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.
MYSTERIES 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.
YANKEE STADIUM II (III) AND ITS DETRACTORS
In yesterday’s chat, I was asked “What do you think of the new Yankee Stadium? Does the avalanche of home runs to right bother you?” My response: “Not at all. It just is what it is. At worst, it really requires the Yankees to re-embrace their traditional love of left-handed hitters and pitchers, something that had gotten lost with the various shrinkages of the left side of Yankee Stadium over the years.”
As the year has rolled on, I’ve been mystified by the cynical response to the way the new park plays, not least because it has been competitively advantageous for the Yankees. The offense has out-homered the opposition 107-78 in the same number of at-bats, and the pitching staff’s ERA is a third of a run lower at home than on the road. As long as the Yankees keep the park in mind when building the team in the future, it can continue to be so. This year, Yankees opponents have gotten lefties to the plate at Yankee Stadium roughly 850 times, as compared to 1384 tunes for the Yankees. That advantage might be ephemeral — the Yankees won’t always have four switch-hitters and three lefties in the lineup every year — but if they can maintain some semblance of that balance, as well as place renewed emphasis on the drafting a development of left-handed pitchers, and the park should continue to be an asset.
Whatever the Yankees do, I hope that they won’t rush out as soon as the season is over and reconfigure the fences. First, 81 games (plus a few postseason contests) isn’t enough to get an accurate reading on the park. Second, if people talk, let ’em. Whether it’s Coors Field and its altitude or the old Polo Grounds with its shortened foul lines, which resulted in home runs which were criticized as cheap, or even Babe Ruth’s porch at Yankee Stadium I, they’re all legitimate versions of a playing field. The great thing about baseball there are no correct parks or incorrect parks. They just play the way they play. The Yankees have nothing to apologize for.
MATSUI’S MASHING AND THE FUTURE OF EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING
Whenever one of the Yankees’ potentially departing free agents has a big night, usually Johnny Damon but on Thursday night Hideki Matsui, a conversation starts up as to whether the player should be retained. The talk has some validity. The Yankees are not deep in outfield prospects, Austin Jackson’s .301/.362/.413 at Scranton translates to only .266/.330/.385 in the Majors, and he’s been cold for about 10 weeks; because the free agent class is going to be on the weak side, with an emphasis on older players. That limits Brian Cashman’s choices. He can let Damon and Matsui go, figuring that although they’ve done well this year, their negatives — age (Damon will turn 36 in November, Matsui next June) and defensive limitations (Damon has slipped, Matsui’s knees don’t even let him play) — are good enough reason to move on.
In a vacuum, letting the oldsters go would be correct call. However, it also means the menu of alternatives could be a Brett Gardner/Melky Cabrera/Nick Swisher outfield and a rotating DH, which would be offensively light, or the above with Jackson mixed in, or the above with a very young Jesus Montero mixed in at DH, or giving too much money and too many years to Matt Holliday or Jermaine Dye or Magglio Ordonez … or hope to trade the entire farm system to the Braves for Jason Heyward, which won’t happen. It is because of scenarios like these that general managers are paid the big bucks.
As always, much pain could have been avoided if the Yankees had been more adept at drafting and development in recent years. The farm system has clearly improved over the last few seasons, but even having said that, it seems that too often there is cause to observe that the development of position players lags far behind that of pitchers. This has been a glaring problem for so long that it’s hard to believe that the Yankees have not spent time identifying the problem (I am not pointing fingers at anyone, but they need to point fingers at someone or someone(s) or some aspects of what they are doing) and doing something to remedy it, which surely would be cheaper than continuing to pay bonuses to players who end up doing little more than filling out the farm system.
Even if those changes are implemented tomorrow, they will take time to pay off for the big team in the Bronx, so this season’s dilemma remains. I wish I had a brilliant suggestion to solve the problem, other than Montero should be allowed into the mix before long if he heals up well — no use wasting a ready bat waiting for a defensive evolution that might never come — but whereas as season’s outset it seemed like there was no scenario in which it would be worthwhile to bring Damon and Matsui back, now one can at least glimpse situations in which retaining one or both on a short-term contract — most likely Damon given Matsui’s utter loss of speed — isn’t more likely to have a worse outcome than any of the other possibilities.
