Will They Panic?

What if the unthinkable happens? What if…

…On the morning of June 17th, Brian Cashman stumbles through his master suite at the Four Seasons and goes old-school: He eschews his iPhone and its screaming in-box for the soothing, grammar school comfort of multicolored pie charts and bar graphs scattered across the complimentary USA Today sports section. The Yankees’ lame duck GM cracks the paper, hoping to confirm that he’s not, in fact, trapped inside a real-life Kafka-esque nightmare after all. But after glimpsing the current AL East standings, his worst fears are realized.

Actually, that’s not completely accurate.

Cash’s worst fears were realized in the clubhouse the previous night. Following a six-run, eighth-inning implosion against a depleted Rangers lineup, Rafael Soriano leapt onto the edge of a training table and screamed, “Look at me! Look! I am Rafael! I have only closer’s genes!” It took nearly twenty minutes and four Abba-Zabas for Mo to finally talk him down.

But Soriano’s performance thus far has the Yankees rethinking his role as preordained eighth-inning assassin as well. After a stellar three-week stretch in April, in which he pitched 12 consecutive hitless innings, the Yankees’ $35 million set-up man has seen his K/9 droop to 5.1 and his HR/9 spike to 2.2 (versus career rates of 9.6 and 0.9 respectively). Some trace Sori’s recent struggles back to his first official save attempt of the season, a June 1st ninth-inning, four-homer meltdown in front of a capacity Sunday afternoon Stadium crowd against Toronto.

Unsurprisingly, the rump of the following day’s Daily News depicted a close-up of a crestfallen Soriano beneath a screaming headline that read: “Sori-Performance.”

But while the Soriano situation is disconcerting, it’s hardly dire. More than anything, it reflects the inherent Jekyll-and-Hyde volatility of relievers. As inauspicious as his season has been, Soriano could strikeout the side today and remain virtually unhittable for the remainder of the season. Or, he could completely flame-out.

But back to the now and the reality wrought by the polychromatic wonderland of the USA Today’s MLB standings pages. The Yankees’ current record stands at 31-38, which puts them in fourth place, 15 games behind the surging Red Sox. Though not insurmountable, it’s the club’s worst start since 1992, when the team found itself at 31-34 on June 19th while stammering to a 76-86 overall record. But that was a rare Yankee team in upheaval and transition, one that was expected to make due with a combined 37 starts from Greg Cadaret, Shawn Hillegas, Sam Militello, and Jeff Johnson.

The premature grave dancing this time around has been frenetic. In a bloviating drive time rant, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd has referred to the Yankees as “old, dead, and not cool anymore” and to Mariano Rivera as “cooked.” Peter Gammons has already called the Red Sox’s third World Series championship in eight years a fait accompli. “Yankees suck” has become the universal battle cry for baseball fans everywhere. Its chants have broken out during MLB games where the Yankees aren’t even participants and in minor league ballparks across the country in which neither team has a Yankee affiliation.

A seven-and-under T-ball team named the Yankees were even Yankees Suck’ed off the field in Lansing, Michigan.

As dark as things seem at the moment, Cash can’t help but crack an impish smile. June and July are always such heady times for Red Sox fans; it’s when their team inflicts its damage and sows its consternation among the Yankees’ fan base. Somewhere in New England, there must be an exhibit of all the bejeweled mid-season MLB championship trophies the Sox have captured throughout the years, alongside mid-season MVP and CY Young awards inscribed with the names of Benzinger, Gedman, Everett, Hurst, and Beckett. Hermetically secured and displayed behind four-inch-thick bulletproof glass cases, they comprise the Wailing Wall of Red Sox Nation, as fans travel from as far away as Newton and drive up to two-and-a-half hours to pay homage to their splendor and glory.

In other words, Boston will collapse. They always do.

But while a June 9th sweep at the hands of Boston unleashed both a rapacious local press and the new media jackals, a recent four-game sweep, meted out by the hapless Indians and culminated by a Justin Germano four-hit complete game shutout on getaway day, was what set the baseball world into an overdrive of roofie-like Yankee-hating ecstasy.

After losing 15 of 20, a verbal undressing would normally be in order. It seemed to have worked well enough back in ’09. But an epic tirade won’t bring C.C. back from the 15-day D.L. (shoulder fatigue), fix A.J.’s mechanics (5.22 ERA, 1,555 WHIP), or turn back the clock on Jeter’s bat speed (.254/.325/.370 and deposed from the leadoff spot).

Some of this was inevitable, the trickle-down effect of a porous starting rotation and a roster that expected key contributions from aging, brittle stars. Jeter has already spent time on the DL, as has Sabathia, A-Rod, and Andruw Jones. And the third and fourth rotation slots have been a revolving door of Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia, Hector Noesi, Bartolo Colon, and even Doug Davis. “Paging Donovan Osborne” jokes abound.

Unfortunately, Brett Gardner (.262/.354/.368), and Nick Swisher (.251/.351/.457) have regressed from their stellar 2010 seasons; and Phil Hughes has lost bite from his curve while adding points to his WHIP (1.421).

Not all has gone bad. Robbie Cano still thinks it’s 2010, as he continues to thrash AL pitching staffs. A-Rod’s been dutifully spitting on his Marcel projections, despite a series of nagging early season injuries. Tex has miraculously averted his typical early-season swoon (.288/.371/.588), and Posada has adapted nicely to the DH role (.270/.349/.543).

