ANOTHER ANTICIPATED REUNION THWARTED
Miguel Cairo will not be on the Phillies roster for the World Series. I’m sure this will be a relief to John Sterling, who will now not have a conflict of interest.
IN RESPONSE TO A SWISHER-BASHER IN THE COMMENTS
How can Nick Swisher be a better player than Bobby Abreu? I’ll make this simple for you.
? Swisher hit 35 doubles, Abreu 29.
? Swisher hit 29 home runs, Abreu hit 15.
? Abreu took 94 walks, Swisher took 97, in fewer plate appearances.
? Swisher was dangerous from both sides of the plate, whereas Abreu wilted against left-handers.
? Abreu has the advantage on Swisher in two categories: He had 22 net stolen bases to Swisher’s none (Swisher also had no caught stealing) and he hit more singles. Abreu had 65 more at-bats than Swisher. If you even out the playing time, figuring that Swisher would have continued on roughly the same pace, then Swisher would have hit 40 doubles (+11) and 33 home runs (+18). Abreu would have maintained his lead in singles, 118 to 65. That’s a big gap, but it comes to an advantage of 53 total bases, whereas Swisher is up 94, giving him a net advantage of 41 total bases.
? Because extra-base hits generate more runs than singles (I’m assuming that you know how a home run works), this works out to a small advantage for Swisher. If you look at a basic stat like runs created per game, Swisher created 6.5, Abreu 6.3. That doesn’t seem like a huge difference but:
? Swisher is an average defensive outfielder, whereas Abreu splashes around out there like a toddler in a kiddie pool. Since defensive plays not made lead to runs, deduct several from Swisher’s total. At that point, Swisher’s advantage is no longer so small.
PS: Regarding Melky Cabrera vs. left-handed pitching: Yes, he has gone 6-for-14, all singles, against southpaws this postseason. However, for the full season he hit .268/.343/.420 against them. These were breakthrough results, though the power portion was inflated by an early surge. From the halfway point on, he hit .265/.337/.361, albeit in a small sample. Given that his career rates against lefties is .255/.325/.355, the latter number seems more likely to replicate itself in the future than the former, and has more predictive power than a 14 at-bat .420 streak, because Ted Williams is dead, by which I mean that no player is likely to carry that kind of performance forward for any real length of time.
WORLD SERIES HEAD-TO-HEADS PART II
While writing Part I, I was so caught up in getting past the obvious A-Rod/Pedro Feliz match-up at third that I never typed the words, “EDGE: YANKEES.” If it hadn’t been obvious before, well, now the suspense is over.
CARLOS RUIZ (15.6 VORP, 11th among catchers) vs. JORGE POSADA (35.7, 3rd)
Ruiz is a career .296/.406/.432 hitter in 26 postseason games, which is kind of amazing when you consider that he’s only a .246/.337/.379 hitter in the regular season and that he also went 1-for-14 in the 2008 NLDS. If you’re looking for Jeff Mathis II, here he is, with the same position and everything. Defensively, Ruiz is a good thrower, not a great one. He and Posada threw out about the same percentage of baserunners this year. He’s much better than Posada at corralling balls in the dirt, but then everyone is. The thing to remember about Posada is that as good as he is in the regular season, he seems to be play a bit tight in October. He’s played in 25 postseason series (a “wow” number all by itself) and he’s had good series and bad but overall has hit only .238/.353/.388. He keeps up his selectivity against good pitching, which is nice, but the rest of his came suffers. EDGE: YANKEES, but you can see how it could go the other way.
RAUL IBANEZ (38.5, 6th) vs. JOHNNY DAMON (39.3, 4th)
Ibanez was more productive than Damon on a per-game basis but played less due to injury… Ibanez’s season breaks down into two parts, pre- and post-DL stint for a strained groin. At the moment he went down, he was having the season of his career at .312/.371/.656. A month on the shelf cooled him off considerably, and he hit .232/.323/.448 the rest of the way. His postseason has been a mixed bag.
