Four winters ago, the Yankees faced a dilemma. Should they bring back Johnny Damon, a huge part of the 2009 World Series Championship team, or move in a different, younger direction?
During the season it actually looked like the Yankees would sign Damon for another two or three years. Given his productivity for the previous two years, and the life of the original four-year contract in general, this seemed like a decent enough idea.
Alas, it was not meant to be. After winning the World Series they did make Damon a two-year, $14 million offer, which he did not accept. With a need remaining in the outfield, and purportedly without the budget to sign Matt Holliday, the Yankees turned to the trade market.
Once we learned that Granderson would become available, the fit seemed logical enough. While the Yankees didn’t necessarily need a center fielder, with both Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner on the roster, they certainly needed an outfielder with some pop.
At the Winter Meetings, Cashman pulled the trigger on a three-team trade that cost the Yankees top prospect Austin Jackson, left-handed reliever Phil Coke, and starter Ian Kennedy. The price might have seemed a little steep at the time, and even steeper in hindsight. Was the trade worthwhile in the end?
The case at the time
When the Yankees sent those three players to the Tigers and Diamondbacks, the case was easy enough to make. With the losses of Damon and Hideki Matsui, the Yankees needed an outfielder with some pop. If they weren’t going to sign Matt Holliday (because they certainly weren’t going to sign Jason Bay), a trade was the only avenue to that end. Granderson was the best outfielder available on the trade market at the time, so the Yankees were right to pursue him.
The other end lies in what they traded. Few, if any, would miss Phil Coke and his pointing to the sky on home run balls. Ian Kennedy rubbed fans, and likely the organization, the wrong way during his horrible 2008 season. Perhaps he could have pitched himself into a spot on the team in 2009 had he not suffered an aneurysm and missed most of the season. Then again, maybe he just would have been dealt at the deadline.
Losing Jackson certainly hurt, but with the losses of Damon and Matsui, the Yankees did need a little pop. Jackson didn’t hit for much power in the minors, and at the time it was reasonable to think he’d show as much in the majors as Brett Gardner. The potential was there, sure, but the Yankees needed more of a sure thing. It was difficult to argue with the Granderson trade at the time.
After a rough first four months in New York, which involved a hamstring injury, Granderson started to turn it around when he put in some serious work with hitting coach Kevin Long. He not only finished the 2010 season strongly, but he had a phenomenal postseason, going 10 for 28 with two doubles, a homer, and a huge triple off Francisco Liriano in Game 1 of the ALDS.
Jackson, for his part, put up decent numbers in his rookie year, though he lead the league in strikeouts. His defense dazzled at times. Earlier in the season it did appear that the Yankees might have been better off just keeping him, but by season’s end it was clear Granderson was coming around.
The kicker came in 2011, when Granderson belted 41 home runs while leading the AL in both runs and RBI. That’s the kind of year that changes the entire thinking on a trade. Not only did Jackson tank, with an 88 OPS+, but it was unlikely he’d ever perform anywhere near that level even in his best-case scenario.
That one year is really what the Yankees can hang their hat on. Jackson came back with a strong 2012 and good 2013, accumulating 14.6 WAR since the trade. Granderson put up only 13.9 during his time as a Yankee. This isn’t the best comparison, of course; defensive values are sketchy, and Granderson has clearly been the better hitter over the last four years (120 OPS+ vs. 105).
Ian Kennedy, for his part, found some success after leaving the Yankees. After a rocky April he went on to produce a 3.68 ERA in the final five months of the 2010 season, and then followed it up with a fourth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting in 2011. Oh, what could have been.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Kennedy would have achieved that kind of success as a Yankee. Had he not suffered the aneurysm in 2009 he might have gotten another shot at consistent starts, since the Yankees were hurting for starters towards the end of the season. Had he failed to impress then, chances are he wouldn’t have gotten another shot. Arizona, coming off a 70-92 season, could afford to let Kennedy settle in.
The question in this trade comes down to how you value Granderson’s 2011 specifically, and his hitting in general. The Yankees needed that high-end production, and for at least one year they got it. Though he performed a bit worse in 2012, getting another 40-homer season certainly helps make the trade look a bit more favorable.
Long-term, the Yankees clearly would have been better served holding onto Jackson. He’s had one very good year to go with a few average ones, he plays stellar defense, and he’s still under team control for two more years. In an ideal world, they can keep him and let him play. But where they were at the time, in need of some outfield power, Granderson made a bit more sense.
“I believe we need another starter.”
