RAB Retrospective: The Perfection of The 2008 Off-Season

Cashman confims Sabathia will be out until least July
2014 Draft: Grant Hockin
The 2008 free agent signings
So long ago. (Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The 2008 season might not have been as bad as 2013, but Yankees fans would still like to forget it. It seemed that every little thing went wrong that season. Whenever it looked as though the Yankees might have a charge in them, the suffered another blow.

Let’s consider a (perhaps incomplete) list of those maladies:

  • Both Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, top prospects who showed promise in 2007, started off the season in disastrous fashion.
  • Then Hughes got hurt.
  • Darrell Rasner started 20 games.
  • Much worse: Sidney Ponson started 15.
  • Save for a brilliant start here and there, Andy Pettitte was thoroughly mediocre.
  • The only two starters under age 30, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, had wholly disappointing seasons. Cano was benched for lack of hustle, while Carbera got sent back to AAA after more than two service-time years in the bigs.
  • Jorge Posada, fresh off signing a new contract, played the first half with a bum shoulder which required surgery, forcing a cast of offensively inept backups into starting roles.
  • Hideki Matsui‘s balky knees limited him to under 400 PA and sapped him of his power.
  • Chien-Ming Wang suffered a foot injury that would indirectly end his career.
  • Derek Jeter had his worst season since 1996. (Sure, he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award that year, but we’d come to expect more of him.)
  • Joba Chamberlain dazzled out of the pen, and then in the rotation — until he suffered a shoulder injury that cut his season short (and probably ended up causing a lot more long-term damage than we typically account for).
  • They traded a reasonably effective Kyle Farnsworth and got back a wholly terrible Ivan Rodriguez.
  • Xavier Nady hit .330/.383/.535 before the Yankees traded for him, .268/.320/.474 for them.
  • Damaso Marte was terrible and then broke after the trade. Thankfully, they didn’t end up giving away anything of consequence.
  • All told the Yankees used 27 — twenty-seven! — pitchers.

What went right? Mike Mussina’s resurgence was nice to watch. Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi both stayed healthy and produced decent numbers. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t his 2007 MVP self, but he was still a top-five hitter. Unfortunately, he started his streak of six straight years on the disabled list. (Which he’ll have snapped at season’s end.) The Yanks did discover Al Aceves, which was nice, and Brian Bruney, which was nice for a very short period of time.

Despite all that, had there been a second Wild Card, or had the Rays improved by 22 wins, instead of 31, the Yanks would have made the playoffs. So how bad could the season have been?

It could have been a fatal sign going forward. The franchise players were getting older. Each had been hurt or saw diminished production during the 2008 season. The only starters under age 30 took steps backwards. Maybe it didn’t feel like it at the time, but the potential for disaster loomed during that off-season. The Yankees needed big changes, and that’s not easy to achieve through free agency.

Thankfully for the Yankees, the 2008-2009 free agent class featured a number of players who fit their exact needs. Even more thankfully, they shed a number of their biggest, and in some cases worst, contracts at the exact right time.

The 2008 payroll was a then-franchise-record $209 million (just a bit more than the 2005 payroll). Without some of those bigger contracts coming off the books, there’s now way that even the Yankees can afford to add contracts for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira (and to a lesser extent, Nick Swisher). But the exact right contracts expired at the exact right time.

Jason Giambi cost the club $22 million in 2008. They essentially shed $17 million, though, since they had to pay him a $5 million buyout on his 2009 option.

Carl Pavano cost the club $11 million in 2008.

Bobby Abreu cost $16 million, but with a $2 million buyout the Yankees saved $14 million.

Mike Mussina cost $11 million, but the Yankees probably weren’t glad to be rid of him at that point.

Andy Pettitte cost $16 million. Worthwhile in 2007, but not so much 2008.

They also saved some money when Ivan Rodriguez’s contract expired. Trading away Wilson Betemit’s $1.6 million was like finding some loose change in the couch cushions.

In total the Yankees shed more than $70 million in salaries, mostly for players they were glad to be rid of, of who were considerably overpaid in 2008.

Time to reallocate those resource to more productive players.

