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.
Most 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.
The 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.
I WANT TO BANG THIS GONG ONE MORE TIME …
… Because sometimes I just don’t understand the thinking that goes into certain decisions. Today, the (sadly) Boston-bound Pete Abraham reports that not only is Chad Gaudin now in the starting rotation in place of Sergio Mitre, but if he pitches well he has a shot to be in the postseason rotation ahead of Joba Chamberlain:
With Chamberlain not pitching well, Gaudin has emerged as a candidate should the Yankees need a No. 4 starter at some point in the playoffs. Manager Joe Girardi nodded enthusiastically when asked if Gaudin had that chance.
“He sure does,” Girardi said in the dugout Monday night before the Yankees played the Angels. “He’s obviously in the mix or he wouldn’t be starting for us. We went out and got Chad because we felt that he could help us down the stretch and in the postseason, and he has pitched pretty well. He has done a very good job.”
What I can’ t figure out is that if Gaudin was such an important acquisition for the Yankees, why has he done so much sitting around? I’m not trying to pretend that Gaudin is the next Walter Johnson, because we’re talking about a 26-year-old who has a 4.53 ERA in about 600 Major League innings and averages four walks per nine innings. Still, he was a more likely candidate for the fifth starter’s spot, and perhaps even the fourth, than the other fellows the Yankees insisted on using. Let’s review.
Chad Gaudin has pitched only 29.1 innings for the Yankees. He was acquired on August 6 and then didn’t pitch for six days. He didn’t start for almost two weeks, getting his first assignment on August 19 at Oakland. After pitching 4.1 one-hit innings in the game (albeit with five walks), he headed back to the bullpen, not starting again until September 3. He made his third start five days later, but eight days went by before he made his fourth start. Consider what the other Yankees starters have done in that time, and if there was perhaps a place for Gaudin to get a shot at starting:
CC Sabathia has made nine starts with an ERA of 1.79 in 65.1 innings. The team went 9-0 in those games. Hmm. You probably wouldn’t want to pull CC out of the rotation.
A.J. Burnett made nine starts with an ERA of 4.97 in 58 innings. The team went 4-5. This is something of a downer, but opponents have hit only .257/.335/.428 (everyone is Melky Cabrera), which isn’t quite the same as being bombed, plus he’s mixed some good starts in there. Let’s move on.
Andy Pettitte made eight starts, skipping one to rest his shoulder. His ERA was 3.60 in 50 innings, and opponents hit .214. The team went 6-2. No problems here, assuming all the parts are in place.
Joba Chamberlain, kneecapped by his Rules or mechanical problems, or some combination thereof, made eight starts and pitched 31 innings with an ERA of 8.42. Opponents hit .331/.396/.496, which means the average hitter against Joba in this period was Rod Carew. The team went 4-4 since they had turned Joba’s starts into bad relief appearances. This is the only reason you can’t say, “There’s no way the Yankees could have gotten a worse result short of shooting the pitcher themselves.”
Sergio Mitre joined the rotation on July 21 and was started religiously every five days through late August. At the time Gaudin was acquired, Mitre had made four starts and had posted an ERA of 7.50 in 18 innings. He had given up 32 hits and opponents were hitting like Ted Williams, batting .395/.432/.506. Despite the alternative provided by Gaudin, Mitre kept taking his turn in the pulpit. In his next six games before finally being pulled from the rotation, the greatest Yankee named Sergio (also the only Yankee named Sergio) improved his results, the averages against him dropping to a still-miserable .301/.343/.553. His ERA for 28 innings was 7.71. The team record in those games was 3-3. The Yankees actually went 5-4 in Mitre starts, which is (A) a bit lower than a team like the Yankees wants to perform and (B) a reflection of the quality of Mitre’s opponents, teams that let the Yankees back into some games they might have been out of had they been playing a playoff-level opponent.
The Yankees had ample proof that Mitre couldn’t pitch before they got Gaudin, and two appearances since (one starting, one relieving) notwithstanding, he hasn’t given them much argument to the contrary. They could also see Joba, the potential fourth starter in the playoffs, or even third starter if Pettitte’s shoulder continues to trouble him, disintegrating. Yet Gaudin has always been on hold for a rainy day that the Yankees never accepted was here, even though it poured baseballs every time Mitre pitched. Now, with a fraction of the season left and so many games wasted, the guy is supposed to ride to the rescue.
I would tell you what the decision tree that must have led to this point must have been if only I could perceive it myself.