So what’s the solution? Should Brian Cashman hold steady, saving resources and prospects for an offseason in which he may not even play a role? Or should he go all-in at the deadline, dealing an A-prospect or two for an undisputed number two starter? Should they look to shed payroll, or would that be a panic move? It is, after all, only June 19th which means  there’s still enough talent and time to surge through the remainder of the season en route to Wild Card contention – regardless of what the sports punditocracy says. Isn’t there?

Golden Albatrosses?

Dead weight can't do this. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)

Like anything that can be reduced to shrill sound bytes, the Albert Pujols ordeal is especially fertile territory for the junior high dialectics of talk radio, where calling somebody an idiot qualifies as a rhetorical flourish. In a span of five minutes this past Tuesday morning, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd – ring leader du jour for the cult of “Now This Is Just Off The Top Of My Head, But…” – weirdly dubbed himself as something akin to the thinking man’s sports call-in host, dismissed statistical analysis (or, what he more pejoratively referred to as memorizing the backs of baseball cards) as an infatuation in which only people with no lives engage, and then, for his coup de grace, fired off this nifty little beauty while weighing in on the Pujols saga:

I’m not a sabermetrics guy, but it has some value. Let me tell you what Albert Pujols is: he’s a boat or a hot tub. Looks great in your driveway, looks great on your deck, adds nothing to your net worth…Edgar Rentereia, a situational hitter – a clutch hitter – is more valuable in the postseason than Albert Pujols. Think I’m wrong? In three World Series, he’s hitting .333, five doubles, two homers, ten RBIs, World Series MVP. He’s a great situational hitter. And when you face elite pitching, that’s more important than power hitters.*

My apologies for the I.Q. mugging, but I was forced to endure the same thing on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, L.A. only has one 24-hour sports radio station.) As for worth, Mike succinctly explained in yesterday’s mailbag that a player who posts an exceptional WAR has more value than multiple players who would achieve the equivalent. That means, career-wise, Pujols has been more valuable than two Jim Edmondses or three Adam Dunns or, you’ve guessed it: four Edgar Renterias.

Still, if we can somehow summon the will to dig through the layers of Cowherd’s bombast, maybe we’ll discover a kernel of rational thought in his drive time rant. Assuming there’s veracity to the 10-year, $300 million asking price that Pujols’ camp has reportedly floated, the slugger’s next deal would ostensibly become the most onerous sports contract ever signed. So in a sense, Cowherd’s likely right: Inking Pujols to a contract of such epic expense and length at this stage of his career is fiscally brazen, if not downright irresponsible. But it’s not because he lacks the clutch-ocity of Edgar Renteria (who, I’m telling you, has a World Series MVP for God’s sakes!) but because we may have already glimpsed shades of Albert’s physical decline. In 2009, he finally had surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament; possibly even more alarming, early last season, at age 30, he was nagged by lower back pain – the canary in the coal mine for power hitters on the wane. Go ahead and break out your Don Mattingly Yankeeography for a stark reminder of this. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Pujols’ injuries over the past two seasons probably don’t presage a career downturn – at least not yet. What can be counted on is the volatility in production that afflicts players entering their thirties. Juan Gonzales, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells Eric Chavez, and Alfonso Soriano were all special players who, immediately following stellar seasons, drove Vanishing-point-style off the ravine of thirty-something. (In case you’re wondering, the average age for their respective cliff-dives was 32.)

Organizations see this, and it makes them justifiably reticent to allocate precious resources to a surefire hall-of-famer who could, in less time than it takes to say “nagging groin,” somehow morph into a lead-footed Juan Pierre. It’s something from which few players in the history of baseball are exempt, advances in nutrition, fitness, and medicine notwithstanding.

Not long ago, Yankees fans could stake a claim to having their very own version of the best all-around player in the game, proving that things can change in a hurry once a player hits his mid-thirties. Unlike Pujols, A-Rod was a picture of health leading up to his 10-year $27.5 million AAV deal with the Yanks in 2007. Since then, he’s been dogged by a series of lower-body injuries, most notably a torn labrum for which he’s needed two surgeries. Beyond impacting Alex’s power numbers, which have revealed an ISO dip of .271 to .236 over the past three seasons, these injuries have forced him to miss 87 games since ‘08, leading to more instances in which replacement-level icons like Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena become the Yankees’ de facto $27 million man for a day. While still an elite offensive force at 35, it’s unlikely that Rodriguez’s health will improve with age. (For what it’s worth, the uber-conservative Marcel projects an underwhelming but strikingly similar 2011 output for Alex.)

It’s unlikely that the 2007 A-Rod signing would serve as an effective cautionary tale for prospective Pujols suitors, however. For one thing, as great as Alex is, when it comes to career offensive production, Albert stands alone. In fact, out of the all-galaxy quartet of A-Rod, Frank Thomas, Miguel Cabrera, and Manny Ramirez, none possesses a single significant advanced career metric that surpasses Pujols’.

There’s another A-Rod factor that might actually bolster the case for a long-term Pujols signing: A rebound. At this moment, it’s impossible to say for certain whether or not the Yankees’ third-baseman has entered his permanent decline phase. A 2011 return to form from Alex, to something approaching his career mean ISO of .269 makes a Pujols signing appear less daunting, as it would further the notion that some people are simply age defying freaks of nature. Thomas, Manny, and the perpetually wronged Garry Sheffield all fit neatly into this category: None of them displayed a hint of slowing down until their late-thirties and, at 37, Manny posted a 153 OPS+ in 431 PA for a playoff-bound Dodgers squad.