Yankees fans know this, but it still felt good to hear it from ownership. Had the Yankees planned to pick from scrapheap options, Hal Steinbrenner might have said something else. I think our young guys are up to the task, he might have said. Instead he came right out and acknowledged the need for another starter.
By “another starter,” Steinbrenner does not necessarily refer to Tanaka. He could refer to Paul Maholm, Joe Saunders, or even Johan Santana: low-cost guys who could provide the team a few alternatives to in-house candidates.
But after hearing such a proclamation from the owner himself, are fans really going to accept one of those retreads? Chances are fans wouldn’t accept one of those retreads even absent Steinbrenner’s statement. We’ll be even less accepting given his overt praise of Tanaka. “This is a great, young pitcher. I’m sure he’ll come here and do great things with someone.”
So do whatever it takes to sign him.
It is absolutely clear to everyone, from the casual fan who tuned out after the Beltran signing to ownership itself, that the current crop of starters won’t get the Yankees through the 2014 season. Supplementing that crew with a few back-end, at best, pitchers and minor league signings will not change the scenario much. They need Tanaka, Jimenez, Garza, or (shudders) Santana.
Perhaps Steinbrenner is just trying to keep expectations low with his “we’ll see what happens.” It certainly seems as though at least one Yankees official is trying to tamp expectations: “Just because he had great success over there doesn’t mean he’s going to be lights out here. We’ll find out soon enough, but it’s not like he’s a sure-fire thing. I’d like to think so, but I’m not convinced.”
There is a certain necessity in keeping expectations low. Many teams remain interested in Tanaka, so the Yankees are anything but guaranteed to sign him. They’d clearly like to, and if forced to interpret Steinbrenner’s remarks I’d say that they’ll go pretty far in their efforts to obtain his services. But if a team like the Cubs blows them out of the water, they need to cover themselves. And so we get Steinbrenner hedging a bit, and we get anonymous officials trying to lower the bar.
Don’t let this game of expectations confuse the reality, though. The Yankees absolutely need Tanaka. If they don’t land him, they’re almost forced to try for one of the remaining trio. Anything else would, put a serious damper on an otherwise solid off-season, as a rival official said.
“If you don’t get Tanaka, it kind of nullifies some of what you’ve added to the offense.”
Just nine days remain in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. Chances are we’ll know the winner even before that, since nine days is the deadline by which he must sign on the dotted line. He could come to an agreement within a week.
Speculation has run rampant, but we’ve had little in the way of actual reports about Tanaka. It seems as though his agent, Casey Close, has done a good job of preventing leaks from MLB teams. A few “reports out of Japan” have circulated, but since the original “reports out of Japan” indicated Tanaka wouldn’t be posted at all, it’s easy enough to dismiss those.
It does seem as though most media outlets agree that the Yankees and the Dodgers hold the best shots of signing Tanaka. Early in the process the Mariners looked like a good bet, and the Diamondbacks continue to linger. But right now, it would be a surprise to see him sign anywhere in between the two coasts.
At this moment the Yankees could be in an advantageous position. Ken Rosenthal reported this morning that the Dodgers attention is now on their own ace, Clayton Kershaw. With arbitration figures due on Friday, the Dodgers are eager to lock up Kershaw, likely to a record deal.
This situation could present the Yankees with an opportunity: make Tanaka an offer in mold of the one they made CC Sabathia in 2008. No, it shouldn’t be six years and $140 million, but it should certainly be a bold and aggressive offer, one Tanaka would have trouble rejecting. It shouldn’t be their best offer, either; as we saw with Sabahtia, there has to be at least a little upward flexibility.
Given that Tanaka has nine days to sign, regardless of an offer, he could simply defer a decision until after the Kershaw situation becomes clearer. But that shouldn’t stop the Yankees from stepping in and making an aggressive move while the opposition focuses elsewhere. Strike now.
The BBWAA announced that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Craig Biggio fell just short at 74.8 percent, which is only two votes shy.
Don Mattingly lives to appear on another ballot, collecting 8.2 percent of the vote. Mike Mussina, in his first year, got about 20 percent of the vote. It won’t get easier for these two, or any of the other guys on the ballot, next year when John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez make their first appearances.
Masahiro Tanaka might be on our minds, but he’s no sure thing. Plenty of teams will bid for his services, and more than one source considers the Mariners, not the Yankees, as the frontrunners.* If they don’t land Tanaka they’ll certainly have to look elsewhere for a starter. Even if they do, it wouldn’t hurt to add another reliable arm to the fold.
