A sober reflection on “A fork in the road”

Let's see that again
Joba the starter, coming in 2008

After reading the comments on the fork in the road post, I thought I’d follow up a bit. I enjoyed the discussion, and thought some good ideas came out of it. I really believe that the more we talk about these issues, the more we’ll all learn. Remember, I’m no expert. I’m some dude who thinks about baseball a lot and posts his thoughts for public viewing. You guys are the crux of it all. You call me out when I say something stupid, and you lend different ideas to the ones I present. That’s why this site works so well.

Honestly, my biggest problem with what I wrote is how I presented it. It was written over the course of a couple of days, and as I progressed the ideas kind of shifted. In essence, the beginning didn’t mesh with the end, and the middle didn’t do a good job of transitioning. What follows is what I think I should have written — only better, because it takes the discussion we had into consideration. And I’m sorry, but it’s going to be another long one. I’ll leave out the pictures this time.

As I mentioned in my disclaimer, the Yankees would never take the more radical path. They have the resources to stay in contention, so they’re going to continue along that path…if they can. This is where I’ll defend the “gut the team” notion. The essence is simple: The Yanks might not have much of a choice in the matter.

A-Rod is a complete wild card. He’ll decide what he wants to do, and all the Yanks can do is react to that. If he opts out, they have to decide if he’s worth bidding on. While I appreciate Cashman’s hardline stance, I don’t buy it. The Yankees can outbid every team on the market, subsidy or not. Clearly, it makes sense from an economic standpoint to try your damndest to get that extension done, but Scott Boras cares not about that. So the Yanks might end up competing for A-Rod’s service. I’m fine with that. As long as the Yanks maintain a virtually unlimited payroll, we really shouldn’t care how much he makes; it’s not our money. You can claim ticket prices and money spent on the game as much as you want, but that’s going to be expensive in any case, A-Rod or not.

The other three free agents are also wild cards. They decide whether or not they want to be back. There are two things the Yankees can do to influence their decision: offer a lot of money and bring back Joe Torre. Only the latter matters in Pettitte’s case, though he could be looking for another option year, while both matter in Jorge’s and Mo’s cases.

So the question is: Do you want to bring back Joe Torre just because it will help you re-sign your veterans? Remember, bringing him back doesn’t guarantee anything. It will just aid in retaining them. There’s still a risk they bolt, though the risk is smaller than if you let him go. My biased view makes me think that yes, we’d retain Mo, Po, and Pettitte if Joe comes back. I’m not sure that it affects the A-Rod decision, though I have thought that it might.

Now we get to the one issue we do control: Bobby Abreu. Bringing him back at $16 million seems logical enough. Yes, it’s more than he’s worth, but it’s also only one year, which has value itself. That, however, gives us the same logjam situation at outfield and DH that we had this year. I’m not sure you can keep Giambi on the bench to start next year. I mean, you’re paying the dude $21 million, and when he’s healthy he’s going to park some baseballs in the seats. And he did come storming out of the gates last April, hitting .322/.404/.517 before injuring his plantar fascia and essentially ruining the rest of his season.

So then you have four guys for three spots. But two of those guys are Matsui and Damon, a pair of 34-year-olds who didn’t have totally healthy 2007s. You have to figure that both will succumb to injury again next year. I understand that many of you love Melky, and yes, even I — the anti-Melky — understands the value of his arm in center field. It’s my opinion that you start the year with Matsui-Damon-Abreu and use Melky as a spot-starter and defensive sub. An injury is bound to happen, at which point Melky enters the starting lineup.

Now, if you want Melky to start the year in the outfield, then a decision has to be made. I don’t think benching Matsui or Damon is really an option if you’re bringing back Torre. We know he’ll play his vets, especially his high-priced ones (and I’m sure he has instructions from the front office to do so; even the Yankees don’t want that money going to waste at the beginning of the season). So you have a few options: 1) Don’t pick up Abreu’s option, 2) Dish Damon, 3) Dish Matsui. Risk comes along with all three scenarios, mainly in the form of injury to the untraded player. Plus, it would be very tough to dish Matsui, since he has a full no-trade clause. Damon can be dished to a select few teams, but that means the Yanks will receive less in compensation. Plus, that likely means Melky is the leadoff guy, and I don’t care if you love the guy or hate him, he should not be batting at the top of the order.

