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More thoughts on the Hall of Fame ballot

A VERY QUICK NOTE ON ARBITRATION OFFERS
As you have very likely seen by now, the Yankees have declined to offer arbitration to any of their free agents. They have elected not to get tied into an inflexible negotiating position with any of their veterans. The downside to this decision is that if Johnny Damon leaves the Yankees won’t pick up a free draft pick.

Now, on the positive side, this decision doesn’t mean that Damon and pals are definitely gone. The Yankees can keep talking to as many of their free agents as they’re interested in retaining, even Xavier Nady. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ’til the fat agent sings (about signing with another team). Meanwhile, a handful of players were offered arbitration, including some players that have been rumored to attract the roving eye of Brian Cashman to one degree or another–Chone Figgins, John Lackey, Mike Gonzalez, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. If the Yankees were to bring in any of these fellows, they would punt away their first-round draft pick for next June. Given that the Yankees actually do things with their draft picks these days, it is to be hoped that the penalty attached to signing these cats would act as a severe disincentive to action. With Curtis Granderson and Roy Halladay out there to be pursued in trade, there’s no reason for the Yankees to feel like they absolutely most sign a free agent.

mattingly_250_120209.jpgIF I WERE A VOTE-MAN CONTINUED
Continuing our review of the Hall of Fame ballot…

Barry Larkin: One of the best offensive shortstops in history, with Jeter-like batting results in most seasons. He was an excellent glove in his prime, and his Reds won a World Series, something that seems impossible now. An MVP award attests to the high regard in which he was held during his career, as do 12 All-Star game selections. His main weakness was that he had trouble staying on the field, but his career totals are just fine in spite of that. He could hit .300, steal 40 bases at an excellent percentage, was willing to take a walk and hit almost 200 home runs. He’s a no-brainer Hall of Famer.

Edgar Martinez: Let’s get one thing out of the way: if designated hitter is a legal position, then there should be no penalty for playing there. Martinez was not a good glove at third, where he started, and he might or might not have been a decent first baseman but he was fragile and the Mariners had other options. Thus, the DH position allowed Martinez to reduce his injury risk and made him a pure asset instead of a compromised defender. Those seem like good things. Martinez was one of the best right-handed hitters of recent years–you might recall him personally dismantling Buck Showalter’s career in the 1995 ALDS. He won two batting titles, led the league in on-base percentage three times. A career .312/.418/.515 hitter, depending on how you adjust for era, Martinez figures as one of the 30- to 50-best hitters of all time. His career totals are a bit short of the big round numbers the voters typically like to see mainly because the Mariners weren’t smart enough to start playing him regularly until he was 27–he had to prove he could hit a Triple-A three times over before they gave him a real chance. This is one of the reasons the Mariners were a complete loss from expansion until the mid-90s. That’s not Martinez’s fault and he shouldn’t be penalized for it. He’s in my Hall.

Don Mattingly: Back in the early days of the Pinstriped Bible the readers and I spent thousands of words arguing Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case. I should re-run those one of these days. Suffice it to say that, in the days when feelings about Mattingly were still fresh, emotions ran high when I suggested that Mattingly’s short peak period didn’t quite qualify him for entry. This was a painful thing for me, because Mattingly was the player who really changed me from a very casual baseball fan to someone who would eventually end up writing about baseball for a living. Donnie Baseball had four Hall of Fame-level seasons, perhaps three more that were very good but not of that quality, and six seasons that really didn’t help. These were the post-back injury years–I still mourn that injury. As good as Mattingly was from 1984-1987–and despite the greatness of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, A-Rod, and the rest, I still haven’t seen anyone better–his peak just wasn’t long enough.

Fred McGriff: The Crime Dog confuses me. I wouldn’t hold up a true Hall of Famer over seven missing home runs. That would be pathetically small-minded and arbitrary. His offensive abilities were clearly worthy of enshrinement. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional slugger, but also walked and hit for solid averages. He played on five postseason teams and picked up a winning ring. At the same time, he wasn’t much of a fielder (though he was good enough at first to get over 2000 games there), not at all a baserunner. He never came close to winning an MVP award. He was just quietly good for about 18 years. I really have no idea what to do with him. The back of his baseball card says yes, but I just don’t have that feeling about him.

Jack Morris: The quintessential “league-average innings eater,” people mistake him for an ace because of one of the great World Series performances. You have to make crazy excuses and explanations to force him into the Hall. Walter Johnson was reputed to pitch to the score too, but still managed to post dominant numbers. Pass.

Dale Murphy: An excellent player on a mostly miserable team, in the late ’80s you could turn on TBS and the games were so sparsely attended that the crowd mic would clearly pick up the players talking to each other on the field. I tend to discount him on two levels: first, his peak was relatively brief. Second, he was a product of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, hitting .285/.374/.513 at what was called the Launching Pad, but only .251/.329/.445. He was a good player, and a much-admired one, but given that park advantage, even his best seasons aren’t quite as big as they should be to put him in the Hall given the brevity of his career.

