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(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

(Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

A big part of being a Yankee fan is buying, hook, line and sinker, into the concept of mystique and aura, so mocked by Curt Schilling during the 2001 World Series. We expect dramatic victories, World Series titles and every player to thank the good Lord for making him a Yankee. We expect the Yanks to pay what it takes to retain their players, and we expect those players to embrace their time with the Yankees and stay in the Bronx to earn their spots in Monument Park and, for some, a plaque in Cooperstown. So what happens when they leave?

When Robinson Cano jetted for Seattle, of all places, it was more than a little bit of a shock to fans of the Bombers. Here was a player in his prime with multiple All-Star appearances, 1649 hits, 204 home runs, and a .309/.355/.504 slash line, all at the ripe old age of 31. The Yanks offered him seven years and were willing to pay him $25 million a year with an annual salary higher than everyone but A-Rod‘s. But it wasn’t enough, and now Robbie is Seattle’s, and Seattle’s problems are Robbie’s.

As the reactions from Robbie’s departures have come in, we’ve heard about disputes with Joe Girardi over lineup philosophy, and now, CC Sabathia has joined the fray with comments that stick to the heart of the Yankee legend. In comments to this weekend, CC spoke about the power of the pinstripes. “Just a player like that, putting on the pinstripes, and being able to play your whole career in New York means something – to me, obviously. It didn’t mean that much to him,” CC said. “It’s a difficult choice being a free agent. And he made a tough choice. I know he’s happy with his decision, and his family’s happy. So that’s good.”

Over the years, plenty of Yankee legends have had the opportunity to leave, and most didn’t. They earned their dollars because George Steinbrenner was willing to pay and because they wanted to stay. Derek Jeter hasn’t put himself into a bidding war, and Jorge Posada stuck around. Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, to differing degrees, both nearly left the Bronx but backed away from Boston at the last minute. Andy Pettitte left only to return while Reggie Jackson left never to return. Some players have walked away to avoid donning another uniform when their tenures were over, by their choice or the Yanks’, but I can’t think of someone else who walked away mid-career for another team who outbid the Yanks.

For Robbie, the choice was purely dominated by dollars, and I won’t begrudge him that. While the Yanks were willing to give him more per year, they didn’t want to give a middle infielder entering his age 31 season a ten-year commitment. Cano, meanwhile, figured that the guaranteed money today — the $65 million difference — is something he wouldn’t make up at the end of the seven-year deal the Yanks offered him. He didn’t want to gamble against his own age-related decline, and in today’s world where baseball teams are flush with cash, that’s certainly his prerogative and a fine choice.

But where it hurts is with that mystique and aura. It’s something fans buy into far more deeply than many players do, and it’s a stark reminder of the business of the game when a fan favorite and pinstripe native leaves. Maybe Cano didn’t think the Yanks during his career would ever be more than Derek’s team. Maybe Cano saw ten years of executive office upheaval, various team-building approaches and just one World Series win and simply decided there was nothing particularly compelling keeping him around that didn’t have a lofty price tag. Maybe we all overrate mystique and aura anyway. It hooks the fans, but what does it mean to the players anyway?

Without Robbie, Yankee life will go on. Brian Cashman says he’s disappointed, but he’s not $65 million worth of disappointed. The post-Robbie era will feature a Yankee team with a new look and a new approach. For nine years, Cano was the next great Yankee bound for Monument Park, and now he’s just another guy on the hapless Mariners. It may not feel good now, but it’s all part of the game, mystique, aura and free agency.

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(Rich Schultz/Getty)

(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The murmurs started when the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury, but grew much louder when they signed Carlos Beltran last Friday. Given the Yankees’ myriad needs, they could trade Brett Gardner to help shore up an area of weakness. While it might make sense in terms of the current roster construction, the proposition becomes much more difficult when viewing it from a resource allocation standpoint.

Just because the Yankees have something of a surplus does not mean they must trade it away. We’ve seen first hand how quickly a surplus can become a deficit. If the Yankees were to trade Gardner, and then saw Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Alfonso Soriano miss time due to injury, they’re facing time with Zoilo Almonte as a starting outfielder.

Injuries happen, of course, and it’s not as though teams are expected to have major-league-ready backups at every position. Perhaps the better point is that since both Beltran and Ellsbury have injury histories, keeping Gardner helps insure the Yankees against missing too much production if they do miss time. Beltran could need more than a few games at DH, and chances are the Yanks could use Soriano there for a non-trivial number of games as well. Keeping Gardner allows them to keep the DH spot rotating, perhaps helping keep everyone healthy.

Insurance and flexibility aren’t the only reason to consider keeping Gardner. They might not even be the strongest. If the Yankees can’t get back a player as valuable as Gardner, trading him becomes a liability. There are many different ways of assessing value, but by most measures Gardner has been an underrated player throughout his career, particularly since he took over as a starting outfielder in 2010.

While a large portion of Gardner’s value comes from his defense, which is difficult to quantify, he’s no slouch on offense. Since he became a starter in 2010, Gardner has produced 35.2 runs with his bat. He’s no Jose Bautista or Ryan Braun, but he has still created the 39th (out of 117) most runs in the majors in that time span. In 2013 his 8.3 runs on offense ranked 29th out of 50 qualified OF. That’s not bad for a guy who creates most of his value with the glove.

Speaking of his glove, Gardner has proven his value in left field. While he started there, in 2010 and 2011, he was far and away the best defensive LF in baseball by every available measure. A move to left field actually increases that overall value,* since Gardner is orders of magnitude better than the average MLB left fielder. All of this makes it difficult to get a real grasp of Gardner’s actual value.

