Pondering the untouchables

Yesterday’s news concerning the Blue Jays’ willingness to trade Roy Halladay sparked a fire storm of conversation among baseball fans around the nation. With that announcement, Halladay became the most sought-after July name, and early indications are that he would waive his no-trade clause for New York, Philadelphia or Boston. My money is on Halladay’s landing in Philadelphia, but we can’t count out the Yankees.

Yesterday, in writing about the potential for a trade, Joe mostly summed up my take on it:

What about acquiring him? Rosenthal notes that Ricciardi would deal within the division, though we all know there’s a premium there. Any package would probably have to start with Phil Hughes, and then include one of the Yanks’ precious few bats, likely one of the catchers. Would Hughes, Romine, and a third prospect, probably of the top-10 variety, be enough to land Halladay? Would the Yankees be wise to make such a move?

There’s no doubt that acquiring Halladay would leave the Yankees with the best rotation in baseball. In the short term, they’d be as well off as any other team, probably better off. In the long term they’d be giving up prospects, sure, but prospects can bust. It looks like Phil Hughes is finding his way, and it would probably suck to face him four or five times a year. But it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as facing Halladay that many times.

I’d add a caveat: Considering their respective ages, Phil Hughes could be a thorn in opponents’ sides longer than Halladay may be. Furthermore, as many have pointed out over the last 24 hours, if Brian Cashman opted 18 months ago to avoid sending Hughes and others to the Twins for a younger Johan Santana also with one year left on his contract, why would he do the same with Halladay? (Santana, by the way, has a 5.12 ERA over his last 10 starts with some bad peripherals. Meanwhile, Fangraphs posits that J.P. Ricciardi will not only ask for the sky for Halladay but deserves it as well. Roy is just that good.)

While we’ll be hearing a lot about Halladay and other potential trade targets over the next few months, I noticed an interesting thread in the comments from Yankee fans who were discussing potential deals yesterday. In light of a few bad starts and some thoughtless comments to the media, Joba Chamberlain isn’t as untouchable in the eyes of the fans as he once was. That’s an odd and confounding sea change in fan opinion, and I’m willing to discount it as the frustrations of a fan base expecting their 23-year-old stud to be lights out right away.

Anyway, these comments and the general state of trade rumors made me ponder the question of untouchables. As fans, we overvalue our prospects, but who among the Yankee farm hands is truly untouchable? Jesus Montero fronts that list. In two levels this year and at just 19 years of age, he is hitting .336/.391/.556. A young hitter who is, for now, a catcher such as Montero doesn’t come around that often, and the Yanks should hold on to that one.

Beyond Montero, I would also add Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to that list. While both are clearly works in progress, they have shown the ability at a young age to get hitters out by way of the K. Hughes had shown his potential pitching out of the pen this year, and we know what Joba, when 100 percent healthy and on, can do with his high-90s fastball. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Yankees stopped developing young cost-controlled pitching to complement their free agent signings. With Joba and Phil, they can do just that.

Beyond that, though, anyone is fair game. The Austins — Romine and Jackson — both have a lot of potential, but both feature some red flags as well. Romine’s on-base percentage is just .316 at A+, and Jackson is striking out a lot. Keith Law, in particular, has accused fans of over-projecting A-Jax. For the right package, I would trade either. Other prospects are certainly movable too.

In the end, this boils down the simple reality that the Yankees must know when to trade from a strength. They have catching depth, and they have pitching depth in their farm system right now. Both of those are commodities, and either could land the Yanks a big fish. The next 23 days will be as interesting as they always are, and the Yanks should make some splashes. We’ll suffer through some separation anxiety, but with the right moves, it should be well worth it.

A sportsnation ranks the Yanks poorly

Every year ESPN The Magazine ranks all of the sports franchises across the four major sports leagues for their Ultimate Team Rankings feature. Each team is graded against eight categories — title track, ownership, coaching, players, fan relations, affordability, stadium experience and overall bang for the buck — and the magazine publishes the standings.