Dave Parker: In the first Hall of Fame entry, I said of Andre Dawson that as a center fielder he was a Hall of Famer, while as a right fielder he was Jermaine Dye. A similar bifurcation can be observed in Parker’s career. For about five years in the 1970s, Parker was a .300 hitter with power, speed, and a killer throwing arm (26 assists in 1977!). After that, but for the 1985 season he was just a guy, and often not a very good one, overweight and impatient at the plate. From 1980 on, a span of nearly 1,600 games, his hit only .275/.322/.444. The overall career is still impressive due to his longevity and the height of his peak years, but his case for Cooperstown comes down to about six seasons, and as with Mattingly, that’s not quite enough for me.

WE’LL WRAP UP THE BALLOT…
…In our next installment.

Tommy Henrich, a great player and man

FAREWELL, TOMMY HENRICH
One of the great Yankees passed away today. Tommy Henrich, an outfielder and first baseman with the Yankees from 1937 through 1950 (with a break for three years of World War II) has died at the age of 96. Mel Allen named him “Old Reliable” because of his reputation for delivering in the clutch. One of my favorite lines about Henrich was written by sportswriter Tom Meany during the 1949 season when for the first three quarters of the season Henrich was the only Yankee who stayed healthy — then he got hurt too, having run into an outfield wall:

Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the 1949 season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run to win the pennant for the Yankees in the closing game of the season. Tommy Henrich hit a home run for the Yankees to win the opening game of the World Series. What’s the matter with the guy? Is he in a rut?”

henrich360_120109.jpgHenrich (middle) made up one-third of the greatest Yankees outfield with Charlie Keller (second from left) and Joe DiMaggio (second from right). Given frequent injuries, which he either missed time for or ruined his stats playing through, a bit of platooning, the war, and a late start to his career, Henrich’s career numbers don’t really show how good a player he was — he only had a few seasons where he played a full campaign and hit up to his full capabilities. That said, even below-peak Henrich was very good. He had power, hit for good averages, and walked 80 to 90 times a year. I’m trying to think of a contemporary player who is a good match for Henrich. Baseball Reference.com cites J.D. Drew as a comp for Henrich, and statistically it’s right on. Drew, however, provokes a lot of negative reactions while Henrich was not only completely uncontroversial but widely admired for his professionalism. In that sense, the comparison doesn’t fit. Henrich hit like Drew and had Don Mattingly’s attitude — perhaps that does the trick.

Henrich’s career might have been a little different had he not signed with the Indians as an amateur. He got buried in their farm system and it took a direct appeal to the Commissioner to get him out of his contract. Declared a free agent, the Ohio native decided he liked the Yankees best. He was sent to Newark for about three seconds and hit .440. Simultaneously, veteran outfielder Roy Johnson greatly annoyed Yankees manager Joe McCarthy. After the Yankees, who were playing with their usual excellent form of those days, dropped a close game, McCarthy groused in the clubhouse. “Does he expect us to win them all?” Johnson replied flippantly. Actually, that’s exactly what McCarthy expected. Johnson was instantly released and Henrich was recalled.

The two most famous plays of Henrich’s career came in the World Series. The lesser known of the two was the walk-off home run that broke a zero-zero tie and won the first game of the 1949 Series. The other occurred in the top of the ninth of Game 4 of the 1941 Series against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. The Yankees came to bat in that frame trailing 4-3. Dodgers ace reliever Hugh Casey was in the game. The first two batters of the inning grounded out. Henrich came to bat. The count went to 3-2 and Casey fired off his put-away pitch, a sinker. Henrich swung and missed, but the ball ticked off of catcher Mickey Owens’ glove and rolled behind the plate. Owens got after the ball in fairly good form, but Henrich beat the play at first.

With that, the wheels came off for Casey and the Dodgers. DiMaggio singled. Keller doubled to right, scoring both Henrich and Joe D. Bill Dickey walked. Joe Gordon doubled to left field, scoring Keller and Dickey. By the time Casey finally recorded the final out, the Yankees were up, 7-4. Yankees’ fireman Johnny Murphy got the Dodgers in order in the bottom of the ninth and the World Series, which could have been tied at 2-2, was now 3-1 in favor of the Bombers. The Yankees would close the series out behind pitcher Tiny Bonham the next day. Henrich homered in the fifth.

Henrich had been in ill health for years, but in the early 1990s he would still give the odd interview, talking candidly about the great Yankees teams he played for and his relationships with (each in their own way) outsized and difficult personalities like DiMaggio and Casey Stengel, or Lou Gehrig and McCarthy. I always wished I could have heard more — I would have listened for hours.