*Yes, the defensive stats at FanGraphs are all flawed in ways. You can plug in plenty of numbers and come to this conclusion, but for this exercise we’ll just use FG’s. In 2011, Gardner produced 26.7 runs with his glove. Since he played in left field, he got a -5.8 positional adjustment, for a total defensive value of 20.9 runs. In 2013, in center field, he produced -0.5 runs with his glove, and got a positional adjustment of +1.8 runs, for a total of 1.3 runs. The points are 1) Gardner is much better compared to the league average left fielder than his is the average center fielder, and 2) even if Gardner produced 18 runs with his glove in center, he’d still be a wash with his value in left. It’s not the most airtight argument in the world, but from it we can discern the premise: playing a player with a great glove and decent bat in left field can pay dividends.

If Gardner reaches free agency next off-season, what are the chances he gets a contract within $100 million of Ellsbury’s deal? While his market could change between now and then, especially with a strong 2014 at the plate, I can see him getting a four-year, $50 million contract. That would represent one of the greatest bargains on the market, given what other, less valuable outfielders have gotten. If this is Gardner’s perceived value around the game, he could very well be more valuable playing for the Yankees than in a trade for another player.

On trade possibility making its rounds is Gardner for Homer Bailey. With the expected departure of Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds need a center fielder and a leadoff hitter. The Yankees need pitching, so the swap seems reasonable on the surface. It’s when we examine the issue through the lens of actual vs. perceived value that we see discrepancies.

From the commentary I’ve read, the idea is Gardner and a prospect for Bailey. That certainly represents Bailey’s and Gardner’s perceived values, but in terms of actual value it’s tough to justify. After years of struggling, Bailey has rounded into form the last two seasons, producing a 111 ERA+ in 417 innings. That is, he’s a solid No. 3 on a first-division team, an asset the Yankees could certainly use.

For his part, Gardner has been a solid starting outfielder no matter his position. His bat might not rank among the best, but it’s better than is generally perceived. If that value isn’t reflected in his trade value, then he could be worth more playing for the Yankees, in a season when they’ll almost certainly need four outfielders, than as a trade chip, even for a position of need. That goes especially if the Yankees can lock him up on a reasonable deal. Given the sizes of left and center fields at Yankee Stadium, they might need two guys like Ellsbury and Gardner to cover ground.

If the possibility came up and Walt Jocketty offered Brian Cashman Bailey for Gardner, straight up, Cashman would have a difficult time refusing. He needs a reliable starting pitcher, and Bailey has proved himself as such in the last two years. Entering his age-28 season, he could be poised for a career year. At the same time, Gardner has plenty of unperceived value on the field. It’s not as though he’ll languish on the bench and get two starts a week. If he stays he’ll get at least 550 at-bats and plenty of time in the field.

The question of perceived vs. actual value makes the idea of trading Gardner a complex one. If he’s more valuable than the player coming back, then why would the Yankees trade him? Unless they’re desperate to fill a position of need, they should probably refrain. Which is to say, I don’t think they’re going to trade Gardner in the next few weeks unless someone offers a player within Gardner’s actual value range.

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Robbie no. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

Robbie no. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)

This was, without question, the craziest week of hot stove action I can remember. That includes the Winter Meetings. Teams just didn’t want to wait for Orlando next week to take care of business, and one of those teams was the Yankees. With Brian McCann, Kelly Johnson, and Jacoby Ellsbury already on board, the team added both Carlos Beltran (three years, $45M) and Hiroki Kuroda (one year, $16M). yesterday. Of course, they also lost Robinson Cano to the Mariners after they offered a tenth year and $240M. Bittersweet day (mostly bitter), to say the least. Here are some thoughts.

1. As soon as the Yankees splurged for Ellsbury, I honestly did not think they would let Cano walk. Spending that much money on a very good but not elite player like Ellsbury only to let your homegrown superstar leave doesn’t make much sense. They held the line at seven years and $175M and I truly believed they would bump their offer up to (and maybe over) $200M if push came to shove. It’s a huge blow to the Yankees short-term — I’d say the next two years at the very least, probably more like four or five — but it will help in the long-term, when they aren’t saddled with a huge albatross contract. I just can’t believe Cano’s leaving. Man, who thought this would actually happen?

2. The Mariners made it very, very easy for the Yankees to walk away. They’re a desperate franchise and desperate franchises do desperate things, like offer $65M more than the next highest bidder. Of course, Seattle had to blow everyone else out of the water if they wanted to land a premium player like Cano. The city itself is great and Safeco Field is gorgeous, but it’s a tough place to hit. The team itself stinks and the travel is awful (the Mariners fly more miles than every other club each season because they’re so isolated in the Pacific Northwest). Add all that together and you get a place that doesn’t attract many free agent hitters. Not many good ones, anyway. The Mariners blew Cano away with the offer and that makes his departure easier to swallow. It sucks he’s gone, don’t get me wrong. But at that price? Had to let him go. No-brainer.

3. I’m pretty sure the Yankees will go hard after Omar Infante to replace Robbie — what’s the over/under on the contract, three years and $30M? sounds about right — and he’s probably the best realistic second base option. I’d greatly prefer a trade for Howie Kendrick, who has two years and $20M left on his deal, but the Angels are looking for pitching and the Yankees just don’t have any to give up. David Phelps and a prospect ain’t gonna get it done. I don’t want any part of Brandon Phillips for reasons Joe already outlined and if Infante’s demands are unreasonable (he and his agent could jack up the price hoping to capitalize on the team’s potential desperation), I think Mark Ellis would be a tolerable one-year stopgap. He’s a very good defender and not a total zero at the plate (92 wRC+ in 2013). Infante is no better of a player today than he was two days ago. The Yankees shouldn’t go all out to sign him just because he’s the best available option with Robbie off the board.