Add up the guys they signed. At $23 million for Sabathia. $22.5 million for Teixeira, $18.5 million for Burnett, and $5.3 million for Swisher, plus another $5.5 million for bringing back Pettitte, you get $74.8 million.

They were able to fill their needs with such high-priced guys, because they had a number of lower-cost players on both sides of the ball. It took some faith in them rebounding, but Cano and Cabrera cost them a combined $7.4 million in 2009. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes earned the minimum, as did almost everyone in the bullpen. If they didn’t have those major-league-ready younger players, then spending $75 million on top-tier players makes less sense. You can have a core of great players, but you still need 25 players on the roster.

At the end of 2008, the Yankees were in a tough spot. Their younger players saw their flaws exposed during the season. There was plenty of uncertainty about the tested veterans. Without the perfect free agent class and money to lure them, the 2009 Yankees might not have been much better than 2008. Without some of those younger guys returning to form, or performing well for a change, the successful free agent signings might not have mattered.

The Yankees found the exact guys to fill needed spots. It cost them plenty, but each of the free agent signings (and trade bounty, in Swisher’s case) added significantly to the 2009 team’s production. Perhaps just as importantly, the Yankees stuck with those younger players and saw their patience rewarded. The entire off-season could have gone a lot differently. But it played out perfectly. We all know the reward.

Cashman confims Sabathia will be out until least July
2014 Draft: Grant Hockin
  • Kevin G.

    I still feel that if CMW never got hurt that the Yankees would have made the playoffs that year. Of course, I always severely overrated him. (Those Wins, though)

    • The Great Gonzo

      Wang was a beast when he was healthy. And a horse. Like a younger taller skinnier version of a healthy Kuroda.

      • The Great Gonzo

        Let me expand on this a little bit. My memory of him was an EXTREMELY effective ground ball pitcher that could consistently give you a quality start. He didn’t have Tanaka/Pineda “wow” type stuff, but again… a Kuroda style pitcher.

        • Winter

          I think we tend to forget just how good of a ground ball pitcher Wang was. I know I do. He currently ranks 6th since 2002 (min. 300 IP) in GB%, and if you look at only his years with the Yankees he’d be even higher. If you only considers starting pitchers, he jumps up to 4th (and one of the pitchers above him is Sergio Mitre, who barely passed the IP minimum).

        • JLC 776

          I think that’s a fair assessment. I loved the guy – such a huge bright spot, but to your point he was effective without being overwhelming. He got the job done and was the perfect picture for a team with great offense, but you never looked at him and said, ‘Wow, that’s a top-tier, elite picture’.

          Boy could we use a Wang right now.

      • nycsportzfan

        A guy who reminds me of Wang is Doug Fister

  • Yangeddard Solarte

    That 09 club was something special. They got through the postseason with 3 starters, Hughes and Mo closing out games, a lineup that featured Robbie Cano hitting 8th. But what about an RAB Retrospective on the 09 offseason and how they tore it all down. Johnny and Hideki were thrown to the curb after years of loyal service and they haven’t been back to a WS since.

    • CS Yankee

      Damon and Matsui weren’t thrown to the curb…the cab stopped and they got out.

      Cashman said at the time that although they had great postseasons they would be treated on their body of work and where they were projected to perform. Damon turned down a quality offer and later settled for less than half that to “play where he always wanted to” (Detroit..haha), Matsui was fragile and they had a collection of quickly aging vets.

      Funny thing to your narrative is that neither did anything close in 2010 or later that made them regret their process or decision; in fact it made Cashman look wise.

      • Dan G

        Well said, CS Yankee.

        2010 had more to do with having Burnett and Vazquez in the rotation. IIRC, the line-up did just fine for itself.

        And they haven’t been back to the WS because you need to develop a core of young, cost-controlled players. Like the article said:

        If they didn’t have those major-league-ready younger players, then spending $75 million on top-tier players makes less sense. You can have a core of great players, but you still need 25 players on the roster.

        • vicki

          eddard knows all this. he’s just baiting.

        • Yangeddard Solarte

          I’ve been saying for a decade that they need to develop a young core similar to the one in the late 90s. Jorgie, Andy, Jeter, Mariano. That was your Core 4. I like JRM, Tanaka, Solarte, Robertson. Could that be the new Core 4? Throw in Delin and you’ve got yourself a Fab Five. One more and we’d have a Pick Six.

