Archive for Irresponsible Rumormongering

As we all know by now, the Yankees are telling people they are hoping to fill their vacancy at DH via trade (which would presumably include dealing either A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes) first, and should that fail, scour the remaining free-agent market as a fallback option.

The following is a short-list of potential designated hitter candidates (ideally of the left-handed hitting variety, to create a platoon with Andruw Jones) that could make some sense as trade targets for the Yankees. It should be noted that none of these players are likely on the trading block — three of four are penciled in as starters — but what better to stoke the Hot Stove fires with than irresponsible rumormongerng?

Garrett Jones, Pirates. Prior to embarking on research for this post I’d never even heard of Jones, but he hit righties fairly well last season, posting a .351 wOBA/122 wRC+ in 406 PAs, including an 11.3 BB%. Combined with Jones ideally putting together something reasonably comparable to the .400 wOBA/151 wRC+ he compiled against LHP from last season, and that’d not only make for one of the more productive DHs in the league, but also perhaps the first-ever all-Jones platoon in baseball history. Garrett also carries a career .360 wOBA against RHP along with a 125 wRC+ and 11.3 BB% in more than 1,000 PAs — the man knows how to hit right-handed pitching.

At 30, he’s also no spring chicken, and I can’t envision the cost in players being all that considerable, although as Joe noted to me, “He’s one of their only decent bats, so I’m not sure they’d let him go cheaply. Considering his age and must-platoon status, I’m not sure there’s a good match there.” A late bloomer, Jones is also under team control for three more years, so that would likely impede a hypothetical deal further. Still, Brian Cashman and Neal Huntington do seem to like each other as trading partners, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Cash figure something creative out given the team’s current glut of pitching.

Nolan Reimold, Orioles. Despite the fact that the Yankees and Orioles have hooked up for just one player-for-player trade in the 19 years since Peter Angelos bought the Orioles franchise, Ken Rosenthal yesterday posited that the birds could be a logical trade partner for Burnett. While a deal involving anyone seems highly unlikely, earlier this offseason I wrote about Reimold potentially being a useful bench piece. Unfortunately he doesn’t meet the left-handed-hitting component of our criteria, but he actually can hit righties, tagging them with a .360 wOBA/124 wRC+ (10.1 BB%) in 201 PAs last season, and he’s evinced a slight reverse platoon split during his career, with a .345 mark against righties compared to .332 against lefties. He’s also not currently projected to start for Baltimore, perhaps making him a bit more expendable. Still, file this under not bloody likely.

Lucas Duda, Mets. This is even less likely than a deal with the O’s, as the Mets would presumably have to be blown away to trade a player that is arguably their second-best hitter and one who also happens to be cost-controlled. After all, the CitiField faithful are going to need something to get excited about given the bleak outlook of the next few years. Still, with the Yankees’ excess of arms, perhaps a deal involving Phil Hughes and one of the fourth-starter types at AAA (who would probably fare quite a bit better both in the NL and at the cavernous ballpark in Queens than in the Bronx) or some sort of package of minor leaguers would be compelling enough to evoke a rare crosstown trade for the left-handed Duda, who obliterated righties to the tune of a .380 wOBA/145 wRC+. Though Duda projects to be the Mets’ starting right fielder, the 26-year-old hasn’t shown much of an ability to hit portsiders to this point (in an admittedly small sample of 86 PAs, Duda has a .282 wOBA), so perhaps the cost wouldn’t be excessive given the need to platoon. (h/t to YankeeSource for inspiring this idea following his musing on Daniel Murphy).

David DeJesus, Cubs. The long-linked-to-the-Yankees local product DeJesus is a no-go at the present moment, having signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Cubbies at the end of November. However; should Chicago fall out of contention come July — and at the present moment, it’s not clear that they’re better than roughly a 3rd-place team on paper — DeJesus will likely be an attractive trade candidate. Though he had a tough year in Oakland last season, he still hit righties well (.347 wOBA/120 wRC+), and owns a career .356 wOBA/116 wRC+ against northpaws.