The obvious problem here is that there’s no conclusive way to predict Pujols’ longevity beyond his astronomical talent and superhero lats. The Orioles probably thought they had a steal when they signed then-surefire first-ballot hall-of-fame curmudgeon Albert Belle – who, physically, resembled Ray Lewis in stirrups – to a five-year, $65 million deal in 1998, only to witness their 31-year-old 145 career OPS+ investment fall to osteoarthritis two seasons later.

Even more disturbingly, the once great Mo Vaughn is now remembered more as a portly $80 million mistake, shoehorned into the late-90s eye-piercing pajama tops of the California Angels, than the offensive monster who put up six consecutive 139 OPS+ seasons in Boston – something that neither A-Rod, Belle, David Ortiz, nor Miguel Cabrera has ever done.

Still, when factoring in all-around performance (including defense), physiology, and longevity, A-Rod remains Pujols’ closest career comp among modern-day superstars of a similar age. The table below reveals this.

Clearly, you can’t go wrong with any of these guys. But although both Thomas and Manny are closer offensive comps to Pujols, WAR reveals that A-Rod and Albert are closer in type, since they can each also hold their own beyond the batter’s box.

Despite their four-year age difference, Pujols and Alex are also uncannily similar in stature (6’3” 230 per B-Ref’s “yeah right” specifications), athleticism, and physical fitness. Both have a history of relative durability, though A-Rod’s endured significantly more wear and tear due to his having to play shortstop for the first decade of his career. Alex also has more mileage relative to their respective ages: By the time Albert had taken his first major league hack, Rodriguez had already played in 211 games.

In entering only the fourth year of his ten-year deal, it’s still unclear as to whether or not the A-Rod signing will ultimately prove to be prudent investment or a half-insane albatross. But even assuming he spends the final two years of his contract as a hulking platoon DH and pinch-hitting power option off the bench, if A-Rod can once again resemble the player that annihilated American League pitching for a decade-and-a-half, it will be money well spent. Which, in turn, could mean more money spent on Albert.

*B-Ref spoiler alert: Renteria also has a .666 OPS in 242 postseason at-bats, proving that it isn’t the mark of the beast after all.

PlayPlay

Small Sample Smackdown: Shane Vs. Shelley

Shane Spencer displays the sweet swing of a future hall-of-famer - or a fourth outfielder. (AP Photo/John Dunn)

I fell hard for Shane Spencer in the summer of 1998. These were the days before B-ref and Fangraphs were standing by, 24-7, to challenge my snap judgments and gut my deluded visions of spunky fringe players one day morphing into perennial all-stars. Not that it would’ve mattered. In my eyes, Spencer represented the next wave of talent produced by a Yankees farm system that was starting to grow suspect. Like Jeter, Bernie, Pettitte, and Posada before him, Shane Spencer would blossom into a homegrown superstar, a five-tool phenom when finally given the opportunity.

Spencer indeed solidified his presence on the Yankee roster with a 5-for-5, 2-homer demolition against the Royals on August 7th. He would follow this rookie performance for the ages with a four-week exhibition of offensive dominance during which the small sample size gods played Trading Places with Spencer and budding superstar Magglio Ordonez, who slugged an eye-gouging .354 during the same span. In addition to slamming clutch home runs, Spencer performed admirably at all three outfield positions and gave the veteran Yankees a needed dose of versatility and athleticism in a push that culminated with a 24th World Series championship. In the end, he crushed 10 homers in 67 at-bats in 1998, posting an absurd 1.321 OPS.

Nevermind that Spencer was having his way with a pile of September call-ups, feasting on obscurities like Albie Lopez, Tim Byrdak, Matt Whisenant, and Mike Sirotka. Knowing this now, it’s little mystery why he didn’t skip a beat from his .967 OPS showing in Columbus prior to his call-up.

In reality, Spencer was organization fodder from the beginning, despite his month-long destruction of American League tomato cans. Drafted in the 28th round in 1990, he did put up some impressive power numbers in the minors, including a .967 OPS at Triple-A Columbus in 1998. But the Yankees organization must’ve seen something ominous about the hulking outfielder, whom the New York media predictably likened to Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, whatever other big, white, countrified sluggers they could invoke from yesteryear. For one thing, there was the fact that he couldn’t hit right-handed pitching: over seven major league seasons, Spencer slugged .392 against righties verses .497 when facing southpaws. And then there was his age. At 25 and after toiling in the bush leagues for a decade, Spencer had reached his prospect expiration date. In fact, he’d actually played on the same Class-A Greensboro Hornets squad with Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, and Jeter. He wasn’t the next generation of Yankees prospects; he was the prospect who never was.

Ultimately, Spencer’s career probably split the difference between the Yankees organization’s ceiling for him, which was Triple-A lifer, and my own hysterical expectations. He turned out to be a useful major league platoon outfielder, playing solid defense, getting on base at a decent clip, and running into the occasional gap double (.326 wOBA). Other than a rapid decline that was accelerated by injuries and substance abuse, the biggest hindrance to Spencer’s game was the absence of one standout offensive tool. He was a nice player to have around. But corner outfielders need to rake. Unless they play for the Mets.

