Our Man in Chicago

It’s been a tough couple of months in Boston. The Red Sox went from a virtual playoff lock and World Series contender to missing the playoffs, firing their manager and seeing their long-tenured and well-respected general manager depart for a new challenge with the Chicago Cubs. Change has come to the AL East, change that seemed hard to imagine a year ago. Now that Theo has moved on and no longer runs the Yankees’ biggest and baddest rival, he’s more free than ever to explore a more functional working relationship with long-time nemesis, Brian Cashman. Indeed, one of the more interesting things to watch about the new leadership on the North Side of Chicago will be the extent to which Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer find Brian Cashman to be a go-to trading partner.

Photo credit: Aaron Houston for the New York Times

While there certainly isn’t any type of formal prohibition on trading between fierce rivals, Epstein and Cashman weren’t ever really free to pursue a trading relationship during their tenures atop their respective organizations. Despite the fact that a mutually-beneficial deal could have existed at least in theory, the constraints of the rivalry, pressure from ownership, and glare of the media made it extremely unlikely. Intra-division trades aren’t too frequent. Trades between the biggest rivals in baseball almost never happen. The last time the Sox and the Yankees matched up on a deal was back in 1997 when they swapped Tony Armas and Jim Mecir for Randy Brown and Mike Stanley. Neither Cashman nor Epstein were General Managers yet, and Epstein was just 24 years old.

Despite the fact that they worked for rival organizations, Epstein and Cashman have always seemed to get along. This makes sense, as they share a lot in common. As general managers, they were both in big markets with a lot of money to spend. They had high-profile owners and sometimes messy decision-making apparatuses. They were under harsher media scrutiny than anywhere else, and they operated with the pressure to win every year. Setting aside their professional competitiveness, one has to imagine Epstein could empathize with Cashman when he got overruled on Rafael Soriano, and that Cashman felt similarly towards Epstein as the Sox season spiraled out of control and ownership pushed Terry Francona out the door. They’re not so different, Epstein and Cashman.

They could be eager now to explore a working relationship. One has to imagine they’re at least curious to match wits in a trade negotiation, to experience up close what they’ve observed from afar over the past decade. For now there doesn’t seem to be an obvious fit between the Cubs and the Yankees, unless the Cubs were willing to trade one of their starters now. If the Cubs fall out of contention this summer and look to shed payroll and get prospects in return, could they make Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza available? And would Cashman be ready to deal? It’s an interesting question, and the burgeoning dynamic between the once-forbidden partners will be something to watch over the next few years.

Report: Boras looking to rework Cano’s contract

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

According to George King of the New York Post, Scott Boras has recently tried to get in touch with Brian Cashman about seeing the Yankees drop Cano’s two options for 2012 and 2013 (worth $14M and $15M, respectively) and work out a new contract at market value. For their part, the Yankees have indicated that they’re very, very unlikely to rework their deal. Boras likely knew this would happen, which is why it’s just a little bit odd to see him publicly request it anyway. It’s also why, perversely, a deal might be possible.

On one hand it isn’t odd. As Mike noted earlier this morning, Boras only gets paid vis-à-vis his relationship with Cano when Cano signs a new contract. On the other hand, Boras knows that the Yankees have little incentive to pay Cano more now and that Cano has little leverage to force them to do so. A market value contract for Robbie is likely a non-starter for the Yankees. While $29M over two years isn’t exactly a Longoria-esque bargain, the organization simply has no incentive to replace his current salary with a much higher salary right this instant.  Cano’s salary demand won’t likely be any higher a year from now than it is right now, even if he has another monster year in 2012.

As such, Boras could simply be saber-rattling and letting the Yankees know he expects a big payday for Cano any time between now and two years from now. Boras also could be hoping that the Yankees would be silly enough to tear up Cano’s current deal and pay him at market value. After all, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Alternatively, he could be amenable to working out something in the middle, slightly below market value rate, right now. This would certainly represent a departure from Team Boras’ modus operandi. Boras has typically been known for pursuing a very aggressive year-to-year strategy with clients under contract and then pushing them to the biggest payday possible in the unrestricted free agent market. Look no further than Prince Fielder for an example. This could simply be posturing for a new deal two years from now, but if it isn’t and his demand for a new deal represents a negotiating strategy designed to get Cano a new deal this offseason, it would be advantageous to see the Yankees pursue a deal.