Again, with Jones and Duda projected to hit 5th for their respective teams, the Pirates and Mets would likely look for more than the Yankees would feel comfortable dishing, despite both franchises having basically already been eliminated from 2012 playoff contention. The unfortunate O’s are also a lock for last in the AL East yet again, though that still won’t be enough for Angelos to attempt to improve his team via dealing with the Yankees. If the Yankees do decide to go into the season addressing their DH needs in-house, DeJesus will likely be a name that will once again come up frequently should the Cubs falter, and would seem to be the most probable to be dealt out of this quartet.

(Photos: Burnett via Reuters, Bay via Getty)

The Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda pickups changed the Yankees’ roster situation quite a bit, as they’re now heavy on pitching but lacking that one DH bat. Thanks to a MSM article earlier this offseason, some were beating a “trade A.J. Burnett for Jason Bay” drum a few weeks ago, a trade I called a no-win situation back in October. Both players are terrible and all the Yankees would have done is rearrange some furniture, not actually satisfy a need. They needed Burnett’s innings at the time and also needed to keep the DH spot open for Jesus Montero. Thanks not the case anymore, and now a trade like this actually makes a little sense.

As a pure bad contract-for-bad contract swap, it helps that Burnett and Bay have very similar contract situations. The Yankees owe their enigmatic right-hander $33M over the next two years while the Mets owe their disappointing outfielder $32M over those same two years. The only problem is that Bay’s deal has this horrible $17M vesting option for 2014, which will kick in with either 600 plate appearances in 2013 or 500 plate appearances in both 2012 and 2013. Omar Minaya was good at throwing those ugly vesting options into his free agent contracts.

We’ve seen both Francisco Rodriguez (another Minaya contract!) and Carlos Zambrano waive their vesting options as a condition of a trade over the last few months, and the same thing would have to happen with Bay. If he isn’t willing to pass on that option, forget the idea all together. Pay him the $3M buyout per the contract terms, but he and his contract have to go away after two years. That vesting option is a total dealbreaker if he’s unwilling to waive it. The buyout essentially makes Bay’s contract a two-year, $36M deal, so a straight-up trade means the Mets would save themselves $3M. Given their financial situation, I’m sure that will at least get their attention.

In terms of actual on-the-field stuff, the Mets can simply plug A.J. into their rotation alongside R.A. Dickey, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee as Johan Santana continues his perpetual rehab from shoulder surgery. Right now they have guys like Miguel Batista and Chris Schwinden set to compete for the fifth starter’s job, which somehow sounds worse than giving the ball to Burnett 30 times a year. The move to the easier league and the bigger park (although the walls at CitiField are being brought in this winter) should help Burnett’s homer problem, at least in theory. The only real issue for the Mets would be replacing Bay in left, though they do have a few kids on the 40-man roster worth trying. Maybe the Yankees could kick in a Chris Dickerson or Justin Maxwell to facilitate a trade.

As far as the Yankees go, the perfect world scenario calls for Bay to DH in 2012 and move to corner outfield spot in 2013. The Yankees could let Nick Swisher leave as a free agent after this coming season and still have a viable replacement for a year, buying them some time to figure out things out long-term and with regards to the 2014 austerity budget. This is all predicated on Bay being healthy and not awful, which he hasn’t been for two years. He’s missed more than 90 days over the last two years due to a concussion (suffered on this play) and an intercostal muscle strain, and when he was on the field he produced just a .325 wOBA and a 104 wRC+. It’s not a CitiField thing either; Bay’s hit .279/.367/.445 at home and .228/.310/.336 on the road during his two years with the Mets. His defense is below average but not as bad as the advanced metrics would lead you to believe; none of the systems have figured out left field in Fenway Park yet.