The difference in Ibanez’s production this year was that while he was the same hitter he always has been against right-handers, but he killed lefties, knocking 13 home runs in just 144 at-bats. His career rates against them stand at .269/.326/.434, which isn’t of the same level but does give him more proficiency in lefty-on-lefty battles than your typical southpaw hitter.
Damon slumped in September and disappeared in the first round of the playoffs before coming back strong against the Angels. He too isn’t too damaged by seeing a left-handed pitcher, although most of his power disappears. The same thing happens when you take him out of the new Yankee Stadium. Ibanez will spend some time at DH in this series, including Game 1. Ben Francisco should be a defensive upgrade. Slight EDGE: Phillies.
SHANE VICTORINO (37.7, 5th) vs. MELKY CABRERA (17.1, 22nd)
A rare two-time Rule 5 draftee, it took some time for Victorino to find his place in the Majors. He’s in the prime of his career right now, and he’s just good enough to start — whenever he slips a little he’s going to be no fun anymore. He does most of his hitting in Philadelphia. A switch-hitter, he’s more powerful from the right side, which means turning him around is not the greatest idea. Cabrera struggled in the first round, then hit well against the Angels, though like all Yankees a few more hits with runners on would have made it a faster and more painless series than it was. Defensively, this matchup is a push. Offensively and on the bases, Victorino is significantly better, and he’s been a postseason monster in other series, including both rounds this year. EDGE: Phillies.
JAYSON WERTH (42.8, 3rd) vs. NICK SWISHER (30.9, 10th)
Philadelphia’s big weapon against CC Sabathia, Werth crushes lefties, batting .302/.436/.644 against them this year and .294/.391/.570 for his career. He strikes out quite a bit, but is patient, powerful, and runs the bases as well as any non-burner in the game. He also excels defensively. It has been an unusual career for the former first-round pick, for it took a change of position and several changes of organization for Werth to find himself. He made his first All-Star team this year, at age 30. We’ve already talked too much about Swisher lately, but the Yankees can be competitive here if he can get out of his own head. Even if he does, this is an EDGE: PHILLIES.
BENCH AND DH
In his handful of interleague games, Charlie Manuel used the DH spot to get one of his weaker defensive players, either Ryan Howard or Raul Ibanez, off the field. Ibanez is nursing an injury (torn abdominal muscle), so he will DH in Game 1 with midseason acquisition Ben Francisco (open your golden gates) patrolling left field. Francisco is one of those tediously decent role players. Starting he would mediocre you to death, but in spots he can be helpful keeping his position above replacement level. He had a reverse split against lefties this year, hitting only .247/.351/.392, but that might have been a one-time thing. Phillies pinch-hitters hit only .186 but did hit 9 home runs in 237 at-bats. Matt Stairs, 41, had a rough year but remains very selective and is still a threat to hit the ball a long way now and again, with f
ive home runs in 62 pinch-hit at-bats. Lefty hitter Greg Dobbs, who used to have a share of the third base job, was strictly bench material this year and his game suffered for it. As a pinch-hitter he was only 9-for-54.
Hideki Matsui gives the Yankees an edge when there is a DH and a strong weapon on the bench when there isn’t. Brett Gardner gives the Yankees a speedy option the Phillies don’t have, and Jerry Hairston won’t kill you if he has to take an at-bat or two. EDGE: YANKEES.
Starters and bullpens, managers, and my prediction, all before curtain time tonight.
LIVE ROUNDTABLE TONIGHT
I’ll once again be participating in the a live roundtable with my Baseball Prospectus colleagues during Game 1. As always, everyone is welcome. If you want to hang out at game time, or just submit a question early X marks the spot.