Meeting Boras halfway and working out a long-term extension solves a lot of problems at once. It provides Cano the long-term stability and big-time payday he’s looking for, and gives Boras his new contract commission, not that the latter is anyone’s concern. From the Yankees’ perspective, it allows them to lock Robbie up through his prime and into his mid-30s at a slightly below market rate. A reasonable guess as to a new extension for Cano might be replacing his 2012 and 2013 options with a six-year, $100M deal. This would pay Cano $16.67M per year through the 2017 season. Mike threw around the idea of a six-year, $120M deal back in August, an average of $20M per season.

If the Yankees have designs of keeping Cano around for the next half-decade, it would make sense to pursue this sort of deal now. It’s better to own Cano from 2012 through 2017 at $16 million per year than it is to own Cano from 2012 and 2013 at $14 and $15 million per year, respectively, and then from 2014 through 2019 at $20 million per year, assuming he can get that on the unrestricted free agent market.  Not only do they Yankees get a slight discount on the salary, but they also avoid paying him into his late-30s. It hardly even needs to be said that it’s dangerous to guarantee double-digit salaries to players throughout the inevitable decline that occurs as they enter their late thirties. If the Yankees can avoid that with Cano by paying him now and figuring out what happens after 2017 later, then they’re in a better and more flexible position than they would be if they signed him to the same deal two years later.

There’s risk, of course. Cano could regress back to the player we saw in his 2008 campaign and prove to be a poor value for the money, but it’s hard to find anyone who expects that to happen. Cano is among the very best players in the game, and he’s easily one of the best players on the Yankees.  Working out a deal now might be best for all parties. Something tells me it won’t happen, though. Boras is good at getting his clients the very best of paydays, and he may advise Cano to sit tight and wait until the terminus of the 2013 season if the Yankees aren’t interested in paying market value right now. They shouldn’t, of course, and they won’t. Brian Cashman wasn’t born yesterday.

There is no Plan B

More than any other season in recent memory, this version of the New York Yankees was built on the anticipation of future improvement and change. This process began in earnest nearly one year ago when the Giants defeated the Rangers in the World Series. Despite turning a howitzer-sized spotlight on Cliff Lee, they watched him go to Philadelphia instead, and then found that the market beyond him was quite unattractive. The team headed into Spring Training with one known quantity in CC Sabathia, two quantities thought to be known in Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, and a slew of unknowns in Nova, Garcia, Colon and more. “Wait til the season starts, let the pitching trade market develop” was the refrain. “Something will pop up”.

Several things popped up, but for various reasons they were never a great fit for the Yankees. Ubaldo Jimenez’s price was sky high, and he wasn’t exactly a savior for the Indians once they acquired him. Other targets like John Danks and Gavin Floyd never materialized as expected. Hiroki Kuroda ruled himself out despite his team’s interest in trading him and the Yankees’ interest in acquiring him. It was simply a bad market. It still wasn’t over on July 31st, though. While it appeared unlikely, the Yankees still had the chance to obtain someone to bolster the pitching staff via the waivers system. Wandy Rodriguez was considered, but nothing came of it. As far as pitchers went, the team was rolling with what they started with.

The Yankees still had one ace up their sleeve, one final shot in the arm. It was the baby-faced kid from Venezuela, Jesus Montero: the big-time prospect, much anticipated, long-awaited and sick of being bored. In September he made his debut for the big league club and exceeded even the highest expectations we had placed on him. Montero was really the one and only big change to the team’s composition, though. As changes go, it was quite small.

This team has been stable and calm for awhile now. In a lot of ways, it feels like they’ve been playing September baseball for months. September baseball is by and large a languid affair. For a lot of teams the games are played by AAA players – prospects or organizational filler- as bigger and older names get some rest after a long season. Many of the games are played in half-empty stadiums now that kids are back in school and going to bed on time. Many of the games have little to no import in the grand scheme of the season. September baseball is a time for unwinding, for reflection on the season drawing to a close. It’s slow and peaceful, and it couldn’t be any different from the violence of October.

