A VERY QUICK NOTE ON ARBITRATION OFFERS
As you have very likely seen by now, the Yankees have declined to offer arbitration to any of their free agents. They have elected not to get tied into an inflexible negotiating position with any of their veterans. The downside to this decision is that if Johnny Damon leaves the Yankees won’t pick up a free draft pick.
Now, on the positive side, this decision doesn’t mean that Damon and pals are definitely gone. The Yankees can keep talking to as many of their free agents as they’re interested in retaining, even Xavier Nady. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it ain’t over ’til the fat agent sings (about signing with another team). Meanwhile, a handful of players were offered arbitration, including some players that have been rumored to attract the roving eye of Brian Cashman to one degree or another–Chone Figgins, John Lackey, Mike Gonzalez, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. If the Yankees were to bring in any of these fellows, they would punt away their first-round draft pick for next June. Given that the Yankees actually do things with their draft picks these days, it is to be hoped that the penalty attached to signing these cats would act as a severe disincentive to action. With Curtis Granderson and Roy Halladay out there to be pursued in trade, there’s no reason for the Yankees to feel like they absolutely most sign a free agent.
IF I WERE A VOTE-MAN CONTINUED
Continuing our review of the Hall of Fame ballot…
Barry Larkin: One of the best offensive shortstops in history, with Jeter-like batting results in most seasons. He was an excellent glove in his prime, and his Reds won a World Series, something that seems impossible now. An MVP award attests to the high regard in which he was held during his career, as do 12 All-Star game selections. His main weakness was that he had trouble staying on the field, but his career totals are just fine in spite of that. He could hit .300, steal 40 bases at an excellent percentage, was willing to take a walk and hit almost 200 home runs. He’s a no-brainer Hall of Famer.
Edgar Martinez: Let’s get one thing out of the way: if designated hitter is a legal position, then there should be no penalty for playing there. Martinez was not a good glove at third, where he started, and he might or might not have been a decent first baseman but he was fragile and the Mariners had other options. Thus, the DH position allowed Martinez to reduce his injury risk and made him a pure asset instead of a compromised defender. Those seem like good things. Martinez was one of the best right-handed hitters of recent years–you might recall him personally dismantling Buck Showalter’s career in the 1995 ALDS. He won two batting titles, led the league in on-base percentage three times. A career .312/.418/.515 hitter, depending on how you adjust for era, Martinez figures as one of the 30- to 50-best hitters of all time. His career totals are a bit short of the big round numbers the voters typically like to see mainly because the Mariners weren’t smart enough to start playing him regularly until he was 27–he had to prove he could hit a Triple-A three times over before they gave him a real chance. This is one of the reasons the Mariners were a complete loss from expansion until the mid-90s. That’s not Martinez’s fault and he shouldn’t be penalized for it. He’s in my Hall.
Don Mattingly: Back in the early days of the Pinstriped Bible the readers and I spent thousands of words arguing Mattingly’s Hall of Fame case. I should re-run those one of these days. Suffice it to say that, in the days when feelings about Mattingly were still fresh, emotions ran high when I suggested that Mattingly’s short peak period didn’t quite qualify him for entry. This was a painful thing for me, because Mattingly was the player who really changed me from a very casual baseball fan to someone who would eventually end up writing about baseball for a living. Donnie Baseball had four Hall of Fame-level seasons, perhaps three more that were very good but not of that quality, and six seasons that really didn’t help. These were the post-back injury years–I still mourn that injury. As good as Mattingly was from 1984-1987–and despite the greatness of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, A-Rod, and the rest, I still haven’t seen anyone better–his peak just wasn’t long enough.
Fred McGriff: The Crime Dog confuses me. I wouldn’t hold up a true Hall of Famer over seven missing home runs. That would be pathetically small-minded and arbitrary. His offensive abilities were clearly worthy of enshrinement. He wasn’t just a one-dimensional slugger, but also walked and hit for solid averages. He played on five postseason teams and picked up a winning ring. At the same time, he wasn’t much of a fielder (though he was good enough at first to get over 2000 games there), not at all a baserunner. He never came close to winning an MVP award. He was just quietly good for about 18 years. I really have no idea what to do with him. The back of his baseball card says yes, but I just don’t have that feeling about him.