NOT UNUSUAL, EXCEPT IN ONE RESPECT
Aside from the victim having been the estimable Doc Halladay, Tuesday night’s win was your standard nail-biting Yankees victory, with Andy Pettitte skating by despite too many walks, a couple of rallies killed by double plays, and some rollercoaster action from the bullpen. That includes the great Mariano, who has shown for all his great accomplishments that he would very much prefer to be used with the bases empty and a lead. Having to pitch in a tie or bail out some other hapless reliever just isn’t part of the deal. Rivera still allows fewer inherited runners to score than the average AL reliever — he’s allowed five of 18 to pass, whereas (hold on) the typical cat will allow about six of 18 to score. It’s a benefit to the Yankees, slim or not, but you might think the greatest closer ever would do better. He’s actually had several seasons where close to 50 percent of inherited runners scored, which is odd given just how dominant he is the rest of the time.
A very high-scoring Scrabble word signifying tonight’s opponent, Marc Rzepczynski. He’s a lefty of the groundballer persuasion with just one home run allowed in his inaugural 27.2 innings. One wonders if this means another outfield start for Jerry Hairston. If Hairston is your main weapon against lefties, you’re really aiming too low. It’s as if we’re back to the days of Clay Bellinger playing center field (20 starts in 2000, Joe Torre, 20 starts!). Hairston is a better player than Bellinger in every way, but that praise is specific to the case and wholly relative.
Given that the 12th man on the staff (Mark Melancon … at least, he didn’t until recently) almost never pitches, it would be a better use of the roster spot to grant Shelley Duncan a berth. In these days of bloated pitching staffs, it would be seen as a brave, daring move to carry only 11 hurlers, but Joe Girardi is proving that the 2009 Yankees, at least, can make it through with less than a dozen pitchers. There is no reason not to acknowledge what is already a reality and use the spot as a weapon rather than a way for a lucky pitcher to get free travel around the country.
REPORTED WITHOUT COMMENT
Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, pitchers’ wins added above replacement:
AL TOP 5
|1. Zack Greinke, KC||6.0|
|2. Felix Hernandez, SEA||5.4|
|3. Roy Halladay, TOR||5.3|
|4. Cliff Lee, CLE||5.2|
|5. Edwin Jackson, DET||5.2|
|17. CC Sabathia||3.3|
|23. A.J. Burnett||3.2|
|30. Joba Chamberlain||2.4|
|32. Andy Pettitte||2.3|
|128. Aceves, Hughes, Mitre, Wang||-0.6|
BOBBY ABREU, PLAYER OF THE MONTH
He batted .380 in July and is having a fine year overall. The Yankees still made the right choice in letting him leave. The Angels got a bargain, one the Yankees weren’t going to get, either in dollars or term of years, and his 2007-2008 numbers (.289/.370/.458) were just adequate for a defensively challenged right fielder. Perhaps Abreu needed the extra motivation supplied by his free-agency letdown. Perhaps this is just a random uptick, and the numbers certainly suggest that. Abreu has always been a prolific line drive hitter, which explains his unusually high success rate on balls in play (career .349). This year he’s hitting .372 on balls in play despite the lowest line drive rate of his career. That’s the favorable luck component of what he’s doing. To put it in plainer words, Abreu hadn’t hit .300 since 2004, and hadn’t hit over .310 since 2000. There was no reason for the Yankees to expect him to post a top-10 batting average in 2009.
HE MIGHT WANT TO TAKE SOME TIME OFF
I’ve undergone this procedure and Bobby Jenks has my sympathies. Let us just say that the surgery itself is not too traumatic but the aftermath is not pretty.
The Yankees’ new record for consecutive games without an error doesn’t mean much to me, because official scoring in baseball has spectacularly low standards and has become almost totally subjective. What is interesting about the record is the way the Yankees have been climbing the defensive efficiency ladder. Defensive efficiency is the percentage of balls in play that a team turns into outs. Over the last several seasons, almost uniformly going back to the last century, the Yankees have ranked toward the bottom of the Majors in this category. Their players had so little range that the pitchers were giving up hits on balls that other teams might have put in the back pockets. Everything gets distorted: The pitchers look worse than they really are, the team goes crazy trying to sign pitchers when it really needs fielders and hitters, and the whole club spins off its axis.
