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.
Writing before the start of this series, I asked if CC Sabathia would rise to this challenge, and asked if it was fair to expect him to do so given his performance to date, one that was, by his own standards, weak. I don’t have to tell you how Sabathia answered that question. The next question for Sabathia — there’s always another one — is if he can take the fire he showed against the Red Sox and carry it with him through the rest of the season AND have enough left in the tank for his increasingly likely postseason appearances. Sabathia’s postseason record is the mirror-image of Mariano Rivera’s; he has a 7.92 ERA in five starts. The reason seems to be not nerves, but fatigue. In the past two seasons, Sabathia worked so hard getting his team through September (Milwaukee’s rare postseason appearance last year was his personal work), he was gassed in October. Such an outcome would reduce Saturday’s triumph to the level of a Pyrrhic victory.
And a glorious victory it was. With the Yankees’ second straight shutout, the Red Sox are now batting .144 for the series. The Yankees have discovered Boston’s hidden shame: once you get past Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, and (recent acquisition) Victor Martinez, there’s not a whole lot of high-impact hitting going on — and Bay isn’t in this series. While they don’t have any hitters who are total pushovers aside from shortstop (though David Ortiz, hitting .208/.262/.377 in the second half, may soon qualify), they also don’t have anyone aside from the aforementioned three who transcend the level of merely good.
With the win, the Yankees are on a pace to become the club’s first 100-win team since 2004 and the 19th such team in club history. Eighteen of those teams went to the postseason–the 1954 Yankees are the exception, and 12 of them won the World Series. The teams that didn’t make it all the way: 1942, 1963, 1980, and the 2002-2004 teams. Sweeping the series from the Sox would go a way towards avenging humiliations suffered earlier in the season, but it won’t mean much if it doesn’t happen as Boston will decamp trailing by at least 4.5 games. They face 10 games against good teams in the Tigers, Rangers (their immediate rival from the wild card), and Blue Jays, six on the road, before hosting the Yankees from the 21st through the 23rd. The Yankees get three at home against the Jays, followed by an always-difficult western road trip to Seattle and Oakland. The latter, at least, should be less of a challenge than in the past.
WISHING ON THE WILD CARD
In doing such damage to the Red Sox, the Yankees have helped to recast the wild card race. Seven days ago, the Red Sox had a 2.5-game lead on the Rangers and a 5.5-game lead over the Rays. Five straight losses later, the Rangers are a game out and the Rays are 1.5 out. The Rays have six games remaining with the Red Sox and seven with the Yankees (and three with the Rangers next week), so if they just hang in they’re going to have a chance to make noise right until the very end… If you’re thinking about how the Yankees might best avoid seeing the Angels this fall, the Red Sox are 4-2 against the Angels, the Rays 1-2 (they play this week), the Rangers 3-8.
? When Manny Ramirez was suspended, he was hitting .348/.492/.641. Since returning, he’s hit .262/.363/.514. That’s still good, but it’s more like Nick Swisher than Manny Ramirez.
? With Saturday’s seven shutout innings against the Tigers, Carl Pavano is 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA against Detroit, 6-8 with a 6.61 ERA against everyone else.
? When Carlos Lee hit his 300th career home run last night, the Astros became the only team to have three players reach that mark in the same season. This sums up the whole problem with the Astros.
? That Josh Willingham is having a terrific year (.309/.417/.595) shouldn’t be a surprise–his numbers were neutered by the Marlins’ ballpark. He always had it in him to be this kind of hitter.
DISTANT EARLY WARNING
I’ll be hosting a live chat at Baseball Prospectus on Thursday at 1 PM 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. I look forward to exchanging thoughts with y’all.