Jack Morris: The quintessential “league-average innings eater,” people mistake him for an ace because of one of the great World Series performances. You have to make crazy excuses and explanations to force him into the Hall. Walter Johnson was reputed to pitch to the score too, but still managed to post dominant numbers. Pass.
Dale Murphy: An excellent player on a mostly miserable team, in the late ’80s you could turn on TBS and the games were so sparsely attended that the crowd mic would clearly pick up the players talking to each other on the field. I tend to discount him on two levels: first, his peak was relatively brief. Second, he was a product of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, hitting .285/.374/.513 at what was called the Launching Pad, but only .251/.329/.445. He was a good player, and a much-admired one, but given that park advantage, even his best seasons aren’t quite as big as they should be to put him in the Hall given the brevity of his career.
Dave Parker: In the first Hall of Fame entry, I said of Andre Dawson that as a center fielder he was a Hall of Famer, while as a right fielder he was Jermaine Dye. A similar bifurcation can be observed in Parker’s career. For about five years in the 1970s, Parker was a .300 hitter with power, speed, and a killer throwing arm (26 assists in 1977!). After that, but for the 1985 season he was just a guy, and often not a very good one, overweight and impatient at the plate. From 1980 on, a span of nearly 1,600 games, his hit only .275/.322/.444. The overall career is still impressive due to his longevity and the height of his peak years, but his case for Cooperstown comes down to about six seasons, and as with Mattingly, that’s not quite enough for me.
WE’LL WRAP UP THE BALLOT…
…In our next installment.
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.
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.
THE 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.
THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE CAMERA
I’m not sure how we ever had baseball without replay. I’m not sure how we can continue to have baseball without replay. Pennant races worth millions of dollars to the teams and a great deal of emotion to the fans are resolved on the whim of umpires — any time a team loses a race by one game, you have to ask, “Did they earn that, or did a blown call earn it for them?” And we have had World Series games decided by poor calls in the past, going back at least as far as the 1922 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants when umpires decided to call Game 2 for darkness in the middle of the afternoon. As far as pennant races altered by umpires, they go all the way back to the very beginning — just ask Fred Merkle. Wherever you are, Fred, we’re sorry.
Alex Rodriguez’s timely camera-shot would have been reviewed whether it occurred in the regular season or the postseason, but all calls should be reviewed. Baseball shouldn’t be a game that is sometimes accurately refereed and sometimes not. As I’ve suggested in previous installments, it wouldn’t have taken a booth umpire much longer than 30 seconds to change Rodriguez’s double into a home run, whereas there had to be a complaint by Joe Girardi, followed by a near-minyan of umpires conferring on the field, followed by the long march off the field, the review, the long march back on — what the heck is this, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow? Baseball is famous for being a retrograde institution, but let’s get on with it already. Baseball games are slow enough without the March of the Penguins added for no good reason.
That said, the games aren’t too slow for instant replay properly handled. On Saturday, my Baseball Prospectus colleague Joe Sheehan wrote at Sports Illustrated:
The most common objection to this system is that it would cause delays, but both pro and college football have survived, in part by selling additional television ads during the breaks. Delays would happen, but the improvement in accuracy, especially on high-leverage, high-profile plays, would be worth the time investment. You may even save time by eliminating the long arguments and conferences that currently occur.
Actually, the best way to save time would be to have umpires vigorously enforce pace-of-game rules. Doing that would more than make room for the occasional replay. Batters don’t step out. Period. Batters don’t get time called when the pitcher is already in his wind-up. Period. The pitcher holds the ball more than a set number of seconds — less than it is now — then it’s a ball to the batter. Period. If the plate umpire or the base umpires can’t manage a ten-second countdown between pitches, then the aforementioned booth umpire can do it.