If memory serves, the last time the Yankees led the league in this category was 1998. Since then, there’s been a lot of “Past a diving [your name here]!” in the play by play. That has changed a great deal this season, particularly due to the addition of Mark Teixeira, who is a revelation on the fielding job after so many years of Jason Giambi. Another key factor has been Nick Swisher, who hasn’t made many spectacular plays but gets to many more balls than Bobby Abreu was inclined to pursue in right field. Right now, the Yankees are fourth in the American League at 70.7 percent, a number almost indistinguishable from that of the league-leading Rangers (71.3 percent; the Brewers lead the Majors at 72.4 percent). It’s an old but true baseball adage that you can’t win by giving the opposition extra outs. Usually, that adage refers to errors, but it should apply to every ball hit within the fences and between the lines. The Yankees haven’t cared much about this in the recent past, but with Teixeira’s help a change has come. It and the team’s current hot streak are not coincidental.
JOBA CAN PITCH THE EIGHTH — AS A STARTER
And that’s all I have to say about that. He won’t get there in most starts, of course, but the point is that if he is capable of this kind of upside, the Yankees owe it to themselves to keep running him out there until he gives some definitive reason that he can’t. The performance of OTHER pitchers, like the eighth-inning relievers, have nothing to do with him. The bullpen is its own problem with its own solution set. You don’t take a pitcher who is capable of giving you 21 or even 24 outs a night with an ERA below 4.00 out of the rotation because you can’t find another guy who can give you three, no matter how “important” the spot. That’s idiotic. All of the outs are important. We just perceive protecting late leads to somehow be a bigger deal than holding the opposition scoreless in the first or the third or the sixth, but a run is a run is a run, and you never know which one is going to beat you. More to the point, you can’t protect leads you don’t have, and a strong starting pitching staff is the tool that is most likely to buy you the time to generate that lead. Secondary point: It’s much easier to find a guy to give you three outs than it is to find the one that will give you 21, even if the Yankees are having trouble finding that guy right now.
And yet another point, one that I alluded to yesterday: As good as Chien-Ming Wang has been as a starter in his career, his stuff and approach do not correlate with long-term success. I don’t care if you have a sinker so heavy that Superman can’t lift it — eventually the lack of strikeouts, the lack of a solid inner defense, or both is going to eat you alive. In Wang’s case, his injury of last season may have altered his delivery, stuff or strength in a minute way, hard to perceive with the naked eye, but significant enough that he can no longer balance on the point of a needle the way he used to. Putting him in the bullpen, while perceived by many fans and commentators as a waste or an insult of some kind, may in fact allow him to make changes in his approach that will save his effectiveness and ultimately his career. A Wang who isn’t worried about marshalling his stuff and can throw harder over a shorter span of time while still getting groundballs may be able to get outs in a way that a six- or seven-inning version of Wang can no longer aspire to.
Right now, there’s no reason for the Yankees to make a change except that some people are arguing for it. Wang is pitching well in the bullpen, they say, so let’s make him a starter. Chamberlain is pitching well as a starter, so let’s make him a reliever. That way lies madness.
Parenthetically, I was pleased that Joel Sherman made very much the same argument I did yesterday about using Mariano Rivera in a tied game on the road. Within that piece there’s also a promising note about the Yankees vowing not to resign Hideki Matsui after the season, 100 percent the correct decision.
ONE MORE QUICK NOTE ON JETERIAN DEFENSE
Last year, opposition batters put 4,351 balls in play against the Yankees. They turned 68 percent of them into outs, which is a low rate. Boston turned 70 percent of balls in play against them into outs. The Rays turned 71 percent of balls in play against them into outs. These differences may seem small, but over the course of a season they can make a difference in a pennant race. Had the Yankees caught balls at the rate that the Red Sox did, for example, they would have retired an additional 74 batters. Had they fielded them at the Rays’ rate, they would have put out an additional 122 batters. The Yankees only allowed 1,170 fly balls all season long, so you can’t blame the entire shortfall on Bobby Abreu letting balls drop at the base of the wall. Their rate of line drives allowed was actually on the low side. Only so many balls were pulled down the lines past Jason Giambi or Alex Rodriguez. No one is to blame, apparently, and yet the balls weren’t caught. This happens year after year — the Yankees don’t catch as many balls as the opposition does, but no one is to blame.