Plus, getting rid of one of them means bringing in another outfielder. Do you trust Bronson Sardinha or Brett Gardner as the fourth outfielder? More importantly with Gardner, are you willing to take regular playing time away from him in order to have him serve as your backup outfielder, where he’ll likely compile 25, 30 at bats a month? If not, it means bringing in a free agent. Looking at the list, I’m not sure there are many viable options for fourth outfielder. Brad Wilkerson is the only name that is even remotely attractive, and he’s probably looking for a starting gig — though he probably wouldn’t be a starter on a contender. The only other remedy is to pick up a fourth outfielder as a throw-in when you dish Matsui or Damon.

The Torre decision affects the outfield, too. I would think, though I could clearly be wrong, that Matsui would be more apt to waive his NTC if Torre isn’t retained. With the Dodgers looking to deal Matt Kemp, maybe you can swing Matsui out there. I’m not saying Kemp would come in return…though trading Wang and Matsui for Kemp and a little something-something makes a degree of sense. But in any case, they might have an outfield spot to fill. They want to fill it with a veteran. We can supply them with a veteran. But if Torre stays, I can’t see Matsui waiving his NTC.

The final offensive/defensive consideration if first base. I’d advocate a Minky/Shelley platoon at first to start the season, more because Shelley hits lefties better than because of Mientkiewicz’s splits. I really want to see Shelley get some at bats, and this seems like the best way. I know many of you hate Minky and his wet noodle of a bat, but we have Juan Miranda waiting in the wings should Mink stink up the joint. A Miranda/Shelley platoon is also ideal, since Miranda had his problems with lefties this year: .244/.306/.311 vs. .272/.365/.530 in Trenton, and .197/.291/.424 vs. .284/.366/.475 in Tampa. In any event, I’m not sure the Torre decision affects this one.

Now to pitching, where we’ll start off with the most controversial item: Joba. Most of us want to see him back in a starting role next year, but there are those who think that he’s invaluable in the setup role. Personally, I’m a believer in the “200 innings is better than 70” philosophy, though we’re clearly not getting 200 innings out of Joba next year. But the Yanks have to build him up to that level, and having him throw 70, 80 innings in the bullpen is not the way to do that. Yes, he’s still young and there is time. I just think that with all of the other relief arms in the minors, we’re better off auditioning all of them and putting Joba back in his natural role. Remember, Mo only became a lights-out reliever after he failed as a starter. Let’s give Joba a chance to succeed in that role. We know he can throw out of the pen, so he can always move back there if he fails.

Clearly, Hughes will also start the year in the rotation, but he has the same ailment as Joba: he won’t be able to go 200 innings. The injury threw a wrench in those plans, and he only threw 116 innings this year counting the playoffs, after throwing 146 last year. So the “rule of 30” becomes hazy here. If you go by last year’s numbers, he can go 140, 150 innings next year. However, since he threw 146 the year before, can he go 180 next year, as he was supposed to this year? I’d figure on 170, allowing him to get to 200 in 2009. But that won’t cover 30 starts, unless he’s going under 6 innings a start, which is not something we want.

Barring injury, IPK can give us around 200 innings. He threw 165 last year, so it would only be a 35 inning increase to get him to that point. At just 23 years old, he could be a key cog in the Yanks rotation for next year.

Unfortunately, we cannot count on Andy Pettitte for next year. That’s a shame, since he ate 215 innings this year, and has pitched over 200 in nine of his 13 major league seasons — and one of them he hit 191, and another was his rookie year. The other two were cut short by injury. We could sure use those innings, especially considering the rest of the rotation.

Chien-Ming Wang is another innings eater. I know I’ve advocated shopping him around, and to an extent I still support that approach. However, replacing those 200 innings is going to be tough. Without Wang in the rotation, considering he isn’t sent in exchange for Johan Santana, we’d be really strapped. You’d have three guys who simply can’t go 200 innings: Joba, Phil, and Mussina. And then what? Maybe Pettitte, and maybe, maybe Santana, though that’s still a pipe dream at this point.

Now, the Yanks starters pitched 921 out of 1450 possible innings. You certainly want to see that number rise. So let’s add ’em up. Ideally, you get 200 from Kennedy, 170 from Phil, and probably 150 from Joba (116 IP this year). That’s only 520, so you’d need two 200-inning pitchers just to get back to last years’ level. With the always-volatile state of the Yanks bullpen, you really want to add 80 or so innings to that 921. That’s where I see Mussina fitting in.

So yes, I’ve advocated dishing Wang if we can extract value from him, but unless that value includes a 200-inning pitcher, we might be better off keeping him on board. This is especially true if Pettitte leaves. It’s not easy to replace a quality 200 innings. So while Wang is probably our most valuable trading chip not named Phil or Joba, he’s kind of essential to any kind of success in 2008.