*The Yankees simply can’t lose Tanaka to the Mariners, can they? Imagine losing the top pitcher and the top hitter on the FA market to the friggin’ Mariners. I can’t see Yankees’ ownership letting that happen.
Earlier in the off-season, after the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, we heard rumblings about Homer Bailey of the Reds. After losing Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds need both a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They have ample pitching, and might not be able to sign Bailey beyond 2014, after which he becomes a free agent. John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer speculates that the Reds could create some payroll space for more moves (GM Walt Jocketty says they’re out of money) by trading Bailey and his projected $9 million salary. If that’s the case, the Yankees will certainly be on the phone.
- After a rough start to his career, Bailey has turned into a fine pitcher. He might not be an ace, but he’s solidified himself as a No. 2 or No. 3 option in the last couple of seasons.
- In the last two seasons Bailey has shown great durability, making 65 starts and throwing 517 innings, 12th most in baseball. His 3.58 ERA ranks 35th (out of 74) among qualified starters, and his 5.7 bWAR ranks 29th out of 80 pitchers who made at least 50 starts over the last two seasons.
- Fearful of an NL pitcher entering the Yankee Stadium bandbox? Bailey has made his home starts at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, which has had a higher home run park factor than Yankee Stadium for the past three years.*
- Bailey has a relatively clean bill of health. After some shoulder issues earlier in his career — he missed time with inflammation in 2010 and an impingement in 2011 (plus a shoulder sprain while hitting that year), he has missed no time in 2012 or 2013.
- In the last few seasons Bailey has started employing a two-seamer more frequently, resulting in more ground balls (though he is by no means a ground ball pitcher). An increase in that trend can go a long way in Yankee Stadium.
- Bailey won’t come for free, of course. The Reds value him greatly, and have even discussed an extension with him. Chances are they can’t afford him, but he is a good pitcher on a contender. They don’t get dealt often.
- Brett Gardner might seem like a surplus player at this point, but he can, and likely will, play an important role on the 2014 Yankees. Without a permanent DH, the Yankees will have plenty of at-bats for four outfielders. Absent Gardner, that becomes Ichiro (or perhaps, best case, Zoilo Almonte). That’s quite a downgrade.
- Because it appears the Reds don’t need to deal Bailey, they could demand more than just Gardner, which makes the deal even less palatable.
- Looking for a con for Bailey himself…it’s sometimes a dicey proposition adding a fly ball NL pitcher to Yankee Stadium, but Bailey does show signs that he can adapt.
In himself Bailey looks like a fine option for the Yankees. Even if they don’t trade for him, they could seek him out when he hits free agency after the 2014 season. Of course, with a third straight strong campaign he could be in line for a nine-figure contract.
The Yankees are handcuffed. It’s not as bad as feared earlier this off-season. They managed to add a number of players who will help in 2014 and beyond. But at the moment, despite their stated need for a right-handed infield bat, the Yankees will not make a move. The reason, once you break it down, is fairly obvious.
On the roster the Yankees have 11 position players under contract, though only one catcher. The backup catcher brings the total position players to 12, one short of the typical 13 they carry during the regular season. It might seem as though they have room for one more, but this projection doesn’t account for the man in limbo, Alex Rodriguez. Given the roster numbers, the Yankees really can’t do anything until they know his fate.
At this point, a complete overturning of the suspension is the best-case scenario. It didn’t always feel that way; with the shackles of Plan 189 looming, a full-season suspension seemed like the only way the Yankees could spend this off-season. Yet they’ve spent plenty of money before knowing how Fredic Horowitz will rule in the A-Rod matter. If he overturns the suspension completely, or even reduces it to 50 games, the Yankees will soar past the $189 million luxury tax limit without making a single other move.
“I think if people think there’s some sort of benefit by losing that talent, I mean, you can’t replace it. It’s not like, all right, well, Alex is gone. If he winds up getting suspended and it’s upheld, how do you replace that? It’s not easy.
“It’s not like, all right, we’ll take that money and go in this direction. I think … our fan base saw when we lost significant players at various positions, it was not easy to plug holes because the talent just doesn’t exist.”
No infielder on the market comes close to even an aged and injury-prone A-Rod. Even Yankees fans who hate the man’s guts should be rooting for him to stand at third base on Opening Day. We root for the laundry, right? Mark Reynolds or Jeff Baker might successfully play a role on the 2014 team with A-Rod suspended, but neither will match him in terms of overall production. Since they are role players, chances are they’ll remain on the board until the decision. Even if not, missing out on them is no huge loss.