Earlier this week, the Worldwide Leaders released the 2009 edition of the Ultimate Team Rankings, and the Yankees did not perform so well. The team is ranked an absurdly low 107, ahead of also-rans and disasters such as the Knicks, Clippers, Bengals and Islanders. They are ranked just 27th in the “title track” department, despite a lofty payroll and the third best record in Major League baseball, and they find themselves far behind the Angels, the overall No. 1 team, the Red Sox (58) and even the hapless Mets (82).

A few months ago, as ESPN was putting together this list, I spoke with Eddie Matz, the reporter assigned to write up the piece on the Yankees. At the time, the team was struggling, and people were complaining about the new stadium. Furthermore, with no George Steinbrenner-type figure atop the Yankee Front Office, even the ownership seemed in flux. In the end though, the new stadium dragged down the team. Matz writes:

How do you replace a legend? You don’t. That’s what fans are saying about the new Yankee Stadium, which ranked a surprising 37 spots lower than Babe’s house did a year ago. (Among outdoor AL parks, only Oakland’s, Minny’s and Tampa’s rated worse!) Sure, the new crib has double-wide concourses that circle the park. Yeah, the seats have as many as 10 inches more legroom, and the 101-foot-wide scoreboard is seven times larger than its predecessor. Plus there’s a Hard Rock Cafe and cupholders and family bathrooms. So what’s missing? A certain je ne sais quoi. “It just doesn’t have that same feel,” says Ben Kabak of fansite RiverAveBlues.com.

In fact, the only feeling most fans have is the need to knock off a bank to pay for a date with the Bombers: For the price of an average Yanks ticket ($72.97, up 76% and the most in baseball by more than 20 bucks), you could buy five — count ’em, five — average seats (a lot more if you were going for the cheapos) at a D-backs game. Steak sandwiches for $15 from Lobel’s don’t cut the mustard either. Yes, it’s tough replacing a legend. And right now the sound filling Yankee Stadium isn’t the actual Voice of God (retired PA announcer Bob Sheppard) but an honest-to-goodness Bronx cheer.

The use of “right now” in that last sentence is certainly out-dated. As the Yanks find themselves just a few games out of first, the stadium has been filled with cheers of a different nature. Meanwhile, fans have come to embrace the new stadium for what it is: a spot to watch the Yankees play baseball. It may not be the old Yankee Stadium, but it is home.

Take a look at ESPN’s final Yankee rankings:

Title Track: 27
Ownership: 64
Coaching: 83
Players: 81
Fan Relations: 101
Affordability: 121
Stadium Experience: 84
Bang for the Buck: 119

That affordability number is completely skewed by the expensive seats. True, the average ticket price is up, but it’s easy to find an affordable seat at Yankee Stadium. The team has also made an effort to improve their fan relations, and the players — one of the more talented collection in any sport — deserve higher than 81.

In the end, this seems to be more Yankee negativity coming out of Bristol. It’s far better for sales if the Yanks are ranked lower. Everyone likes to beat up on the Bombers because everyone is jealous of them. It just makes winning that much sweeter.

Musings on in-stadium economics

Nothing irks sports fans more than concession prices. Inside of a stadium, everything costs more. A beer you might buy for $5 at a sports bar costs $9 or even $11 inside the stadium. A steak sandwich that sells for $8 can go for as much as $15. Even New Era Hats, priced at a steep $34 at the flagship store, can go for $40 inside the stadium.

Meanwhile, fans like to justify the prices and their ballpark expenses by blaming — or celebrating — the payroll. Yankee fans are willing to pay so much for concessions because the team has a $200 million payroll, and that lofty total demonstrates the Steinbrenners’ devotion to winning. Or so it goes.

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Allen Barra, he of the excellent Yogi Berra biography, challenges that assumption. Prices inside a stadium are high, he says, because a stadium is a natural monopoly with a captive audience. Barra writes:

The point is that prices go up because the owners think that’s what you’re willing to pay. If you are willing to pay, the price stays high. If you aren’t — or at least if enough of you aren’t — then the price will come back down. It’s that simple.

The athletes and their agents don’t determine the price of tickets, souvenirs and food. Not even the owners determine them. Well, they sort of do when it comes to the food. The hamburger joint across the street from the park probably charges half of what you pay at the game, but that’s because the ball club has a monopoly. In general, though, you are the ones who set the prices for T-shirts and baseball hats.

