Soon to be in pinstripes.

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Yankees Trade Morals for a Bargain

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The New York Yankees traded for Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, boosting an already formidable bullpen. Assuming nobody gets moved to another team, Chapman will join Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller to form what some are saying could be the greatest relieving corps ever assembled. 

And yet, this Yankee fan can't seem to bring herself to find joy in this trade. Considering Chapman's off-field issues, and how desperate the Reds were to rid themselves of a talented but troubled PR nightmare, this move reeks of gross opportunism.

To recap: Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Dodgers made a major push to trade for Chapman, with many erroneously reporting that a deal had been finalized. The deal fell apart after news surfaced of an October incident in which Chapman allegedly choked his girlfriend, pushed her into a wall, and fired eight gunshots in his garage. (The Boston Red Sox also reportedly backed away from trading for Chapman after hearing of the incident.) No charges were filed, and Major League Baseball is conducting an investigation, the first under its new domestic violence policy.

We'll get back to the MLB investigation in a minute, because it has major implications for Chapman's value and availability to the Yankees. But it doesn't look great that a team steeped in a self-created myth of professionalism sought to acquire a player deemed so volatile that at least two teams lost interest. As one friend told me last night, "We don't even let players grow beards -- now we're taking on someone the Dodgers won't even touch?"

To be fair, the Miami Marlins were also interested in trading for Chapman, and the Reds preferred the Yankees' offer, so New York wasn't alone in placing its baseball interests above all other considerations. And from a purely baseball standpoint, the move makes a lot of sense. Failing to add another quality arm to its group of aging and injury-prone starters, the Yankees have adopted the Kansas City Royals' strategy of shortening the game to six or seven innings with a lights-out bullpen. Under any other circumstances, this Yankee fan would be jumping for joy, marveling the shrewdness of general manager Brian Cashman.

But it wasn't just shrewdness that put Chapman in pinstripes -- it was also a willingness to look the other way. The only reason the Yankees were able to acquire Chapman for the low price of four middling prospects is because his domestic-violence incident lowered his value in the eyes of teams who made a judgment -- either moral or with an eye toward a potential Chapman suspension -- that they didn't want the guy donning their logo on the field. The Yankees took advantage of an inefficient market caused by a player allegedly beating his girlfriend. Is that really how we want to win?

After the deal was announced Monday, Cashman candidly stated that the Yankees were able to land Chapman because of his pending domestic-violence investigation. "I acknowledge that it’s an area of concern, certainly reflected in the asking price," he said. Cashman insisted the Yankees did their "due diligence" in looking into the accusations against Chapman. One has to wonder exactly what that entailed. 

Cashman, his bosses in the Steinbrenner family and the rest of the Yankee organization could learn a lesson from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose continued support for defensive end Greg Hardy has become a prime example of sports teams signing players who do very bad things at home because they can do very good things on the field. Hardy was convicted of beating his girlfriend and throwing her onto a pile of loaded assault rifles, and was subsequently released by the Carolina Panthers. (His conviction was later dismissed on appeal after his victim failed to appear in court.) Unlike Chapman, however, Hardy's incident apparently didn't hurt his market value -- the Dallas Cowboys subsequently signed him to a one-year contract worth up to $13 million, and might actually want to sign him to a longer-term deal.

The Hardy signing has predictably backfired. In his second game back from his four-game suspension for the domestic-violence incident, Hardy fought with teammate Dez Bryant and physically shoved coaches on the sidelines. There are those who try to explain away domestic violence by saying you can't be surprised when players whose job it is to be violent on the field take that aggression home with them. By the same token, you can't be surprised when a player who has shown an inability to control his anger in his private life misdirects it into the clubhouse.

The Yankees must now keep a very close eye on Chapman. At the very least, they could guide him toward anger management classes and domestic-violence education programs. They probably can't mandate that with the league yet to issue discipline, but a Yankee fan can dream. 

And so we return to MLB's investigation, which may be the first time the league issues punishment, if any, under its new domestic-violence policy. The question of whether Chapman gets suspended, and for how many games, is integral to the Yankees' strategy in trading for him. At first glance, a suspension would seem to throw a wrench in the Yankees' plan -- who wants to start the season missing a major acquisition? But it's not that simple. It would probably be better for the Yankees' image if Chapman were disciplined -- they could argue that he'd "paid his dues" and earned the right to return to baseball (though that same understanding wasn't afforded to Alex Rodriguez). Chapman is set to become a free agent after the 2016 season, and because of how service time works, a lengthy suspension could delay that to after the 2017 season. So the Yankees have a perverse incentive to hope he gets that long a penalty, allowing them to sign him for an additional at a price set in arbitration, likely lower than his market value.

That's all speculation -- we have no idea how Commissioner Rob Manfred will rule, or even a ballpark figure for the number of games a domestic-violence investigation could yield. But it all serves as a reminder that a team I and millions others root for managed to significantly improve its roster because a player may have beaten up a woman -- and that the incentives for both athlete and team seem to far outweigh the consequences.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net