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As the free-agent season is upon us, it seems a foregone conclusion that Cliff Lee will sign with the New York Yankees. It's the buzz-worthy topic of the winter of 2010-11, and as such fantasy owners can't help but speculate on the impact of the potential move on his value, most notably his win total (2009 free-agent signee CC Sabathia, for instance, has 40 wins in his first two Yankees seasons).
Here's a better question: Does it really matter where Cliff Lee lands? He's going to be a top fantasy starter no matter the uniform, and in a winter in which Lee's pinstripe-fitting date is the one everyone seems to be circling on the calendar, it's actually the storylines surrounding current Yankees that warrant greater attention.
Here's why: The Yankees generate headlines, headlines can create artificial impressions and artificial impressions can overinflate fantasy expectations. There might be no greater example of that than the Lee rumors; people assume Lee's value would skyrocket with the Yankees, when the truth is that his value probably wouldn't change all that much. (He'd simply remain great.)
Unfortunately, while in the past decade and a half the Yankees have been synonymous with success -- both on the field and in fantasy leagues -- the reality is that many of their most recognizable players are now noticeably past their prime and the team faces critical questions with its "Core Four." Yankees players might feel like the fantasy cream of the crop, but the truth is that, heading into 2011, there might not be a more expansive breeding ground for overpriced fantasy picks than the team that calls East 161st Street and River Avenue its home.
Consider this your early warning regarding the five prominent names listed below. Chances are, every one of them -- with the possible exception of the fifth one -- might be drafted at least a round ahead of where he should be.
Alex Rodriguez: It's especially difficult to let go of long-held opinions of first-round performers. In A-Rod's case, he has been a top-10-overall player for seemingly forever; he has probably been picked no lower than that in each of the past 14 years, except for maybe 1997, when he was only 21 years old with one year's MVP-caliber numbers under his belt, or 2009, when he was recovering from March hip surgery. In addition, he rode a monster late-season hot streak -- 14 homers, 40 RBIs and .288 AVG/.358 OBP/.612 SLG rates in his final 37 games -- to reach the 30-homer and 100-RBI plateaus for the 13th consecutive season, a major league record, something that's going to be hard for us to flush from our minds.
Still, Rodriguez is now 35 years old, battled nagging injuries for the past year and has missed 87 games combined the past three seasons. He's also coming off a season in which he posted his worst batting average (.270) since 1995 and worst OPS (.847) since 1997, and a postseason in which he had .219/.316/.281 rates in nine games. Fortunately, A-Rod's closest comparable per Baseball-Reference.com, Hank Aaron, continued to turn in MVP-caliber numbers until his age-37 season. But Aaron stayed healthier up until his 35th birthday, so it's fair to think that A-Rod's career decline has already started and that he won't hold up quite so well. Rodriguez finished 65th on the 2010 Player Rater after being picked third in the preseason. There's actually a chance you could split the difference between those two numbers -- so 33rd -- and still not turn a profit picking him there in 2011.
Derek Jeter: We're only two weeks into baseball's offseason and I bet you're already sick of the stories about Jeter's future. Tom Tango had an interesting take about Jeter's next contract; my reaction is that if Jeter truly becomes Placido Polanco's statistical equal in 2011, he's going to be a massive bust based upon where he'll probably be picked. If there's any foregone conclusion this winter besides Lee to the Yankees, it's that Jeter will re-sign, probably for three or four years, but keep in mind he'll turn 37 next June 26. Only two shortstops in baseball history have ever managed an OPS of .800 or greater in a season that began after their 36th birthday: Luke Appling and Honus Wagner.
Jeter's triple-slash numbers (.270/.340/.370) each represented a career worst (excluding his 15-game 1995 cameo), his strikeout rate soared from 12.6 percent in 2009 to 14.3 in 2010, he saw fewer pitches within the strike zone (48.3 percent) and swung at more outside the strike zone (28.2) than in any other season in the past decade. While he has displayed a remarkable ability in recent years to bounce back with All-Star numbers when people have begun to question whether the decline has arrived, in no other year did his indicators decline as much as in 2010. Jeter's spot atop the Yankees' lineup -- virtually guaranteeing him 100-plus runs year after year -- should keep him among the top 100 fantasy players, even in 2011. But he belongs in the lower half of that top 100 at this stage of his career, not the upper.