It’s one thing to be remembered as a great baseball player. It’s another thing altogether to be recalled as a great professional, a great teammate, and a good man. I’ve never heard or read a word said about Henrich that detracted from the image of a man who was a pleasure to be around, who was always ready to play, who set an example for his colleagues. Tommy Henrich really was Old Reliable in every sense of the name. You can’t ask for a greater legacy than that.

The Hall of Fame: The almost-rans

alomar250.jpgIF I WERE A VOTE-MAN
The Hall of Fame ballot was released at the end of last week. My votes, if I had one:

Roberto Alomar: The spitting episode weighs heavily on my mind. On the other hand, the Hall of Fame is nothing if not a refuge for scoundrels. Let us concentrate, then, on Alomar’s career, which had a relatively short quality phase — he fizzled at 33. Still, the seasons that he had until that point were quite strong, particularly by the standards of the middle infield, and he was an ace defender during those years as well. He played on seven postseason teams and won two World Series. He’s not a slam dunk to me, but he’s not a bad candidate either. That’s a lukewarm endorsement, but it’s as worked up as I can get about a player who permanently lost my respect years ago, even if Cap Anson and Ty Cobb were worse people.

Kevin Appier: A very good pitcher whose injury problems prevented him from piling up big career stats. He probably should have won the Cy Young award in 1993 (Jack McDowell got it despite not being nearly as good), but even that wouldn’t quite put him over the top.

Harold Baines: Bill Veeck’s last gift to the game is a surprisingly good candidate. Sure, he was a longtime designated hitter, but that position is as valid as any other. Baines had many good seasons without ever having a great one. Normally I object to the dismissive description of a player as a “compiler,” but the description fits Baines. That said, consistency is an underrated skill. Further, Hal’s peak came in a tough park during a relative pitcher’s era, and had his career started ten years later his numbers would look very different (without being any better, of course). He’s not quite a Hall of Famer to me, but the sum of his career is greater than its parts.

Bert Blyleven: One of several controversial candidates, others will rehash his qualifications at great length, so I’ll keep this short except to say that I strongly believe he should be in. He’s got the wins, he’s got the strikeouts, he’s got the ERA, he’s got the longevity. Holding a pitcher up over 13 wins is arbitrary and small-minded.

Ellis Burks: A very good player for almost 20 years, with numbers somewhat goosed by a stay in Colorado. A million injuries cut down on his career and season totals, as well as prevented him from making more than a couple of All-Star teams or winning an MVP award. He’s very good by the general standards of center field, but he wasn’t a great centerfielder and didn’t stay there in any case.  

Andre Dawson: As the elevation of Jim Rice has opened the door to pretty much everyone, I expect Dawson will get in at some point. Criminally underrated in his prime, he was criminally overrated after. The Expos centerfielder was a Hall of Famer. The Cubs rightfielder was no better than Jermaine Dye. There was much more of the latter in his career than the former.

Andres Galarraga: An interesting player who fell apart in his late 20s, only to rebound after working with Don Baylor, then overcame cancer at 39 to post a strong comeback season with the Braves. He struck out a lot, walked a little and hit a bunch of home runs for the Rockies. Even if you treat his Colorado stats as being of equal worth to those he compiled elsewhere, there’s just not enough here to justify enshrinement.

Pat Hentgen: A good pitcher for a couple of years, he won a deserved Cy Young award in 1996 for a season that wasn’t particularly special by the standards of award-winning seasons. He paid a high price for pitching a million innings in 1996 and 1997, and his career totals aren’t anything special.

Mike Jackson: An excellent setup man for what seemed like 30 years, Jackson pitched in over 1000 games. He was only a closer for a few scattered seasons.  He was an asset to many a bullpen, but his career wasn’t remarkable in any way. His 1998 season with Cleveland (40 saves, 1.55 ERA) was top quality, but you need more than one of those to be a Hall of Famer.

Eric Karros: Even with Dodger Stadium working against his overall numbers, Karros was just a so-so hitter for a first baseman, with career rates of .268/.325/.454, and he stopped being interesting at 31.

Ray Lankford: Lankford was one of those all-around talents who did a lot of things well but got hurt a lot, got platooned a lot, had a couple of work-stoppages in his prime. As such, his seasons mostly don’t look like anything, and his career totals are unimpressive. Had things broken a little differently he might have had a few 30-30 seasons and looked like a completely different player. As it was he was quite good, but he never attained the kind of high profile he deserved. Either way, he’s not a Hall of Fame candidate, but he was plenty good.

Next time, the more interesting guys on the ballot: Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Tim Raines, Shane Reynolds, David Segui, Lee Smith, Alan Trammell, Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile.

Who would I sign?