Just to make this perfectly clear, the Yankees and Mets aren’t discussing a Burnett-for-Bay swap as far as we know. The idea started as speculation in some random article back in September or October, and it’s sorta lingered throughout the winter. Given the drastic change in the team’s roster dynamics, I figured it was worth revisiting. It’s one of those ideas that looks great on paper and makes perfect sense in your head, but in reality is much more complicated. It would be great if the Yankees could shift Burnett’s money around and turn a superfluous starting pitcher into a corner outfielder/DH, but bad contract-for-bad contract swaps almost always turn out the same way for everyone: bad.

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Francisco Rodriguez is open to a trade to the Yankees, the Mets’ closer said to The Daily News today. While speaking with Kristie Ackert, the mercurial reliever said he would embrace an opportunity to pitch in the Bronx if the circumstances were right. “If I am going to be traded, obviously I want the opportunity to close out games, but if it’s going to be good teams like the Yankees or the Rays, and it’s going to be for two months, I can go out there and help them out,” he said.

We had previously heard reports that K-Rod would waive his no-trade clause if a team were willing to extend his contract. It sounds, however, as though he’s willing to drop those demands. For the Yankees seeking bullpen help, Rodriguez remains an intriguing option, and I made the case for a trade earlier this month. As The Process Report notes, K-Rod will be owed around $6 million on his contract by the time of the trade deadline, and his deal includes a $17.5 million or a $3.5 million buyout. He certainly would be an expensive bullpen option, but if the Yanks are willing to pay the salary, the price in prospects shouldn’t be too high. As Brian Cashman has said that he needs setup help, this is one rumor that might have some legs.

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Rounding Up The Trade Rumors

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(Photo Credit: Flickr user terren in Virginia via Creative Commons license)

A bunch of small, rumor-style reports surfaced this weekend about the Yankees and some pitchers they may or may not target in midseason trades, so let’s round them up chronologically …

Top Advisors Scouted The Cubs

Bruce Levine reported on Friday that the Yankees had some scouts watch Carlos Zambrano last weekend, and it wasn’t just a routine check-up. Levine said it was some of Brian Cashman‘s top advisors, and a number of them unsurprisingly prefer Ryan Dempster. Zambrano is willing to waive his no-trade clause, by the way.

Preference: Lefties And Rentals

George King reported yesterday that in a perfect world, the Yankees would like to acquire a left-handed starter that is not under contract beyond this season. That’s a limited (and unappealing) demographic since the only southpaws scheduled to become free agents after the season are Bruce Chen, Zach Duke, Jeff Francis, Paul Maholm, and C.J. Wilson. I can’t imagine Texas would be willing to trade their ace while in contention, and the others … yuck. Mark Buehrle has a clause in his contract that automatically locks in a $15M salary for next season if traded, so we can’t consider him a rental has a full no-trade clause but fits the bill as well.

I do suppose, however, that we could include players in their arbitration-eligible years (since they could be non-tendered, the same thing as a rental), in which case guys like Francisco Liriano, Clayton Kershaw, John Danks, Jonathan Sanchez, and Joe Saunders come into play. That’s better, but how many are realistically available? I can see Liriano, Saunders, and maybe Danks. Maybe. How sold are you on Liriano’s turn around?

Oh, Wait … Yankees Have “Zero Interest” In Zambrano

Wally Matthews reported late yesterday that despite the recent scouting trip, the Yankees have “no interest” in Zambrano. Perhaps they were turned off by his 6 IP, 9 H, 5 R stinker against the Brewers last week or his 6.1 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 BB gem against the Phillies nine days ago. This latest report makes me happy because I wasn’t a Zambrano fan even before his velocity dropped (again) or his ground ball rate declined (again).

I don’t know where a high-end pitcher is supposed to come from, but it’s pretty obvious the Yankees need someone like that. They can’t assume Bartolo Colon will come back from the disabled list throwing grenades like he was before, and with one more injury we could be looking at Ivan Nova, Brian Gordon, and David Phelps in the rotation all at the same time. Now that is scary.


