But now that the Yankees have brought Chapman back to the Bronx on a staggering five-year, $86 million deal, the equation has changed. Last time, the Yankees assumed almost no risk. This time, while Chapman becomes the highest-paid closer in history, the Yankees’ risk is massive.
Plenty of teams shied away from Chapman this winter, not only because of the soaring price tag — ultimately, his Yankees deal blew away Mark Melancon’s four-year $62 million pact with San Francisco earlier this week as the richest in history for a closer — but also out of concern about his off-field behavior. Only two other teams, the Dodgers and Marlins, were known to have been involved in the Chapman talks at the end. Back when he was in his walk year, with a massive payday awaiting this winter, Chapman had every reason to be a model citizen, but plenty of people wondered whether that would change once he signed his big deal.
As for his performance, there are no red flags. He is as good at age 28 — a 1.55 ERA, 0.862 WHIP and 14 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016 — as he was as a 22-year-old rookie in 2010. He is a freak of nature, a marvel to behold — a 6-foot-4 bundle of muscle and sinew who regularly hits 103 mph on the radar gun. But that, in itself, is a red flag of sorts when evaluating Chapman’s long-term prospects. History has not been kind in the long run to pitchers who regularly throw that hard, with a growing body of evidence suggesting the human elbow and shoulder simply are not designed to throw a baseball that hard for that long. Perhaps he is an outlier in that regard. Perhaps not.
Should Chapman run into arm issues or should his performance simply fall off, the Yankees will be stuck with him. He has both an opt-out clause after three years and favorable no-trade protection (full protection for three years and partial for the last two).
Beyond that, the Chapman signing sends mixed signals about the Yankees’ plan. The last couple of years have seen them shedding payroll and trying to build around youth. They essentially sat out last winter’s free agent market and had done little this winter beyond signing veteran outfielder/designated hitter Matt Holliday to a one-year deal. They were getting younger and more flexible, seeking to build a foundation of young talent ahead of the vaunted free agent class of 2018, which could include names such as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Clayton Kershaw. It’s not that the Yankees had no hopes of contending in 2017; it simply didn’t set up as a go-for-it season.
This also wasn’t a move the Yankees needed to make for 2017, not when they already had a proven reliever capable of closing in Dellin Betances. But obviously, the bullpen is better and deeper with both of them. Betances is under club control through 2019, and the last thing the Yankees will want to do is go spending tens of millions on late-inning relief that offseason, when they already will be paying Chapman nearly $18 million per year.
In shelling out record-setting money for Chapman as if this were still the heyday of The Boss, the Yankees may see him as a critical bridge between this phase and the next one — an elite closer who can help them win games and maintain a kernel of hope of contending in 2017, then be the kind of lockdown, late-inning weapon he was this fall once the rebuilt, restocked Yankees start taking aim at some championships in a few years.
But that vision assumes plenty goes right for both the Yankees and Chapman between now and then — and perhaps it will. But plenty could also go wrong, and if it does, it is the Yankees — and not Chapman — who will pay.