BOSTON — CC Sabathia was one of those free agents who ended up with the Yankees because they could pay him more than any other team could. He’s in the middle of a $23 million-a-season clip, surrounded by players who were also eased into pinstripes by the paychecks that come along.
Alex Rodriguez makes $28 million this year. Mark Teixeira, who played 15 games this season before being sidelined with ailments, makes $22.5 million. Those are just the two top guys brought in on fat free agent contracts — there are also the holdovers from trades, the continuing homegrown talent (Derek Jeter’s $17 million for 17 games and 12 hits) and whatever the Yankees overpay for stamps, Post-It notes or office chairs.
It’s long been known that the Yankees will pay the most, and their scattershot at the league’s best means some busts, too. But the sometimes fruitlessness of that approach has reared its head this season, and it made its mark again in Saturday afternoon’s 5-1 loss to the Red Sox.
As Sabathia found himself bested again Saturday by a Red Sox lineup that has had his number this season, the Red Sox (91-59) tightened their hold on the American League East, and the Yankees (79-70) found themselves farther away from the wild card they hope will redeem their season. Sabathia gutted through six innings, throwing 110 pitches and striking out five. He walked four and gave up nine hits, leading to all five of Boston’s runs. It was the latest in a punchless season for Sabathia, who fell to 13-13 on the year with a 4.90 ERA. The man who stopped being New York’s ace early this year slid further by failing to keep his team in it Saturday.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, got more production from their $13 million men. Well, only three of Boston’s offseason signings were for $13 million a year (Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and Mike Napoli’s original contract), but considering that $13 million is the high end of what the Red Sox were paying for free agents, with Jonny Gomes ($5 million) and Mike Carp ($508,000) also in the mix, it’s quickly apparent what the obvious storyline is. The Red Sox, playing as a team that values mettle and character, have been beating up on a New York squad that is in over its head with big contracts and a lack of production.
It’s been a good year to be a Red Sox fan, but wins like Saturday’s show that the changing fortunes in the American League East could carry for more than a few series. Sabathia, who was an unstoppable workhorse during New York’s dominance in recent years, is not only struggling to get back to form, but he’s signed for another four years (the final year including a buyout). The Red Sox, meanwhile, are a bundle of short-term, tight-money deals that give the team maximum flexibility to sign new players or bring back the guys who have proven they can handle the challenges.
The Red Sox have gone 12-6 against the Yankees this year. On Saturday, their tidy 5-1 win (Want to see a sub-three-hour game? Try a decimated Yankees team against the high-octane Red Sox) included two hits apiece from 2013 newcomers Victorino, Napoli and Gomes. Jon Lester went eight innings and gave up just one run on three hits, and he struck out five while walking two.
All four players show the promise of this Red Sox team — talent now, with trapdoors for the future. Victorino, Napoli and Gomes were all signed to various short-term deals. Lester, even with his struggles over this season and last, has been working for well below market value for years, and the Red Sox can now have a pitcher who is 6-2 with a 2.38 ERA since the All-Star break back for just $13 million next season.
Sabathia is a mighty talent who deserved the mammoth contract he got when the Yankees came calling in 2009. He may still regain his form, just as the Yankees may regain the form a team should have when its high-paid players are healthy and producing.
But sometimes, going all-in on the best means swallowing a few bad years, and no team was in better position to remind the Yankees of that on Saturday than Boston.
The Red Sox, who have hedged their bets and instead invested in very good players for just a few years, may have ended up with what the Yankees were looking for all along — long-term success.