          • I’m One

            Since this site has only been up for about 7 years, most of us missed your ranting the first 3 years that you were calling for this new young core. ;-)

          • FIPster Doofus

            “I’ve been saying for a decade that they need to develop a young core similar to the one in the late 90s. Jorgie, Andy, Jeter, Mariano.”

            Yeah, and so does every sports team in the history of existence. Two of those guys are surefire Hall of Famers, one the greatest ever at his position, and the others are borderline. A group like that is about as rare as it gets.

          • CS Yankee

            You randomly list players that;
            1) Are between 21 & 30 years old.
            2) Have between 0.1 and 5 years MLB service time
            3) Are either FA signings, throwaways or mid-level prospects.
            4) Either have had the org develop nothing to almost everything with these players.
            5) Didn’t hit the pros anywhere close to the same timeframe.
            6) The “core” you list will likely have somewhere between a fifth of a season and a couple of years of playing together.
            7) Half the ‘core” you list are bench players.

            So, do you know the meaning of grouping a core together or are you on legal meds?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/roadgeek Roadgeek Adam

    “reasonably effective Kyle Farnsworth” – said no one now.

    • CS Yankee

      He was until you put his contract to his contributions.

      If he was getting paid like Peston or Dellin he would be reasonably effective but at those dollars he needed to be Soriano or Robertson good.

    • vicki

      the mets said it, as recently as last week (111 era+). and then they cut him to save money.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/roadgeek Roadgeek Adam

        That would not be a great version. He didn’t look all that great the last several appearances, and he imploded in his first Astros appearance.

        • vicki

          come on. considering the valverde and bobby parnell crash-and-burns, and the state of their pen in general, farnsie was at least “reasonably effective.” he was outrighted on the deadline, to the minute, to avoid paying him his full contract.

          • http://www.flickr.com/photos/roadgeek Roadgeek Adam

            Not going to blame Parnell. TJS will do that to you.

            I didn’t want Kyle Farnsworth on the Mets period.

            • vicki

              well, if you want to be emotional about it.

              i’m not “blaming” anybody. i’m saying farnsworth was reasonably effective, and pointing out the level of need in the mets’ bullpen. if sandy thinks he can save $750K by covering it in house good on him.

    • JLC 776

      When I saw the announcement that Houston signed him, I just kind of thought, “well, that’s perfect.”

  • Nathan

    Indeed that ’09 season was special. They weren’t an offensive juggernaut that the Yankees had a few season earlier (with Giambi, Sheffield, and Abreu all of whom had left by ’09) but they had TIMELY hits. I can’t remember a team that had THAT many walk-off wins.

    Only bad part of winning in ’09 was for guys like Giambi, Moose and Abreu who had been there just a year earlier and never got a ring.

  • Dick M

    I never thought of that off-season as “perfect”.

    First off, you have Burnett and Swisher. Not 2 of my faves.

    More importantly, we lopped off 70 mill of bad contracts and made a deal with the devil for 70 mill of new ones.

    • Winter

      I won’t get started on Burnett. But Swisher? That was a great deal. The Yankees gave up Wilson Betemit (who was making $1.6 to put up -0.3 fWAR in 2008), Jeff Marquez (never again appeared in the majors) and Jhonny Nunez (put up a 9.53 ERA in 7 games in 2009). In return, they got three years of Nick Swisher for a touch over $21 million, or ~$7M/yr. During those three years (2009-2011), Swisher put up 10.5 fWAR, or ~3.5 fWAR/yr. Even a super conservative estimate of $4M/WAR values that at around $14M. Since one WAR was really worth more like $5-$6M back then, it was probably closer to $17-$20M in value. The Yankees got a steal. Even in 2012, when the Yankees picked up Swisher’s $10.25M option, they got 3.8 fWAR out of it, a great deal.

      Teixeira’s contract does look pretty bad now, I agree. But there was no way to see his precipitous drop off coming. Players don’t usually fall off a cliff like that. As for Sabathia, his first deal (7 years, $161M) was fine. Not great, but he’d be coming off the books after 2015, and most people would agree that these last couple years are worth the complete dominance of 2009-2012. The problem is the 6 year extension the Yankees signed with him in the 2011-2012 offseason.

