Sports Nut

Say No to Johan

Why Red Sox and Yankee fans are happy they won’t be rooting for the best pitcher in baseball.

Mets pitcher Johan Santana

You’d think Yankee and Red Sox fans would be upset about losing Johan Santana to the Mets. After all, he’s the best pitcher in the known universe—and left-handed! But when Santana was introduced at Shea Stadium earlier this month, Mets fans weren’t the only ones rejoicing. It must seem strange to Minnesotans, who spent a dreary winter fretting over Santana’s impending departure, but a large segment of Yanks and Sox supporters didn’t want their teams to buy the league’s most dominant player. When the Mets deal was announced, blogs and message boards on both sides of the rivalry lit up with relief. In a reversal of baseball’s natural order, Yankees exec Hank Steinbrenner wanted to spend money on his team, but his fan base was begging him not to. Since when did fans get so cheap?

Only a few teams ever had a chance to acquire Santana. With only one year left on his contract, potential trade partners had to be willing to sign the pitcher to a record-breaking extension in addition to giving up a package of promising young players. Still, at just about 29 years old, with no history of serious injuries, and in possession of a stupefying change-up that should allow him to age gracefully, Santana is the closest thing there is in pitching to a safe bet. Five years ago, the Red Sox probably would have been all in. The Yankees certainly would have.

But the war between Boston and New York has entered a new phase. They’ve got the two highest payrolls in baseball, with the Yankees some $60 million ahead of the Sox and with Boston $30 million above its nearest competitor. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, as demonstrated by Alex Rodriguez’s latest record-shattering contract, but both teams are trying to rein in their spending.

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein and Yankees GM Brian Cashman have similar strategies. Both want strong farm systems that provide a steady supply of affordable core players, with trades and free agents to supplement the homegrown talent as needed. (One glance at the Yankees’ roster, dotted with expensive aging stars like Jason Giambi—who now earns thousands of dollars every time he spits—should explain why.) It’s easy to understand why Red Sox fans have embraced this idea; winning two World Series titles in four years inspires a lot of confidence in management. What’s more surprising is that, despite the team’s recent postseason failings, many Yankee fans don’t want to buy the pennant either.

There are two movements behind this sort of thinking, one logical and one emotional. First, the average baseball fan is savvier than ever. The mainstreaming of statistical analysis and the massive popularity of fantasy baseball have demystified the nuts-and-bolts tactics of team-building. Sure, New York sports radio still gives plenty of airtime to nuts who want the Yankees to sign every player in the major leagues. But an increasing number of fans have figured out that there’s more to winning than corralling big names. They know how many years a guy can earn the minimum salary before he’s arbitration-eligible, and they’re smart enough to compare Santana’s projected 2008 VORP with that of Phil Hughes or Jacoby Ellsbury. And even Twins fans understood that the A’s Dan Haren and the Orioles’ Erik Bedard, both recently traded, got their teams a better prospect haul than the superior Santana because they had years left on their affordable contracts.

Baseball watchers have also gotten smarter about the importance of a solid farm system. When Derek Jeter began 1996 as the Yankees’ shortstop, I wondered who the hell he was; when Phil Hughes made his big-league debut last summer, I’d been reading about him for years and shelled out $25 more than I usually spend on a ticket to ensure a decent view. This is where the emotion comes in: Given how closely Yankees fans have already been following Hughes and Ian Kennedy and the way Sox fans have been mooning over Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, it’s no wonder they’re reluctant to see them go. In November, the popular Yankees site River Ave. Blues started a campaign, complete with T-shirts, to avoid a Santana trade and “Save the Big Three“—referring to highly touted pitching prospects Kennedy, Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain.

This attitude is probably more common among the stat-lovers who tend to populate blogs and message boards. Still, tons of fans of all stripes are nostalgic for the era when players spent their entire careers with one team—even fans who were never alive to experience it. That’s why, despite all the criticism aimed at the Yankees for their profligate spending, no one complains about Derek Jeter’s $189 million contract, at the time the second-largest in the sport’s history, or the combined $97 million the Bombers just shelled out to retain Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. Spending a fortune on your own players is acceptable. Spending a fortune on someone else’s—that’s tacky.

That last sentiment is the baseball fan’s version of liberal guilt. That the Yankees outspent the Tampa Bay Devil Rays—excuse me, the Tampa Bay Rays—by more than $190 million last season is, frankly, a tad embarrassing. The Yankees’ World Series teams of the late 1990s, while expensive, had a core of homegrown players and relatively few superstars; for a couple of years, they won without being universally loathed.

Meanwhile, Red Sox fans have undergone an identity crisis after the team’s two World Series wins. The Sox spent $51 million last year on Daisuke Matsuzaka’s negotiating rights alone and $70 million on desultory outfielder J.D. Drew. During the 2007 World Series, just after Alex Rodriguez opted out of his New York deal, Boston fans—who would have welcomed the third baseman before the 2004 season, when a trade with the Rangers fell apart at the last minute—desperately chanted, “Don’t sign A-Rod!” In other words: We don’t want to be any more like the Yankees than we already are.

Naturally, Red Sox and Yankees supporters will be ecstatic to win another championship next year, no matter the cost in money or prospects. But even the justifiably worshipped Johan Santana can’t guarantee a World Series ring. If possible, fans of large-market teams would prefer to win smart, with as many cheap, locally produced players as they can cram onto the roster. They want to out-Moneyball small-market teams like Cleveland and Oakland to prove that they aren’t simply buying success.

Of course, these concerns are a luxury few teams can afford, and you won’t hear many Mets fans complaining about overspending. Their team hasn’t won a championship since 1986, and last year’s nominal ace, Tom Glavine, cemented the team’s epic September implosion by throwing one-third of an inning of seven-run ball on the last day of the season. The Mets needed Santana, and—thanks in large part to the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s abstention—they got him. As the fans at Shea know all too well, you need to have success before you can worry about how it’s achieved.