This isn’t an argument. This isn’t subjective. Weak Yankees defense is a fact. You can choose not to see it when you watch a game. In the end, though, you have to account for what actually happens in those games. If the fielders weren’t at fault, then what happened? Unexpected stadium tilt? The moons of Saturn get in their eyes?
WE KNOW A REMOTE FARM IN LINCOLNSHIRE WHERE MRS. BUCKLEY LIVES… EVERY JULY, PEAS GROW THERE
The moment the Marlins bagged on former Angels’ prospect Dallas McPherson, the 28-year-old who led the minors in home runs last year, his name was circulated as a potential A-Rod sub. McPherson clearly has left-handed power, and the Yankees can use all the power they can get this year. There are two problems: First, McPherson strikes out so much that he would have trouble maintaining a .300 on-base percentage in the majors. Second, his defense at third is suspect. I’ve been skeptical of Cody Ransom’s ability to hit for average as well, but he should be able to field the position and hit a couple of home runs of his own. I figure the added defense makes Ransom a better fit than McPherson, or at least makes the two a wash. Now, you can argue about McPherson being a better bench asset than Angel Berroa or Ramiro Pena, but until Rodriguez comes back you might be forced to actually play him at third base if Derek Jeter leaves a game early, requiring Ransom to slide over to short.
It just occurred to me, reading what I just wrote in the context of our first item, above, that the Yankees worry an awful lot about defense but get very little out it.
If there’s a market for Gary Sheffield’s services, there’s a market for Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady. One also wonders if the Phillies would like to adopt Melky Cabrera — now that Geoff Jenkins has been released, their only reserve outfielder is Matt Stairs. They have rookie John Mayberry on the 40-man as well, but like Stairs he seems to be strictly corner material. Former Yankee Chad Moeller is going to back up Gregg Zaun for the O’s, at least until Matt Wieters comes up. Henry Blanco is going to be the starting backstop for the Padres. Consider those two pieces of information and feel free to speculate about a possible Jose Molina trade market. Say the Yankees brought up Frankie Cervelli halfway through the season, and… but no.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
A little while ago, I was complaining to my friend and colleague Jay Jaffe that I wanted to get through today’s entry without writing about Alex Rodriguez and steroids. He immediately came back with this question: “At the price the Angels paid, should the Yankees have brought back Bobby Abreu?”
It’s a heck of a question, though one that may be compromised from the outset, because we don’t know if the Yankees could have gotten Abreu to sign at the same price — one year, $5 million. We don’t even know if Abreu’s agent bothered to come back to the Yankees and say, “Give us $5,000,001 and we’re yours” before making their client a Los Angeles Abreu of Anaheim (or is that a Los Angeles Angel of Abreu?).
I’m going to say no. Here’s why: Abreu had a good year for the Yankees at the plate, but his indicators are all pointing in the wrong direction. His home run rate was nothing special, his walk rate was down, and his baserunning and fielding skills aren’t what they used to be, with the resultant give-back on runs severely denting his offensive value. While a one-year deal at a low salary represents a minimum of risk — the Angels are betting that Abreu at least holds his 2008 value for one more season — the danger here is not financial but to the winning effort. With even a smidge of further attrition, Abreu is going to be no fun at all.
Over the last three years, the typical Major League right fielder has hit .277/.347/.451. The PECOTA projection for Abreu for next season, which does not reflect his move to Anaheim (a good thing in this instance) is .282/.368/.436. Thanks to the high on-base percentage, that would be a better than break-even performance, but not one that’s a huge benefit. Nick Swisher should be able to approximate the on-base and slugging percentages while doing a better job of actually catching the ball. The Yankees are already paying him Abreu’s salary plus a little ($5.3 million this year), and there’s little reason to double up.