…There isn’t much in the way of deep analysis to do with Game Three. Andy Pettitte didn’t pitch well by his standards, but the offense helped him out, including Andy himself. Phillies pitchers were wilder than they’re accustomed to, both with walks and hit batters, and the Yankees finally got a look into the bullpen, and they saw that it was good — looking into it, that is, not the bullpen pitchers themselves. Nick Swisher came back to himself. Jorge Posada stranded a bunch of runners but got a key single. We’re still waiting on Melky, Robbie and Teixeira. Joba Chamberlain pitched his first solid inning in recent memory. Phil Hughes didn’t. Girardi seems convinced that Damaso Marte is back to his pre-injury, 2002-2007 form — I will never cease to be bugged that the Yankees were smart enough to sign Marte as a free agent (out of the Mariners system, where he was a starter), smart enough to move him to the bullpen and make something out of him, and dumb enough to trade him for Enrique Wilson, one of the worst hitters ever to wear a Yankees uniform, worst even when you cut him some slack for being a utility infielder.
When Hideki Matsui came up to pinch-hit for Chamberlain with two outs in the eighth, I said, “This is a kind of low-leverage situation to use Matsui in, but then at this point in the game, a high-leverage probably isn’t going to come up. Girardi might as well just go for it and hope for a solo home run.” Moments later, Matsui made the move pay off, giving the Yankees an extra bit of cushioning which would make Hughes’ failure to contain postseason superman Carlos Ruiz a bit less of a cause for tension. The only drag about THAT was that it momentarily pushed Girardi into Coffee Joe mode and he got Mariano Rivera into a game that he should have been kept out of.
On the topic of subjects for another day, if the Yankees are determined to keep just one from the expiring Johnny Damon/Hideki Matsui duo of imminent 36-year-olds, I’m beginning to wonder if the right answer isn’t Matsui, regardless of the roster limitations a pure DH brings.
BLANTON TO START GAME FOUR
This is how chess is played: the Phillies have a paper advantage on the Yankees in starters because Joe Blanton > Chad Gaudin, but CC Sabathia > Joe Blanton. Move and countermove. Of course, it could have been CC Sabathia ? Cliff Lee, but Charlie Manuel didn’t feel comfortable with that. Maybe with tonight’s loss he’ll rethink that decision, but I’ve not heard anything of the sort. Thus Sabathia goes on short rest, and he’ll have to perform to make the chess move good. It might not matter: in four career starts against the Yankees, Blanton is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA. The last time was in June, 2008, so we probably shouldn’t become over-stimulated by this particular bit of trivia.
Without taking anything for granted (we all remember 2004), it seems as if we’re on the way to a Yankees-Phillies World Series. While I’m sure that some will be sorry that we won’t get JOE TORRE STRIKES BACK headlines, I’m happy that we likely won’t have to rehash all that stuff, or subject any of the people involved to the indignity of it all.
After all, Torre is no traitor — the organization chose to go in a different direction (this is the politest way of summarizing the events that led to Torre’s departure) and he helped direct the club to its most sustained run of success since the 1970s, if not the dynasty years of the 1950s and ’60s. While I was critical of his work in the later years of his tenure, an organization needs change and that can leave personnel who once seemed integral in the dust trying to keep up. When that happens, and it has happened to great leaders (Winston Churchill comes to mind), it does nothing to invalidate all the positive contributions that came before. Things change, we know that; not everyone is adaptable, and even those that are adaptable will eventually reach the point at which they are no longer flexible.
As I said, we won’t have to deal with that. Instead, what we should have to deal with, if things go the way they should, is the defending champs trying to achieve something like mini-dynasty status — pull the Yankees out of the equation and there haven’t been too many repeat winners in baseball history — against a Yankees team that, in many ways, really hasn’t been here before. Holdovers from the last Yankees World Series team include Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. That’s just five players out of 25. The rest are virginal, at least in a Yankees uniform (Burnett was on the 2003 Marlins but was hurt; Johnny Damon was with the 2004 Red Sox). Though the Yankees are a highly compensated, veteran team, and shouldn’t be rated the underdog in any matchup, they are undoubtedly the upstarts in a confrontation with the Phillies.
The Phillies would also make the most legitimate competition for this Yankees team. The Dodgers are comparatively light on offense (on one of the NLCS broadcasts, Buck Martinez called them the best offense in the National League, not sure where that came from) and their pitching staff has fallen into disarray in October. The Phillies have a team that was built to play in Yankee Stadium II, loaded with left-handed and switch-hitters who can take aim at the short porch in right field, as well as a rotation stocked with lefties who can keep Yankees hitters away from it. Sure, their bullpen is a mess, has been a mess, will be a mess, but that pile of southpaws on both sides of the ball covers a multitude of reliever sins.
