November 2009

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.

Understanding arbitration

PARTY ARBY
The list of arbitration-eligible players is out, a fine subject for scrying the future, for hidden somewhere in the list is a group of unexpected free agents, players whose teams will not send them contracts so as to escape the expensive “heads I win, tails you lose” business of arbitration. How appropriate that it is Friday the 13th.

The depressing thing about arbitration is that no one ever takes a pay cut. The player submits his desired salary and the team submits what it wants to pay, lower than the player’s figure, but still more than he made the year before. Either way, a young player tends to get a bump from six figures to seven, and those who have been through the process — all players between three years of Major League service time and those under six years (the six-year guys get to be free agents), plus a handful of so-called “Super-Twos,” players who qualify despite less than three years of service — go from one seven-figure salary to a higher seven-figure salary.

pujols_275_111309.jpgMost of these cases settle before an actual hearing, but those that actually go before an arbitrator are depressing for everyone, as a team has to slag the reputation of a player it wants to keep and the player has to listen to it. “Let me tell you why Arnold Smoof is not worth a quintillion dollars. Sure, he drove in 187 runs on 43 home runs, sure, he batted .387, but he’s still completely lame compared to Albert Pujols. Also, he’s a total klutz in the outfield. And he smells. Bad.” As Tom Hagen said, “This is business, not personal,” but you can’t help but take it personally when people who have formerly professed to love you are telling a total stranger what a loser you are. It’s like a divorce hearing without the divorce — there’s no coming back from that.

The list is long, containing 209 players, including what seems like the entire Dodgers roster. Teams have until December 12 to tender these players a contract. If they do and the player doesn’t dig the proffered salary, the player can opt for arbitration. At that point, everyone negotiates with a gun to their heads, trying to compromise before the actual hearing, and most of the time they do. Even then, a big raise is inevitable, so with some players, teams would prefer to avoid the subject altogether. Those players never even get a contract. The deadline passes and they’re set free. Their teams can still negotiate, but at that point they’re fair game for anyone. This makes perfect sense. To pick a player at random, Ryan Church is a useful outfielder, but you don’t really want to pay him the gross national product of Luxembourg for his services, which is what you’re going to end up doing if you send him a contract. Better to gamble on losing the player than blowing the budget on someone who is basically replaceable.

wang_275_111309.jpgThe Yankees have five players on the list, and four of the five probably shouldn’t be tendered a contract. The no-brainer is Chien-Ming Wang, who made $5 million this year. He pitched in 12 games, was pounded like Berlin in ’45, and underwent shoulder surgery. He could be out until 2010 All-Star break, perhaps longer. There is simply no reason to commit anything to Wang right now, let alone a figure north of $5 million. You could make a similar argument about Brian Bruney, who gets hurt often, pitches well sometimes, and is “just” a right-handed reliever, a breed of player which is (1) highly variable in its performance, and (2) available in huge, heaping numbers. However, the Yankees apparently plan to make him an offer.

More troublesome is the case of Chad Gaudin, a pitcher who obviously has some ability but rarely got to demonstrate it with the Yankees, who were always holding him back for an emergency that never came. I’ve been calling him “The Fireman of Atlantis.” It’s a novel role, but it might not be worth paying for. On the other hand, the guy could probably be a league-average starter, and you never know when your staff is going to be kneecapped by injuries (or the Joba Rules), so Gaudin could be handy.

The remaining players are Sergio Mitre, who can’t be non-tendered fast enough as far as I’m concerned, and Melky Cabrera, who is going to get an offer above this year’s $1.4 million base salary and should, players who can field his position and hit (sort of) being in short supply. More importantly, the Yankees have to hold Cabrera at all costs until their Sally League prospect Melky Mesa is ready, so that they can play the first two-Melky outfield in Major League history, sell T-shirts that say, “Got Melky2?” and so on. It might be awhile — Mesa has a whole lot of learning about the strike zone to do before a dual-leche pasture can become a real possibility.