Imagining Hanley in pinstripes

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In four years Derek Jeter‘s last big contract with the Yankees will expire and the Yankees will have to move on. As weird as it will be, life after Jeter will begin, at least at the shortstop position. With all due respect to Cito Culver and Eduardo Nunez, it is likely that Jeter’s eventual replacement is not within the organization as of today. He will either join via the amateur draft, trade or free agency. Fortuitously, the best offensive shortstop in baseball will hit the free agent market the very year Jeter’s contract expires. After spending nearly a decade with the Florida Marlins, Hanley Ramirez will become a free agent as a 30-year-old. Will he find himself fitted for pinstripes?

The Good

While Troy Tulowitzki is quickly creeping up on him, it’s hard to argue with the statement that Hanley Ramirez is the best offensive shortstop in the game. After being traded from Boston to Florida in the Josh Beckett deal, Hanley Ramirez won Rookie of the Year in 2006. As a mere 22-year-old Hanley clubbed 17 home runs and swiped 51 bases and hitting .292/.353/.480. In 2007 he elevated his game even further. He stole 51 bases again but cut down on his strikeouts and hit an incredible 29 home runs. His batting line was an MVP-worthy .332/.386/.562. The Red Sox won the World Series that year, but there had to be an element of regret within the organization to see how rapidly Hanley was becoming a superstar.

In 2008 Ramirez posted an aesthetically pleasing batting line of .301/.400/.540, a step back in power but a step forward in on-base percentage. The following year he again accumulated over 7 fWAR and placed second in MVP voting. His on-base percentage was only 10 points higher than 2008, and his slugging percentage was only three points higher, but he won the batting title with a .342 average. Hanley’s always been a high BABIP guy (.347 career average) but his .379 mark in 2009 was a new high for him.

In 2010 his game took a step back. He only hit 22 home runs, a low for him since 2006, and his on-base and power skills dipped slightly as well. This was probably related to his ground ball rate. He’s a career 44% ground ball hitter, but hit ground balls at a 51% clip in 2010; this increase came largely at the expense of fly balls. Whether this was a momentary blip or a sign of things to come remains to be seen. It is worth noting that Ramirez battled and elbow injury for a lot of the season.

Regardless of the 2010 blip, Hanley Ramirez has been the model of offensive production in the past four years. Cumulatively, it’s nearly impossible to find a more productive shortstop over the past four years. He hit 107 home runs, most of any shortstop. He’s stolen 145 bases, second to only Jose Reyes. His ISOp is .213, tied for highest with Troy Tulowitzki. He has the highest batting average (.319), on-base percentage (.394) and slugging percentage (.532) and wOBA (.400). In the past four years, he’s had the the highest wOBA for a shortstop in three out of the past four years. At some point, the superlatives become repetitive. Hanley Ramirez can hit. He can really, really hit.

The Bad

One of the biggest knock on Hanley is his defense. He’s a big guy, and doesn’t really grade out positively by any defensive metric. Over at Fangraphs just six weeks ago Joe Pawlikowski wrote up different players who saw their fWAR knocked down by the defensive component. Ramirez featured prominently:

Defense was the major knock on Ramirez from the moment he started in the majors. In his first two years in the league he had UZRs of -9.3 and -20.5. He followed that up with two mostly average years, which provided some hope that he could remain at shortstop while hitting like a right fielder. Both ideas came crashing down in 2010.

Not only was Hanley’s 25.4 RAA his worst mark since his rookie campaign, but his UZR was in the negative double digits. The combination caused quite a dip in his WAR.

Saving Grace: TZL isn’t nearly as down on Hanley, pegging him at -5 for the year and 8.8 — in the positives! — for his career. DRS, on the other hand, mostly agrees with UZR, except it’s a bit more pessimistic.