All this, however, is premature. For today we wait while the NLCS tries to resolve itself. Perhaps this speculation is premature. It’s difficult not to jump ahead, given the dominance of Tuesday night’s performance by CC Sabathia.
ALL IS FORGIVEN
Given the umpiring throughout the postseason, and particularly in last night’s game (an embarrassment, though the ball-strike calls were shockingly good), it seems to me that Don Denkinger has less and less to feel bad about. Sure, he helped give away a World Series game, but it was just one play. His professional descendants are mucking up inning after inning. Baseball games continually interrupted by instant replay is a horrifying notion, but something has to change.
MORE OF ME AND OTHER PEOPLE
Baseball Prospectus is holding another roundtable chat tonight around Game 5 of the NLCS. I should be there, assuming this kidney stone I’m still dealing with doesn’t send me off to cower in a corner somewhere. For more info or to submit a question, here there be linkage. Hope to see you then. Desperately.
FALL WEATHER: SHOULD’VE PUT A DOME ON IT
Hey, when you’re spending that much money, what’s a few dollars more?
ANGELS-YANKEES HEAD TO HEAD, PART III
LEFT FIELD: JUAN RIVERA (22.4 VORP, 14th among left fielders) vs. JOHNNY DAMON (39.3, 4th)
Rivera was having a breakout year until his bat went dead in August and stayed dead through the end of the season. On the last day of July, he was hitting .314/.357/.525. From then on he hit .246/.296/.408. A hamstring injury might have played a part. Note that even with the slump, he did smoke southpaws to the tune of .333/.385/.645, with 12 homers in 141 at-bats. Righties were a different story: .271/.313/.418. Rivera is a fair defensive left fielder. The same can’t be said of Damon, who is getting to fewer and fewer balls these days as he loses speed and bobbles more than his fair share of those he does get to. However, with the aid of the New Yankee Stadium, which supplied almost all of his home run power, Damon was an offensive plus in left. Unfortunately, he went cold in September and stayed cold in the first round of the playoffs. The good news is that he has a good record against John Lackey and Joe Saunders, not so much against Jered Weaver. Then again, the predictive power of those small samples is exactly zero. I’m calling it EDGE: YANKEES on the home field advantage; Damon knows how to pull the ball into the right field wind tunnel. Rivera faces the wrong way to do that, and hasn’t hit the Yankees pitchers well in any case.
CENTER FIELD: TORII HUNTER (41, 3rd) vs. MELKY CABRERA (17.1, 22nd) and BRETT GARDNER (11.4, 28th)
On a per-game basis, Gardner was more valuable than Cabrera; he was also the better ballhawk in center field. The presence of Freddy Guzman on the ALCS roster suggests that Joe Girardi might have it in mind to start him some; we can only hope so. Cabrera will undoubtedly play against lefties Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders, though he can’t really hit lefties. Hunter did slump a bit in the second half, following an injury time-out, but he did hit a home run against the Red Sox (again, for whatever these three-game samples are worth). Hunter’s defensive abilities, always overstated, have shrunk a bit, but he’s still very capable. EDGE: ANGELS
RIGHT FIELD: BOBBY ABREU (35.6, 7th) vs. NICK SWISHER (30.9, 10th)
On a per-game basis, there was very little difference between Abreu and Swisher, and Swisher is by far the superior defensive player, despite his staggering about the outfield about once a game. He usually catches up to the ball he’s weaving after, while Abreu does not. In short, the offense is a wash, the defense is not. One note: in a decent sample of plate appearances, Swisher has been fairly helpless against John Lackey, though he did once touch him for a home run. Small EDGE: YANKEES.
DESIGNATED HITTER: VLADIMIR GUERRERO (15.6, 8th) vs. HIDEKI MATSUI (33.4, 3rd)
After his July DL stint, which lasted for about a month, the Impaler hit .300/.347/.498. Weird thing about his season: he hit just .250/.276/.410 against lefties, whereas he usually destroys them. We have to consider that a fluke that could reverse itself at any time during the playoffs. Conversely, you can hope that Matsui gets to face a lefty in the late innings — and since the Angels two best relievers are southpaws, he will. He’s never been bothered by them, and he positively smooshed ’em this year. EDGE: YANKEES.