So sweet. (Elsa/Getty)

So sweet. (Elsa/Getty)

4. I was thinking about this last night: Cano doesn’t really have a “signature moment,” does he? Derek Jeter has the flip play (and a bunch of other moments), Jorge Posada has the double off Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS (and a bunch of other moments), so on and so forth. Cano doesn’t really have one. That’s not meant to be a knock against him, it’s just one of those things. Winning the 2011 Homerun Derby doesn’t really count, and, according to WPA, his best game in pinstripes came on July 1st of this past season. He went 3-for-4 with two homers and a double in a blowout win over the Twins. Meh. I guess his game-winning homer off George Sherrill in 2010 stands out (video) — that was the game in which the Yankees broke Jonathan Broxton with a big ninth inning comeback, which I’m sure you remember — but that isn’t anything special. When I think of Cano, I don’t think of a singular moment. I think of that sweet swing more than anything. Like this one. B-e-a-utiful.

5. I’ve said this a few times in recent weeks, but I am a bit nervous about Kuroda heading into next season. He’s getting up there in age and man, he looked like toast late last season. Hitters were squaring him up constantly and he couldn’t locate anything. I guess poor location is better than his stuff falling off — Kuroda’s velocity actually ticked up a bit late in the season — but it’s still a red flag. They still need to add another starter, Brian Cashman has acknowledged that already, and hopefully it’ll be Masahiro Tanaka. I think he’s a really good fit given his age and all that stuff. If that doesn’t work out, I’d rather see a short-term Bartolo Colon reunion than a long-term marriage with Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez. Either way, the Yankees have some decent back-end depth with Phelps, Adam Warren, and Vidal Nuno. Michael Pineda is the real wildcard. He could give the rotation a big boost or not throw a single pitch for the big league team for the third straight season.

6. Beltran definitely gives me a Randy Johnson vibe, meaning the Yankees are adding the right player, just nine years too late. He can still hit, there isn’t much doubt about that, but his defense is below-average and his knees are grenades with the pins pulled. the Yankees will be able to give him time at DH and are going to have to to keep him healthy. If I had known the Yankees were going to sign two outfielders coming into the winter, I probably would have pushed for Shin-Soo Choo and Curtis Granderson. The club opted for Ellsbury and Beltran, which is perfectly reasonable but definitely the riskier option health-wise. Probably more expensive too. This is definitely a high-risk, high-reward roster at the moment. It could be great but it could also be really, really ugly if Father Time comes back to wreak more havoc in 2014.

7. One thing that I do like is the diversity the Yankees have added to lineup. McCann is a brute masher and Ellsbury is a speed guy while Beltran is an all-around hitter who will hit for average and power. He also gives them a switch-hitter, something they didn’t have at last season. Almost literally not at all — Mark Teixeira and Zoilo Almonte combined for 176 plate appearances and that’s it, they were the only switch-hitters the Yankees had this summer. Crazy. Ellsbury, McCann, Beltran, and Johnson all work the count well and that’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t have enough guys who could put together good at-bats and wear down the starter this year. There were an awful lot of quick at-bats and quick innings. That should change next summer with those four plus Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter returning.

8. Speaking of Gardner, I’d absolutely keep him unless some team offers a starting pitcher that is just too good to pass up. (Lots of people asked about Gardner for Homer Bailey and I don’t see anyway Cincinnati entertains that as one-for-one swap. Gardner’s trade value is along the lines of Norichika Aoki’s and Seth Smith’s, and look at what those two were traded for this week.) Both Ellsbury and Beltran are injury concerns for different reasons, plus Beltran and Soriano figure to get regular turns at DH. Keeping Gardner as a heavily used fourth outfielder who could step into the lineup everyday if someone gets hurt makes an awful lot of sense. If the Reds will trade Bailey for him or another team comes along with a comparable offer, then by all means, pull the trigger. Otherwise keep him around and enjoy the depth. There is no doubt in my mind there will be a time next season the team will be happy they kept him around.

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(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

The Yankees made their second huge splash of the offseason last night, landing Jacoby Ellsbury with a seven-year contract worth $153M that could wind up paying him $169M thanks to an eighth year club option. He still has to take a physical and all that before the deal becomes official, but apparently that could happen as soon as today. Here are some thoughts while we wait for things to wrap up.

1. Might as well come right out with it: I am not a fan of the signing at all. Don’t get me wrong, Ellsbury is a very good player when he’s healthy and he will be an enormous upgrade next season, but the Yankees are paying him like he’s an elite player and I just don’t see it. His one truly elite skill is stealing bases and best base-runners in the game provide maybe one win of value with their legs (Ellsbury was at ~1.2 WAR base-running in 2013). That’s nothing. His glove is very good but the net defensive upgrade from Ichiro Suzuki (who I assume is losing his starting outfield spot as a result of the signing) to Ellsbury is small. The offense isn’t anything special at all, especially when you treat that 2011 season like the giant outlier it is. Ellsbury is a ~.350 OBP leadoff guy who will hit single-digit homers. That ain’t elite. That’s pretty good. Ellsbury is going to help the Yankees a ton in the short-term but there’s no way I view him as a $150M+ player. Not even close.