ON YESTERDAY’S MELKY MADNESS
Judging from the reaction to yesterday’s entry, I did a poor job of making myself clear. My intention was to be forward-looking. I was not suggesting that Cabrera’s performance was overly hindering the 2009 Yankees or was a reason they might fall out of the playoffs or fail to save the world when Galactus comes, or anything like that. The 2009 Yankees have their offense pretty much squared away, and while Melky’s 95 OPS+ isn’t a big part of that, it’s good enough under the circumstances. Despite the current rough stretch, I’m not encouraging panic about the team’s chances, though if they punt away home-field advantage, I might change my position on that.
My point was meant to pertain to next season. The Yankees are an old team. Jorge Posada has been great this year, but next year he’ll be 38 and you can’t keep expecting greatness. You can say the same thing about Derek Jeter and A-Rod and Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, assuming either or both of them come back. Heck, you could say it if they were in their 20s instead of their 30s, because life is unpredictable, but there would be less reason to worry about it. Because of the unsettled state of things, because it is hard to imagine next year’s offense being of the same quality as this year’s offense, the Yankees may need to get more out of center field. That is, they can’t just assume that other positions will make up for whatever sorta-decent to sub-decent things that Cabrera or Brett Gardner might do. As such, if there’s a “Don’t Look at This Until Spring” pile that Brian Cashman has, which one would assume includes Mark Teixeira and first base, Sabathia as No. 1 starter, etc, center field should not be on it. It is reasonable to suggest that if other positions, within and without the outfield, are going to decline, center field may have to go up. If the Yankees are satisfied, viewing Melky in isolation, that won’t happen.
That was my major point. It had naught to do with 2009. No doubt the current Yankees would do better if Joe DiMaggio was available to play center, but he’s not strictly necessary at the moment.
THAT WALK-OFF MAGIC
Nothing magical about it. The secret is that the bullpen ranks, somewhat miraculously, as the best in baseball. When you have a reliever corps that can prolong games indefinitely so that the potent offense can get one more at-bat, and then another, and another, you’re going to have a lot of last at-bat wins. Joe Girardi takes some flak for the way he runs a bullpen, and there are certainly some eccentricities in the way he handles things, but his relentless pursuit of a working pen (as opposed to Joe Torre’s relentless pursuit of one reliever he could pair with Mariano Rivera) is commendable.
After the season, we can debate whether the attention devoted to the bullpen came at the expense of the starting rotation, but it doesn’t seem to be the case right now, at least not in non-Sergio Mitre starts. Speaking of which, Chad Gaudin made a nice case for himself on Wednesday, but this weekend’s consecutive Gaudin and Mitre starts will serve as a kind of playoff between the two, or should. Not that the Mariners’ offense is a fair test….
20-GAME WATCH: YANKEES AT MARINERS
The Mariners are a 91-win team at home, the Yankees an 88-win team on the road… It’s hard to believe that the M’s are 10-10 with a hitting and pitching record like that, but there are seven one-run victories hidden there, two over the Tigers, two over the Blue Jays, one over the Royals, one over the Rays, one over the White Sox. That’s a clue that the M’s bullpen has generally been effective, and indeed, Seattle relievers rank fourth in the Majors in wins added. David Aardsma’s transformation from blown No. 1 pick (by the Giants back in ’03) to reliable closer is one of the top 50 stories of the year (he said, without really figuring out what the other 49 are). One suspects it won’t last due to the very low batting average on balls in play against (.258, though the line drive rate is also on the low side) and Aardsma’s high walk rate, but the Mariners get to enjoy it while it lasts.
The Yankees catch a break in this series because Felix Hernandez just pitched, so they get an ex-Pirate salvage operation in Ian Snell, Ryan Rowland-Smith, who is still getting established in the bigs, and two rookies, Luke French and Doug Fister. With Mitre and Gaudin starting in this series, the Yankees aren’t exactly putting forth Whitey Ford, Red Ruffing, Vic Raschi, and Ron Guidry, but they lap the M’s in experience this time around.
As for the Mariners offense, it’s down to Russell Branyan, Ichiro (who is having one of his best years and leads the league in hits despite missing the first two weeks), and a surging Franklin Gutierrez, who is finally displaying the kind of ability he showed in the Dodgers’ Minor League system roughly 50 years ago. Overall, this is the least potent offense in the AL, racing the Royals to the bottom. You never know what might happen, particularly if the various nicks the Yankees suffered in Wednesday’s game lead them to post a sub-optimal lineup for a couple of days, but the Yankees should be able to make a strong showing in this series.