All told, it’s hard to find anyone who would argue that Hanley is a plus defender. His single-season UZR is going to fluctuate year-to-year, just like a BABIP is going to fluctuate in the first third of a season, but scouting and most defensive metrics agree that his fielding is subpar. As he ages and loses some of his quickness, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move off the position. Some expect him to wind up at third base; right field could be another destination.

The element of downside risk with Hanley is the perceived attitude issue. A lot of this stems from the blowup he had with his manager Fredi Gonzalez on May 18. After fouling a ball off his shin in the first inning, Hanley took the field in the second inning. With runners on first and second, Tony Abreu blooped a ball over his head into shallow left field. Ramirez couldn’t get to it, and when reaching down to field it with his glove he accidentally kicked it with his left foot, sending the ball 100 feet away into the left field corner. He then slowly jogged after it, allowing two players to score and Abreu to advance all the way to third base. Now, Ramirez did seem to have a slight limp and it is possible that his shin pain was severe. Regardless, he moved rather slowly after the ball. The video is a bit shocking. It’s rare to see a player pursue a ball like that. It’s as if the play was already dead. Manager Fredi Gonzalez was angry, and pulled Hanley out of the game. Hanley sat out the next game, and openly criticized Gonzalez:

“It’s his team. He can do whatever,” Ramirez said, mixing in an expletive. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” “That’s OK. He doesn’t understand that. He never played in the big leagues,” he said.

Unfortunately Gonzalez didn’t survive the year, getting fired in the end of June. He moved on to greener pastures in Atlanta, but the perception that ownership sided with the superstar rather than the manager lingers. The fact that Loria had given Ramirez a diamond-studded necklace to celebrate his batting title championship a year prior doesn’t exactly help to dispel that myth. Yet, the most important question is whether this will be something that promises to cause trouble in the future. For what it’s worth, Hanley has been talking a big game this spring, saying that he was very disappointed in his 2010 production and promising a whole new level of effort. His 2010 issues could just be a blip in the radar; the proof will be in the pudding.

The Money

By the end of the 2014 season the Yankees will get some serious salary relief. After the 2011 season Jorge Posada‘s $13M will come off the books. After 2012 Rivera’s salary ($15M) comes off the books, although it’s possible that he could re-up on another 1 year deal for the same salary. AJ Burnett’s $82.5M contract expires after 2013 as well. After 2014, Derek Jeter’s contact expires.

As of present, the Yankees have about $69M committed to the 2015 payroll. Of course, this doesn’t include a potential deal for Nick Swisher or his right field replacement (free agent after 2012), Phil Hughes, Robinson Cano or Curtis Granderson (free agents after 2013) or the various holes in the pitching rotation. The Yankees will be shelling out some serious coin well before Cashman ever sits down at the negotiating table with Hanley and his agent Andy Mota. They’ll also have a very big hole at shortstop.

As a 30-year-old, Ramirez will likely be seeking one very big, very long contract. Provided he continues his prodigious offensive production and stays at shortstop, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him seek a deal for at least 8 years. Even if he’s moved off shortstop to third base, his offensive production would still put him among the elite third basemen in the league. All told, there’s a lot that can happen between now and the 2014-15 offseason. Loria could open up the purse strings and make Hanley a Miami Marlin for life, or the Yankees could draft a viable replacement for Jeter at shortstop. The Yankees have handed out their fair share of big contracts in the past. Whether they’ll be able to resist the siren’s call again with Hanley will be a fascinating situation to monitor.

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For the Yankees as they prepare for the 2011 season, Kevin Millwood is akin to that thing on the bottom of your shoe that you just can’t get off. He’s not on the Yanks; he’s not very good; and yet the rumors just won’t go away. Now, according to recent reports, the Yanks are still kicking the tires on this one.