FOLLOW-UPS
A couple of quick responses to the comments here on the eve of the long weekend:

? I listed a few outfielders not to sign. Who would I sign? As I’ve said in weeks past, I would bring back Hideki Matsui if the contract length was manageable. There are worse things than having a regular designated hitter–sure, it messes up roster flexibility, but those teams that don’t often wind up with a mélange at the position that proves to be not all that productive. This will be especially true for the Yankees if Matsui yields to Jorge Posada, which in turn opens up more playing time for Francisco Cervelli. Matsui’s skill set will probably age better than Damon’s. As for left field, I’d like to know what the trade market has in it and what the free agent situation looks like after non-tenders. Failing that, the Yankees might be able to engineer a platoon or rotation of some lower-cost players like Coco Crisp (assuming he can throw after shoulder surgery), Rick Ankiel and Austin Jackson. If they go with transient players in left for 2010, they can take a shot at free agent Carl Crawford next winter.

? In answer to another question: Scott Podsednik is pretty depressing. He’s a career .277/.340/.381 hitter, and even when he hits well by his standards, as he did this year, he’s not all that productive. His stolen base percentage was also on the low side of being acceptability, and if he can’t steal bases at a good percentage, he can’t really do anything. He’s also less of a fielder than you would expect given his speed. As for taking a flyer on rehabbing pitchers like Erik Bedard, Rich Harden and Ben Sheets, if the price is right it’s really all upside, and the thing to like about those guys, unlike betting on a Chien-Ming Wang comeback, is when they’re healthy they get batters to swing and miss.

? Some friends of mine are having a ham for Thanksgiving instead of a turkey. Anyone get a ham and Coke-glaze it in the Southern tradition? Anyone brave enough to deep-fry a turkey? Me, I’m wondering if I can get Chinese delivered tomorrow.

? Offering Damon arbitration seems like a good gamble to me on two levels. If he accepts you pay a high price in cash but you’re only committed to him for the season, so if he tanks you can even eat the money and let him go before the year is over. If he leaves, you get a first-round pick from whatever club signs him. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

? “Mr. Goldman, You sound like a major country leader we all know!” Stop picking on Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. He’s trying his best, darn it.

? A happy Thanksgiving to all who are into that kind of thing.

The Hot Stove is Cooking with Turkey

Randy_Winn_275.jpgSTATEMENT OF BELIEFS
Thursday my family will celebrate Thanksgiving. I’m not going.
On Friday there is a pre-party for my 20th high school reunion. I’m not going.
On Saturday, my high school reunion itself takes place. I’m not going.

If you want to find me, I’m here at the Pinstriped Bible.

A BAKER’S DOZEN OF HOT STOVE THOUGHTS
1. Five veteran outfield free agents who would should be avoided if the Yankees don’t come to terms with Johnny Damon (hint: there are more than five, but this is just a selection):
(a)    Garret Anderson: Overrated in his prime, but an offensive and defensive millstone for four of the last five years.

(b)    Marlon Byrd: rates before coming to the Rangers: .263/.327/.373. Overall rates as a Ranger: .295/.352/.468. Rates at home as a Ranger: .309/.375/.522. Rates away from the Rangers’ comfy ballpark: .281/.328/.414.

(c)    Randy Winn: Signing a 36-year-old corner outfielder coming off of a .262/.318/.353 season is never wise, especially when the player’s central offensive skill is hitting for average.

(d)    Jermaine Dye: Old, defensively challenged, never a great on-base guy, and bats from the wrong side of the plate.

(e)    Mike Cameron: Was still very good last year, but he turns 37 in January.

2. One of the most intriguing teams to track this winter is the Marlins. Even after dealing Jeremy Hermida to the Red Sox, they have 11 arbitration-eligible players, and if the Marlins hate anything it’s players getting raises. Any of them could be non-tender candidates, which is to say instant free agents, on December 12. All of them could be dealt at some point between now and then, including ace Josh Johnson, hard-throwing lefty reliever Matt Lindstrom, outfielder Cody Ross, and infielder Dan Uggla. The Yankees would probably have interest in the two pitchers mentioned, and Ross wouldn’t be a bad catch either given the team’s shallow outfield collection.

3. Something I think about every year at this time: I want to see MLB commercials during the Thanksgiving football games. I want to see shots of Derek Jeter standing next to his Christmas tree in a flannel bathrobe, taking practice cuts with a bat over the words, “Spring Training is just around the corner.” Right after the Superbowl-winning quarterback says “I’m going to Disney World!” I want to see another spot with Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer saying they’re going to Disney World too — on the way to camp.

4. It was reported yesterday that Andy Pettitte will take his time figuring out what he wants to do with his life. If you’re the Yankees, how long do you give Pettitte before you move on? He’s a great pitcher and a great Yankee, but you can’t just hold a spot for him until all the Halladays are over.

5. I don’t think there’s anything the Mets can do this winter to be a contender next year, not because they don’t have the money to make real moves — although maybe they don’t — but because they don’t have the kind of braintrust that will allow them to rebuild quickly, the Minor League depth isn’t there to make trades or enjoy impact promotions, and the free agent market is weak. If healthy, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, and Francisco Rodriguez make for a very nice core, but they’re not enough.