CHAT WITH THE FAT, GOATEED YANKEES GUY
Chatting live at Baseball Prospectus. Come one, come all.
I was immensely frustrated by last night’s game, first because Sergio Mitre started it, second because after the Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the fourth Mitre was allowed to pitch the fifth so he could un-tie it again, third because Joe Girardi spun the game as a good start but for a wayward defensive play, and fourth because of a conversation with Brian Cashman that Michael Kay related during the game.
Let me take the last one first. Kay quoted Cashman as saying (I paraphrase, as I don’t have a transcript handy) in defense of Mitre that if you look around the league, who has a fifth starter that’s better than Mitre anyway? This may very well be true — few teams go four deep in good starters, let alone five — but it should not be an excuse to stop trying to find something better, particularly when, in Chad Gaudin, you have someone who has been demonstrably better in his career.
Even if one is willing to grant that Mitre had a good start — I’m not, but you may, Girardi may, Cashman may — that is but one start in a career in which the pitcher has allowed nearly six runs per nine innings pitched. In 57 games started, he’s made just 20 quality starts, or 35 percent, when the league average is closer to 50. And while it is positive that he’s walking just two batters per nine when he used to walk three or four, there are other aspects to pitching. Further, six strikeouts in five innings is nice, but the Jays weren’t playing John Olerud, Roberto Alomar and Paul Molitor. Getting Rod Barajas and Jose Bautista to swing and miss is not exactly unusual. Further, note that Mitre got three strikeouts in the first, then two more in the second, and one leading off the third. After that, he failed to K his last 14 batters. The Jays weren’t fooled anymore.
Gaudin isn’t a great pitcher, but he’s made 69 starts in his career, and at 26 has more time to work things out than the 28-year-old Mitre. Gaudin has made a quality start 42 percent of the time, below average but better than Mitre by a reasonable amount — given the same number of starts, Mitre would make 24 quality starts to Gaudin’s 29. That little edge is something worth shooting for. As I said yesterday, just because the Yankees’ place in the postseason is assured doesn’t mean that it can be taken for granted.
? Tough blow for the Nationals losing Jordan Zimmerman to TJ surgery. Nothing derails a building program faster (and more predictably) than pitcher injuries.
? Keith Law made a very good point at ESPN.com — that even if the Jays got Kenny Williams to take Alex Rios on a waiver claim, the very fact that they gave him away for nothing underscores the magnitude of the misjudgment by J.P. Ricciardi by issuing the contract in the first place.
? Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals demonstrates why many closers are overvalued, as is the closer’s role itself. The man has allowed six runs all year. Where is it written that he is a closer, or that he should have even been considered? P.S. Mariano Rivera is not overrated. He’s sui generis.
? Geovany Soto hit a home run last night, but he’s still looking like the new Rick Wilkins. And Jacoby Ellsbury is the new Dave Collins, who Bill James called, “A leadoff man who doesn’t score runs.” Good enough for me.
? Kevin Goldstein’s most recent article at BP is about how good middle infield prospects aren’t making their way into the Minors. What this says to me is that Derek Jeter’s replacement will be long in coming. Sadly, Troy Tulowitzki (hit for the cycle last night) and Hanley Ramirez are tied up forever.
MORE FROM ME
I talk about the years of Phil Rizzuto’s MVP, when shortstops out-hit first basemen, at Baseball Prospectus. Also, a reminder that I’ll be chatting live at BP Thursday at 1 p.m. EST. As always, if you can’t make it to the event itself, you can put your questions in the queue at the link above and I’ll look ’em over when we start up.
Here’s the upside to acquiring Chad Gaudin: He’s been a somewhat reliable starting pitcher in his career. Though as a starter his ERA is just 4.85 in 378.2 innings, he’s kept the ball in the park and pitched well enough, often enough, to post a quality start in 42 percent of his attempts. That’s a below-average figure, but as compared to the work of the other pitchers the Yankees have tried in the fifth starter’s slot it is the work of a Cy Young. This year, Gaudin has made nine quality starts in 19 attempts, or 47 percent, which is actually about average. Add up Phil Hughes, Chien-Ming Wang, Sergio Mitre, and Alfredo Aceves and you get two quality starts in 21 tries. Look at it this way:
|Wang, Mitre, Hughes||21||5-8||90||125||38||64||15||8.20|
Gaudin has a low 90s fastball and a very good slider, hence the high strikeout rate. The walks have been a career-long problem, which is why he’s ill-suited for the bullpen. Yet, that’s where Brian Cashman said he’s headed for now — Mitre will get another chance.