2. As for Yankee Stadium boosting Ellsbury’s power output, yes it will help some. There will inevitably be a fly ball or two that sneaks over the wall each summer that otherwise would have been caught for an out, just like some of those routine fly balls turned into doubles thanks to the Green Monster over the last few years. Ellsbury is not the kind of hitter who can really take advantage of the short right field porch though. He’s a classic speedster, hitting the ball on the ground and using his legs. He also does most of his hitting the opposite way to left:

Jacoby Ellsbury spray chart

Going the other way is not a bad thing. The Yankees could use someone who can hit for a relatively high average, but be careful not to make the blanket assumption that his power output will improve just because he’s a left-handed hitter moving into Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury would have to change his hitting approach to seem meaningful uptick in power and … no. Stick to what works. The idea of having two powerless hitters in the outfield full-time is not appealing at all, especially if they can’t retain Robinson Cano.

3. Speaking of Cano, you know all that talk about holding a hard-line with him? Pretty worthless right now. Refusing to budge off that seven-year, $165M-ish offer after bending over backwards to give Ellsbury all that money is borderline insulting. Cano’s the far superior player and he’s the homegrown star. He deserves more. A lot more. Maybe his rookie agents will botch these negotiations and the Yankees can bring him back at something far below fair value, but the team set the market by giving the second best free agent that huge contract. The gap between Cano and Ellsbury is a lot bigger than the gap between Ellsbury and the third or fourth best free agent and he should look to be paid accordingly. The Yankees might be trying to put the pressure on Robbie but I think there’s a chance they’ll wind up pushing him away, and if they lose him after spending all this money on Ellsbury and Brian McCann … I would not be pleased. Losing an actually elite player after giving a non-elite player elite player money would really suck.

4. The plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold is obviously not happening. I mean, I guess it still could if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended for the entire 2014 season, but that’s pretty much the only way it happens. It seems like the Yankees decided to spend as if A-Rod is getting banned for the year and if he doesn’t, oh well, then they’ll go over the limit. It’s hard not to notice the timing –  his appeal hearing ended on a Thursday and the McCann deal was struck on Saturday. Maybe the Yankees know something is up. I guess the plummeting television ratings and overall decline in attendance could have spooked them into changing course as well. Either way, staying under the luxury tax limit almost certainly isn’t going to happen after the Yankees spent the last two years making sure they had as much flexibility under the threshold as possible.

5. This is worth exploring further in a full post, but the Bombers are going to be very vulnerable against left-handed pitchers next season if Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter don’t rebound. Ellsbury and McCann have noticeable platoon splits and Brett Gardner‘s been up and down against lefties through the years. Their best weapon against southpaws right now is Alfonso Soriano, but it’s pretty much him and him alone until Cano re-signs and Jeter and/or Teixeira show they’re healthy. The AL East isn’t a lefty heavy as it once was but there’s still David Price, Matt Moore, Jon Lester, and maybe Felix Doubront to contend with. Another right-handed bat (Mark Reynolds?) or two is a necessity, and no, Vernon Wells doesn’t count.

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Beard's gotta go. (Presswire)

Beard’s gotta go. (Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees made the single biggest upgrade they could have made this winter by agreeing to sign Brian McCann. They got close to nothing from their catchers last season and now they have one of the four or five best in baseball. McCann still has to pass a physical before the deal becomes official, and while that isn’t expected to be much of an issue, he did have surgery to repair his left shoulder last October. The team needs to take a good look at that. Here’s some other stuff I have to add.

1. Five years and $85M is pretty much exactly what I expected McCann to receive and probably a bit of a bargain in the current market. I mentioned in the Scouting The Market post that the bidding could get so out of hand — lots of big market teams need catching help (Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, etc.) — that it could take a sixth guaranteed year to land him, but the Yankees were able to avoid that. There is a vesting option, however. This is the third largest catcher contract in history behind Joe Mauer (eight years, $184M) and Mike Piazza (seven years, $91M), but it’s the largest free agent catcher contract ever. The previous free agent record was Jorge Posada‘s four-year, $52.4M deal prior to 2008. Good catchers are never available. This is also the largest contract the Yankees have given out since signing Mark Teixeira. As for the draft pick … who cares? I have no problem giving up a first rounder for a player of McCann’s caliber. The full no-trade clause bothers me more than the pick, but whatever.

2. The contract will count as $17M towards the luxury tax threshold these next five years, so, based on my most recent (unofficial) payroll breakdown, the Yankees still have about $27M left to spend this winter. They have to re-sign Robinson Cano with that money, so it’s not as much as it seems. Of course, that $27M would become roughly $61M if Alex Rodriguez is suspended for all of next season, but that’s hardly a guarantee at this point. If he’s suspended only 50 games, it still jump to $35.5M or so. The McCann contract means one of three things: a) the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold went out the winter, b) they’re going to let Cano walk, or c) they’re confident A-Rod will get suspended. After adding McCann, I don’t see how they can realistically re-sign Cano and stay under the threshold without Alex getting suspended. I mean, it could be done, but they would have very little to spend the rest of the winter. Some payroll shenanigans are afoot.

3. Although I think the Yankees should hang onto their catching prospects unless they get an overwhelming offer, I certainly understand the idea of trading one to help the team elsewhere. Gary Sanchez is the best prospect of the bunch but I actually like J.R. Murphy more as a no-doubt long-term catcher and think he is the best bet to take over behind the plate whenever McCann makes the transition to first base/DH. Assuming Frankie Cervelli serves as the backup next season, Murphy could spend the year with Triple-A Scranton (only played 59 games there last year) before starting a Joe Girardi/Jorge Posada-esque apprenticeship in 2015. That would make Austin Romine trade bait even though he probably has the lowest trade value of the trio. Still, young catching is hard to find and the Yankees should have no trouble finding a taker for Romine if they indeed decide to move one of their young backstops. I’d hang onto them just a bit longer though. None are sure things and catching depth can disappear in a hurry.

