Appreciating the Mo masterpiece

rivera_250.jpgMO, MO, MO (497 MORE MOS TO GO)
You can’t follow the Yankees without appreciating Mariano Rivera. He’s superhuman and yet human, approachable and professional. No doubt you’ve read a thousand thoughts along the same lines already today, so instead of heaping on more superlatives, let’s look at the actual record in all of its glorious length. Indeed, length is the key. What makes Rivera great is not only his rare dominance with one special pitch, but for just how long he’s maintained his high level of performance. Many closers rocket up the pop charts, but few have anything like the staying power of Rivera. Generate a list of the top 200 single-season performances of the last 55 years by a reliever (I’m using the context-sensitive wins added, or WXRL) and count everyone who appears on the list more than twice and this is what you get, ordered from lowest to highest:

3 Bruce Sutter
3 Eric Gagne
3 John Smoltz
3 Keith Foulke
3 Lee Smith
3 Lindy McDaniel
3 Randy Myers
3 Rollie Fingers
3 Stu Miller
4 Billy Wagner
4 Dan Quisenberry
4 Francisco Rodriguez
4 Joe Nathan
4 Trevor Hoffman
4 Troy Percival
4 Tug McGraw
5 Armando Benitez
5 Goose Gossage
9 Mariano Rivera

This is a fairer reflection of Rivera’s dominance than something more basic like seasons leading the league in saves-Rivera has done that only three times in 15 seasons. It’s not the number of saves that matters, it’s the quality of the performances, and no one has been as good as often as Rivera has. Twenty-four pitchers appear on the list only twice. There is normally a lot of turnover in the closer department, just as there is for all relievers. There is also much variability depending on how pitchers are used by their managers. Rivera has stuck there like no other pitcher in history. Throw in his extraordinary postseason work, his humanity and professionalism, and this is one inner-circle Hall of Famer that no one will be able to second-guess on induction day.

The future is now, but in order to win the American League pennant, the Yankees will need to fight the future. No doubt few readers pity Brian Cashman, but he’s in the difficult position of needing to win this year while also thinking about how the Yankees win next year and in the years going forward.

While this page never roots for a player to suffer injury and never will, the removal of Nady for the season (if confirmed) helps to clarify the outfield picture for the rest of the season, or at least until the trading deadline. Nady had some value, but on the whole, 30-walk a year players who don’t also hit .330 or slug .500 are to be avoided. Nady is a stopgap-level player. The Yankees needed that kind of help last year, but don’t this year. The Yankees, particularly Joe Girardi, devoted a lot of air to Nady’s contribution in 2008, but it would seem that the first impression was a lasting one, because .268/.320/.474 isn’t memorable by the standards of corner outfielders. There was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The Yankees would have found out why at their own peril. The troubling aspect of the affair was that they seemed willing, if not eager, to do so.

Ironically, they might need Nady-style assistance next season. With Nady’s contract up, that might be the end of him as a Yankee, but one could imagine the team signing him to a low-base, make-good contract, because the outfield shelves could be bare this winter. The contracts of Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon are up, and the arguments for bring each back are not strong. Matsui’s lack of mobility constricts the Yankees’ roster while his declining bat adds less than the team would should get for paying that price. Given his age, a multi-year contract would also be dangerous even if one expects a bounce-back next year, even if Matsui returns to Godzilla-style smashing in the second half (not that Matsui has been above Rodan-level in the U.S.).

Damon has obviously had a good year, and a couple of big nights in Atlanta and Queens have helped bring up his road numbers. Still, he too is 35, and there’s no guaranteeing that his Yankee Stadium II power boost is more than an ephemeral event. Last year, at 34, Damon was better than he had ever been before. This year he’s been better than that. That’s an unusual progression and one not likely to sustain itself over the course of another three-year contract, and perhaps even not over another two.

Thus, by the end of the World Series, three of the five current outfielders (counting the gimpy Matsui) could be in the wind. The free agent possibilities are not promising: Rick Ankiel, Jason Bay (if the Red Sox don’t extend him, which seems unlikely), Carl Crawford (a team option of $8.25 million seems likely to be picked up), senior citizen Vlad Guerrero, a long-ago Cashman crush vetoed by ownership, Randy Winn… There’s not much. Help won’t be coming from that direction.