Now, Jay’s question would be a lot easier to answer if the Yankees only had Xavier Nady to play right field, because even a diminished Abreu is likely to out-hit him, especially in the key area (really the only area) of on-base percentage. PECOTA’s weighted mean projection for Nady is .270/.323/.444, which falls short of even the average right fielder.
Parenthetically, I know I’ve been like a broken record on the Nick Swisher-Nady stuff, but as we head into a Spring Training season in which the Yankees have few big decisions to make, right field stands out as a position where the Yankees can make a choice that will significantly impact the outcome of the season. Johnny Damon is almost certain to regress. The center fielder, whoever he, she, or it proves to be, will not be a major run producer, and maybe not a minor run producer. It will fall to right field to salvage the outfield production.
Sorting out who starts shouldn’t be difficult at all, and is being complicated by a lot of statistical noise from last season. Swisher had a bad year by his standards, Nady a very good one. However, extrapolating from either season is unwise; Swisher is unlikely to have suffered a complete breakdown at age 27, just as Nady is unlikely to have found new strengths at age 30. Even a bad Swisher drew 82 walks and hit a home run every 21 at-bats; even a good Nady drew 39 walks and hit a home run every 22 at-bats. We’re talking about a difference that comes down to a fistful of singles, and we know those tend to come and go for hitters. Throw in that Swisher is the superior defensive player, and this really shouldn’t be a discussion at all.
In summary, to round back to Jay’s question about Abreu, the differences between Abreu and Swisher, if any, will be small enough that had the Yankees been given the opportunity to top the Angels’ offer to the former by some small number of dollars, they would have been correct to demur. Regardless of the resolution to the battle, the Yankees have already gained one victory in saying “Nyet” to their California-bound alumnus: this year’s right fielder may not hit, but he’s certain to catch a few balls at the wall, something we haven’t seen a Yankee do in years.
A COUPLE OF VERY QUICK NOTES AS WE HEAD INTO THE WEEKEND
? Too bad that Andruw Jones turned down the Yankees’ non-roster invite. The Yankees had nothing to lose by making said offer, and Jones everything to gain. I’d like to have an actual Andruw sighting, preferably of him in fighting trim, before I would be inspired to offer him anything more substantial than that.
? Despite rumblings of “collusion” in the land, I prefer to look at many of the free agents still without deals as evidence of the financial crisis putting pressure on general managers to be smarter. Every one of the remaining players has serious flaws, whether it be Manny’s character issues or Adam Dunn’s defense or the general downward trend of Bobby Abreu’s game or the potential that Orlando Hudson won’t hit outside of Arizona. Those players could help their ultimate teams, and probably will, but it’s not unreasonable for clubs to try to drive a hard bargain with them. That should have been true in any economic environment, but it’s particularly valid now.
? It’s fascinating how the Joe Torre book is going to boomerang on Torre. Anyone (apparently, including my YES classmate Michael Kay) with a negative story on Joe is now going to feel free to retail it, with the knowledge that he gave them implicit permission to do so. In the coming years, his reputation is going to be almost continually assailed, to the point that the very nature of his impact on his best teams is going to be called into question. I said last week that this book, on its own merits, was a great example of a man destroying his own reputation, but let us go a step further and say that the aftermath of this book will lead to an even greater savaging of the man. He put everything on the table, seemingly without restriction (whatever his protestations to the contrary), and it will be open season on him as well. And here’s the thing, Joe, and this is something I know very well from studying the life of Casey Stengel: the players are going to outlive you by a long, long time and will be commenting on you long after you’re gone. You’re not going to get the last word in, so you might as well mend fences if you want history to paint a fair picture.
? A transcript of today’s chat can be found here.
? With the conclusion of the Yankees Hot Stove show’s run for this season, I’d like to thank the entire cast and crew for having me on. Enjoy Florida, guys.