True, the Yankees also seem handcuffed by the Masahiro Tanaka situation, but that’s another post for another day (or maybe today, who knows). That handcuffing seems a bit more damaging for a number of reasons, including the implications on spending. But with A-Rod, a complete overturn or even 50 games is a pure win for the 2014 team, while a full-season suspension leave them looking for an inferior right-handed-hitting infielder.
Once it became clear that they weren’t making progress with Robinson Cano, the Yankees acted. They moved quickly on Jacoby Ellsbury, but weren’t quite done yet. As Newsday’s David Lennon said, the Yankees were ready to act the night before Cano signed with Seattle. Once the signing was confirmed, it was pretty obvious that they’d sign a hitter in short order. When we learned that hitter was Carlos Beltran, it was no surprise. The Yankees had been linked to Beltran not only earlier this off-season, but also in 2011 and 2004. The fit seemed obvious.
Yet it appears Beltran might not have been the Yankees’ top choice. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan shares an anecdote that shines a different light on the situation.
In the aftermath of Robinson Cano’s defection to Seattle, New York presented Choo a seven-year, $140 million deal, three sources outside the Yankees’ organization told Yahoo Sports. When Boras countered asking for more money – one source indicated he wanted “Ellsbury money,” or $153 million over seven years – the Yankees pulled the offer and signed Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal.
With four starting outfielders now in the fold, it’s unlikely that the Yankees will get back into Choo talks. It wouldn’t seem a wise use of resources, given the needs of the pitching staff. But it’s interesting to see that the Yankees were willing to spend $20 million per year for seven years on Choo, rather than the $15 million per year for three years on Beltran.
It might seem foolish to turn down such money, but Boras is known for doing right by his clients. Chances are Choo will stay on the market for the time being; with at least a half dozen, and more realistically a dozen, teams pursuing Masahiro Tanaka, there could be a few losers with money to spend. At that point, one of them will probably ante up “Ellsbury money” to get the deal done.
Jack Curry of YES reports that the Yankees have signed left-handed reliever Matt Thornton to a two-year, $7 million contract. It might seem as though he replaces Boone Logan, who recently signed a three-year deal with the Rockies, but Thornton probably isn’t the setup man we saw the past few years in Chicago. Today his value is more as a lefty specialist.
A former first-round pick (Seattle in 1998), Thornton struggled upon promotion to the big leagues. In Spring Training 2006 the Mariners swapped him for fellow first-round disappointment Joe Borchard. The White Sox easily got the better of that deal, as Thornton blossomed into an effective reliever who worked his way into late-inning roles.* From 2008 through 2010 Thoronton threw 200 innings with a 2.70 ERA, which amounted to the third-highest bWAR in that time frame among relievers (Mariano Rivera, of course, was first).
*White Sox GM Rick Hahn, then the assistant GM, spoke to a room of FanGraphs writers in 2010; Mike and I were both in the audience. In talking about why Thornton succeeded in Chicago after failing in Seattle, Hahn said that they didn’t try to make Thornton into a pitcher he wasn’t. Paraphrased, Hahn said, “He told us he wanted to throw the ball as hard as he could right down the fuckin’ middle, so we let him.” It sure seemed to work.
In recent years Thornton has slipped quite a bit. At a time when strikeout rates have risen his has fallen, from a peak of 12 per nine in 2010, to 6.2 per nine last year. That production dip has come mostly against right-handed hitters. After holding them to a .254 wOBA in 2010, he grew worse in each of the last three years, all the way to a .370 wOBA against righties in 2013. It is pretty apparent now that Thornton is a lefty-only guy, making him a bit less versatile than Logan, who played more of a full-inning setup role during his final two years in New York.
Through the years Thornton has remained durable, serving just two DL stints since suffering a herniated disc all the way back in 2003. The first was for forearm soreness in 2010, which is always cringe-worthy. Obviously he’s avoided the dreaded Tommy John Surgery that often follows such a diagnosis. His other stint was last summer, with an abdominal strain. They happen, though it can’t be encouraging. The Yanks will need Thorton at full strength to make a difference.
This signing will not end the Yankees’ search for bullpen help. Joel Sherman notes that they also want to add a late-inning reliever. Given the risk with the Thornton signing, they might prefer Joaquin Benoit to the injured Jesse Crain. Who knows: maybe they’ll go nuts and sign both. But whatever the case, as with Roberts, Thornton is a complementary signing. They still have a ways to go, even as far as bullpen construction goes.