This violence was on full display Wednesday night when two teams had their seasons snuffed out right before their very eyes. This was particularly brutal for Red Sox fans, who went from expecting a victory and a Rays’ loss to realizing it was all over in the course of no more than five minutes. With two outs and Papelbon on the hill, one has to imagine many of the fans had already started thinking about Game 163, perhaps debating different potential starters. Maybe some of them were even looking past it to the ALDS rotation, considering which opponent they preferred to face. And then it was all gone.

It’s enough to make one nostalgic for September baseball, where everything is safe, where the games don’t matter and you watch for nothing more than the love of the game. In September other teams may look better than yours, but there’s always tomorrow. There’s always that next lineup, that next pitcher, that next game. There’s always time for trying new tactics, testing new players, tinkering with the lineup or the roster or hoping for a bounceback from under-performers. September ends tonight. There’s no savior on the horizon, no improvements to be made, no reinforcements coming. The Yankees are dancing with the ones that brung ’em.

With that in mind, and knowing that nothing risked will always mean nothing gained, there’s really nothing left to do but leave the safety of September. All that is left is to embrace the whirlwind with clear eyes and anticipatory hearts and hope for the best. There is no escape hatch, no way out, no Plan B now. There is only Plan A, and it’s the plan that germinates and sprouts deep down in the heart of every fan the moment they see those first photos of pitchers and catchers stretching on the green grass in February. It’s the same plan that motivates fans to stick with the team through the ups and the downs, through the dumb losses and the frustration. It’s the same plan that calls for the biggest payoff possible. It’s the same plan every year. It’s Plan A, and Plan A is to win eleven games and dance in the streets of lower Manhattan.

Comparing the bullpens of AL contenders

Starting pitching goes a long way towards determining how a team does in the playoffs, but having a strong bullpen can mitigate weakness in the rotation. As the Yankees move towards the ALDS and a matchup with Detroit or Texas, I thought it might be useful to see how their bullpen compares to the bullpens of other contenders around the league. I’ve tried to pick out each team’s best relievers, since the playoffs are an “all hands on deck” time in which the big guns get used early and often. Judge for yourself which team has the strongest bullpen. I’ll provide the numbers and note an interesting fact about an individual reliever or the bullpen as a whole.

Yankees bullpen

Since July 30th when he came off the disabled list, Rafael Soriano has thrown 22.1 innings, allowed 6 earned runs, walked 5 and struck out 25. That’s a 2.69 FIP and a 5:1 K/BB ratio. He’s finally looking like the guy the Yankees expected to get when they signed him to his big contract, and if this level of performance holds it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that the Yankees have the best trio of relief arms in the American League.

Red Sox bullpen

Matt Albers has the kind of arm that scouts dream on. He throws very hard, and he gets ground balls at a good clip. Early in the year, it looked like Boston had picked up a nice cheap middle innings arm, and at the end of June he had pitched to a 3.03 ERA in 29.2 innings with 12 walks and 27 strikeouts. For whatever reason, the bloom came off the rose. Since the first of July he has a 6.21 ERA in 33.1 innings. While he has struck out 38 batters over this span, he’s walked more than a batter every other inning. He’s no longer a reliable option for Francona, which means the Sox will be leaning heavily on Papelbon and Bard in the postseason.

Rays bullpen

As mentioned yesterday, the Rays have one of the weaker bullpens in recent memory. Farnsworth has great numbers for the Rays this year, but he’s currently trying to overcome elbow soreness. He did appear last night for Tampa, so his troubles may be behind him for now. Peralta has been more than solid, but that’s really where the strength ends. Cruz, Ramos and Howell all have walk rates over 5 per 9 innings, and Gomes is over 4. It’s true that Maddon uses these guys as situational relievers, but the fact is that the Rays middle relief is simply soft. This is why it’s important for the Rays to get length out of their starters, and this is why Matt Moore could be such a huge factor for them in the next week.