STARTING PITCHER , GAME 1: JOHN LACKEY vs. CC SABATHIA
The Angels whacked Sabathia around a bit this year, but as we covered a couple of entries back, not in a way that suggests that they have his number. Lackey pitched well against the Yankees in his one start against them this year. His career record against them is 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA. As you know, he has good control and keeps the ball down without exactly being a groundball pitcher. He’s always been very effective against right-handed hitters, but that’s less of a problem for the Yankees with their lineup of switch-hitters and lefties. Lackey is an excellent pitcher with a fine postseason record (3.02 ERA in 12 games) and due to injury he hasn’t pitched all that much this year. Call it EDGE: YANKEES, but it’s not a sure thing.
This is all Yankees. The Angels will rely mainly on four relief arms: Brian Fuentes, Darren Oliver, Jason Bulger, and Kevin Jepsen. Jepsen throws hard but can be wild, and left-handed hitters smoked him (.373/.426/.455). Bulger is almost the same story. He throws hard but wild. He was, however, very hard to hit, allowing opposing hitters just a .207 average. Left-handers did manage to touch off five home runs in only 107 at-bats. The second act to Oliver’s career is a wonderful story. Primarily a starter from 1993 to 2004, he was generally pounded, his ERA 5.07. He spent 2006 in the minors and got pounded there as well, but nonetheless caught on with the Mets as a reliever in 2006. Since then, he’s pitched 223 games, has a record of 19-4, and an ERA of 3.19. In several seasons, including this one, he’s had a reverse split; lefties have hit him better than righties. He’s the team’s most reliable reliever, but the Yankees really damaged southpaws this year, something which also does not bode well for closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes struggled at times this year, and manager Mike Scioscia flirted with a demotion, but there was really nowhere else to go. That he ended up leading the American League in saves tells you just how valuable the saves statistic is.
The Yankees pen is deep and versatile, deep enough that if a rainout means that the Yankees have to start a Joba or a Chad Gaudin somewhere, they could survive a short start without too much trouble. EDGE: YANKEES.
This is Joe Girardi’s first time in the rarified air of the LCS, whereas Mike Scioscia has been here before. The trick for Girardi will be, as it was in the first round, good bullpen handling and not getting too caught up in one-run strategies. Scioscia’s Angels run quite a bit and throughout the days leading up to this contraction the Yankees sounded almost jealous of their speed, but the fact is that the Angels do not always run well. They also bunt quite a bit, primarily with Erick Aybar and the punchless Jeff Mathis. This represents Scioscia trying to do more with these players than they are truly capable of doing, but except for select situations is probably counterproductive. It is worth noting that when both the Angels and Yankees did attempt to bunt, neither team was particularly successful — they failed to advance the runner about a third of the time. Girardi seems to like to hit and run quite a bit, a reaction to his team’s relative lack of speed. The Angels, on the other hand, seem to like to keep the bat in the batter’s hands and run and hit, letting the runner go, and if the batter swings, fine, and if not, not. On the pitching side, Scioscia had nine blown quality starts, which is to say that his starting pitcher had pitched well enough to qualify for a quality start but Scioscia kept in him long enough to give up some more runs. Girardi had only five, despite receiving more quality starts from his pitching staff. I’m going to rate this EDGE: YANKEES, because Girardi, having superior resources, knows he doesn’t have to push as hard. Scioscia is doing more “managing,” which often doesn’t help.
OFF TO THE ROUNDTABLE
Today, BP is doing another roundtable, a doubleheader covering both games. All are welcome. For more info or to submit a question, join us here.