In the bullpen, though, Gaudin is just another Brett Tomko. He lacks good control, walking 4.3 batters per nine innings in his career and 4.8 per nine this year. Those walks are de-emphasized in an extended appearance, but bring a pitcher with poor control into the seventh inning of a one-run game and the free passes can kill you.
One other worry: Gaudin somehow put up an 8.10 RA in San Diego’s PETCO Park, the friendliest park for pitchers in the biz. That number has all the marks of a fluke occurrence — he had a more reasonable 4.55 RA on the road — but it’s something to be aware of. If a pitcher can get bombed in PETCO, he’s not safe anywhere, especially your friendly neighborhood Yankee Stadium II, where left-handed hitters get to take cheap shots at the right field wall. Lefties have hit .292/.388/.431against Gaudin in his career.
Despite this, the value of players is relative, and on paper Gaudin is an upgrade on what the Yankees have been trying. Why send him to the bullpen when there’s a more urgent an obvious need? One wonders if Mitre gets a break because Joe Girardi is vouching for him based on the good old days with the Marlins — which weren’t that good.
POSADA WEARS NO. 15/THURMAN THROWS
Posada wearing a No. 15 decal on his mask in honor of Thurman Munson was a classy gesture from one great Yankees catcher to another. Posada was not quite eight years old when Munson died, so the act was based as much or more on their mutual standing in that lineage than any real memory of Munson the player. It’s a more profound statement than any based on personal association, as it requires an appreciation and respect for history, and says that Munson remains a powerful enough figure in even death that he was able to touch Posada without Posada having had direct contact with him.
Something about Posada’s tribute reminded me of an aspect of Munson’s career that doesn’t get a lot of comment given the focus on his hitting, his leadership, and his gruff personality: He was great at throwing out runners. Consider:
Munson won only three Gold Gloves, those coming in 1973-1975. In his first three seasons the award went to Ray Fosse (1970-1971) and Carlton Fisk (the only one Fisk ever got); from 1976 on the award was dominated by Jim Sundberg, who took six straight awards. Sundberg was also very good at controlling the running game. The Gold Gloves don’t prove much — one of Munson’s awards came in 1974, a year in which a sore arm cut his success rate and led to 22 errors; he made 23 the next season and somehow won again. The errors probably caused the voters to discard Munson for Sundberg so quickly as much as Sundberg’s own defensive excellence; the latter was only in the league for two years when he picked up his first award.
QUICK NOTES ON THURSDAY’S ACTION AND OTHER STUFF
? I’m grieved by John Hughes’ passing. His movies were often skin deep, but at their best there was something touching about them, something wistful about youth and its passing in films like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” — which is not to forget that these were basically teen comedies and often very funny. Of the films that took place outside of his suburban Illinois universe, there are bits of “Vacation” (the first one, not the countless sequels) that can still make me laugh, and I have a soft spot for “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” one of the few films that used John Candy to truly good effect. Hughes’ peak was long ago and far away, the 1980s (and by this I mean to exclude the huge 1990 hit “Home Alone” from the canon), but if you were a teenager then, his work was inescapable, alternatively patronizing and uplifting, and for many people, defining. Seeing him go is a bit like waving goodbye to a piece of the landscape of my youth. It’s saddening, even if the sadness isn’t really about him. I will now spin the Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” from “The Breakfast Club” in his honor.
? I really nailed that analysis of John Smoltz yesterday, didn’t I? Some days you’d be better off staying in bed. As important a win as it was for the Yankees, it was still painful watching a great pitcher brought low. Lefties are now hitting .440 off of Smoltz as he struggles to get his fastball by them on the inside. Righties have had a harder time of it, so perhaps Smoltz might still have some value out of the bullpen if he’s willing to go that route to stay in the game.
? Yesterday did nothing to dissuade me from the idea that the Yankees’ Joba Conservation Plan might cost him his command at a time when he and the team need and most, when he was about to turn the corner and show consistency for the first time all year.
? The Twins acquired Carl Pavano today from a player to be named. Good luck with that, Twinkies.
? Nick Johnson gets traded from the Nats, who can’t win a game, to the Marlins, who then get swept by the Nats. Life can be comically unfair.
? The A’s seem to have done a Soviet-style redaction off Jason Giambi’s place on the team. “No, nothing today,” Geren said. “I haven’t seen him today.”
Turns out the A’s released Giambi on Friday.
MORE TO COME
Since this is the <b>Series of the Year</b> I’ll be posting updates throughout the weekend. Hope you check in.