I spent most of the winter yelling at the free agent market to hurry up, hurry up! When you’re writing a season preview you want all the moves to happen as quickly as possible so your book is as up-to-date as it possibly can be when it hits shelves. All my goading got Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia signed, but it hasn’t budged Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, or any of the dozens of other free agents still on the market. Indeed, this winter has been one of the slowest to develop since the post-strike season, when any number of homeless players began Spring Training in a separate camp for displaced persons. With so many players still available, there are many teams that could look quite different when Spring Training convenes than they do now.
It has long been argued that teams should not shoot themselves in the wallet by overpaying for middle relievers, spot lefties, and the like, because those players are generally so inconsistent, and their roles frequently so marginal, that it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for their services. With the exception of the odd Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, 75 percent of relievers could be shoved into a paper bag at the end of each season and picked out at random until each team had a full bullpen compliment, and the Majors would probably see the exact same distribution of good and bad bullpens as it does now. With the sour economy, it seems likely that teams have finally acquired the discipline to do this, as well as extend the principle to any other suspect class or individual player. This seems the most likely answer for why, for example, so many reasonably good spot lefties are on the market. It’s not that LOOGYs have gone out of style, but that paying them has. The players in turn must adjust to the new reality and diminish their expectations — which, poor lambs, means they’ll still get millions of dollars.
One player who has almost certainly been harmed by the New Fiscal Realities is Bobby Abreu, a player who is undoubtedly looking for a multi-year contract with which to close out his career. So far it ain’t happening, and it’s probably a safe bet that the one-year offers haven’t been to Abreu’s liking either. Say you get hooked into Abreu for his age-35, -36, and -37 season. If Abreu stays right where he is, you’re in good shape, particularly if you’re asking him to be your designated hitter. Unfortunately, 2008 was the kind of termite season that breeds doubters.
It seems strange to say something so critical of Abreu’s .296/.371/.471 season, but there’s a lot to be concerned about. Abreu hit only 20 home runs, not an awe-inspiring total, and while he still took a solid 73 walks, he was less patient than at any time in his career. These two facts — lower echelon power and ebbing patience — mean Abreu’s production will depend heavily on his batting average, and batting average is the least consistent aspect of any player’s production. Throw in a home-road split favorable to Yankee Stadium and signs of declining ability on the basepaths, and there is real cause to worry about getting stuck.
Abreu has been further damaged because 2008 was the year that his defensive problems changed from something that those eccentric fans in Philly made fun of to something that was visible to all and was quickly perceived as a real problem. When Gary Sheffield played right field for the Yankees, I used to make fun of his lack of range and oddly circuitous routes in the outfield. On fly balls to medium or short right field he sometimes looked like water swirling down the drain. Abreu makes the Sheffield of a few years ago look like a master defender, in that Sheffield played his position badly, but at least he attempted to play all of it. Because Abreu cannot go back, only forward, he gives up a whole section of his zone that a right fielder without this unusual handicap would cover. Even a poor outfielder would catch the odd ball at the wall.
This estimation of Abreu’s defense likely restricts him to the American League, where he may be hurt by the fact that a younger, more versatile (sort of), and more productive player in Dunn is still hanging around the market, not to mention Ramirez. A solid year from Abreu could be a godsend for the Angels after losing Teixeira. He could probably help the A’s, although with Matt Holliday in left, two designated hitters in Jason Giambi and Jack Cust, and a first baseman they’d like to get back on track in Daric Barton, it’s hard to see where everyone is going to play. If the Mariners would let Jeff Clement catch and push Kenji Johjima to the bench, Abreu would be a good fit in the Emerald City. The Rangers have this odd idea about letting Nelson Cruz play in right field, so he probably wouldn’t fit in there, and their DH spot is occupied by Hank Blalock.
These are not great choices. There is no automatic fit. Nor is Abreu a good fit for any of these teams at three years, and maybe not even for two. Abreu never got his due as a great player at his peak, but now his game has eroded to the point that it’s far too late to give him the rewards his resume would suggest that he deserves.