As far as the bullpen goes, I still advocate my original idea. There isn’t much for the taking on the free agent market. A few names stand out: Jeremy Affeldt, Scott Linebrink, Kerry Wood, and Francisco Cordero. They all have flaws, though: too many terrible years to think he’ll be any good next year, probably benefited a ton from Petco, probably wants a decent-sized deal, and wants to be a closer, respectively. Joe Kennedy could be an option, as he’s had decent success against lefties in his career. However, he walks far too many guys: 4.5 per nine in 2007 (13 in 21.1 relief innings), and 4.03 per nine career in relief appearances. Better than Sean Henn and Ron Villone? Yes. Optimal? Far from it.

You gotta just stick with what you’ve got at this point, which makes re-signing Mo that much more important. But, once again, the team has little control over that.

Now we get to the point of the previous article: What the hell is the team supposed to do if they all decide to take a walk? A-Rod, Mo, Po, Pettitte all gone. We had a commenter opine that the two paths of which I spoke aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Well, if all those guys decide to walk, we’re in a similar situation to that which I described. The only crossover at that point is picking up Abreu’s option — and I’ve been convinced that it’s probably a good idea anyway, given the team’s financial situation. Yes, draft picks are nice, but we’d be getting picks for A-Rod, Mariano, Posada, and Pettitte if he chose to sign elsewhere. At that point, it’s better to retain Bobby. (Incidentally, since all four of those guys would probably sign on with contenders, that is, top 15 teams, we’d have five first round picks, plus four supplemental round picks, unless two signed with the same team.)

If all this happens, the Yanks are in a bind for 2008. Then we’re in a situation that I described earlier, where we have below average situations at catcher, first, and third. My suggestion was to at that point essentially punt the season and regroup for 2009. Trade Wang for help at one of those positions, or any kind of offensive relief, really. Plant our young guys at the top of the rotation and give them a full year of experience. Give guys like Horne, Marquez, Clippard, and even Chase Wright a chance to earn a spot. It would certainly be better than overpaying in both money and years for one of the 20 or so mediocre starting pitchers on the market.

This is where many of us disagree. I understand the want — though it feels like a need — to contend in the final year of old Yankee Stadium. However, you’d be going at it with a suddenly reasonable offense, as opposed to our ridiculous offenses of years past. And you’d have two guys who can potentially give you 200 innings (Wang, IPK), and a bunch of guys who can’t go that far because of age/health concerns. Do you really think that they’d be serious contenders with that kind of team? I don’t. That’s why I think, under the “everyone leaves” scenario (as opposed to the “gut the team” scenario, though it’s just a semantical issue) we should be looking to 2009, rather than 2008.

I hope that clears issues up. It would be ridiculous to not offer Mo, Po, and A-Rod a truck full of money in exchange for their services. But, as I’ve said at least six times in this piece, we might not have much of a choice. They’ll leave if they want and they’ll stay if they want.

I don’t think my position changed much, but I think this explains my thought process better. I mean, what would you do if those four guys signed on with other teams? Would you apply bandages and try to salvage 2008? Or would you take your licks in 2008 and try to set the team up to contend in 2009?

For the record, if by some stroke of genius were were able to land Santana for Wang and a package of players not named Joba, Phil, Ian, or Robinson, I think the Yanks could put up a fight in 2008 with the pitching alone. Not saying they’d win the division or even the wild card. But you have to have some sort of confidence when you’re trotting out Johan Santana every five days.

Let's see that again
Joba the starter, coming in 2008
  • dan

    If they keep pettitte and Mo, let arod and posada walk, then they have 3 first rounders in the 2008 draft, and then probably 4 more in the 2009 draft (their pick + pettitte + abreu + farnsworth). That’s looking way into the future, but having 7 first round picks in two years (plus 5 supplemental rounders, making it 12 total) is a nice way to build on an already stellar farm system. Under that scenario, the offense would obviously take a step back, but they wouldn’t exactly fall apart in 2008.

  • yankz

    Joba will be a starter: http://tinyurl.com/24qcar

  • steve (different one)

    good follow up. not much to disagree with here when you lay it out like this.

    yes, if the FA’s walk, they are going to be at a fork in the road. do you try to paper over the holes with a Francisco Cordero, Mike Lowell, and Micheal Barett? or do you privately punt on 2008 and re-load by stocking draft picks and maybe trying to trade Abreu (like Sheffield after picking up his option), Damon, and maybe Matsui.

    to me, it all hinges on A-Rod.

