Yanks, Red Sox can get big prizes for a bargain

Far be it from anyone to tell the Steinbrenner family or John Henry how to spend their money. They are billionaires. One owns the New York Yankees, the other the Boston Red Sox. The rest of us do not. Advantage: Rich guys.

Still, it's getting to the point this offseason where the 28 other teams are practically begging New York and Boston to swoop in and pluck the two best remaining free agents off the market. Matt Holliday(notes) and Jason Bay(notes) have been available for so long they're beginning to resemble spoiled milk, and it presents the perfect opportunity for the powerhouse teams to pull out their Black Card and show the rest of baseball how the big boys win.

It isn't that, of course, some machismo-laden play to widen the have/have-not chasm. No, it's about something the Yankees and especially the Red Sox appreciate: value, and more important, the proper valuation of a player.

When the free-agent market seems to crater, as it has relative to the deals Holliday and Bay sought entering this offseason, priorities change. Holliday has been sitting on an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals for two weeks without any word good, bad or otherwise. Every day, Bay embarrasses the New York Mets just a little more by allowing their four-year, $64 million contract to float in the ether, as though it's there, yes, but just on a lark, because he wouldn't dare go to a home run-eating ballpark with alleys wide enough to further expose his defensive ineptitude.

Lurking, as they always do, are the Yankees and the Red Sox. Players of Holliday's caliber, and, to a lesser extent, Bay's, come around every year during free agency. They do not often appear at huge discounts, compared to what they provide, and unless some other teams hit the Mega Millions or decide to start spending more, Holliday and Bay will be precisely that.

A look at last year's final payroll figures provide a frightening look at how Holliday or Bay could end up in New York or Boston in spite of neither team showing vehement interest. Thirteen teams finished last season with payrolls in excess of $100 million. The Yankees spent $423 million last offseason, so they haven't gone wild this year. Boston handed pitcher John Lackey(notes) $82.5 million, more than twice the second-biggest contract thus far. The Cardinals want to retain Holliday, and the Mets seem to prefer Bay.

Otherwise, it's a wasteland. Both Chicago teams are stretched to their limits. Philadelphia maxed itself out with the Roy Halladay(notes) extension, as did Seattle with Chone Figgins(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes). The Los Angeles Angels spent their free-agent booty on Hideki Matsui(notes) and Fernando Rodney(notes), and the Los Angeles Dodgers hoarded theirs to save Frank McCourt's booty. Houston? Ha. Detroit? Hahahahaha.

Atlanta, at just over $100 million, and San Francisco, right on the cusp, need power bats and seem reasonable landing spots for Holliday or Bay. Neither team professes interest, not even at the current price, which leaves the players in precarious positions and the Yankees and Red Sox circling like pelicans.

Imagine: The market, in spite of the best efforts of agents Scott Boras (Holliday) and Joe Urbon (Bay), never materialized, and the two best franchises in baseball – the most well-funded and talented, in big, vibrant cities – call. They will not match the highest offer. They come close – and provide a far greater opportunity to win a World Series. The players union might not like it. Holliday and Bay would be hard-pressed to say no.

The whole scenario seems backward – the Yankees and Red Sox actually getting players at a discount – and yet wholly plausible. Boston, in fact, has discussed internally offering Bay a deal similar to the four-year, $60 million contract he turned down, WEEI.com reported Wednesday. And the Boston Herald said the Red Sox could again start negotiations with Holliday, whom they reportedly offered a five-year, $82.5 million deal before signing Lackey for the same numbers.

Boston understands value. Its proprietary formulas say something like what all of the publicly available metrics affirm: Holliday is one of the most valuable everyday players in the game, and Bay's bat is a mighty force. And when assigning a dollar amount to their valuations, the Red Sox are saying: Right now, Holliday and Bay are incredible bargains.

What the Red Sox and Yankees front offices must do is convince their owners that Holliday and Bay are so cheap and so attractive that the millions extra spent in payroll would be worthwhile. This is not easy, especially for the Yankees, who have $196.1 million committed to 14 players this season after acquiring pitcher Javier Vazquez(notes) in a trade with the Braves.

Even bleaker is the enormity of their future commitments. Alex Rodriguez(notes) is signed through 2017, Mark Teixeira(notes) through 2016, CC Sabathia(notes) through 2015. The Yankees have three more contracts that potentially go through 2013, two more through 2012 and, yes, they are obligated to re-sign Derek Jeter(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes) after this season. They're about as flexible as a brick. And yet that hole in left field would look so good with Holliday, even if the Yankees aren't totally sold.

"It won't be a big-name situation," GM Brian Cashman said. "I can promise you that."

Boston's circumstances aren't as dire. The Red Sox have a projected $143 million for their 20 signed or arbitration-eligible players. Their only long-term commitments are Lackey and three club-friendly deals, Kevin Youkilis(notes), Jon Lester(notes) and Dustin Pedroia(notes). Next offseason, they shed David Ortiz(notes) and Mike Lowell's(notes) contracts, and though the mega-offseason of 2010-11 beckons – Joe Mauer(notes) and Victor Martinez(notes) and Carl Crawford(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) and Carlos Pena(notes), oh my – the prospect of the economy recovering and other teams rejoining free agency in earnest could prompt them to act now, even if it bring them perilously close to the luxury tax.

It's just so tempting. Among the best ways to properly value players is through a metric called Wins Above Replacement. WAR is rather simple: It takes a player's offensive and fielding statistics and translates them into an easy-to-digest number. The Yankees' players were worth a combined 56.9 WAR last year. A team of replacement players – solid at Triple-A, not good enough for the major leagues – is projected to win 46 games a year. Add the 56.9 and 46, and New York was expected to win 102.9 games. The Yankees went 103-59.

Now, the system isn't perfect. The leader in batting WAR last year was neither Albert Pujols(notes) nor Chase Utley(notes) nor Mauer. It was Ben Zobrist(notes). Still, it's a useful tool, and when it says Holliday was worth 5.7 wins last year – 13th among position players – that sounds about right.

Already this offseason the Yankees have replaced the seven wins they lost from Johnny Damon(notes), Hideki Matsui and Melky Cabrera(notes) with 12.4 from Vazquez, Curtis Granderson(notes) and Nick Johnson(notes). The Red Sox have done even better: Bay's 3.5 wins – so low because fielding metrics crush his value – and Alex Gonzalez's 1.2 wins have been replaced by 12.7 from Cameron, Lackey and Marco Scutaro(notes).

To add a Holliday or Bay would be the division-changing move of the offseason, though it seems the Yankees and Red Sox are playing a never-ending game of anything you can do, I can do better. And as disconcerting as that is to fans of the 17 teams without nine-figure payrolls, the paying customers who cringe at the Yankees and Red Sox adding the two best available players as luxury items, it's a reality that is changing no time soon.

The presence of either team could prompt the Cardinals and Mets to up their offers, making all of this moot in practice. In theory, it will live on as long as the Yankees and Red Sox continue to do what only they can: value shop with tens of millions of dollars.