemens on Opening Day. But don't forget that Oswalt is, in fact, the answer to this trivia question:

    Which active pitcher has the highest career winning percentage (and at least 50 starts)?

    So when asked by Rumblings if he thought he might some day look back with awe on the decision to start him on Opening Day over a guy with six Cy Youngs, Oswalt had to chuckle.

    "What," he laughed, "if I win six?"

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.