Rangers bullpen

*Edit: Adams’ ERA and FIP are 1.51 and 2.48, respectively.

If anyone is going to give the Yankees a run for their money out of the bullpen, it’s the Rangers. Texas made two fantastic moves at the trade deadline this year, adding Mike Adams from San Diego and Koji Uehara from Baltimore. Both relievers strike out loads of batters, and both relievers are stingy with the free passes. They’re exactly what you’d want from your relief pitchers. The weakness here is like Neftali Feliz. While his ERA is close to his 2010 number, his peripherals have deteriorated significantly. He’s striking out fewer guys and struggling with the walks.  He’s been better since the start of August, but he’s still handed out 10 walks in 21 innings.

Tigers bullpen

Provided Valverde doesn’t blow a save over the next few days, a lot is going to be made by various analysts and TV announcers of the fact that Valverde’s save record is perfect this year. As someone who resents his mound antics, I can only say with the upmost sarcasm: “good for him”. Fortunately, Valverde’s peripherals don’t suggest that he’s the type of reliever who could maintain such a level of dominance. He hands out more walks than the reliever who precedes him in the eighth inning and he’s not exactly a groundball machine like Alburqurque. It’s true that he has a nice arsenal of pitches and a tremendous fastball, but if I had to wager on a closer blowing a game in the playoffs this year, I’d go with Feliz first and Valverde second. Fingers crossed!

Pick your poison: Boston or Tampa?

Here’s a question: if the Red Sox are performing poorly enough to miss the playoffs, should Yankee fans root for them to make it? Put another way, given that Boston has been 2007 Mets-level bad in September, are there enough flaws there that Yankees fans should root for Boston to beat out Tampa and Los Angeles and make for an easy target, should they squeak by through to the ALCS? Between the Rays and the Sox, who is the weakest link?

The Red Sox case

Boston has a myriad of problems. One problem is the lack of performance they’ve gotten from the corner outfielder slots. Carl Crawford’s first year of his big contract has been a disaster. J.D. Drew has missed time and his replacements haven’t exactly lit up the league. Drew may be back at some point, but it’s clear that the corner outfield spots for Boston currently represent a problem with no easy fix.

The Sox are also suffering through injuries, although not as many as last year. Youkilis has a back injury, a hip injury and a sports hernia. Despite the rain on Friday, Youkilis did some  batting off a tee, and Francona indicated that he “still felt it”, which makes sense since the injury will ultimately require surgery. As a result, Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham reported that it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll return at all this year, perhaps as a pinch-hitter at best. Obviously this is a significant blow to the Red Sox. Youkilis is one of their best hitters, and he’s also one of the most potent right-handed hitters in a lineup dominated by lefties. One of those lefties, Adrian Gonzalez, is also hurting. Gonzalez is dealing with a rotator cuff injury that causes him pain every time he swings the bat. It’s also sapped him of his opposite-field power. If you’re keeping track at home, two of the Sox four best hitters (the other two being Pedroia and Ellsbury) are dealing with serious injuries.

There’s also the wilderness that is their rotation. In addition to not paying his child support, Erik Bedard has – surprise! – injury and durability concerns. Meanwhile, John Lackey is just flat terrible. Weiland, Miller and Wakefield all represent last-resort options, the kind of guys you’d want to kick around for the 25th spot on the playoff roster but not pencil in for a Game 3 or Game 4 start. Aceves has been well above-average, but it appears to be too late to switch him to the rotation. Even the front of the rotation, Lester and Beckett, has lost a bit of its shine. For the second year in a row, Lester’s walks are a little higher than what you’d expect from someone with his talent, and his strikeouts have dipped. Beckett’s injury created a bit of uncertainty around him, and while he did rack up the strikeouts in his last outing against Baltimore, he lost his way late in the game and gave up the lead. New York has rotation questions too, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that Boston’s issues are severe and won’t be remedied until this offseason at the earliest.