Like Spencer, Shelley Duncan exploded onto the scene with an all-out assault on American League pitching in 2007. Except unlike back in ’98, I was now nine years older and wiser and remained cautiously optimistic about the raw, rowdy giant’s long-term prognosis. Although he’d been a second round pick in 2001, it quickly became apparent why Shelley remained mired in the minors despite impressive power numbers, which included a .926 OPS in 387 plate appearances prior to his 2007 call-up: he was the quintessential all-or-nothing slugger. Although Duncan had crushed 148 homers in seven minor league seasons, he’d done so while amassing 606 strikeouts. And while he proved early on his ability to destroy an average major league fastball – while scaring the soul out of opposing infielders as he careened, crazy-eyed, toward them – Duncan was prone to flailing at breaking pitches in the dirt or fastballs at his numbers.

I was tempted to buy into the narrative of Duncan as a crazed Frank Howard whose dose of WWE moxie was precisely the ingredient that the methodical Yankees had lacked since their championship string of the late-90s. But I refused to bite. Still, it would be interesting to see the degree to which he adjusted when major league pitchers started finding the inevitable holes in his looping swing.

Duncan’s rush to glory also lasted about a month. Between July 20th and August 21st of ’07, prior to him being exposed as a poor-man’s Dave Kingman on speed, Shelley posted a Playstation-like 1.072 OPS and played solid corner outfield defense (0.4 UZR). In addition to unleashing his maniacal energy, Duncan also brought back the forearm bash from its late-80s cocoon. As a kid, I’d always been envious of the Canseco-McGwire mullet-fortified version. Now, two decades later, there was Shelley, plotting in the dugout, ready to pounce on the next wincing, flinching teammate trotting toward the plate. Judging from the expressions of players who were forced to placate the uber-rambunctious Duncan, the 2007 iteration of the Yankee forearm bash had literally nothing to do with anyone on the team beyond Shelley. As soon as he was gone, it was gone. But really, who was going to be the one to tell this 6’5” monster to cut it out?

Unlike Shane Spencer, who can always brag to his kin of helping the Yanks capture a World Series ring in his rookie campaign while simultaneously playing on one of the greatest dynasties ever assembled, Shelley Duncan’s 2007 season appears insignificant to the casual observer in retrospect.

Despite Shelley’s four-week window of dominance in ‘07, then-manager Joe Torre, perhaps sensing that Duncan’s early success had been an aberration, scaled back Shelley’s playing time for the balance of the season. While there were few decisions that Joe Torre made in 2007 that I didn’t find maddening, Shelley Duncan’s inconsistent usage was a battle I was willing to concede. In hindsight, Torre was probably right: As a hitter, Duncan had already been exposed, and in his final 12 games of the season, he hit just .200 with a .646 OPS. As a Yankee, Duncan’s early promise as a long-ball threat never fully materialized, and he ended up signing with Cleveland in 2010, where he put up a serviceable .722 OPS in 259 plate appearances while reaching base almost never (.317 OBP).

And now for the small-sample-size throw-down for the ages:

I think we have a winner, and it’s not close. While Shelley was superb, Shane was freakish.

Sample size notwithstanding, both Spencer and Duncan captured the excitement of Yankees fans and the attention of hero-mongering sportswriters. But even when accounting for significant regression, neither player’s output would prove reflective of their actual skill sets or prologue to their future production. Yankees fans know this now and probably even grudgingly realized it then. It’s funny, though: As pro sports become even more fraught with cynicism, the unheralded farm-filler call-up who makes a big initial splash has a way of turning us into quixotic dreamers.

Learning to Embrace A.J.-ness

Burnett cracks a smile as he plots to only dominate the Yankees in 2008. (AP Photo/Frank Gunn)

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates talks of our natural inability to see things for what they truly are. Objects and concepts that we think we see and know (Jeff Kent, for instance) are actually copies of the ideal article (Jeff Kent-ness), which, for the most part, exists beyond our earthly comprehension. (For a painfully drawn out illustration of this, or if you’re simply having trouble falling asleep, please read Plato’s “Myth of the Cave.”) It’s only by having an extensive dialogue with others, says Socrates, that we can ever begin to approach the essence or –ness of something, thus enabling us to move beyond the illusions and “shadows” of our material world.

Which, naturally, brings us to A.J. Burnett.

Because when it comes to A.J., all we see are the shadows – spectacular, seductive shadows: The cocky, ferocious swagger; the no-hitter in his first full season; the 96 MPH heater and hammer curve; the 3.8 WAR in ’02 and 231 Ks in ’08; the World Series gem; and the repeated bullying of his future employer, culminating in a 8 IP, 13K dismantling at Rogers Center in 2008. That he can physically impose his will over opposing hitters like few others brings to mind images of Randy Johnson, Clemens, Pedro, and Ryan, which reinforces the illusion. This only adds to our confusion as to why he isn’t, you know, better.

Other than a stellar 8.2 K/9, Burnett’s 12-year career stat line is a nudge above pedestrian: 3.93 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 107 ERA+, 21.5 WAR. We’re talking Charles Nagy-Ismael Valdez-Jarrod Washburn territory. This is really not such a horrible thing, of course, unless your curve has been tabbed as “unhittable,” or you’ve been called “the nastiest pitcher in baseball” by Derek Jeter.

Compounding matters, A.J. is given to unsightly implosions on the mound. These episodes typically begin with a seemingly benign wild pitch or hit batsman and culminate with an upper-deck grand slam by a .720 OPS-ing utility infielder and Sergio Mitre’s garbage-time trunk rotations in the bullpen.