4. I’ve been messing around with batted ball distances these last few weeks — wrote this recently — because I think it’s pretty interesting, but I’m not quite sure what to do with it yet. I’m not sure how predictive it is or anything like that. It is fun to look at though. Courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps, here is every ball McCann has hit in the air since 2007, when the data started being recorded:

McCann Batted Balls

The vertical clusters are individual seasons (2007-2013 from left to right) and each red dot is a batted ball hit in the air, meaning a fly ball, a line drive, or a pop-up. Doesn’t matter if it went over the fence, fell in for a hit, or was caught for an out. If it was hit in the air, it’s in the graph. As you can see, McCann’s average batted ball distance (the black line) has been relatively unchanged over the years. I did add the blue line at 350 feet to show he didn’t hit the ball that far as frequently as he once did these last two years. That coincides with his right (front when hitting) shoulder problems, and there is some evidence suggesting an injury to the front shoulder can sap a hitter’s power for a few years or, in some cases, permanently. This doesn’t mean McCann is doomed or anything, he was a very productive hitter this past season, I just thought it was interesting.

5. So what’s next? Aside from getting Cano locked up, of course. The Yankees still need help at third base and in right field, but I think pitching is the biggest item on the agenda right now. Brian Cashman said they’re looking to add two starters this winter and that’s easier said than done. It doesn’t sound like Masahiro Tanaka will be posted anytime soon, but they could target a cheap-ish second or third tier guy to at least get the ball rolling. I’ve come around quite a bit on Scott Feldman (3.86 ERA and 4.03 FIP in 181.2 innings in 2013) and think he’d be a real solid pickup at the right price. The FanGraphs crowdsourcing and Jim Bowden (who’s been ridiculously accurate so far) both expect him to sign a deal worth right around $9M annually this winter, which is more than fair (and probably a bargain) for a number three-ish starter in this market. Landing someone like that solidifies the rotation while leaving enough money (assuming A-Rod is suspended) for Tanaka or Hiroki Kuroda or someone like that. Either way, pitching stands out as the biggest need now.

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Nov
22

Knowing when to walk away

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Don't you want to see this pretty swing next year? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Don’t you want to see this pretty swing next year? (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

If you were the GM of the Tigers, and two winters ago you could have signed Prince Fielder to a two-year, $76 million contract, would you have? Paying him $38 million annually sounds steep, but getting him for only his age-28 and age-29 seasons mitigates that inflated salary. It’s a deal that Fielder never would have signed, but it’s the deal that the Tigers got. I imagine they’re happy with the way that turned out.

What the Tigers essentially did was walk away when they had the opportunity. Signing him two off-seasons ago was a play for the short-term. Detroit had just made the World Series and felt they weren’t far from a victory. While they did make the Series last year, and the ALCS this year, it became apparent that their roster had some weaknesses. The landscape changed, so Detroit acted while it had the opportunity.

The Yankees now have an opportunity to walk away from an enormous contract. They won’t get back a player, as the Tigers got with Ian Kinsler, other than whoever they can take with a low-30s draft pick, so the situations aren’t directly comparable. What they would gain is significant financial flexibility, something they apparently desire. While it might hurt, especially in 2014, Tyler Kepner of the NY Times argues that letting Robinson Cano walk is the right move.

The risks of long-term contracts for players already in their 30s is well documented. The Yankees need look no further than their own organization six years ago, when they signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year contract. In Rodriguez the Yankees see how injuries and performance decline can hamper even a generational talent. Cano, even as one of the league’s premier hitters, doesn’t quite reach A-Rod‘s level. So why sign him to a contract that could similarly cripple the organization?

Kepner’s argument centers on this kind of risk aversion. In discussing a 7-year, $161 million contract for Cano, Kepner says, “That kind of deal has put the Yankees in their present state — decaying and injury-prone — and the team needs to break the cycle.” The problem is that there isn’t any player, or even group of players, currently available that can help the Yankees as much as Cano. Even if the last three years of a seven-year deal are well below what his salary warrants, the Yankees still need Cano in those first four seasons.

Yes, but what about the Cardinals, who lost Albert Pujols and have done quite well without him? Kepner cites this case, noting that the Cardinals went on to sign Carlos Beltran and hand out a few extensions on the path to two playoff berths and a World Series appearance. While it sounds nice, it completely ignores the organizational differences between the Cardinals and the Yankees. For starters, Pujols wasn’t even the best hitter on the Cardinals in 2011; Lance Berkman and Matt Holiday each put up better numbers. They also had Allen Craig, who had broken out in 2011 and was ready for a regular gig. That’s not even bringing their robust farm system into the equation.

The Yankees have none of these things. Alfonso Soriano is solid, and Mark Teixeira could come back to produce next season, but even if both have fine years the Yanks still aren’t nearly as deep as the Cardinals. There is no Yadier Molina, there is no Allen Craig, there’s no Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter. There is, hopefully, an Adam Wainwright in CC Sabathia, but there’s no Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, or Shelby Miller. If the Yankees plan to contend in 2014 they need to do it with a heavy top-end. That’s not going to work without Cano.