It may take a while but eventually, if baseball management has overpriced its commodities, consumers — that’s you, the fans — will show them their error and the prices will come down. If you are willing to pay their prices that means they set the right prices after all.

It is a very valid argument, but Barra obscures his point by the end. He says that if society were to stop spending as much at baseball stadiums, then prices and salaries would go down. There is, it seems, a cause-and-effect problem. If salaries don’t determine how much a team can charge, then why would cutting fan spending reduce salaries?

In reality, salaries do have an impact on how teams set their prices. The teams need to generate a certain margin to cover their expenses. For the Yankees, that includes a lofty payroll and luxury tax payments. While revenue from TV deals and licensed merchandise sales cover some of that, the rest is captured through ticket sales and in-stadium concession deals.

Where the monopoly takes over though is in the profit space above the margin. Once the Yankees recover the payroll and luxury tax figures, anything they make above that is pure profit that can be pocketed or reinvested in the team in future years. If that $15 cheese steak were $12 instead, the Yanks’ would probably be covering their costs and more. But since fans are willing to pay $15 for it, the Yankees will continue to charge that much, pocketing the profits as any company would.

Peña optioned to become super-sub

Eric Hinske finally escaped Pittsburgh yesterday and made it to the Bronx in time for the Yanks’ evening affair against the Mariners. When Hinkse donned number 14 and was activated, the Yankees optioned Ramiro Peña to Scranton for his AAA debut. This is, though, a demotion with a purpose.

Peña, a little guy at 5’11” and 165 lbs., is not your typical middle infielder and doesn’t yet profile to be one. He’s a scrawny glove man with no power and little on-base ability. In 2008, playing his age 22 season, he experienced a second stint at AA. During an injury-free season after making it through just 52 games in 2007, he OPS’d .687, a good .050 points higher than his Minor League average. A hitter he is not.

Peña’s value lies on the other side of the ball. Not really a highly-regarded Yankee prospect, he is a glove man who can play second, third and short at a high level. During his three-month stint on the Yankee bench, he displayed his aptitude in the field, and the Yankees walked away impressed.

He may have hit .267/.308/.349 with 17 strike outs in 92 plate appearances, but the Yankees don’t mind. They want him for his glove. To that end, they have sent him down to AAA to become a super-utility player. “They told me I have a chance to be here for a long time,” Peña said to MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo on Wednesday.

What then do the Yankees expect from Peña, who will play some center for Scranton? In an ideal world, the Yankees are looking for their own version of a Felipe Lopez. They want a guy who can come off the bench, handle the bat, run a bit and, more importantly, play anywhere on the field.

It sounds like a great idea, but can it work? Lopez made his Major League debut at 21 and has played for five different teams. He owns a career OPS+ of 90. For what he is, he’s not terrible. Yet, he’s not a comp for Peña. In similar Minor League experience, Lopez turned in an OPS of .771. He’s a vastly superior offensive player than Peña is and a seemingly better base runner also.

I don’t mean to knock Peña. He certainly filled in admirably after both A-Rod and Cody Ransom went down. He can bunt; he can run; he can field. As Joe Girardi said, with more than a little hyperbole behind it, “He did more than what we expected. He was great.”

Yet, without the final component — that ability to hit just a little bit more, to get on base a little more frequently — the Yankees might be chasing something that doesn’t exist. Ramiro Peña is a glove man backup infielder. Maybe they should just keep him that way.

On the composition of the bench

With Xavier Nady out for the rest of the season, the Yankees’ roster picture has become clearer. Whereas before they were awaiting the return of a player who would add depth, now they know that player is not coming. The Yankees have a number of options moving forward, both for the immediate future and in preparation for the July 31st trade deadline.

Starting in the present, PeteAbe reports that Jose Molina will return in about a week. The Yankees could do one of three things:

  1. Carry three catchers and option Ramiro Pena to Scranton
  2. Option Cervelli to Scranton
  3. DFA Jose Molina

Let’s rule out the third option, since it’s not at all likely. If they release Molina and Posada gets hurt, they’d be stuck with Cervelli and Cash instead of Cervelli and Molina. The latter is preferable. Cervelli isn’t that much better than Molina, anyway — if he’s better at all, which at this point I’m not about to declare.