6. The Orioles are roughly in the same position the Braves were in circa 1990, and need to do what the Braves did — shore up their defense. The development of their young pitching staff depends on it.

7. Joe Torre has always preferred glove-first catchers — Jorge Posada was an anomaly for him, one he embraced reluctantly. That’s why it’s ironic that Russell Martin’s bat has died on Torre’s watch. The Dodgers have to fix Russell, or deal him to someone who can. Unfortunately, the Dodgers prospect who should be pressing Russell for playing time, Carlos Santana, is now the property of the Cleveland Indians.

8. I understand that one good way to avoid a dry turkey on Thanksgiving is to brine it before cooking. I would like to try that technique on the people who come to Thanksgiving dinner. On a related note, I think I would enjoy Thanksgiving more if the traditional holiday dish was fajitas.

9. How many years will Marco Scutaro get for the best (read: fluke) season of his career, and which team will reap the disappointing returns?

10. Britt Burns was named pitching coordinator for the Astros on Monday. I still wonder how the 1980s might have been different for the Yankees had Burns, who was acquired in December, 1985 for Joe Cowley, Ron Hassey, and a couple of never-to-develop minor leaguers, hadn’t had his career ended by a degenerative hip problem.

11. The really is nothing funnier than singing sheep, at least not to me, right here, right now.

12. If the Red Sox do manage to trade Mike Lowell and pick up Adrian Gonzalez (sliding Kevin Youkilis over to third), that by itself won’t be enough.

13. Contrary to popular superstition, it is not bad luck to feign illness at Thanksgiving time. If more people feigned illness at this time of year, countless uncomfortable and frankly painful family gatherings could be avoided. If you are still uncomfortable feigning illness to avoid Thanksgiving, you can try hiding in a box.

Jeter received the hype, but not the award

JETER HYPE OVERSTATED
The AL Most Valuable Player vote is in and it’s Joe Mauer. No surprise there, but the frequent mutterings down the stretch that Derek Jeter would receive a kind of John Wayne-“True Grit” career achievement MVP award proved to be pure fantasy. Mauer received 27 of 28 first-place votes, the remaining first-place ballot going, somewhat inexplicably, to Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers. Jeter did not receive a single first-place vote, and his own teammate, Mark Teixeira, out-polled him in second-place votes, 15-9, third-place votes, 6-5, and fourth-place votes, 4-3. Total points for the top three finishers: Mauer, 387; Teixeira, 225; Jeter 193.

mauer215_112309.jpgMauer had a historic year at catcher, even having missed the first month, and there should be nothing remotely controversial in his winning the award. What is more interesting is the way the rest of the votes fell, and the apparent perception that Teixeira, a first baseman having a very good but by no means great season. Jeter had a season that ranks among the top 25 by a shortstop in the past 60 years. Both were integral to the success the Yankees experienced this season, but there’s a huge difference between a shortstop contributing at the level that Jeter did and a first baseman doing what Teixeira did.

In the end, I suppose it doesn’t matter — Jeter has been robbed in previous awards voting. He wasn’t robbed this time. This is more a cri de coeur against misapprehensions about the replacement value of a great shortstop season versus a good season by a first baseman. Before anyone jumps on me for saying Teixeira’s season was “good,” not “great,” it’s not meant as an insult. It’s just that the hitting standards at first base are so ridiculously high that to call Teixeira’s season great would be ludicrous given the existence of Albert Pujols.

In the end, we should probably be thankful that Jeter did not get a career-achievement MVP award. That John Wayne got an award for “True Grit” doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t even get nominated for “The Searchers” (indeed, “The Searchers” was not nominated for a darned thing), “Red River,” or even his gritty sergeant with a heart of gold in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (he was nominated but lost to Broderick Crawford chewing up the drapes in “All the King’s Men”). Henry Fonda getting a deathbed for “On Golden Pond” doesn’t forgive the lack of notice for “Young Mr. Lincoln,” “The Grapes of Wrath” (nominated but lost to Jimmy Stewart for “The Philadelphia Story”), or “Fort Apache,” among others. Cary Grant’s honorary award doesn’t make up for the lack of recognition for “His Girl Friday” or “Only Angels Have Wings,” to name just two. These are apologies, not awards that carry the power of in-the-moment recognition.

As I said, Mauer deserved the award, but there is a certain sadness that Jeter, one of the most-celebrated players of his day, will never get an MVP award despite playing excellently on five World Series winners. It’s a strange discordance that he was both the best and someone else was always perceived to be better — apparently including Miguel flippin’ Cabrera, who went out on a drinking binge and brawled with his wife during the Tigers’ last series against the Twins. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski had to go pick him up at the police station. That vote is not only an insult to Jeter, it’s an insult to Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Ben Zobrist, and every other candidate for the award — not to mention that everything I said about the replacement value of a first baseman versus more demanding positions goes double for Cabrera, a mediocre fielder. Cabrera is a heck of a hitter and carried the weak Tigers offense, but yipes, if you truly thought he was a better or more important player than Mauer, Jeter, Teixeira, Zobrist, Youkilis… You either weren’t paying attention and you don’t understand the game… And don’t even get me started on fifth-place finisher Kendry Morales, who wasn’t one of the 20-most valuable players in the league. It’s pretty hard to be most valuable when you have a .355 OBP, but home runs and RBIs still forgive so much. How can Morales have been more valuable than Evan Longoria, or Alex Rodriguez, who propelled the Yankees out of a terrible rut when he came off of the disabled list?