After the Yanks watched him throw yesterday, Millwood remains on the club’s radar. In fact, according to Jon Heyman, the Yanks have offered him a contract. The Sports Illustrated scribe reports:

The Yankees went to scout Kevin Millwood Wednesday at UC-Irvine and are offering a contract in the low seven figures while Millwood has been seeking about $4 million on a major league deal. While he’d be a help, the Yankees may not need him as much as they once did after Ivan Nova threw six no-hit innings in the 10-0 win over the Orioles. Freddy Garcia has pitched well in two of three outings, and he and Nova look likely to be the Yankees’ No. 4 and 5 starters.

That short paragraph contains quite a few assumptions and a few red flags. First, the idea that Freddy Garcia has a lock on the fifth starter spot is largely unfounded. Through the first few weeks of Spring Training, the Yankees have been far more impressed with Bartolo Colon than with Garcia, and if Girardi had to make a decision tomorrow, Colon would likely have a rotation edge. Second, the premise that the team may not need him is a matter of interpretation.

The problem with Millwood is that his value and impact are both tough to assess, and while he thinks he’s worth $4 million a season, the Yankees seem to disagree. From a traditional point of view, Millwood was terrible last year. He went 4-16 with an ERA over 5.00 in 190 innings. He gave up 33 more hits than innings pitched and 30 long balls while striking out 132 and sporting a 2:1 K:BB ratio. His WAR though came in at 1.3, and absent a significant decline, he’ll be worth the $4 million. Whether he can out-pitch Garcia or Colon is up for debate.

Yet, talent evaluators are lukewarm on Millwood. As Joe noted highlighted last month, no one is that impressed with Millwood. “Millwood is not a help,” one scout said in February. “He’s just a name people know.” In January, Joe offered even lesser praise: Kevin Millwood is better than Sergio Mitre. Nothing has changed.

For the Yankees, Millwood would simply be another piece for the depth charts and another placeholder. If someone goes down and Millwood is still out there, he would be potentially a better and more reliable choice than an unknown AAA kid. He won’t blow the world away, and he won’t throw quality innings. He will though throw innings. Maybe there’s something to be said for that right now, but if the Yanks are willing to offer Millwood seven figures, I have to wonder what that says of the faith they have in the current rotation options than anything else. It’s not a huge vote of confidence really.

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Carlos Silva looks sad as he delivers a pitch. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

At a certain level, the Yankees’ scouts are always going to be looking at someone somewhere. That’s just the nature of their job, and the team wouldn’t be prepared for its opponents or trade contingencies if the scouts didn’t stop looking. But on another level, with pitching at a premium and the Big League club’s hope that scotch tape and rope will hold the back end of the rotation together, the scouts are scouring the league trying to find a pitcher.

As Brian Cashman has repeated said during Spring Training, he has nothing doing right now, and this does seem to be the rare time of the year when he’s not hiding the truth. March is a tough time to make a big trade, and teams aren’t looking to do many favors for the Yankees right now. That said, the scouts are out there, and right now, they seem to be keeping half an eye on Carlos Silva.

Per Bruce Levine of ESPN Chicago, the Yankees have been scouting Silva this spring as he competes for a job in the crowded Cubs’ rotation. Silva is one of many vying for a rotation spot with the Northsiders, and as he is owed $11.5 million this year, Chicago would prefer to ship him out for cheaper options. So should the Yanks be interested?

To put it nicely, Silva is an interesting character. At 6’4″/250, he’s another huge pitcher, and he has a temper. Already this spring, he and Aramis Ramirez went at it in the dugout, and Carlos Zambrano had to calm down the large righty. When Zambrano is the anger management specialist, eyebrows across the world should go up a bit.

On the field, his results have been decidedly mixed. Overall, he is 70-70 with a 4.68 ERA and a 93 ERA+. His career K mark sits at a very low 4.0 per 9 IP, but he is the active leader in keeping his walk rate down. He issues just 1.7 BB/9 IP, and outside of one very disastrous season in Minneapolis, he isn’t prone to the longball. In a sense, he gets by as Chien-Ming Wang with ground balls and few extraneous baserunners.