Carrying three catchers would mean Jorge Posada is the de facto DH. Pete says that Jorge isn’t “going to be the DH because the Yankees aren’t releasing or trading Hideki Matsui.” Yet this scenario would allow them to start one of Cervelli and Molina, use Matsui as a pinch hitter, and then substitute the other, with Posada still available as an emergency. It’s certainly not the most efficient use of roster space. This option is also unlikely, unless the Yankees are more concerned about Jorge’s health than they let on.

This leaves optioning Cervelli to Scranton. By all appearances, this is what will happen. He’ll get regular reps at AAA in preparation of taking over for Molina in 2010. Meanwhile, he serves as an insurance policy in case either Molina or Posada go down again. Yes, it’s nice to have him around, and I can see why everyone is high on him, but let’s not let his personality overshadow his ability. Right now, there’s no harm in having him in AAA.

Pete also brings up another notion: option both Cervelli and Pena, and opt to bring up a better bat off the bench. Once Molina returns, the bench will be him, Cody Ransom, Gardner/Cabrera, and Ramiro Pena. There’s not exactly a bopper in there. True, Pena can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, especially if Gardner starts. Pete suggests recalling Shelley Duncan or John Rodriguez. I’m not so sure.

Over whom in the starting lineup would Shelley Duncan be an upgrade? In other words, for whom would he pinch-hit? Maybe Gardner or Carbera, but even that’s debatable. The league seemingly figured out Shelley after 32 plate appearances — he started his career .321/.406/.857 in 32 PA and finished the season with a .217/.280/.370 run in 51 PA, plus his .175/.262/.281 in 65 PA last year. In theory it would be nice to have Shelley Duncan on the bench — if Shelley Duncan would actually represent an upgrade. Maybe he can provide a short-term burst of production, but he’s not someone who should be on the roster August 31.

As it stands, the Yankees might just be better off keeping both Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena on the bench. Pena can play multiple positions and has some wheels. Ransom also plays many positions. They have four outfielders, and Matsui in an emergency situation. Since they don’t have someone on the farm who can provide an upgrade in a pinch-hitting situation, it’s tough to call on such a move. Again, since the team has some flexibility with Pena they could give it a shot, but they shouldn’t expect much from either Shelley or J-Rod.

This leads to the longer-term lookout, i.e., the rest of the season. Could the Yanks pull a trade for an outfield bat? Someone who could, perhaps, provide a platoon partner for Matsui against tough lefties and buy some days or half-days off for the other outfielders? Perhaps. Steve Lombardi wants a more consistent alternative to Nick Swisher. Says he:

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Swisher works counts and gets walks. And, when he’s hot, Swisher can hit the ball out of the park. But, when he’s cold, he’s beyond ice cold. And, at times, Swisher takes some curious routes on fly balls. Basically, when he’s bad, the Swish Hawk is “T-Long Like.”

While I’m an unabashed Swisher fan, I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and ignore his shortcomings. He does have some pretty bad cold streaks, and it would be nice to have someone to give him some time off during them. What’s that worth, though? Can the Yankees get the import (because the answer is not in the system currently) at a reasonable enough price? Can they get him enough playing time to justify the price? Those questions will be clearer as the Xs mount in July and we get closer to the 31st.

For right now, the Yanks can afford to stand pat. There is no pressing need to make a roster move. If the Yankees want to give it a whirl with Shelley or J-Rod, they can do so with minimal risk. If they want to keep things how they are and have two multi-position players, one who can run, on the bench, they can do that. It just goes to show that when you have a solid starting nine, a bench becomes far less important.

A wild and not-so-wild night for Mariano

I think it’s time for a Mariano Rivera Appreciation Thread.

In a way, it’s been a rough month for Mo. In Boston, he didn’t pitch because Joe Girardi opted for lesser relievers late in a close game. In New York a few days earlier, he gave up the game while battling what sounded like a very bad stomach flu. Then against the Mets, he almost drew a loss but walked away with a win when Luis Castillo forgot how to use two hands. After that, he threw an inning against the Nationals on the 16th and well, sat for eight days.