Ah, forget it. I’m going off to watch “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Do not disturb.

Mystery day Friday

MYSTERIES OF ARIZONA
Riddle me this, Batman: when is it a bad thing when a prospect has a great Arizona Fall League season, batting .397/.472/.731? Answer: when the prospect isn’t a prospect.

Colin Curtis, 25 in February, was the Yankees’ fourth-round selection in the 2006 draft, one of those so-called “polished college hitters” that don’t have much projection but should at least be able to give you a little something in the way of the league averages. Instead, he’s been a complete disaster since rookie ball, hitting an aggregate .264/.334/.375 in 431 games. This year he pancaked at Scranton, hitting .235/.302/.347. He was a bit better at Trenton, hitting .268/.343/.385, but that’s still not anything to get excited about.

Now Curtis had a great small-sample session in a league which bans gravity at exactly the same moment that the Yankees have to figure out which players to protect from the Rule 5 draft. The Yankees can gamble that Curtis’s last 20 games outweigh the 400 that came before, protect him, and lose someone who has a chance to actually do something, or they can let him dangle and see if anyone else is fooled by his little hot streak.

Curtis had a great AFL, and his five home runs in 78 at-bats is impressive, but if this truly marks a career change, then Curtis has had an awakening equivalent to the Blue Fairy coming down and zapping Pinocchio to life. These numbers are unrealistic for any player this side of Babe Ruth, and in this case it’s a sure thing that something that seems too good to be true is too good to be true.

It should be noted that most Rule 5 picks come to naught. Every once in awhile a George Bell will wash up on the beach, but these are few and far between, and getting them to a place where they can contribute involves much in the way of pain and suffering–Bell hit .233/.256/.350 in 60 games the year the Blue Jays took him away from the Phillies. This season the Rangers ended up with a solid reliever in Darren O’Day, who the Mets had Rule 5’d from the Angels (and then gave up on far too quickly). Mostly, though, it doesn’t pay to get too exercised about the players lost this way, so if the Yankees lose someone interesting after protecting Curtis, you can spin up your Doris Day records–Que Sera, Sera (or Sly Stone, preferably). Still, there’s always that chance that someone useful will slip out because the organization bet the wrong horse, perhaps a horse on a desert-fueled hot streak.

swisher_250_112009.jpgMYSTERIES OF SWISHER
Bob Nightengale has mooted it about (h/t to the swell guys at the LoHud blog that the Yankees have “ever so quietly” told other clubs that Nick Swisher is available in trade. Interesting bit of information, but another shoe has to drop there. If this is correct, then the whole Yankees outfield is down to Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner and Austin Jackson. Johnny Damon is a free agent, Hideki Matsui likewise, if you want to consider him a potential outfielder (the Yankees don’t), and even Freddy flippin’ Guzman is no longer under club control.

Swisher has many faults, and an upgrade would be welcome, but for all his negatives, players who have the potential to hit 30 home runs with 100 walks aren’t easily found. That guy isn’t on the free agent market, unless the Yankees are going to ante up for Jason Bay, who is older, more expensive, not a good defender, and was not 10 percent better than Swisher this year. Sure, you have the added benefit of taking him away from the Red Sox, but Swisher is due only $6.75 million in 2010 and with two outfield spots open, the Yankees could use both. Adding one while subtracting the other puts you right back where you started, if not a little worse off.

If they Yankees are not planning on buying Bay, then I’m mystified as to where dealing away Swisher might lead. There would have to be a truly Olympian trade in the works, where the Yankees suddenly were in possession of Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, or Clark Kent, but those things are about as likely as your winning the lottery and getting a date with Megan Fox on the same day.

One player that I keep thinking of as a solid DH replacement for Matsui, one who could help stem the loss of an OBP-oriented player like Swisher, would be old pal Nick Johnson. Johnson is like a paper-mâché version of Matsui in terms of his durability and defensive utility (he has none and none respectively), and a three-legged moose might beat him in a race around the bases, but perhaps a year of sitting on the bench and doing nothing but hit might be survivable for him.

This year Johnson showed that even though he missed a good chunk of the last couple of years, he could still hit .295 with 100 walks. He’d likely also be less expensive than some of the bigger names out there and is only a Type B free agent, meaning that the Marlins would not get to poach the Yankees’ first-round pick. I’m not campaigning for Johnson the way I did for Mark Teixeira a year ago–he’s just one of many possible solutions this time around in a free agent market that lacks the slam-dunk candidates of last winter.