POSADA VS. BURNETT
Rob Neyer has it right: if Joe Girardi truly feels that A.J. Burnett is going to pitch better with Jose Molina receiving his pitches, then he has little choice but to bench Jorge Posada despite the huge offensive difference between the two catchers. Burnett is a highly variable pitcher. When he’s on, he’s unhittable. When he’s off, he walks the ballpark and gets pounded. Posada did most of the catching for Burnett at midseason (with some Kevin Cash and Frankie Cervelli throw in). They had the usual mix of good starts and bad, but things seem to have changed in late August after a three-start sequence in which two Posada games bracketed a Molina game. Burnett was savaged in the Posada starts, but struck out 12 Rangers in the Molina start (August 27). That seems to have convinced Burnett or Girardi or someone, because the Burnett’s final six starts were taken by Molina. Burnett’s ERA in those starts was 2.92, so clearly something was working.
The Yankees should survive three Molina at-bats in one playoff game, but this does raise an interesting question for next year. Molina’s contract is up and Cervelli is clearly ready to contribute at roughly the same level as Molina does now. It would be a shame if the Yankees retained Molina just to cater to the whims of one pitcher. And before anyone suggests as an alternative that Posada replace Hideki Matsui as designated hitter while Molina and Cervelli handle the bulk of the catching, keep in mind that the offensive loss would be disastrous.
Hideki Matsui is now hitting an excellent .280/.370/.516. There is life in the old boy yet. The average AL DH (it used to be redundant to say “AL DH,” but with the advent of interleague play, there is now such a thing as the NL DH) has hit .253/.336/.446 this season, which is depressing in that a position purely devoted to hitting has produced only slightly above-average offense, the league as a whole averaging .266/335/.429.
Teams with middling to miserable DH production include the Rays, who made a very expensive mistake in signing Pat Burrell; the Tigers (.245/.319/.390), primarily due to the decline of Carlos Guillen, Marcus Thames’ weak season and Aubrey Huff’s inability to hit in their uniform; the Royals, because Dayton Moore and Trey Hillman somehow think Mike Jacobs can hit (.231/.300/.395 as the DH); Seattle (Junior Griffey’s Seattle comeback is like one of those reunion tours in which none of the original band members participates); and Oakland (Jack Cust isn’t the hitter he was last year).
Some of the best DH production belongs to the Twins (primarily Jason Kubel, but also lots of Joe Mauer), Angels (Vlad Guerrero plus great work from almost every regular Mike Scioscia has rotated through) and the White Sox (until recently, Jim Thome). Thanks to Matsui, along with small contributions from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, the Yankees lead them all in hitting at the hitting position.
Matsui has done this despite bad knees and a stroke which has not made great use of Yankee Stadium — he’s hitting .268/.356/.481 there versus .294/.389/.561 on the road. Joe Girardi has kept him on the bench against some lefties, but Godzilla has never had a platoon problem and has creamed them, hitting .276/.348/.610 against southpaws. The semi-platooning has been primarily directed towards keeping Matsui’s knees functional as well as giving rest to the other Yankees veterans, and it seems to have worked out very well.
Matsui’s contract is up at the end of the season, as is Johnny Damon’s. Next year will be Matsui’s age-36 campaign. Damon will turn 36 this winter. It’s going to be a crowded winter for players whose main job is to hit. Likely free agents include Russell Branyan (if ambulatory), Carlos Delgado (ditto), Nick Johnson (likewise), Adam LaRoche (Mr. Second Half), Hank Blalock (having a miserable year at .237/.278/.466), Troy Glaus (back in the “if ambulatory” category), Bobby Abreu, Jason Bay (who plays the field but maybe shouldn’t), Jermaine Dye (if the White Sox don’t pick up his option), Vlad Guerrero and Andruw Jones.
These players are going to have to tamp down their financial expectations given how few slots are available, how limited their contributions, their generally advanced age, and of course, The Economy. This is true of Damon as well, who has had a strong year at the plate but whose defensive abilities are at ebb tide.
The Yankees have the option of filling both spots internally: Damon’s place with Austin Jackson, Matsui’s with some kind of rotation, but that would be a huge offensive blow. Unless Jackson takes an unexpected leap forward, there just won’t be enough hitting to make up for the loss. The Yankees could also re-sign one player, or both, while attempting to work Jackson into the mix. The International League playoffs could end as soon as tonight (Scranton is down two games to none in a best of five series) and perhaps we’ll see a bit of Jackson in the Majors soon after. They could also re-sign Damon, refuse to pay a high price to keep Matsui in the fold and sign whichever of the many free agent bats fits their budget.