Jorge Posada: If there's any player to fear, it's Posada, and it's as simple an argument as that he's a 39-year-old catcher who has 1,573 games and 12,871 innings on his legs. There are already reports that top prospect Jesus Montero, who managed .289/.353/.517 numbers in Triple-A ball in 2010, will get a chance to win the starting catcher job during spring training, a sure sign that the Yankees recognize that Posada, at this stage of his career, probably needs a full-time shift to designated hitter. In a way, it's already happened: Posada has started only 194 of 486 Yankees games, or 39.9 percent, since 2008, while Jose Molina and Francisco Cervelli weren't far off, with 123 and 106, respectively. Montero's talent easily trumps either of those backups, and if he proves he can hit in March, he and Posada might rotate between catcher and DH; I could see a scenario in which each catches 60 times and DHs 60 times, while Cervelli handles the other 40ish catching games.
Of course, fantasy owners might embrace Posada's full-time shift to DH, because the assumption is that any catcher-eligible DH is considerably more valuable than an actual catcher. You've heard the arguments: diminished injury risk, more at-bats. The problem is that Posada will turn 40 in September, and if that's not an ominous number, consider that only five catchers in history have caught 100 or more games after that birthday. Another troubling fact: Only one catcher in the history of baseball caught at least 1,000 games in his career and then started at least half his team's schedule at DH: Ted Simmons, who played 99 games as a DH in 1985 after 1,721 behind the plate entering that year. Simmons managed .265/.325/.390 rates that year, and while his .333/.372/.521 rates in 66 games as a DH in 1983 offer some optimism, keep in mind that in 279 career games at DH he had .260/.310/.390 rates, disappointing in every year in the role except 1983.
One comparison is hardly enough -- it's the smallest of small sample sizes -- but it demonstrates the rare territory Posada is in. Simmons' example could show how many years of catching can wear a hitter down, and I'd agree that it's foolish to assume a permanent shift to DH will restore him to his former 25-homer, 90-RBI levels. DH is hardly an injury-proof position; ask Nick Johnson a bit about that. I think Posada might be no better a hitter than the model we saw in 2010, when he started only 78 games behind the plate, and remember, he finished 10th among catchers on our Player Rater. He's top-10 capable, but no lock to make it in 2011.
Andy Pettitte: It's all about his desire to return, as Pettitte has hinted at retirement in the past, he's now 38 years old, is coming off an injury-marred season and is a free agent yet again. When healthy, he pitched as well as he had at any point of his career; he was 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 18 starts before straining his groin in July. Pettitte certainly has adapted nicely despite losing zip on his stuff over the years; remember that he had a career-worst 7.6 swinging-strike percentage in 2010. Still, pitchers at his age rarely transform back into their prime-years selves, and health will only continue to be a question mark. If he does opt to return, be careful not to assume he has top-40 starter potential.
Mariano Rivera: Why not finish with the one of the quintet who does seem like a safe bet for 2011, even if he'll also enter next season the oldest of the bunch, at 41 years old? While he's a free agent, saw his strikeout rate dip to 6.75 per nine in 2010 and someday will have to call it quits, Rivera still wasn't any less effective a closer this past season than at most any previous point in his career. At this point, he possesses almost robotic accuracy, despite being barely more than a one-pitch pitcher. It's that one pitch -- his cutter -- that keeps him so productive: He limited hitters to .174/.211/.234 rates on 702 cutters this past season, per Inside Edge, so clearly that pitch hasn't lost any of its sharpness. It's another past-40, all-time-great closer that might make prospective Rivera owners worry: Trevor Hoffman. Worry not; Hoffman was actually 42 during his disastrous 2010, and his was an entirely different arsenal centered on a changeup, a pitch that requires a certain velocity differential from the fastball to remain effective. In Rivera's case, until his cutter loses its sharpness, he's every bit as safe a bet among fantasy closers as anyone in the game.
Yes, even at the ripe, old age of 41.
In a trade clearly designed to upgrade their lackluster offense -- only six teams scored fewer than their 663 runs -- the Athletics picked up DeJesus, an above-average performer in nearly every facet of the game, in exchange for right-hander Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks. DeJesus should take over in one of their corner-outfield spots (his defensive numbers have been better in left and right field than center in recent seasons) and one of the top three spots in the lineup, perhaps leadoff. He's not the kind of player whose numbers should be heavily impacted by a ballpark switch; he's a contact-hitting, on-base specializing ground-baller who doesn't pop the ball up much (which matters in a ballpark with such spacious foul territory), so another year of a batting average between .290 and .300 with up to 100 runs scored should be expected. That's still more of a fourth/fifth mixed-league outfielder or third/fourth in AL-only formats, though.
Mazzaro should immediately slide into the Kansas City Royals' rotation, though he's the kind of pitcher who might very well be impacted by the ballpark shift. Not that Kauffman Stadium is a hitters' venue, but it's not quite as spacious as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and for a pitch-to-contact, homer-prone right-hander with a somewhat noticeable platoon split it may make a difference. His best-case scenario is probably a matchups play, one more useful in AL-only leagues.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.