Nick Swisher will be a free agent after this season ends, and reports of his estimated price tag took an interesting turn this week.
Swisher is reportedly looking for a "Jayson Werth contract" this offseason. That terminology is now MLB shorthand for $126 million over seven years, or, by alternate definitions, lunacy.
The Washington Nationals were widely — and rightly — criticized to offer that kind of money to invite a 30-year-old to hang out in their right field. As OK as Werth's numbers were, they could never be good enough to fulfill such a deal. That dollar amount or that many years on a contract is usually reserved for your Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter or young phenom types. Combining them and offering them to a player better known for his haircuts or hygiene had most people shaking their heads.
Werth's contract was never going to get a chance to prove itself — nothing Werth could do would make it worthwhile for Washington. But the Nats haven't had to deal with too many questions about it since. A year and change removed from the offering, Washington has talent across its team and is coming up big in the National League. The Nationals aren't spending down time answering questions about why Werth is eating their payroll — but other teams, who signed much more justifiable stars (the Angels with Pujols, and the Red Sox with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford), have gotten flak for those signings commensurate with their mediocre records.
That brings the discussion back to the question of whether Swisher could or should get Werth-like money. Now, Swisher is a fine fielder and hitter, and he's been somewhat of a good luck charm and clubhouse loosener in his time in New York. The Yankees are happy to say that Swisher has been an excellent signing and deserves some payout in his next contract. But, just as most of baseball scoffed when Werth brought in his numbers, no one is thinking Swisher should draw big bucks. And it's not because he's Swisher or Werth is Werth — it's the other part of the discussion, the part where teams are laden with huge contracts and are sick of having to defend (and pay) them.
The Yankees are famously trying to get under the luxury tax threshold, and many teams that grabbed big contracts recently for their latest title pushes are showing increased reticence. The Phillies, Red Sox and Angels are just the three biggest test cases of this. The days of paying huge for a guy who can produce are dwindling, both because some teams have wised up to what they can actually get from such a contract and because the ones who usually pay out have enough albatrosses to deal with. Swisher also faces the added disadvantage of having to jump into the free agent mix for outfielders in an offseason that will also feature Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and Melky Cabrera.
But, while most people will agree that Swisher shouldn't or won't get Werth-like money (Jon Heyman has a good breakdown of the situation), the fact that Swisher is even in that neighborhood raises another important point for contenders this offseason.
Swisher's value at this time is directly related to his lack of value four years ago, and the team that took a chance on him.
When the Yankees first went after Swisher in the 2008 offseason, he was coming off a down year with the Chicago White Sox. He hit just .219 on the South Side, and although his .332 on-base percentage and 24 home runs were still helpful, he had the lowest regular-season hits (109) and walks (82) totals of his career. Most of all, he just didn't have the same pop and pizzazz as when he played in Oakland.
The Yankees, meanwhile, were well stocked. They had Bobby Abreu, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui still going strong, and two young guns named Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner were set to fight for the left field job. New York didn't need to get anyone, but as has been Brian Cashman's way (which he repeated a year later in getting a seemingly middling Curtis Granderson, who was "past" his All-Star, homer-punching form), he went out and got Swisher.
Swisher spent the next four seasons in New York wooing the team, blasting 99 home runs (so far), rejuvenating his batting average and on-base numbers, and winning a World Series. He was an excellent pickup, and he supplied just as much as the Yankees could have gotten from a high-priced right fielder. The Yankees got their money's worth from him, and he revitalized his career and his worth.
The Red Sox are no strangers to this — Cody Ross was a discard that Boston took a try on this year, and he's turned out more than fine.
But now, as Swisher has restored his value and is ready for his next contract, the question is whether he's worth a future investment. The Yankees made big off a player who wasn't a guarantee to be great in 2008. Whether he's right for their organization going forward is a good question, but whether he's right for their checkbook is much easier to answer. New York needs to be hunting for the Swisher of 2008 — a solid player looking to shine. They don't need to be paying a Swisher of 2012. Giant contracts should be reserved for the occasional greats, and this situation only shows that contenders do better to scout for guys who can fill roles and make the most of overachieving.
Bargain hunting is not attractive, and players are right to feel scorned when they give a team value on a cheap contract but cannot get an extension that pays them back. But if the perennial greats of the American League (or all of baseball) want to not stink in the coming years, the Yankees' way with Swisher is the way to go.
Hunt for bargains. Develop players. Give guys who have shown ability elsewhere a new chance to shine. But save your big money for your once-in-a-generation types (read: Robinson Cano).
Ask Boston fans on the street whether they want Crawford or Ross, and you'll likely hear a lot of support for Ross. He's gone above and beyond his requirements, and he's been happy to do it. He, if anything, is a testament to the front office's abilities. Crawford is not bad — he's a piece the Sox will lean on for years — but with Crawford in the wings, the Red Sox' future moves should be for a Ross-type player. Guaranteed talent can deserve a contract, but for guaranteed success, teams would do better to hunt for hungry players looking to show the league they can still play.
Swisher will have plenty of suitors this summer. But the victor won't necessarily be whoever rewards his contract fantasies and gets him to sign. The winning team will be the one that can fill its right field hole with the production and promise that matches the payout.