The Sox are still a decent team. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez are exceptional hitters. Papelbon is having a great year, and if Bard regains his form they could have one of the best late game combos in the playoffs. The nature of the playoffs is wild and unpredictable, and a suddenly hot offense backed by a strong Lester and Beckett and closed with Bard and Papelbon could carry the Sox to the World Series. At the same time, it’d be silly to deny that this team has major issues.

The Rays’ Case

The case for the Rays as the weakest link revolves around their average offense and their iffy bullpen. Calling their offense average is entirely just. Their team wRC+ is 100, which defines average. Their lineup is bolstered by the likes of Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, but there are still weak spots in that lineup. Parenthetically, one has to wonder how much closer the Rays would be to Boston had Manny Ramirez given them 500 at-bats this season.

Their bullpen is also a point of weakness, described to me by R.J. Anderson as Tampa’s “dirty little secret”. It’s simply not as good as it has been in the past. While Farnsworth had been solid for the Rays thus far, he’s dealing with elbow soreness. Set-up man Joel Peralta has been respectable, but behind him are a slew of guys best utilized in platoon matchup scenarios. Plenty of them have serious control issues, meaning that Maddon’s ability to mix and match in the late innings is compromised a bit.

The Rays are strong in their pitching staff. As frontline tandems go, it’s hard to do better than David Price and James Shields. These two would be absolutely frightening in a short series. The Yankees wouldn’t face them until the ALCS, so they’d get a crack at Niemann and Hellickson too, but the fact remains that Price and Shields are two of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally, there’s the Matt Moore factor. He’s likely headed to the bullpen, and a reprise of David Price’s usage in the 2008 playoffs would make the Rays’ end of game crew very tough, especially if they get Kyle Farnsworth back at full strength. He’s certainly the X factor.

So which team is a more formidable opponent, and for which team should the Yankee fans be rooting to make the playoffs? It’s a matter of preference. Personally, even granting all of Boston’s issues and the fact that they’re an average at best team right now, I’d like them out as soon as possible. Doesn’t the prospect of three games in Boston in October in the ALCS, with the pennant on the line, make you want to reach for a bottle of Pepto? The Rays may be just as good as Boston right now, even better. But as Moshe Mandel said to me the other day, they may be just close enough that it’d be nice to see the Sox complete this collapse and miss the playoffs altogether. No Big Papi heroics and Sweet Caroline for me, thank you very much.

No fearing the Texas two-step

Trying to pick a favorable playoff opponent is a fool’s errand. Prefer Detroit? Then prepare to face Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and a bullpen that has led the team to a 72-0 record when leading after 7 innings. Prefer Los Angeles? They have perhaps the best starting pitching troika in the American League in Weaver, Haren and Santana. If Texas is your cup of tea, then you’ll have to contend with groundball artist C.J. Wilson and the potent Rangers’ offense. There’s no easy first round opponent for the Yankees this year. The Twins will be sitting at home.

Despite all that, one has to imagine that the Yankees would represent the worst-case scenario in the ALDS for the Texas Rangers. Not only will the Rangers likely be facing the Yankees in New York for the first two games, instead of hosting the Red Sox or Rays, but the Yankees would also be able to blunt one of the Rangers’ biggest advantages: their two strong left-handed starters. As it stands, the likely ALDS starters for the Rangers are C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. Wilson and Holland have been tough this year, but there’s reason to think that the Yankees can handle left-handed starting pitching with ease this October. After all, they’ve dominated left-handed pitching all year.

Should the Yankees choose to start Andruw Jones over Brett Gardner against a left-handed starter in the ALDS, seven of their nine hitters will have compiled an OPS of over .850 against left-handed pitchers this season. The two that miss the cut are Russell Martin and Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez is currently in the middle of a curious slump against left-handed pitching. Despite a career average of .947 OPS against left-handers, he’s currently batting .783 against them this year after a .755 mark in 2010. If he’s even a modicum of his former self in the playoffs, then the Yankees attack on left-handed starters will be potent.