Perhaps by the end of the year, Brett Gardner will have cemented himself in center field for a time. Melky Cabrera is not a sufficient bat for a corner, though the Yankees may choose to see him there, and at present levels, he can hit enough to be a rotating jack of all trades, though it should be noted that he’s going to be increasingly expensive in the coming seasons. As far as the farm system goes, you know about Austin Jackson (currently in a mini-slump). With two home runs, he doesn’t seem like a corner outfielder. A Jackson, Gardner, Cabrera outfield would be strong defensively but not very powerful. Swisher, who is signed through 2012, suddenly becomes very important in any conception of next year, not to mention this one.

This leads to an interesting question. If Matsui and Damon are truly to be gone next year, if Jackson is to be among the possible replacements, is it in the Yankees’ best interest to get him at least 100 plate appearances of Major League time this year? The answer is almost certainly “not yet”–while Jackson has had a solid season, his lack of power and moderate selectivity don’t portend production at the big league level. Remember, in the Majors the batting average is likely to slip, which leaves a medium walk rate and, at least this year, little in the way of power. This would change, though, if Jackson surged and/or Matsui or Damon began to slide. Then the needle that swings between present and future would be stuck exactly in the middle of the dial. 


  1. oldschoolyank

    Steve, good job, a ton of information here, hard to react to it all. Agree that Mariano’s longevity and level of excellence has no peers. Yes, he is a little more vulnerable on occasion, but he is still on the A-list of today’s closers. I wish he could throw a change or legitimate breaking ball, but you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. I’m perplexed by the possibilities, or there lack of, in the outfield. You look back at our great history of OFs and there has always been at least one, if not two guys, with a lot of pop. I don’t know how much Damon has left; seems to be in good shape and has the advantage of the home field when he hits, but his misadventures in the OF are difficult to choke down. Unfortunately, Godzilla has to move on, either back home or elsewhere in the AL–can’t imagine anyone picking up his price tag. Let’s get the first one vs. the M’s tomorrow night.

  2. bryan722

    Makes you wonder why the Yankees didn’t get Bay from the Pirates along with Marte instead of Nady. They just left him there for the Red Sox to scoop him up and it’s come back to bite them a few times this season. You left off Matt Holliday for free agent outfielders but his non-Coors numbers are leaving a lot to be desired. Although the way balls fly out of YS II he might put up some pretty good numbers in the Bronx.

  3. myle

    Lindy McDaniel made the short list, but not Sparky Lyle or John Wetteland?

    As an aside, when you have time please rank 7th/8th inning combos…I would like to see where Nelson and Stanton stack up!


    Does anyone remember specifically if the Yankees had a choice between Nady and Bay? I mean were the Pirates like “No way can you take Marte AND Bay. Either Bay alone, or Marte and Nady.” I don’t remember at all. In any case, if Cashman were given the choice between the two then it looks like he was ill-advised. I’m actually a Nady fan and I think he’s did a nice job filling in last year. Although the injury has been a killer to the judgement of that trade, I don’t really blame Cashman for not predicting that so I’ll give him a pass there. I don’t give him a pass on the choice given both players’ career production (once again, we’re playing the “If Both Players Were Equally Available At The Time of That Trade” game. Everyone is so impressed with what Bay is doing right now and I hear even some people say he’s become a great product of Fenway. Bay’s been doing this pretty much his whole career! I mean the guy’s got a career OPS+ of 131. Derek Jeter’s is only 120 (I use the word “only” quite relatively because 120 is ridiculously good, especially for a short stop). Bay isn’t succeeding now because he likes the change of scenery or his team chemistry is any better. He’s been doing this for 4-5 years now. I suppose it’s possible that Cashman was scared off by his 2007 season when he hit .247/.327/.418. That might have set off some red flags, but it turns out that was a fluke after all and this is the true Bay.
    Nady on the other hand has always been a nice little player who will hit well enough to hold his own in a lineup. He won’t carry a lineup, but he’ll do well enough. He’s also pretty decent in those clutch situations everyone loves so much (he and Bay are eerily close in those categories) so he really won’t lose you any games.
    Now I do remember the geniuses over at ESPN remarking over and over again about the defensive shortcomings of Bay so that was probably not something Cashman wanted to get into (Abreu, Matsui, Damon, Bernie…not the best recent crop). However it turns out Bay isn’t any better or worse than Nady. Both are fine. Nothing spectacular. Nothing horrendous. (I know we get to see these sliding catches from Bay on Baseball Tonight, but when you watch him every game he’s more average.)
    So yeah, if this hypothetical situation is true then Cashman did mess up. I do thought have the strangest feeling that if Bay were on the Yankees, he’d somehow catch the deadly disease of “Key-Trade/Free Agent-Who-Plays-Worse-Than-We-Thought-Especially-When-It-Comes-To-Corner-Outfield-Defense-itis.” Don’t ask me why…