As for the non-Yankees players on the list who might actually have use to the Yankees and could conceivably bet set free, there’s the platoon outfielder Matt Diaz, a career .347/.384/.537 hitter against southpaws; Conor Jackson, who missed most of the season suffering from Valley Fever but would be a decent left field candidate if healthy; power-hitting center fielder Cody Ross; and Rays fourth outfielder Gabe Gross. Chances are there will be many more non-tendered, and perhaps some top-quality players will be in there, but it’s tough to anticipate what teams will do in this depressed economy of ours. If teams are in more of an austerity mode than anticipated, it’s possible that some very good names will be available for signing in a month. Until then, alas, things will go slowly.

5 Degrees of Bacon Bacon

Jeter_275X235.jpg
On my own and on the road at dinner hour this evening, I stopped at
a National Sandwich Chain. Upon reaching the counter, I was greeted by
a fresh-scrubbed American male of the youthful college variety. “How
may I help you?” he asked rabidly. I jumped back.

“I would like the turkey sandwich,” I said, “but hold the bacon, please.”

“Well,” he said, obsequiousness giving way to consternation, “That’s a
problem. See, the sandwiches, they’re premade in, I think, Eastern
Europe, and we just stick them in a panini press to heat them up. So if
you don’t want the bacon, you need to give us permission to go in and
get it.”

“Go in?”

“Break ‘er open.”

“That sounds invasive. How about you just give it to me as is and I’ll pull of the bacon myself.”

“Why don’t you want it?”

“What?”

“Why don’t you want the bacon?”

“It’s just not my thing.”

“Just personal taste, or…”

“It’s part cultural, part nutritional, it’s — I’m not discussing this with you. Can I just have the sandwich?”

“You don’t want us to remove the bacon? Because we can just excavate that sucker –“

“No!”

“You don’t want the sandwich?”

“I do want the sandwich. I don’t want you to touch it anymore than is strictly necessary. I will remove the bacon myself.”

“You see this button?” He pointed to the register. “It’s the bacon button. I’m going to press it.”

“Okay. You do that.”

“It’s a shame to let it go to waste.”

“Then make your sandwiches fresh and don’ t have them shipped over the Silk Road with the ingredients soldered in.”

He ignored me. “Well, that’s done. Now … What would you like to drink?”
I steeled myself for a debate about the merits of diet vs. regular. The
rest is a blank. I might have blacked out from the stress. I
half-suspect that I’m not really writing this. I’m still there, trying
to get a little poultry and two slices of bread and failing miserably.

The AL Gold Gloves
I’ve never tasted a Gold Glove, but I bet they have that same chewy consistency and flavor as a Cadbury Easter egg. I normally get frustrated with
pundits that pompously pout about awards, crying that they’re so
watered down as to be ludicrous, because while it’s mostly true that
(a) the awards validate their recipients in the eyes of the mainstream,
and it’s important to keep speaking up for quality players when the
awards pass them by, and (b) this is the lame, corrupted world that we
live in, so engage with it already.

The need to joust with the Gold Gloves is particularly acute, since so
much perception of defense seems to be based on how many times the
hometown announcer shouts, “Great play!” There’s more to it than that,
and while zone-based rating systems aren’t foolproof, they take some
of the subjectivity out of defensive appraisals by providing us facts
that at their most basic level show how many balls were hit towards a
fielder and how many he picked up. If you don’t cope with these figures
when ranking defensive players, you’re left with cases made on the
basis of “I thought he looked pretty good.” Your friend Barney could
say that about his wife, and he wouldn’t be any more right or any more
wrong than someone who held a contradictory opinion (Sorry, Barney, but
we’ve gotta be straight with you about this).

That said, in this sense, the Gold Glove award voters didn’t
necessarily err in giving Derek Jeter his chocolate-y citation, number
four. Jeter was at his best this year, and made his usual quotient of
heady plays. But the days of “past a diving Jeter” have hardly
vanished. Jeter deserves credit for somehow improving his fielding at about the time that most shortstops are being banished to other
positions or retiring, and if he wasn’t the best defensive shortstop in
the league, he gave a championship club what it needed. This was also
not a great year for defensive shortstops in the American League, and
while Elvis Andrus of the Rangers probably deserved a shot at the
award, he made 22 errors in 145 games — the second most in the
league. He’ll trim that down as he gets older and the Cadbury Gloves
will come his way.