What about punting 2014? That’s not a strategy that really pays off in baseball. The Astros are trying it now, and even then it’s going to take them several more years to get even a little feedback on their experiment. Getting a draft pick for Robbie is nice, and getting a higher draft pick next year would be nice as well. But are those two picks going to turn around the organization? Doubtful. Even if they do, it will take years and years for that process to play out. Does anyone have that kind of patience?

The alternative is using the $23 or so million for Cano and spreading it to a few other players. Kepner lists the possibilities, and we’re familiar with all the names. But it’s not as though the Yankees can take Cano’s salary and somehow turn it into two high-end free agents. Brian McCann will cost between $15 and $18 million himself. Shin-Soo Choo might cost even more. Perhaps savings from Cano, plus the other money the team has available, can turn into three free agents. But none of them will be as good as Cano.

Therein lies the choice. Do you bring in the superstar, understanding that he’s your only superstar, or do you spread the wealth a bit? People love to cite how the Red Sox spread the wealth last winter, but fail to mention that they already had a superstar on board in David Ortiz and a damn good first mate in Dustin Pedroia. Again, the Yankees don’t have that. They can’t replicate what the Cardinals or Red Sox did, because their franchise is in a completely different position right now.

The biggest risk with Cano, or any other long-term contract, lies in the later years. Given how he’s performed in the last few years, it’s difficult to imagine Cano declining much, if at all, in the next year or so. If he can manage a graceful decline (anything but guaranteed), the last three to four years of a seven- or eight-year contract will be the ones that hurt. This is actually good news for the Yankees. In year-five of a potential Cano deal, they have zero dollars in current obligations. In year-four they have just $26 million.

In other words, this isn’t some situation where they hand out $700 million in five-plus-year contracts within the span of two off-seasons. They’ve done a good job of limiting obligations in the last few years, and given their lack of future payroll the effort is starting to show. Adding Cano now will hurt if they sign a bunch of five- and six-year deals in the next two off-seasons. Given the market, I don’t think it will come to that.

As Mike has noted, frequently, this off-season, even if the Yanks add Cano, Carlos Beltran or Jhonny Peralta, and Masahiro Tanaka, they still might not contend in 2014. But even if they’re going to struggle again next year, they still have needs in 2015 and beyond. Letting Cano go stands directly in opposition to those future goals.

Just because some other teams played the market a certain way doesn’t mean the Yankees should follow suit. They’re in a different position than those teams. Given their current roster, and the fruits on the farm, Cano become an essential piece to not only potential contention in 2014, but also 2015 and beyond. Letting him walk, especially at seven years and $161 million, a deal he’ll almost certainly exceed, because other teams did something similar, would be foolish. The Yankees need Cano just as much as Cano needs the Yankees.

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C/3B Peter O'Brien during Arizona Fall League play, which has literally nothing to do with this post. (Presswire)

C/3B Peter O’Brien during Arizona Fall League play, which has literally nothing to do with this post. (Presswire)

There is nothing special about this Tuesday other than the fact that it’s thoughts day. That’s something special, right? Anyway, here are some random tidbits on my mind that really aren’t worth a full post.

1. The deadline to set the 40-man roster for the Rule 5 Draft is tomorrow and we already know the Yankees will protect RHP Shane Greene and RHP Bryan Mitchell. C Gary Sanchez, OF Slade Heathcott, RHP Tommy Kahnle, RHP Chase Whitley, and RHP Danny Burawa are eligible this year as well, ditto RHP Jose Campos according to Josh Norris. I say this every year around this time, but sometimes the best way to keep a player is to leave them unprotected. Ivan Nova was not big league ready in 2008 and, sure enough, the Padres returned him to the Yankees after he got bombed in Spring Training. Campos is 21 and he threw only 87 innings for Low-A Charleston this season after missing virtually all of last season with an elbow injury. Hiding him as the last guy in a big league bullpen for a full 162-game season will be close to impossible at this point of his career, even for a terrible team like the Astros and Twins. Guys with big arms who are higher up the minor league ladder flop in that role as Rule 5 picks every year. Leaving Campos unprotected is a low risk by Rule 5 Draft standards and the Yankees stand to save a 40-man spot and one of his option years. I suspect they will protect him because they protect just about everyone, however.

2. As Joe wrote yesterday, the Yankees appear likely to spend big on international free agents next summer, meaning they’ll blow past their allotted signing pool and pay the penalties the following year. Those penalties including being limited to bonuses of $500k or less (or $250k or less, depending on how far over they go). I understand the strategy of spending huge one year, landing a whole bunch of prospects, then dealing with the penalties and not signing anyone the next summer, but I also don’t like it. You’re basically eliminating yourself from contention for half the talent pool. I also don’t think it’s possible to say the next year’s talent crop will be weaker than the current year’s — thus justifying the extra spending — because we’re talking about 14 and 15 year old kids. The 18 to 21-year-olds in the draft are hard enough to predict from one year to the next. Doing it with teenagers is impossible. The new spending restrictions really suck and hurt the Yankees immensely, especially since the backbone of their farm system for decades was Latin America. I don’t think the solution is alternating big money years and small bonus years (due to penalties). You eliminate yourself from contention for too many players that way …

OF Mason Williams in the Arizona Fall League. Also irrelevant to this post. (Presswire)

OF Mason Williams in the Arizona Fall League. Also irrelevant to this post. (Presswire)

3. … but at the same time, I think the Yankees do a really good job of finding super cheap talent in Latin America. By super cheap I mean $250k or less, which is still a ton of cash in the real world. Guys like RHP Luis Severino ($225k), OF Ravel Santana ($145k), RHP Gio Gallegos ($100k), and SS Thairo Estrada ($75k) all signed for less than a quarter-million in recent years. Maybe that ability to find relatively cheap talent means it would make sense to go over the spending pool one year and incur the penalties the next since they’ll still dig up players in the down year. That makes sense to come extent, but again, you are taking yourself out of the running for the top talent in a given year with that strategy. I don’t know the best way to go — it’s probably a combination of both depending on the talent pool and a given year, but again, who can predict that? — all I know is that this new system stinks.