Sometimes weeks pass in which Burnett, still mired in one of these patented sadness spirals, more closely resembles a frazzled, overmatched triple-A journeyman than the dominant enforcer he’s shown glimpses of being throughout his career: the shutdown ace that scouts gushed over, the cocky fireballer fans expect to show up for good any moment now. But these spells aren’t a recent development and are as much a part of A.J.’s overall body of work as his eye-popping moments of excellence. Baseball Prospectus nagged readers of this in 2009, immediately following his signing with the Yankees.

That the only three 200-inning seasons of Burnett’s career have been followed by either free agency of Tommy John surgery would seem to be a bad omen for the Yankees after giving him a five-year, $82.5 million contract. The Yankees were wowed by Burnett’s dominating them in five starts last year…but if you take those starts away, his 2008 ERA swells to a decidedly unimpressive 4.57, his WHIP gets up to 1.43, and his strikeout/walk ration shrinks to 2.4.

I remain skeptical about what B.P. was trying to imply here: That A.J. mails it in, save for contract years? That he lacks the focus and will necessary to remain consistently great against less storied franchises? That the Yankees were completely deluded in assessing his overall talent level?

Either way, B.P. was merely parroting the time-honored narrative that paints A.J. as a petulant hothouse flower who only performs to expectations in contract years. As the story goes, his failures as a starting pitcher are mainly due to deficiencies of will, mental toughness, and character rather than mechanical flaws or physical limitations. Because, as we all know, bad people are no good at sports.

Addressing the assumption that Burnett melts under pressure is the first order of business. A.J.’s career leverage numbers, shown in the table below, reinforce the notion that perception is often the enemy of reality.

For the Gold-Digger Corollary of these claims, I took a glance at four big-market clubs for whom A.J. may have been “auditioning” in 2008. I realize how un-dude it is of me to arbitrarily select a group of teams that A.J. might have had an interest in at the time, but it can’t possibly be any more unscientific than implying that Burnett stinks because he’s a lazy sack of insanity. So here’s what I found:

I realize the sample sizes here are microscopic. If anything, they reveal that A.J. may have indeed been galvanized to pitch against the big money teams in 2008, especially if one considers Burnett’s total body of work against the Red Sox (4.79 ERA, 1.435 WHIP). Whether or not the improvement in ’08 was due to a conscious contract push, the adrenaline rush of playing in front of crowds big enough to mute out the sound of his own breathing, or the added focus needed to navigate some very good offensive squads would be practically impossible to know for sure.

I vote for the latter.

While it’s specious to conclude that A.J. was lights-out against the Bombers in ’08 only because he was auditioning for a massive contract, it’s equally rash to completely discount the added intensity and self-discipline that pitching against a 900-run juggernaut like the Yankees might evoke. Time and again, we’ve witnessed soft-tossing journeymen or emergency call-ups summoning the ghost of Walter Johnson when facing the Yanks’ offensive machine – only to regress back to their former selves after posting double-digit strikeouts in eight maddening innings of one-run ball.

There could be a hundred different reasons for this phenomenon (which is actually more seldom than it seems). But like most of these one-hit-wonders, the inability to maintain long-term consistency – whether due to a lack of focus, faulty mechanics, excessive anxiety, or nagging injuries – is a fundamental component of A.J.’s essence, more so than all the striking cobras, flaming daggers and barbed wire armbands in the world.

Except what sets A.J. apart from the legions of mercurial journeymen is precisely what deludes scouts, fans, and pundits into hysterical visions of Tom Seaver 2.0: misplaced expectations. Conventional wisdom simply refuses to shut up about his raw stuff being among the best in the game while failing to acknowledge that baseball is littered with sexy fastball failures. The simple fact is that Burnett’s repertoire consists two pitches bundled in a package of a flawed delivery and erratic command.

And yet somehow we feel duped, refusing to acknowledge that beyond the egregious contract and awe-inducing gun readings, A.J. Burnett was never equipped to be much more than a mid-rotation starter, which is still a truly valuable commodity. But Plato would say we’re fixated on the deception of the “shadows,” unable to see – and, more importantly, accept – the true essence of A.J.

(AP Photo/Frank Gunn)

Well…Would You? (The Cano Breakdown)

Yeah...I'm going to go ahead and take that number three spot now, um-kay?(AP Photo/John Heller)

Yesterday, I raised a hypothetical scenario in which a straight-up Matt Cain for Robinson Cano swap was offered to Brian Cashman by Giants G.M. Brian Sabean. In doing so, I ducked some flying tomatoes and analyzed Cain’s statistical body of work thus far, which reveals him to be an excellent National League pitcher and a prototypical workhorse – but not an elite hurler. On many Major League teams (I have it at 15), Cain’s an opening day starter. But on a team that boasts Timmy the Freak and two other pitchers with 133 and 136 ERA+, he’s just part of the machine. In a roundabout way, I also mentioned in yesterday’s post why I didn’t present a Cano for Lincecum, Cano for Josh Johnson, or Cano for Felix scenario. Simply put, those pitchers would likely require more than Robbie in exchange for a top-five-in-all-of-baseball ace. Then again, maybe not.

