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.
MENTIONED THIS BEFORE, BUT IT’S STILL ON ME MIND
When CC Sabathia goes seven innings and strikes out four batters, I worry. Sabathia has a career rate of 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He’s averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine for the Yankees, which is average for an AL starter this year. Now, none of this matters much if Sabathia can pitch effectively while allowing batters to put more balls in play, and so far he has, in part because (and this is paradoxical given the propensities of Yankee Stadium II) fewer of the fly balls he allows are going over fence walls than they used to. Hand in hand with that is some good breaks on balls in play — coming into this year, batters hit .292 off of Sabathia when they put the ball in play. This year they’re hitting .272.
There are two troublesome aspects to this picture. First, a pitcher’s luck on balls in play can change. Second, when a pitcher’s strikeout range declines, it is sometimes (often) a suggestion that something is wrong — that a crash is coming. Sabathia’s velocity seems to be consistent with previous years, so we’re certainly not seeing any evidence of a physical problem there, but it’s still a difficult thing to accept and with which to be comfortable.
HOLLIDAY (NOT HALLADAY)
Kudos to the A’s for getting a top prospect in Brett “The Walrus” Wallace from the Cardinals for Matt Holliday. Ever since Eric Chavez’s constitution vanished, the A’s have had a lot of filler at third base. With Chavez signed for one more year (plus an exceedingly painful $3 million buyout), the A’s may feel obligated to keep trotting Chavez out once a year to see if he can remain in an upright position for more than a game at a time, but in the long interim between appearances, they can try Wallace. A first-round pick last year, Wallace has hit .306/.390/.466 in the Minors in about one season’s worth of playing time. He hit .293/.346/.423 at Triple-A Memphis this year, which translates to .272/.321/.397 in the Majors — not great numbers, but then the A’s have gotten only .210/.289/.316 from their third basemen this year.
The problem with Wallace as a third baseman is suggested by the “Walrus” nickname. He’s not fat, he’s just shaped strangely for, well, anyone. He looks like two different people glued together, something like an average-sized person on top and Prince Fielder on the bottom. It’s not a sure thing that someone built like Wallace can play a quality third base in the Majors. So far, though, he’s hanging in, and it would be a huge bonus for the A’s if he can stick at the hot corner.
The A’s also picked up pitcher Clay Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson, but neither has the possibilities of the Walrus. Peterson hasn’t much power and unless you’re a plus defensive center fielder, that usually means a life sentence as a fourth outfielder. Mortensen is a starter right now, but given that he’s 24 years old and has had three years of mediocre results, one smells a trip to the bullpen in the near future. He too is a former first-round pick.
It seems that Chien-Ming Wang is unlikely to pitch this year. This is sad on one level, and a break for the Yankees on another, because even if he were to pitch again in 2009, it was unlikely that he was going to pitch well, yet the Yankees felt obligated to keep trying. Given the hole in the rotation that Wang’s absence has created when combined with the team’s decision to bolster the bullpen at the expense of the starting rotation (see Phil Hughes and Alfie Aceves), their desperation was understandable, but Wang had reached the point where Sergio Mitre or anyone else would have been a better bet to pitch the team to a win. For the sake of both Wang’s career and the team’s chances in 2009, giving him a pass for the rest of the year is the right thing to do.