The big oversight, which everyone with two nostrils has pointed out, is
the omission of Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez from the
awards. Gutierrez has been the best outfielder in the league for a few
years now, and having gotten away from Cleveland he finally got to show
what he could do in the central pasture. It’s not clear how the voters
missed this, given that you don’t need the stats (which support
Gutierrez) to prove his excellence. It was there on the field and in
the nightly highlight reels. This might be the biggest miscarriage of
justice in these awards since Rafael Palmiero was given one for being
the best-fielding DH.

A quick to the mats with reader comments: Defending Branch (Who Doesn’t Need it)
Keep the team intact. Replace the parts when they weaken. And with all
respect to Mr. Rickey, his teams were wonderful, but they were not
World Series Winners, literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, they
were the Pittsburgh Pirates. So, to sum up, let us not, even in print,
be so all knowing and arrogant that we wish to destroy the unit that we
all admire.
— Barry

Barry, you’ve been misinformed. It is true that Branch Rickey was
General Manager of the Pirates from 1951 to 1955 and couldn’t do much
with them. However, the Buccos were a very small part of his career.
The two teams for which he did the bulk of his work, the Cardinals and
the Dodgers, were crazy successful. Rickey ran the Cardinals from 1919
through 1942. In that time, the Cards won six pennants and four World
Series. In two of those series the Cardinals defeated the Yankees. In
the immediate aftermath of Rickey’s departure, the team he built added
another three pennants and two more championships. The Dodgers
franchise he took over had had some recent success, but had been
derailed by the War and needed to be rebuilt, and rebuilt cheaply,
because as much as the Dodgers were beloved in Brooklyn they were not
that successful in the revenue department. The necessity, combined
with Rickey’s strong morality, created the conditions in which the
color line could be broken. Rickey remained in Brooklyn through 1950,
winning two pennants. He also deserves a large share of the credit for the
other pennants won by the Dodgers in the 1950s, as well as the 1955
championship. Let us also throw in his last job, as the power behind
the throne for the World Series-winning 1964 Cardinals, another team
that beat the Yankees.

The word genius is tossed around far too lightly, but Rickey was a
baseball genius, and was responsible for as many pennants as any
executive not named Ed Barrow or George Weiss. If his advise was to get
rid of a guy too early rather than too late, we have to heed what he
said. The issue is not whether or not Rickey was correct, because he
was; the issue is whether or not the Yankees can find the replacements
that allow them to pass on their soon-to-be old timers.

A sticky situation in LF

damon_pb250.jpgTHE MAIN EVENT
The main focus on the Yankees’ offseason seems to be on the big free agent decision, namely Hideki Matsui but not Johnny Damon, or Johnny Damon but not Hideki Matsui, or neither Hideki Matsui nor Johnny Damon and please hold the onions.

This seems like a complicated knot for folks to untangle, and I admit to struggling with it myself, but only because the Yankees have a paucity of replacements in this area. On a basic philosophical level, this isn’t complicated at all: you let both of them go for the simple reason that they’ll be 36 next year, and older still in however many contract years they will require to sign. The problem is that hewing to that old Branch Rickey philosophy of, “better a year too early than a year too late” requires that you know the answer to a subsequent question: “And then what?”

The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects at the higher Minor League levels. In future years, we may be discussing the merits of Melky Mesa, Neil Medchill, Kelvin De Leon and Zach Heathcott, but for now, Austin Jackson is the only game in town. Hitting .300 with four home runs and 40 walks at Triple-A is better than not, but it isn’t starting corner outfield material and possibly not starting anything material. Jackson, 23 next season, is almost obligated to take a big step forward if he’s going to play regularly for the Yankees, even in center. Suffice it to say that neither Melky Cabrera nor Brett Gardner is qualified to carry left field, a position at which the average cat hit .270/.341/.440 this year.