So far, the overwhelming consensus among RAB readers is that the Giants would need to give more to make a Cain for Cano trade even moderately feasible. Far more. Some even went as far as to insist that they wouldn’t trade Cano at this stage of his career for the best pitcher on the planet. Personally, I would trade my all-world 147 WAR mother for King Felix and, being a die-hard, lifelong Yankees fan raised in the Bronx, she would grudgingly approve. With an accumulated 24.2 WAR and outstanding peripherals for his first six seasons, Felix, at age 24, is presumed to be on the cusp of emerging as a once-in-a-generation pitcher. Is this hyperbole? I think so. But his trends portend inevitable greatness and the durability required to ultimately produce a Hall of Fame body of work.

In comparison, Robinson Cano is an elite middle-infielder and possibly the best second baseman in baseball right now. There’s obviously huge value in that. But some of his perceived inconsistencies also preclude him from being included among the collection of modern-era greats like Kent, Biggio, Alomar, Sandberg, Carew, and Morgan – which may or may not be fair. While it’s true that Cano’s already at least as good as Ryno and Biggio were at similar stages of their respective careers, longevity will determine whether or not he belongs in the bling-and-grit-encrusted penthouse of the all-time-all-world second basemen’s club.

Point being? Demanding Felix for Cano isn’t all that crazy after all.

But let’s slog ahead with the Cain-for-Cano proposal anyway and see if it would even remotely make sense from the Yankees’ standpoint. Which means this time, it’s Cano’s turn to go under the microscope.

First, to reiterate: A Matt Cain acquisition would change the entire complexion of the Yankees’ rotation, one that is in dire need of stability. Phil Hughes is coming off his most labor-intensive season to date, Sergio Mitre is replacement-level, Ivan Nova looks depressed about something, and A.J. Burnett is an enigma whom I’d argue could, in fact, be worse in 2011. With Cain, the starting five instantly goes from “C.C. and Phil and where are my pills?” to a rotation that can match blows with Boston, Tampa, Texas, Toronto, and the always annoying L.A. Angels. Again, Matty Cain’s not a shutdown, smackdown, show-pony ace. We know this. But did we know this?

In case you’ve misplaced your magnifying glass, Matt Cain’s purple line of consistent very goodness is not far removed from C.C. Sabathia’s crimson line of utter domination. In fact, take away Cain’s 2006, and you have very similar pitchers (at least in terms of ERA+). Looking at the graph, one could also deduce that the great Tim Lincecum is a spectacularly hot mess of inconsistency. Food for thought.

But, as many of you have already noted, giving up Cano at this stage of his career for a non-elite starting pitcher could very well be the height of insanity. At 27, Robbie posted career highs in wOBA (.389), OPS+ (142) and WAR (6.1), finishing third in the final AL MVP race. In 2010, he additionally posted an increased UZR of -0.6 (up from a Steve Saxian -11.2 in ’08) and an on-base-percentage of .381, further dispelling the schadenfreude brigade, who had seemingly taken perverse joy in his defensive ineptitude and lack of plate discipline. That Robbie also plays a premium defensive position (and elegantly so) that doesn’t historically generate impressive power numbers only adds to his overall value.

Dealing Cano also presents the obvious conundrum of trying to fill a void just created. The Yankees would have no in-house replacement for him, unless you consider replacement level (Ramiro Pena) adequate. Even with his auspicious debut at Double-A Trenton last year in which he posted a .900 OPS in limited time, David Adams won’t be ready for quite a while. And as for free agent second basemen, the best of the remaining crop is the consistently mediocre Willy Aybar, who nonetheless sputtered to an abysmal -.18 “meh” rating last year (82 OPS+ ).

If Cashman did accept the Sabean proposal, he’d be doing so with an eye on the 2012 free agent market, which will include premium second basemen Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks. Obviously, neither player would completely fill the void in production left by Cano, but Weeks’ 125 OPS+ and plus-defense would ease the pain and force me to buy his T-shirt.

The ability to acquire Weeks or Phillips for nothing more than big money and a top draft pick who may or may not spiral into a dark abyss in his third year of minor league ball underscores a critical trend: Position players and relievers – even elite ones – are viewed as largely fungible. As great as Robbie is, there will always be another second baseman around the bend who can at least approximate his level of production. In contrast, top-shelf free agent pitchers are going the way of Starry Night mouse pads. Cliff Lee’s mega-deal with the Phillies notwithstanding, the dearth of this past off-season’s starting pitcher options included league average slop-servers Jon Garland, Vincente Padilla, Javy Vazquez and Carl Pavano – any of whom would get chewed to bits in the AL East. Also, if you think you have a strong enough constitution, have a glance at the 2012 free agent list as further evidence of what the future of free agent starting pitching options looks like.

Finally, there’s one more thing to consider: As great a player as Robinson Cano has become, when plotted on a graph, his yearly offensive output in his first six seasons resembles a Charlie Brown T-shirt.

Extraplating from this, there’s a very real chance that Cano regresses to his mean in 2011, which would still provide outstanding output of around 120 OPS+ and 3 WAR. I suppose one could also make the case that his freakish 2011 campaign is merely the beginning of a path to other-worldly dominance, which I find possible and desirable but not bloody likely. Either way, I wouldn’t do the deal. Not for Matt Cain (whom I still find to be criminally undervalued) and perhaps not even for Lincecum. Cano is young, durable, and when in one of his grooves, utterly ferocious. Perhaps a year ago, I make this deal. But now that Robbie’s also mastered the art of plate discipline, he may be poised to seize the torch from both A-Rod and Teixeira as the most dangerous hitter on the team.