      • Winter

        Sorry, I should be clear. Those $14M and $17-$20M values for Swisher are per year, not for the whole contract.

      • Dick M

        u can War all u like but S wisher killed us in the postseason.

        • WhittakerWalt

          No question he did. He’s a dreadful postseason player. But guys like him get you to the postseason, where anything can happen.

  • JGYank

    I started watching games regularly at the end of 08. Mike Mussina’s 20th win and the last game at the old stadium come to mind. I didn’t follow the the team that offseason, so when I watched the game on Opening Day 09 I didn’t know who any of the new guys were or how they got them. It was a great full first year of watching games and getting to the history of the team. 09 Yanks will always be my favorite team.

  • Looser trader droids FotD™

    I know flags fly forever, but I think that offseason was less perfect than maybe a perfect storm. Tons of money off the books, tons of money on. And a lot of that new money (AJ) was terrible money. And yes I know he contributed to the flag in ’09. And Teix, though now apparently (finally!!?) rebounding has some pretty meh years for a while there post ’09.

    • Mike HC

      Funny thing is, AJ Burnett is a really good pitcher for everybody but the Yankees. Not really sure that was possible to predict.

      At the time, I liked all the signings. In hindsight, I don’t know. We do have the ring though, and they are not as fucking easy to win as the late 90’s Yanks led us to believe.

      • Looser trader droids FotD™

        I hear you. It really is funny. We signed the guy who killed us, but didn’t exactly kill everyone else, at least not for us. Bt man his numbers for others…wow.

  • 461deep

    2009 brought 3 FA in their prime years to join Jeter, A-rod, Cano, Posada, Mo core that was best MLB team that year. To be honest one felt okay with CC, Burnett signings, but a bit uncomfortable with Tex deal as rich team overkill. Know it was all legal but surely not the only fan who felt this way. Best team yes but other breaks helped. Morneau of Twins had good year but hurt for playoffs games 2 of which were close.
    Phillies Hamels poor year after 2008 WS MVP & Pedro had nothing left nor did Lidge & Howard was awful.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    I still miss Mussina

    • Looser trader droids FotD™

      He’s curmudgeonly mowing his lawn as we speak.

    • WhittakerWalt

      Mussina was a pain in the ass. Always quick to blame his fielders for not making a play behind him. He always seemed to implode in situations like that. He also made excuses for performing badly if he pitched on short rest. Or long rest. Or on rainy days. Or overly sunny days. Basically a lot of excuses.

  • Deep Thoughts

    Oh, did you mean future Japan scout Darrell Rasner?

    I will never feel bad about trading Farnsy and his unreasonably straight fastball and unreasonably frequently-hanging slider.

  • adeel

    those were all great signings. Tex would have gone to Boston had we not signed him, and was the biggest powershift in the division. Burnett was awful except for one Boston game in July that we needed to win (the 1-0 game in 15 innings or something like that). People say don’t read too much into one game, but THAT was the game I knew, everyone knew that the AL east was ours. CC was a bonafide ace in his prime, something the Yankees never really had even in the dynasty years (I mean Key, Cone, Pettite, etc were all great pitchers, but not 2009 CC good).

    Swish was a great player. If I could point to ONE thing (out of many) that would’ve helped the Yankees in 2013 it would’ve been to resign swish. during those god awful line-ups just having someone who was a major leaguer backing up Cano would have been nice.

  • http://riveravenueblues mississippi doc

    The 2009 Yankees reminded me of the 1986 Mets. It looked at the time that they had a team that would be a WS team for several years to come, and it never happened. The 2010-2012 teams were frustrating watching good teams implode in the postseason. (For those of you old enough to remember, nothing can equal the 1960 WS when Bill Mazeroski hit a walk off HR in game 7 against a truly great Yankee team.) In my mind, I consider the Giants two SB wins against better Patriots teams as divine payback for the 2010-2012 implosions. Or, the Knicks are the part of the Faustian bargain that gave us the Yankees.