That’s not exactly a strong endorsement, but it’s more than you could have said in April.
THE A-ROD FILES (DISCOVERED IN A RARELY OPENED BOTTOM DRAWER)
Judging by the comments and email, my reaction to the A-Rod presser didn’t please anyone. The criticism was about evenly split between those who seemed to think I was too hard on the guy and didn’t give him enough credit for being candid, and those that still think that I’m not hard enough on him because I still argue that his usage almost certainly had little effect on his numbers.
Some days you’re better off just staying in bed. Or maybe I could blog recipes. I don’t imagine that those folks get too much hate mail. “You’re calling for too much sugar! Who likes custard, anyway! Obviously you’ve never cooked in a real restaurant.”
Let’s try to deal with both objections, starting with the first. I would very much like to give Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt here, as I have steadfastly defended him over the years from those so-called fans who want to blame every bad bounce of the ball on him, not to mention the declining economy, global warming, and the continued popularity of “American Idol.” Despite this, I think his performance on Tuesday was ludicrous. I can’t sum up his explanations any better than did Joel Sherman in Wednesday’s New York Post:
Lewis Carroll’s White Queen could believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast, and you’d have to be her to buy into this mess. It makes very little sense. Nor does the “youthful indiscretion” thread ring true, given that the guy was 25 when he started. Whatever maturity issues the guy was facing, it’s pretty clear he had a fully developed sense of right and wrong or he wouldn’t have tried to hide what he was doing.
As I said yesterday, this has little to do with my estimation of Alex Rodriguez as a ballplayer. I respect his on-field performances and feel they are legitimate. The same goes for Ty Cobb. Had I been around, I would have paid good money to see Cobb play, but I don’t think I would have wanted to be friends with him or have him over for dinner. Heck, given what I’ve read of Babe Ruth’s table manners, I don’t know that I’d want to have dinner with him either. Ted Williams was not easy to get along with. Mickey Mantle was so good he’s actually underrated, but it seems like his personal character left a lot to be desired. These guys are not my idea of great human beings, but they can play on my all-star team anytime.
As for those on the “steroids corrupt all stats” debate, I remain somewhere between agnostic and outright skeptical. I’d be more willing to believe in a placebo effect than I do in a large-scale impact on home run production. If you feel differently, I’m open to your argument, but we need an argument more solid than, “Look at the home runs, man!” I did a radio spot recently, and the host said — I loosely paraphrase — “You puny stathead, I used to play the game, and I look at how Bongs and Ray-Rod can stay back on the ball and still hit it out — that’s unnatural power that can only come from the juice!” And as I struggled to say something more than, “Wait, what?” he repeated, “I played, I know.” Well, great. Let’s say we accept your argument. These guys hit 50 home runs a year. In how many of them did they “stay back” and still hit it out? What is the recurrence of your little anecdote in a given year? Are there any players who can do that naturally? Is it possible that, given that we’re talking about the top one percent of home run hitters in the game, that they can do some things the average player cannot? That you cannot? We’re talking about people’s lives and good names here. We cannot condemn them based on inference, innuendo, anecdote.
All of this searching for a “natural” production baseline is ridiculous given that there is no such thing. The line drawn between fair and unfair substances is completely arbitrary. No player, in any sport, is competing with only the assets that birth gave him. There’s always something else going into the pot, be it aspirin, absinthe, or amphetamines. During his 56-game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio chain-smoked cigarettes in the dugout to calm his nerves. That gave him an unfair advantage on Wee Willie Keeler. Heck, genes are unfair and should be banned. Consider Barry Bonds and Jose Cruz, Jr. Bobby Bonds was a very good player. Barry Bonds is better. Jose Cruz was a very good player. Jose Cruz, Jr. is not half the player his old man was. Seems like Barry’s mom brought more to the chromosome hoedown than did Jose Jr.’s mom. Clearly, Barry Bonds is the beneficiary of genetic hypergamy, giving him a competitive advantage unavailable to other players. As such, his records should be stricken from the book. Breeding, intentional or not, makes a mockery of the level playing field.
I’m done. This is over. Let’s move on… at least a couple of yards down the road. At least until the next revelation.