Still, if the Yankees plan on seriously competing for the playoffs in 2011, they simply cannot go without another stalwart arm in the rotation. Cashman knows this, which is why such an offering would give him more pause than most of us would like to think.

So…Would You? (Part I)

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Imagine this:

It’s March 27th, three days before the official end of Spring Training, and after a turbulent offseason, the atmosphere around Steinbrenner Field has been mercifully uneventful – even a shade optimistic. Save for some minor scrapes and bruises, everyone on the 25-man has, at some point over the past four weeks, uttered a  version of being in the best shape of his life to a herd of restive beat writers. Only this time, it’s not merely a cliché: Alex is healthy and spry; Jeter, who gives his best blue steel on the cover of S.I.’s new Baseball Preview alongside the headline “Something to Prove,” has streamlined his swing; Gardner’s wrist is pain-free and is proving to be a non-issue at bat and in the field.

There are other encouraging signs. Robbie Cano is emerging as a polished, poised, vocal leader; and Rafael Soriano claims he doesn’t care about amassing saves or basking in adulation because what he’s always wanted most was to a.) play for the New York Yankees and b.) win a World Series ring. Even Bartolo Colon appears rejuvenated: Without the benefit of slimming in-season pinstripes, Colon has nevertheless looked svelte and focused in limited appearances, and has even caught on video sharing a post-intra-squad sprint with Mo Rivera. Cleveland will enjoy having him back.

Still, as the Yankees prepare to head north, the back end of the starting rotation remains stubbornly in flux. As unsettled as it was in early February, Colon, Sergio Mitre, and Freddy Garcia have proven to be exactly who we thought they were. Unless a major move happens within the next week, the Yankees will start the 2011 season with their worst rotation since the days when Live Strong bracelets and Sidney Ponson jokes were all the fashion.

Yet Cashman seems to be holding firm to his maddeningly Buddhist mantra of “wait and see.” The market, he says, will “develop” during the season. It’s frustrating from a fan’s perspective but also the most prudent stratagem at the moment. With the Pettitte retirement creating a back-end of the rotation that rivals the Pirates in cumulative WAR and star appeal, competing G.M.’s can smell angst sweat wafting from Tampa. Cash is right: now’s not the time to mortgage the farm for the Brian Moehlers and Miguel Batistas of the world.

But then the text comes:

Cash, it’s Sabean. You need a horse, I need a Cano. Cain for Robbie, straight-up.

What about Freddy Sanchez?

Let me worry about Freddy. He’s a survivor.

And there you’d have it: what we’ve been clamoring for ever since Cliff Lee took his decoys and double-barrels with him to Philly. Finally, a young, polished, durable number two to slot right between C.C. and Hughes for at least the next two seasons.

Just as we had halfway convinced ourselves that there were worse things in this world than a straight-as-a-string 84 MPH Freddie Garcia fastball (there aren’t), just as we were preparing to settle for the likes of Joe Blanton or the loping cadaver of Kevin Millwood, Brian Sabean swoops in to rescue us from The Summer of Meat. But like any trade that benefits both teams, it will burn like acid. The Yankees would be acquiring the 26-year-old Cain at the expense of losing arguably their most potent offensive force in the prime of his career.

So here’s the question: If he were granted the autonomy to do so (and there’s no guarantee of that), would Brian Cashman go through with this deal? Moreover, should he? Refusing to close on a Johan Santana trade in the winter of ’08 put into full relief Cashman’s dogma of “not paying twice” for a desired player, regardless of how good he is. But that was before Cliff Lee became available last July, mid-pennant-race – and before the Yankees had a single trade chip that could yield a pitcher of Lee’s caliber.

On the one hand, Matt Cain is a bona fide stopper. Arguably among the top 20 pitchers in the game, he’s the definitive workhorse, averaging 210 IP since his rookie campaign in 2006 and topping out at 223.1 this past season. This is no small feat, considering how rarely young pitchers are given opportunities to pitch through late-inning, high leverage conditions. And yet, Cain doesn’t seem to show any of the telltale signatures of the Verducci effect. In fact, he turned in yet another superb all-around season in 2010, posting a 130 ERA+, 7.3 H/9 and a Halladay-like 1.084 WHIP. Which makes him better than Joe Saunders.

As good as Cain is, he has yet to enter the pantheon of excellence occupied by the game’s truly dominant aces. A close look at Cain’s career stats reveals some minor eyebrow-raisers among his peripherals: above-average fly ball tendencies – always a concern in Yankee Stadium – and a curiously elevated xFIP, that was recently challenged in a fascinating piece over at Paapfly.com.

Still, there are no major warning signals that color Cain’s long-term performance outlook. He’s just not elite, which is fine. Not being a shutdown ace is the one quality that could render him even remotely attainable on the trade market. Trade market untouchables Josh Johnson, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, and Sabathia are all superior to Cain – though not by much. In fact, Cain’s career 126 ERA+ ranks him ninth among all active pitchers, ahead of Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter, and Zack Greinke. Also, it bears repeating: Cain’s still only 26. His most productive years may be yet to come.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll turn my attention to Robbie Cano and his overall value before attempting to determine whether or not the Yankees would benefit from such a trade. In the meantime, if you were Cashman, would you?

The Black Hole Yankees, Mel Hall, and Me

As most of you already know, Mel Hall was a loathsome human being, a gutless bully, and a rotten apple with a stunning dearth of decency.