Despite his less-than-impressive career numbers, he has enjoyed success in bits and spurts. In 2004, 2005 and 2007, he posted WAR totals above 3 while pitching with the Twins, and despite struggling badly in Seattle, he rebounded with a 2.1 WAR last year. He might not be worth the $11.5 million owed to him, but he could get more than halfway there. The problem with Silva, though, is also one of durability. He hasn’t reached 200 IP since 2007.

Also raising a red flag are Silva’s Spring Training numbers. He’s been absolutely lit up in this March. After 8.1 innings, he has allowed 15 earned runs on four home runs and 18 base hits. He’s issued just one free pass but has just two strike outs as well. Even if we don’t put much stock into Cactus League stats, those are some scary, scary numbers.

So Silva lurks in the background. The Yanks will, as they should, kick the tires. They’ll watch his Spring Training starts and find out if they can land him for nothing more than a wing and a prayer. If they can’t, they’ll move on to someone better. That’s the Front Office doing its job.

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A rumor is a rumor is a rumor

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It started with a Tweet. Jim Bowden, General Manager-turned-XMRadio host, had been talking to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale when the baseball writer let slip something between a rumor and his opinion. In the shorthand of our time, Bowden reported that Nightengale “thinks its possible that Liriano is traded to the Yanks in nxt 2 weeks for Nova or Joba +.”

That simply sentence — 140 characters of juicy Spring Training rumors — set off a flurry of everything. Twitter exploded with conversation as readers emailed us questions. Could this really be true? Would the Twins be willing to ship out left-handed ace Francisco Liriano for a package headed by either Ivan Nova or Joba Chamberlain plus some prospects? Which Yankee fan would volunteer first to drive to Minnesota with that haul to its new team?

Yet, as we said just last week, where there is smoke, there is often a fire, and later in the day, we learned of a smoke condition. As Andrew Marchand reported a short while ago, the Yankees called the Twins over Liriano earlier this offseason, according to a source. The kindling is there. Anyone got a match?

But slow down. On the record, Brian Cashman denied any current trade talks. “I’m not talking to anyone about anything right now,” the Yanks’ GM said. “Nobody’s available. Nobody of value, anyway.”

Of course, knowing Cashman’s history, that probably means some trade will go down within the next few weeks, and all of those questions about the Yanks’ rotation will disappear like a puff of smoke. Or at least, as March dawns and Opening Day draws near, I can dream.

For the Yankees, Liriano poses an interesting question. If he’s healthy and devoted, he’s an ideal left-handed pitcher for the Bombers. He’s a high strikeout guy who’s given up less than a home run per 9 innings in his Major League career. He’s also only 27, and after battling an injury that shelved him for the entire 2007 season, he’s entering his prime and nearing free agency at the same time.

Yet, as has been detailed meticulous by Jay Jaffe on Baseball Prospectus (in a subscribers-only piece), the Twins and their lefty have a tough relationship. A long time ago, when Liriano was but 24 years old, the club publicly questioned his ability to communicate with the club. They have questioned his injury history. They have questioned his approach to strike outs (which, in my and Larry Rothschild’s book, isn’t something to question). He doesn’t fit the organization as well as he might, and that leaves many wary.

Yet, as Jaffe noted, the Twins should have no reason to deal Liriano. Writes the BP scribe, “There’s little reason to believe that Liriano has peaked, that he won’t deliver value for the Twins far in excess of Pavano and the other members of the Twins’ rotation, or that the Twins can’t afford him.”

And yet, his name won’t go away. The Yanks won’t part with Jesus Montero for Liriano, and they would have to think long and hard about dealing Manny Banuelos. Yet, if the Yanks need pitching and the Twins want to rid themselves of Liriano while the returns are high, they could get a nice haul. If that package starts with Nova or even Joba, though, no one in the Bronx will think twice about pulling the trigger. Whether Twins GM Bill Smith will settle for such a seemingly low-ceiling group of players, though, will be just another saga of Spring Training. This story won’t wrap up any time too soon.

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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)

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(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

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?