The garden of Halladay

halladay_250_111909.jpgSince new Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos let it be known that he would not object to trading Roy Halladay within the American League East, there has been much speculation about another Yankees-Red Sox competition for the veteran right-hander’s services. If true, this almost ensures that Halladay will be traded in the division, because these are two teams deep in resources who will be motivated to top each other, thus escalating their offers above and beyond what teams outside the division would be willing to offer.

This news is both exhilarating and depressing. The Yankees just won a World Series by leaning on three starters, and their 2010 rotation is unsettled beyond CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Halladay is one of the best starters in the game and an additional asset in new Yankee Stadium given his groundball tendencies. The depressing part is that Halladay will cost a lot, particularly if the Red Sox and other teams are bidding up the price. It would be sad to see Phil Hughes and Jesus Montero blossom in a Blue Jays uniform. Halladay will be 33 next year, while Montero will be 20, so even if Halladay spends the next five years in pinstripes, Montero will still be in his prime for years after the Doc has checked out.

The “other hand” to that is that flags fly forever, and maybe you trade 20 years of Montero for two more World Series appearances with the present group. Perhaps by that time there will be some other Montero around to distract from the 30 homers a year the original is hitting at the Rogers Centre. On yet another hand (the fifteenth hand, I believe), the Yankees’ position players are rapidly aging, and keeping a player like Montero around may help keep them competitive in ways beyond what Halladay might contribute. We’re lost in Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths here.

Were the Yankees to let the cup of Halladay pass from their lips, it might not be a bad thing. The odds are that Hughes or whoever the Yankees might trade won’t develop into a Cy Young pitcher of Halladay’s caliber, but they might, or might be good enough that the Yankees prosper anyway. Hughes will be 24 next year. In seven years he’ll be 31. Seven years from now, Halladay could be on the golf course 12 months a year. Were he to go to the Red Sox it would be a tough thing, as Halladay has pitched very well against the Yankees over the years (though not nearly so well against the Red Sox), but like the Yankees, the Red Sox have problems that Halladay can’t solve; in fact the same problem, an aging roster. The replacements that Theo Epstein trades for Halladay in December he might need by July.

Here’s another argument for trading for Halladay: Commissioner Selig and his umbrella Perkins say that each postseason series will not have 43 days off between games next year, with no series running less than six weeks each. As such, were the Yankees again to make it to October with just three trustworthy starters, Coffee Joe could not get around it by starting the Golden Trio on short rest–that fourth starter would almost certainly come into play. In addition, the same relievers could not be used in every game. If Halladay gives you anything, he gives you length, so he would be a help to any team trying to work through a more reasonable schedule.

And then there’s the Mayan calendar. If that’s right, then none of this matters anyway.

ANGELS PATRONIZED

I’m offended by the notion that what put Mike Scioscia on top for the American League Manager of the Year award is that his team succeeded despite Nick Adenahrt’s death. Adenhart’s death was tragic and futile, and no doubt the young men of the Angels’ organization were deeply affected. That said, I have more faith in the professionalism of the ballplayers on that team, a fairly seasoned lot, than to believe they would have packed it in on April 9 for any reason, no matter how upsetting.

Further, as one who deals with existentially-flavored depression on a fairly regular basis, I find it impossible to believe that any manager, Scioscia, Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, Connie Mack, John McGraw, could jolly anyone out of a true bout of sadness. Words just don’t mean that much when you’re staring into the abyss. Nor has anyone said that Scioscia held individual counseling sessions or did anything out of the norm except report to work and keep making out his lineup cards. What else can you do in such a situation except keep playing?

Finally, in the most basic baseball sense of things, the loss of Adenhart was not necessarily something decisive the Angels had to overcome. While he was projected to be a big part of the team, and certainly had talent, he had not yet established himself in the Majors. In the same way that Joba Chamberlain or Hughes has advanced one foot and retreated two, Adenhart might have had steps back in his future. Certainly his Minor League record suggests that would have been the case.

The Angels had many such baseball situations that they had to work through to get to the postseason. Howie Kendrick slumped early. Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter got hurt, as did John Lackey, Ervin Santana and key bullpen piece Scot Shields. Brian Fuentes was always a blown save away from losing his job. At the same time, they were also the only really solid team in a weak division, something you can’t say about Girardi’s Yankees and Terry Francona’s Red Sox, both of which had their own baseball-oriented problems to deal with. They didn’t have to confront death, and that’s something we can all be thankful for, but just because Scioscia’s team did have that occur doesn’t necessarily make him the best manager in the league last year. Treating Adenhart’s untimely demise as an excuse to lionize a manager is both trivializing and exploitative.