But flashback to the late-80s, and Hall was one of my favorite Yankees. It’s not easy to admit this now, and I wince when I think that I spent several years of my boyhood admiring a disgraceful cancer of a person. He was part of the haphazard collection of futility masquerading as the New York Yankees on WPIX 11 Alive! At seven-thirty each night, I sat riveted as the buoyancy of Scooter Rizutto’s commentary was tested by a relentless parade of cast-offs, has-beens, and over-the-hill prima donnas. It was a franchise whose blueprint for success consisted of chasing after aging superstars and overpaying them through their decline – an M.O. that had already become a vintage George Steinbrenner trait. Now, the excesses and inanity of the past decade had finally culminated in a series of atrociously bad teams and Seinfeld’s most memorable Frank Costanza moment.

The Steinbrenner dogma permeated all levels of the ballclub. As blown-out 35-year-old hamstrings, groins, and rotator cuffs forced an urgency for new blood, the hapless reinforcements brought up from a ravaged farm system quickly revealed their futility. (Which is generally what 7th-rounders are generally expected to reveal.) But that was okay, because there was always another 30-something former All-Star on the horizon that some second-division team was trying to unload. Until this time, the Yankees teams of this 80s weren’t so much bad as they were poorly constructed: while top-heavy with fading sluggers like Jack Clark and Ken Phelps, the pitching staffs were mostly populated by soft-tossing journeymen and AAA cannon fodder.

And yet, Mel Hall’s 1989 acquisition for spare parts represented, at least to some degree, a break from convention at the time. Still only 29, Hall had moderate lefty power – never a detriment at Yankee Stadium. He also possessed versatility in that he could play both corner outfield positions and even centerfield in a pinch – though, by all available measures, horrendously.

Hall’s role, however, was ill defined from the start. With a Yankees outfield that was already set going into the ’89 campaign, he would initially serve as an expensive, defensively challenged bench player whose splits suggested that most halfway decent pitchers could more or less have their way with him, irrespective of their handed-ness. More ominously, over his previous two seasons, he had posted a combined 1.1 WAR, and he hadn’t seen the fun side of 100 OPS+ since Reaganomics.

But after seeing him play, I didn’t care about any of that. Hall had actually been on my radar since the previous season, when I watched him uncoil one of the coolest homerun strokes I’d ever seen off Yankees ace-by-default Rick Rhoden. And as I write this now, I can’t think of any bigger indictment of teenage judgment than my believing that launching a bomb off the shell of Rick Rhoden was impressive.

Being a Wiffle Ball connoisseur of idiosyncratic batting stances was probably what got me on the Mel Hall bandwagon to begin with. Hall straddled the batter’s box with a wide-open lefty gait, his back leg crouched at a 90 degree angle and his front foot yawning to the right, all the way on the opposite side of the box. It was an impossible stance, one that couldn’t possibly allow for enough torque or drive to generate any power, and I pictured an exasperated high school coach pleading with an insufferably stubborn teenage version of Hall to bag it altogether. So in my mind, it was also a defiant stance, making it all the more appealing.

Regardless, normal people couldn’t hit like this. I know. I tried. And when my Babe Ruth coach caught my awkward rendition of the cocky leftfielder in a live game, he informed me that a.) I needed to pull my head out of my ass, and that b.) I had enough trouble hitting like myself, much less a freaking Yankee. Tough love.

At that point, it wasn’t about imitating a cool stance anymore. It was about being a rebel by association (or so I thought), about channeling another person’s cool confidence to help alleviate my own gnawing feelings of athletic ineptitude and utter dorkiness.

A few days after my first failed attempt at mimicking the Yankees fourth outfielder, I summoned up the nerve to give it another go. It happened in the late innings of a thumping at the hands of Kiwanis Club, and I was mired in one of my 0-for-infinity slumps. There was literally nothing to lose.

I waited until halfway through the at-bat before dropping into the inimitable crouch. The second I descended, I knew I’d nailed it: The gait, the crouch, the “Bring the heat, meat” bat waggle – all perfect. The kid on the mound paused before going into his windup, glancing at me as if to say, “Mel Hall? Really?”

Really. But two pitches later, I was a strikeout victim slogging my way back to the dugout under the glare of my coach and the simmering contempt of my teammates. As I descended the dugout steps, I overheard a grown woman in the stands mutter, “He thinks he’s black.”

I didn’t know this, but my dad had seen everything from the stands. He’d left work early enough to catch the last few innings of the game and to give me a ride home. Afterwards, in the parking lot, he polished off a concession stand hot dog as I shoved my 10-speed into his trunk. He knew I was smack in my Mel Hall phase but couldn’t for the life of him understand why. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, he said, “Jim Rice is who you should be looking at: balanced stance; smooth, level swing; quiet bat.” He loved Jim Rice and the Red Sox, which made for a bumpy ride between us at times. He was also right, of course, but I’d be damned if I’d ever emulate a Red Sock, future Hall of Famer or not.

On the drive home my dad offered a more palatable solution: “What about Mattingly? Why not try to hit like him?”

It was a fair point. I did love Donnie Baseball, but so did everyone else. Mattingly was the Yankees. In contrast, Mel Hall was a placeholder on a downtrodden team, a semi-talented nobody. To my adolescent eyes, he was an outlaw, a mercenary, and a rogue hell bent on proving everyone wrong.

As we pulled up to my house, I grudgingly ended my seven-minute vow of silence. “Mel Hall’s cool,” I blurted. They were the most misguided words I’d ever spoken.