4. Jon Heyman recently reported Hal Steinbrenner is “at the center of things” this winter, getting involved in talks with agents and whatnot. Ownership has been dipping its toes in the roster building pool more and more these last few years and with payroll set to come down, they seem to want even more control to ensure they actually get under the $189M luxury tax threshold. My biggest concern is depth. Owners get involved to bring in stars and big name guys, not role players. The Yankees have less money to spend this winter than most realize and if Hal & Co. blow it all on two or three big name free agents, there will be nothing left to upgrade the margins of the roster. The Bombers will end up with a top heavy roster similar to the 2004-2008 squads. You know what I’m talking about. Realistically, New York needs a catcher, a second baseman, a third baseman, a right fielder, a DH, at least two (preferably three) starters, at least one (preferably three!) relievers, and a bench. Two or three big name free agents won’t be enough to turn things around even if they’ll create the biggest headlines.

5. The hot stove is just getting warmed up, but there have already been a few contracts handed out (Tim Lincecum, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz*) that show just how much money is available in the game right now. Teams can’t spend big on amateurs and the best young big leaguers are getting signed to below-market contracts, so the only place that money can go (aside from the owner’s pocket) is towards free agents. Remember, all 30 clubs are getting an extra $25M or so starting in 2014 thanks to the new national television contracts. That’s an extra $25M to pump into the team, just like that. Put all that together and it’s even more annoying the Yankees are trimming payroll to get under the luxury tax threshold. Every other team in baseball is increasing its spending and using the extra cash while the team with the most revenue and in the biggest market is purposefully scaling back and refusing to use its natural financial advantage. This is only going to become even more obvious as the top shelf free agents come off the board. Sigh.

* How much more awful does letting Russell Martin walk for two years and $17M look now? Goodness.

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The Yankees reportedly have interest in both of these players. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

The Yankees reportedly have interest in both of these players. (Ronald Martinez/Getty)

As of 12:01am ET today, free agents are able to negotiate and sign with any team. That means Robinson Cano could work out a deal with say, the Tigers, and ink a contract without ever giving the Yankees a courtesy call. He’s under no obligation to do so. I don’t think Robbie and his agent would do that, but they have the option. Here are some thoughts now that the offseason is truly underway:

1. It seems obvious the Yankees re-worked Derek Jeter‘s contract basically because he’s Derek Jeter. They upped his salary because they seem more concerned with the PR impact (another attendance/ratings drop?) than the on-field impact. Various reports indicate the team wanted to avoid a repeat of their contentious negotiations from three years ago, which leads me to believe Jeter’s camp hinted at declining the player option. The team caved even though the Cap’n had zero leverage other than “I’m Derek Jeter.” Seriously, no leverage at all. Thirty-nine-year-old shortstop coming off major ankle surgery and a whole 17 games played? Sorry, no one was rushing to offer him a contract, let alone eight figures. Would be nice if the club stood their ground a little more. They were in the driver’s seat in these negotiations. They just didn’t seem to realize it.

2. One more Jeter point: the contract was reportedly brokered one-on-one with Hal Steinbrenner, meaning ownership again went over the baseball operations department’s head to finalize a deal. This is happening more and more often these days, starting with the Rafael Soriano signing and continuing with the Ichiro Suzuki signing and Alfonso Soriano trade. That’s three times in the last eleven months alone that ownership went over Brian Cashman‘s head for a fairly major deal. I get that no GM ever truly has autonomy, but it seems silly that ownership sets this new payroll mandate goal and continues to throw wrenches into the roster. If the baseball ops people could make the rest of the baseball moves this winter, that would be great.

(Marc Serota/Getty)

(Marc Serota/Getty)

3. Speaking of that new $189M payroll limit, the Yankees won’t be able to sweeten any free agent offers with incentives. Any bonuses or incentives that are triggered count against the luxury tax. So, for example, if they sign Roy Halladay to a one-year contract worth $2M with another $10M in incentives based on starts, they have to treat it is as a $12M deal for luxury tax purposes. They can’t go through all this trouble to position themselves to stay under the luxury tax only to have it blow up at the end of the season when some random player triggers a bonus based on plate appearances or a rogue MVP vote (remember Raul Ibanez getting a vote in 2012?). New York needs to stick to set salaries and not try to get cute with incentives. That makes their beloved one-year deals for over-the-hill veterans a bit tougher to sell.

4. This seems obvious but I can not emphasize it enough: the Yankees need to steer clear of bad players as much as possible this offseason. I really can’t stress that enough. I know, it sounds so obvious, and yet guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Vernon Wells, and Eduardo Nunez are on the roster right now. They’re there and they were there all season, the damage has already been done. But the club has to avoid similar players going forward. The easiest way to get good is to not have bad players. No more getting cute with old guys who might be revived thanks to the Magic of the Pinstripes™, no more “if we platoon him and get him out of the field three times a week it might work” stuff, nothing like that. Focus on adding quality players who seem like safe bets to be productive in 2014. The Yankees have met their quota of “well, I guess this could work out” moves for the decade.