MORE OF ME, SORT OF
Last weekend, NPR had a “Write a song” contest. I was too swamped by the Baseball Prospectus annual to do much more than kibbitz about a few words in the item ultimately entered by my songwriting partnership, but perhaps that was a blessing to the song that was ultimately created. If you’re interested in a completely different and heretofore unpublicized aspect of my creative output (as here embodied by my collaborator, Dr. Rick Mohring), you can find it on the scroll list halfway down the page under the name “Casual Observer.” I hope you enjoy listening to our “Carrie and Pierre.”

Eric Duncan had promise, but was doomed

THOUGH HIS LORDSHIP’S STATION’S MIGHTY
THOUGH STUPENDOUS BE HIS BRAIN

These are the slow days. Sure, we’ve got the major awards coming out, but as far as actual movement, not much is happening. Clubs can’t negotiate with outside free agents until Friday, but even then, few players will move before December 1, the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to free agents. Those that receive an offer have a choice — they can take it and return to their team, or decline it and continue on in pursuit of a contract from a new team. If a Type A or Type B free agent is offered arbitration, he’ll cost the signing team a draft pick. Those that aren’t offered arbitration don’t cost anything but money. For obvious reasons, teams don’t want to punt a first-round pick for no reason — well, a few teams have punted them for a very specific reason, which is that if they don’t have a first-rounder, they don’t have to spend first-round money — it pays to wait until the offers have gone out. Signing a player before December 1 invokes the draft-pick penalty; since the players’ team didn’t have a chance to offer him arbitration it’s assumed that they would have. There isn’t much that Brian Cashman can or will do now except to survey the landscape, try to lay the groundwork for future deals, and wait for the market to coalesce.

ericduncan_275_111709.jpgPerhaps the best (only?) news surrounding the Yankees today is that the list of Minor League free agents is out, and among those able to depart the Yankees is 24-year-old corner infielder Eric Duncan. The New Jersey native was the Yankees’ first-round pick in 2003, the 27th player taken overall. With the benefit of hindsight, we can name a few players who were on the board at that time and actually made the Majors, which is something that Duncan will never do — Daric Barton, Carlos Quentin (No. 27), Matt Murton, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Adam Jones (No. 37), Scott Baker (No. 21 in the second round) and Andre Ethier (No. 25 in the second round). Several other fringier types have also made the climb. Three pitchers the Yankees drafted have made it — Tyler Clippard, T.J. Beam and Jeff Karstens. It was not a good draft.

Duncan had some things going for him when the Yankees took him, including good power and a solid batting eye for a teenager. Sadly, he never grew from there, never added anything else or developed the skills that he did have. There were some back injuries along the way that might have had something to do with, or perhaps Yankees scouts and decision-makers just missed, or there was some combination thereof at work. I once interviewed Duncan and he came across as someone who wasn’t having a great deal of fun. He was only 21 then. He’ll turn 25 in a few weeks, and I doubt he’s much happier now given that he hasn’t done anything of note in years. This season he batted .204/.242/.285 and was benched in the second half as the Yankees gave up on him.

Even had Duncan improved a great deal at the plate over the course of the last six years, he was probably doomed anyway. He was selected as a third baseman, but he never could field the position with any consistency, and the Yankees pushed him over to first base beginning in 2006. First base may be one of the most defensively forgiving positions, but it’s also the most offensively demanding, and any kid that moves over there had better learn to hit with real authority if he wants to have any kind of career. Production of, say, .250/.330/.430 may cut it at third base when combined with decent defense — heck, the Phillies just went to consecutive World Series with Pedro Feliz hitting less than that — but a team will only accept that kind of production at first base if they have absolutely no choice or they’re the Kansas City Royals, and the Yankees will never be mistaken for the Royals.

It would be nice to say that Duncan might prosper with a move to another organization, but it seems like it’s too late for that. For their part, the Yankees get to make a clean break with a mistake and an era in which they could do no right in the amateur draft (if they need help staying humble, they can always think about the gamble they took on Andrew Brackman). Alternative Triple-A third baseman Cody Ransom is also a free agent, as is Double-A third baseman Marcos Vechionacci, another non-prospect who once looked like he could develop something. It should be a clean sweep at the hot corner for the farm system, but don’t get too excited, as the Yankees didn’t really have anyone pushing them — though perhaps Brandon Laird’s good showing in the Arizona Fall League (.337/.406/.640 with six home runs in 86 at-bats) bodes well for his making the move up to Double-A Trenton in the spring, though I fear what the cold winds of Trenton will do to the home runs Laird must hit to advance himself.

The presumed end of Duncan in the Yankees organization (they could opt to re-sign him, though there is no real reason why they would) is another reminder that they’ve had much more success developing pitchers than position players in recent years. That’s not a criticism — there were literally decades where they couldn’t draft and develop anything — but a reminder that there is still more work to be done if the Yankees do not want to continue to be at the mercy of the free agent market when it comes to filling out the team’s needs.

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