  • http://yankeesetc.blogspot.com/ Travis G.

    good article, Joe. imo, if those 4 guys leave, there’ll be no point to spend crazily on FAs – just keep on track, sign FAs only if they’re worth the $, horde those draft picks, and come back strong in 09, 10, etc.

    but of all the guys to re-sign, Mo is definitely #1. without a solid reliever (assuming Joba stays a starter), we would really, truly suck. that gave me an idea: perhaps Joba remains a starter through say July, then they convert him back to the pen to limit his innings. then if they make the PS, he goes back to starting. possible?

    oh, and speaking of a Dmint/Shelley 1b platoon, why not go with a Betemit/Shelley platoon. Betemit’s got much more power and about as good patience as DMint. DMint’s only got him in the BA & glove depts., but 1b is a position where you can punt defense (statistically the least important D position), although Betemit is no slouch on D either – a Betemit/Shelley platoon would be ideal with what’s available.

  • Mike R.

    If we deal Damon we could bat Jeter lead off. He’s done a good job in that spot before.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph P.

      Love the idea. Jeter makes a great leadoff guy. Not sure if that would happen, though.

  • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike A.

    When you’re talking about players like A-Rod, Pettitte, Mo & Posada, the draft choices are hardly an acceptable bounty for losing them; you’d much rather resign the player. If you’re talking about Frank Catalanotta or David Eckstein, then yeah, gimme the picks.

    Also, the 2008 draft class is pretty crappy.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph P.

      I only brought up the draft picks because of the Bobby situation. Just saying that if they left, we’d already have a ton of first-rounders, and that we should pick up Bobby’s option and forget about the extra pick we’d get for him.

  • Jamal G.

    This maybe a bit too radical to even consider but let’s say the vets do return, we can steadily prepare their replacements while the likes of Abreu, Mariano, and Posada finish out their tenures or careers entirely. We all know that Jesus Montero and Jose Tabata are the prime futures of the organization, so keeping that vet OF will allow Tabata to be steadily prepared and join his fellow minor-leaguers like Gardner and Jackson along with Melky already up in the majors to become the new Yankees OF. As with Montero we can continue to place Posada as the backstop on a 3-4 year deal and in the final year (preferably the 4th) we bring up Jesus M. to platoon with PO and learn the position before taking over in 2011.

    Im sure we are all fairly certain that JB Cox is the future closer so the prep process with him can also continue as Mariano finishes out his career on a multi-year deal.

    However, the thought of having all those first-round/supplemental draft picks in 2008 is tantalizing at the very least! I do appreciate the idea about “gutting the team” but I think the approach of working the kids up as the vets finish out their use will keep the Tampa Police off of Cahsman’s back and still allow him to carry out his plan of making this organization better all-around.

    • steve (different one)

      i am not certain that Cox is the future closer at all.

      i think it’s more likely that he is a bust.

      • http://riveraveblues.com Mike A.

        JB Cox? Oh hells no. That dude’ll die trying before becoming a bust.

  • A. Phil

    That’s more like it Joseph. This is a little better. However, I think that I would give Shelley approximately 75% of the ABs at 1B. What he did at AAA has to be for real. He takes his walks, hits for power, and fields his position fairly well. Minky can obviously be a late inning replacement, but he shouldn’t share the position with Shells by all means. In addition, there has been whispers at my school concerning a possible visit by the Shelster himself as he is friends with an English teacher here. I hope he comes.

  • A. Phil

    I actually buy into the Cox hype, only because he succeeded H. Street admirably and since he absolutely dominated college hitters. I know its just college, but striking out 5 guys in 2 innings in latter parts of a college world series game is pretty special. It also shows that the dude might have the intestinal fortitude to pitch in the big city and pitch in big spots. Yeah, he is coming off elbow surgery, but if he can make a successful recovery, which is more likely than not, he is definitely an intriguing option out of the pen.

  • Jamal G.

    There is an article today in the NY Post where sports columnist Joel Sherman talks about this same topic and gives his own insight to what the Yankees might do. According to this article the Yankees might take the Vet Road and allow the prospects to grow into their roles as the veterans fill out their expensive but short-term deals.

    Joel Sherman also speaks about a potential Kei Igawa/Tyler Clippard package for Huston Street. His reasons are that Oakland GM Billy Beane valuse the inning totals of two starters over the 75-plus innings by a closer who is going to make some money in a year or two. Also Beane is down on Street for his recent injury woes and feels that Igawa will prosper as a back-end starter out of the New York market.

    LOL, sign me up for that deal!

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph P.

      Fuckin’ a…absolutely! That would allow a much easier transition of Joba to the rotation.