There are useful outfielders available on the free agent market, but they all have some flaws. Matt Holliday will be only 30 next year, but he will be expensive, cost his team a first-round draft pick, and doesn’t provide the kind of left-handed power which is more important to the Yankees than ever. Jason Bay will be 31, which gives him a year’s head start on Holliday in the decline-phase derby, is a defensive millstone, and like Holliday, he ain’t a southpaw. Rick Ankiel, who will turn 30 in July, does have left-handed pop and as a player who was a bit stretched in center field might prove to have pretty good range in left. He also hit only .235/.285/.387 and rarely walks, so the acquiring team would be hoping for a rebound, but given that Ankiel has only had two seasons as a regular, “Rebound to what?” is a valid question. Jermaine Dye has certainly hit in his career, but he’s 36, wasn’t particularly impressive this season, hasn’t played left field in about a century and a half and is range-challenged in right. Of this group, only Holliday qualifies as an “all-around” player.

Word to the wise: no one had better mention Garrett Anderson if they know what’s good for them.  

Another alternative is to pursue a trade, but that’s going to cost the Yankees pitching resources that Brian Cashman has preferred to hoard, or just money, if he wanted to take on a bloated contract like that of Vernon Wells — not that there’s any reason to do that. It’s hard to know exactly who the Yankees might get, and if they could trade into someone young instead of a veteran as flawed as the free agents above.

If the Yankees prefer to limit their choices to Damon or Matsui, the argument for one vs. the other comes down to which you believe will better bear up at an advanced age. The answer just might be Matsui, compromised knees and all. Damon had a swell year, but a good deal of his power production was due to his becoming adept at poking the ball down the left field line for home runs at Yankee Stadium. His ability to hit on the road, which necessarily is exactly half his job, was less certain. He hit a respectable .284/.349/.446 with seven home runs. Matsui hit 15 home runs on the road, having not taken advantage of Yankee Stadium to the same extent that Damon did. He’s far more likely to adapt to the ballpark next year than Damon is to start hitting on the road.

The downside to Matsui is that while Damon’s days as a defensive asset seem to have gone the way of the economy, at least you can stick him in left field as needed, whereas to have Matsui available at all you have to restrict him to designated hitting. That’s a serious problem, as it clogs up the roster and prevents the Yankees from resting other players in the DH spot. However, it could be a blessing in disguise. The problem with a DH rotation is and always has been who the on-field subs are. If Alex Rodriguez spends ten games next season DHing, then who plays third base for those ten games? If it’s Ramiro Pena, then you’ve taken a huge offensive hit. Ditto any Jorge Posada/Frankie Cervelli DH/catcher combo, or Derek Jeter/Ramiro Pena. If Matsui is on the roster, then subs will play only as needed, whereas with Damon around, Joe Girardi might feel liberated, even obligated, to give players rest.

The best answer remains “neither” and “Get some guys between 22 and 27!” but this is easier said than done in this age of baseball in which “young” is synonymous with “cheap.”

CHRIS SNYDER IN THE WIND
The Arizona Republic (with a h/t to MLB Trade Rumors) reports that the Diamondbacks have been talking about moving catcher Chris Snyder, who lost his job to Miguel Montero this year, for Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay. The deal has apparently fallen through, but that’s good news as this is a player the Yankees should very much be in on if they expect Jorge Posada to spend significant time as the designated hitter in 2010.

Snyder, 28 next year, missed a good chunk of the season due to a nerve problem in his lower back and was no fun when he did play because of it. However, from 2005 through 2008, he hit a combined .251/.346/.438 with a home run every 24 at-bats (or 21 in a 500 at-bat season). Those are strong numbers for a part-time catcher. Now, he did have some flaws during that time. He disappeared versus right-handed pitchers (.222/.314/.374 vs. .273/.374/.460 vs. left-handers) and on the road (.229/.323/.405 vs. 247/.344/.394 at home), though he did maintain his power away from the hot, dry air of Phoenix. In his career, he has caught 32 percent of potential basestealers, which is a bit better than Posada, four or five more caught per 100 attempts, assuming Posada has another year at 2009’s 28 percent in him.

As in the previous section, the Yankees’ ability to live without Hideki Matsui is directly connected to their commitment to upgrading the bench. If you have real players to step in and perform for the stars, great. If you only have Angel Berroa, well, the current world champions were 4-8 in games in which Berroa started. Basically, the Yankees face a Darwinian choice when it comes to going after solid second-string players.