The reason for this strength against lefties is comprised of several factors. For one, the left-handed batters have shown the ability to hit lefties consistently well. Curtis Granderson in particular stands out. Once nearly a platoon player, Granderson punishes lefties and righties with nearly equal pleasure. Robinson Cano does the same. There’s also Jesus Montero, perhaps the greatest source of offensive upside in the Yankees’ lineup. Projecting his performance is nearly impossible, but he has a minor league track record and a small major league performance to drool over. Finally there’s Andruw Jones, long the abuser of left-handed starters. Should the Yankees choose to sacrifice Gardner’s speed and defense for Jones’ offense then they’ll truly be formidable at the plate. Their two main focal points of weakness would be Russell Martin, a defensive stalwart, and Alex Rodriguez, possibly the greatest hitter of all time. Everything else is gravy.

This isn’t to guarantee a win against Wilson or Holland; they’re still very tough pitchers. But it does show that facing Wilson and Holland twice in the first three games of the American League Division Series would give give the Yankees a nice platoon advantage. At the end of the day, it’s hard to know who to cheer for as a first-round opponent. In 2006 I wanted the Tigers in the first-round, and we all remember how that turned out. Yet, should the Yankees draw Texas I won’t fear them like before. This time there’s no Cliff Lee, and this time the team will field an offense capable of bludgeoning starting pitchers, righties and lefties alike. This team may have a few questions about the rotation, but the offense couldn’t be much better.

Give the man what he wants

In recent comments which I’ve been unable to locate, CC Sabathia mentioned a desire to win the division, which means home field advantage. Contrasting the 2009 campaign with the 2010 campaign, Sabathia mentioned a certain fondness for starting the postseason at home, noting that he felt more comfortable. There’s been plenty of research done demonstrating that home field advantage doesn’t yield a sizeable benefit for the team. There’s not a whole lot that can be said to dispute these facts, and you’re likely to have the opinion thrown at you in earnest over the coming weeks. It will likely get old.

At Baseball Prospectus recently, R.J. Anderson took a different approach. He noted that winning the Wild Card likely results in more games played at home for the Wild Card team in the League Championship Series and World Series. Anderson’s argument is particularly compelling, in that he doesn’t dispense with the logic of wanting home field advantage, he simply notes that you may have more of it by winning the Wild Card. And yet, there’s still a part of me that would like to set this aside and root for Sabathia to get what he wants.

There has to be something to be gained by listening to players. Sure, a lot of times they get things wrong. You wouldn’t to make personnel moves strictly on the basis of clubhouse opinion. But leaving aside the issue that home field advantage typically yields no sizeable benefit for the team, I wonder if there’s really anything all that bad about rooting for the players to get what they want anyway. If CC Sabathia likes to play with his kids, eat dinner in front of his surely gigantic TV, sleep in his own bed and drive in his own car to the Stadium for Game 1 of the ALDS, then I’d like for him to have that luxury. If he thinks it yields a psychological benefit, I can’t see telling him it doesn’t.

Most people operate under similar rigueurs of habit, even if they don’t admit it. Most people have very circumscribed patterns of behavior, rituals and routines that they hold to tightly every day. If something gets thrown off-kilter, they can get flustered and feel disorganized. My early morning routine and walk to my train is nearly identical every day of the week, and it’s likely that way for most people. It’s why experts recommend you lay out your clothes and have your pencils and water and snack ready the night before a big standardized test: you don’t want any unexpected variable messing with your head. You’ll need all the focus you can get and you don’t want to burn energy, mental or physical, on dumb stuff. Maybe it’s the same for the $161 million dollar ace.

This is dangerous territory, because the argument about home field advantage and hoping the team gets what it wants isn’t really that much different from believing a player who tells you he needs to change his gum every half inning to play better. At the end of the day, this is really about endorsing something that yields at best a psychological benefit to the players. You can even call it an endorsement of superstition. It can’t be quantified.

I’m comfortable with that. As long as it doesn’t come at the expense of known, quantifiable factors like resting key players sufficiently, then I’ll be rooting for the Yankees to get that home field advantage, and for CC to be able to eat Captain Crunch on his couch before Game 1 of the ALDS this year. Come on, you don’t think he really quit the Captain, do you?