  5. tofer3

    Isnīt Holliday a free agent next season??.
    If so, I would trade for him in July instead of signing him in the offseason to keep the draft pick and then give him an extension. He prove to be a great hitter in a hitters park as is Yankee Stadium and is a great fielder with a 13.1 UZR/150 games in the season.
    That way we could rotate the outfield and the DH and have Matsui as hitter off the bench.

  6. tofer3

    Isnīt Holliday a free agent next season??.
    If so, I would trade for him in July instead of signing him in the offseason to keep the draft pick and then give him an extension. He prove to be a great hitter in a hitters park as is Yankee Stadium and is a great fielder with a 13.1 UZR/150 games in the season.
    That way we could rotate the outfield and the DH and have Matsui as hitter off the bench.

  7. eliyalie

    Did Nady run over your dog or insult your wife? I can’t understand why you’ve been sooo down on Nady for so long. Granted, he doesn’t walk enough. But he can hit–his overall average was .305 last year. It was .268 while playing for the Yankees, but cut him some slack, he was batting against pitchers he had never seen before, having spent his entire time prior to that in the National League. He’s a clutch type hitter too, which the Yankees desparately need.

    On the other hand, you love, love, love Swisher, who many of us fans think is an absolute disaster (batting average, fielding, and base running–let’s not forget Boston) except when he goes on one of his occasional hitting streaks. He’s a consumate bench player, not someone who “becomes very important” as you say he does. If he’s someone around whom the Yankees have to build next year’s outfield, heaven help us fans.

  8. bahamamama

    I just want to say something about Steve?s comment that ?there was a reason that Nady played for four teams in four seasons from 2005 to 2008.? It doesn?t seem that Nady was ever traded because he was a poor player. Granted, San Diego traded him to the Mets in 2006. The Mets then traded him to Pittsburgh out of desperation when Duaner Sanchez was injured and they needed pitching. Pittsburgh traded him to the Yankees because Pittsburgh has an insane inclination to trade all their outfielders away (Nady, Bay, McClouth, Morgan, Hinske). Nady was batting .330 with at .919 OPS at the time of that trade?not exactly the hallmarks of a ?poor? performer. Seems Nady might have been the victim of circumstance in these trades, not some unwanted, throw away player. I agree with the above poster?it?s like Steve has it in for Nady.

  9. darkseid

    You’d have to dig up articles from last year’s trade deadline, but I believe the Pirates wanted more for Bay than the Yankees were willing to part with. It cost them less (if anything) to get Nady and Marte than just Bay alone. Bay had more value than Nady. The Red Sox of course had better ML ready prospects and so getting Bay wasn’t at all a problem.

    I don’t think the Yankees should be going after Holliday. He’ll be yet another expensive player who may or may not perform up to expectations in the big city. His numbers away from Coors have already dropped, but just because he’d be coming to Yankee Stadium, don’t think the FO wants to keep the new house a bandbox. If they have an opportunity to fix what’s going on, they will. People just don’t learn. It’s that attitude of demanding a superstar at every position that got the Yankees into this championship drought in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s