So last night, the Yankees called upon Mariano in the 8th. Tony Peña, taking a page from my playback but no the accepted MLB Managerial Handbook of Relief Pitching, called upon Rivera with the Yanks up by just two runs in the 8th. Rivera recorded the third out of the inning via the K, and then a funny thing happened on the way to the 9th: Rivera actually had to come to the plate.

With two outs and the bases loaded, Mariano Rivera was due for just his second plate appearance of his career. His last time up was June 20, 2006 against the Phillies. It had been a while, to say the least.

Rivera was, of course, unprepared. According to Bryan Hoch, he had to use Cody Ransom’s bat and Alfredo Aceves‘ helmet. Melky offered Mo the use of his batting gloves, and his coaches told him not to swing.

Rivera ignored those instructions. He swung at a fastball and lined it to Nate McClouth in center. It could have been a two-run single. After the game, Rivera was apologetic. “I’ve got to take a swing,” Rivera said. “I apologized to my pitching coach and manager, but I had to do it.”

The players were laughing about it, and Joe Girardi was fairly amused. “It’s not what you really want to see, but he had quite a swing,” Girardi said. “When he hit it, I thought we were going to get a few more runs on the board.” If only.

Meanwhile, Rivera went back out for the 9th and promptly ended the game. He threw 15 pitches in the 9th, and just four of them were out of the strike zone. No one managed to put the ball in play against the Braves, and Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth and Yunel Escobar all struck out. For Rivera, it was just another night in the park: 1.1 IP, 0 H, 4 K, 15 of 19 pitches for strikes. Game over. Order restored. Yanks win. And that is Mariano for you. What we will do without him in a few years, I do not know.

If the Yanks could shed one contract, who would it be?

When I first read Joel Sherman’s column from yesterday, I kind of laughed. The idea is pretty simple: Allow each team a one-time chance to release one player from a contract. This is akin to what the NBA did in 2005, dubbed the Allan Houston Rule. The team is free from the contract for luxury tax purposes, but still has to pay the remainder to the player. This would theoretically clear up some dollars so teams could wheel and deal a bit more this year at the trade deadline. As it stands, most teams seem unable to add payroll.

At least Sherman admits his flaw early on, in that the Yankees are the only team above the luxury tax threshold. His proposition is to have MLB “use all of those dollars from the Internet, merchandising and the new network to absorb one contract from every team.” Again, this is a fantasy-land proposal. There is no way that MLB would hand Colorado the remainder of Todd Helton’s contract, and they certainly wouldn’t fork over the money left on deals like Barry Zito, Vernon Wells, Oliver Perez, and Alex Rodriguez. So in terms of realism, you can file this under: Not Gonna Happen (unless someone has compromising pictures of Selig).

Since it’s an off-day, though, I figured we could have some fun. Let’s suspend reality for a moment and pretend that MLB institutes this policy. Each team can release one player, and MLB will absorb the cost (maybe just for one year, maybe the whole term of the contract — it matters little). The exception, of course, is the Yankees. Since they’re the only team above the luxury tax threshold, they’re still responsible for paying the money owed to the player they release. They’d still save the luxury tax, but they’d still have to pay the player — and pay him to play for another team, in all likelihood.

The easy answer, it would seem, is Alex Rodriguez. Even A-Rod‘s biggest supporters admit that his contract is atrocious. It runs through his age-42 season, and pays him an exorbitant sum for a yet unknown level of production. To release him would ease the Yanks’ payment into the luxury tax pool, which would then enable them to find other players to replace him.

Two problems immediately come to mind: 1) This would significantly hurt the 2009 team, and 2) They’d have to pay A-Rod over $200 million to play for another team. That team could likely get A-Rod on decent terms, since the Yankees still owe him all that money. So he plays cheap for an opponent. That’s not very attractive. Nor is the prospect of paying him tens of millions of dollars in his decline years.

What would you do, given this scenario? Release A-Rod, immediate consequences be damned, in order to save $20 or so million in luxury tax payments? Release Matsui in order to knock down this year’s payment by a little? Or stand pat? After all, it’s only a few million (because the savings only come on the luxury tax), and players are valuable.

Discuss away. I’d personally stand pat. If you’re going to pay A-Rod anyway, you might as well get what you can out of him.