It doesn’t quite deserve Gladys Knight, does it? While I wait, a few thoughts on Andy Pettitte.
Now, I am in something of a bubble while traveling, so if in the time I compose this dispatch Pettitte has re-signed with the Yankees, joined Joe Torre in Los Angeles, retired in a fit of Cajun pique, decided to discover Japan, or volunteered for the Roger Clemens Memorial Witness Protection Program, forgive me. YES is very generous, but they haven’t yet volunteered to subscribe me to a portable broadband service and I’d feel kind of Oliver Twist-y asking. I mean, I’m the only guy in the company with his own bunker. Sure, Bob Lorenz is a much bigger name than me, but when the blow down storms come, it’s me Bob is going to have to ask for a seat in the safe room. And he’s going to be very disappointed, because my chair sucks compared to his.
Earlier this week, I remarked that the Yankees need to leave a spot in the rotation open for youth. The most obvious candidate for that spot is Phil Hughes, but it could just as easily be taken up by Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy, or a darkhorse candidate like George Kontos. The Yankees need the flexibility that youth generates, because as we’ve seen this winter, we’re entering a new paradigm when it comes to free agent action. The arbitration-based compensation system is dying.
Even the Yankees were reluctant to offer their departing free agents arbitration for fear that they would accept (in retrospect, had they known the Players Association was steering free agents away from accepting such offers, they might have been emboldened to take the chance). Simultaneously, those players who were offered arbitration have seen their possibilities dry up, because the buyers have finally, finally realized, decades into the free agent process, that a team’s chances of developing a decent player for a first-round pick, one that they control for the first six years of his career, are good enough that it’s just not worth forfeiting a pick for a player like Jason Varitek, who is going to come in for a year or two, be a character guy, and then retire.
With the pick you gave up for Varitek, you could have made a conservative draft pick, selecting the proverbial polished college pitcher who is not going to develop much but should safely turn into a solid four-five starter within those same two years. Given what four-five starters cost on the open market, it’s just not worth passing one up for a 35-year-old catcher. There really was a point at which teams did not get this. At one point the Montreal Expos gave up a first-round pick to sign a third-string catcher named Tim Blackwell. You could look it up.
As a result of this, hoarding old guys has less value than ever. It used to be that a departing vet classified as a Type A or Type B free agent would leave a parting gift in the form of a draft pick. Now, with clubs hesitant to buy into the system at both ends, when they depart all the leave is an empty locker. Bobby Abreu is going to play for another few years, but the Yankees will have nothing to show for it but memories of the many fly balls that went over his head.
This makes an Andy Pettitte something of a dead end in the life cycle. Sure, he might help the club to a pennant, but you can make a strong argument that the Yankees are close enough to that already that the marginal wins he provides over a youngster — we have to acknowledge that the big zero that the Yankees received from Kennedy and Hughes last year was an unlikely to be repeated fluke — are not only not worth the money but will also leave the Yankees naked when he finally heads off into retirement. He will have blocked off a youngster for small return, won’t be bringing a draft pick, retirement or no, and so when he’s gone, there’s a vacuum where there should have been the next guy standing ready.
Conversely, if the Yankees invest 20-25 starts in a young fifth starter this year, they might get 30 starts a year for the next five, at prices they control. There’s a lot of value in that achievement and not much risk. This is particularly true because given the team’s depth in young pitchers, they can pull the plug on any failing experiment very quickly. Hughes not working out? Back to the Minors and ring in a new Kennedy administration. Kennedy has a Bay of Pigs? It’s Aceves time. Aceves’s arm falls off? Try Kontos. The point is, at the end of the season you have something you didn’t have before, an additional asset to carry you forward into 2010.
Having written that, I am mere minutes from heading into the YES studios to get my spray-tan. Once again, the show airs at 6:30 p.m., and I’ll be checking through your comments for juicy tidbits with which to wow Bob and the gang. See you in the bunker.