There is no correct answer, except perhaps to observe that retaining two 36-year-olds is courting twice the danger of keeping one — one of them is likely to decline. Actually, there is a correct answer, and that’s two 23-year-olds in those spots, young players who can be Yankees over the next five to ten years, but unless Jesus Montero is going to get an express ticket to the Bronx, the Yankees don’t have even one of those guys in position.
WILL BIG PAPI BE A FORCE IN THE PLAYOFFS?
He’s been up and down since his miserable first two months, but on the whole he’s had a productive half-season’s worth of work since then, hitting .262/.353/.544 in 88 games, 82 of them starts. He’s hit 23 home runs in that span. Left-handed pitchers can neutralize him (.216/.298/.435 overall), but you can’t take him for granted in most situations.
A SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
Tim McCarver Sings Selections from the Great American Songbook
I really, really hate to alert McCarver to the fact that “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is not part of the American Songbook, though Americans have sung it. It was written by two British fellows and made famous by Vera Lynn, the same chanteuse who is presently keeping the reissued Beatles CDs off the top of the charts in Great Britain.
NUMBER NINE… NUMBER NINE… NUMBER NINE…
Speaking of those Beatles CDs, I’ve been assiduously working my way through the remastered stereo set and enjoying the heck out of it. The music is much clearer, as if you had been listening through some kind of murky haze all of these years. You can make out small touches in the playing and singing that you couldn’t before, perhaps not even on the original vinyl, though I confess it has been years since I listened to those.
Coincidentally, yesterday I came across this quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut in my notes:
The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they did before. When I’ve been asked if I’ve seen that done, I say, ‘Yes, the Beatles did it.’
… I wonder if John Lennon knew he had won the battle of the White Album. The Beatles were writing and basically recording separately by this point, with each composer using the other three as backing musicians (and in Paul McCartney’s case, sometimes leaving them out altogether), so you can attribute each track individually and sort the sprawling mess that is the “The Beatles” (IE “The White Album”). George Harrison and Ringo Starr got a combined total of five tracks; as good as George’s are (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Piggies” and “Savoy Truffle”) you can’t call that more than an EP’s worth of material, whereas John and Paul each contributed a standard album of material. John’s White Album looks like this:
1. Dear Prudence
2. Glass Onion
3. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
4. Happiness is a Warm Gun
5. I’m So Tired
7. Yer Blues
8. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
9. Sexy Sadie
10. Revolution I
11. Cry Baby Cry
12. Revolution 9
13. Good Night (sung by Ringo, but written by John)
I haven’t yet listened to the remastered “Revolution 9,” but in a perverse way I’m looking forward to it. If you look at this track listing, it anticipates John’s early solo albums. He wasn’t trying to write pop singles anymore (though “Dear Prudence” could have been one) and instead concentrated on emotional work that tried to express a deeper mood or feeling than good time rock and roll. Given that this is the same man who was primarily responsible for “I Feel Fine” and “Ticket to Ride,” both No. 1 singles, Lennon’s turn towards introspec
tion is, retrospectively, shocking and a harbinger of the group’s dissolution.
Here’s Paul’s White Album:
1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
2. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
3. Wild Honey Pie
4. Martha My Dear
6. Rocky Raccoon
7. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road
8. I Will
10. Mother Nature’s Son
11. Helter Skelter
12. Honey Pie
Here you have three tracks that could have been singles but weren’t — the Beatles’ 1968 singles releases were non-album tracks like “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude” — “Back in the U.S.S.R,” the Beach Boys parody, “Ob-La-Di,” which did get a belated single release in the US eight years later, and perhaps the irritating and ubiquitous “Birthday.” A souped-up version of “Revolution” was the B-Side to “Hey Jude,” but that’s the closest the group came to taking a single off the album. McCartney was still working the pop song-craft part of the street, with one song even inspired by his sheepdog. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Blackbird” were initially attempts at political relevance, though one’s enjoyment of those songs is greatly enhanced by being unaware of the discarded subtext. Or the sheepdog.
John’s would have been the better album. Take this, brother. May it serve you well.
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.