5. Given what we saw last year with the all the injuries, I think the Yankees should be very aggressive signing players to minor league contracts for depth. The left side of the infield and the bullpen stand out as particular areas of need. Obviously signing these players is much easier said than done — no one wants to sign with the Yankees only to sit in Triple-A and hope Jeter’s ankle gives out again, for example — so maybe that means they have to be extra aggressive on waivers, when the player has no say in the matter. The Bombers don’t have much help immediate help coming from the farm system, especially on the position player side, so they need to build their depth another way. This past season was a very harsh reminder of the importance of having backup plans in the minors. The less midseason scrambling they have to do, the better.

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(Presswire)

(Presswire)

The 109th edition of the World Series opens tonight with perhaps the most insufferable matchup imaginable: the Red Sox and Cardinals. It’s not so much the teams themselves — though let’s face it, no one likes the Red Sox around here — but it’s the way they’re covered. Hopefully these next few days are so super-exciting it will overshadow the general awfulness that will come from a Red Sox-Cardinals series. Anyway, I have thoughts:

1. Regardless of whether they win the World Series, I expect more than a few teams to copy the Red Sox model of targeting mid-range free agents and ignoring the top of market. It’s a great strategy in theory but is very hard to actually pull off. Boston did get at least somewhat lucky that every non-Ryan Dempster signing worked out almost perfectly this season. The years Shane Victorino and Koji Uehara had are like, 90th-percentile stuff. The Yankees are going to wind up re-signing Robinson Cano to a huge contract, which pretty much precludes them for the whole “spread the money around” idea. I have no reason to think they won’t remain a top of the market club, $189M payroll plan or not.

2. The Dodgers fired bench coach Trey Hillman yesterday and I would not be surprised if he wound up with the Yankees in some capacity. Maybe on the coaching staff, maybe as a minor league instructor, maybe as a scout or in the front office. I don’t really know. Hillman coached in the Yankees’ farm system for more than a decade (1990-2001) before leaving because he was passed over several times for big league coaching positions. He spent a year in the Rangers’ front office before heading over to manage in Japan. Brian Cashman and Hillman are reportedly close friends, so much so that he was considered an outside the box managerial candidate following the 2007 season. Hillman was named manager of the Royals before Joe Torre officially left and the Yankees had a chance to interview him. I don’t know what he would do or how qualified he is to do it, but I would not be surprised if Hillman returned to the organization at all.

3. This is probably worth its own post at some point, but I think former Rangers outfielder David Murphy has a chance to be a real free agent bargain this winter. The 32-year-old was awful this year (73 wRC+) but awesome last year (129 wRC+), and I suspect his true talent is somewhere in the middle (career 103 wRC+). Murphy is strictly a left-handed platoon bat (career 71 wRC+ against southpaws) and his performance against right-handers in recent years is rather interesting. Here is a table of information:

Year PA wRC+ K% BB% BABIP GB% FB% LD%
2013 365 81 12.6% 8.2% 0.222 44.3% 36.2% 19.5%
2012 437 128 13.3% 11.2% 0.314 42.8% 36.1% 21.1%
2011 322 115 13.4% 7.5% 0.316 49.8% 32.5% 17.6%
2010 346 124 14.2% 10.1% 0.324 43.0% 37.6% 19.4%

That is Murphy’s performance against right-handers only. I repeat: right-handers only. The strikeout and walk rates are very good, and outside of the normal year-to-year fluctuation, his batting ball profile is unchanged. It’s not like he suddenly forgot how to hit the ball in the air or something. It would be a big red flag if he did.

Despite that, Murphy’s average on balls in play fell off a cliff last season, nearly a hundred points from his established level the three years before that. There might be a tangible reason for this — maybe he changed his approach in an attempt to have a huge contract year, maybe he was hiding an injury, maybe he was a mechanic mess, or maybe he simply had an unlucky season. It happens. If the Yankees don’t bring Curtis Granderson back and can’t reel in Carlos Beltran, Murphy would make a ton of sense if they can sell him on the idea of using the short porch to re-establish his value on a one-year, prove yourself before hitting the market again next winter.

4. Tim Lincecum’s new contract (two years, $35M) is on the high-end but not way out of line with what I expected him to get. It shows two things: One, free agent prices continue to go up as the Yankees’ payroll comes down. That’s bad. Two, it shows the value of getting above-average pitching at an affordable rate, say $10-12M per year. Having Yu Darvish at that price sure would have been nice, but maybe Masahiro Tanaka can be that guy. Whoever acquires him will end up spending north of $100M, but half of that will be the posting fee, which doesn’t count against the luxury tax. Obviously the Yankees would benefit from that. My guess is the team that lands Tanaka ends up with a lesser pitcher than Darvish at a higher salary. Either way, Lincecum’s contract shows what happens when teams have a ton of money to spend — remember, every club will get an extra $25M starting next year thanks to the new national television contracts — and not many places to spend it. The few free agents who are good and/or have a track record are going to get paid in a big way.

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Oct
09

Thoughts on a random Wednesday

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(Al Bello/Getty)

(Al Bello/Getty)

You know what sucks about the winter? I can’t give these “thoughts” posts a half-decent title. “Thoughts following the off-day” or “thoughts following the big win over the whoevers.” No nothing. “Thoughts on a random day.” Hate the winter.

1. I would very much like Hal Steinbrenner & Co. to shut up about the plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold. It’s going to happen. I know it’s going to happen, you know it’s going to happen, and ownership knows it’s going to happen despite the silly “it’s a goal, not a mandate” comments. It’s going to happen. Now just shut up about it and stop reminding everyone at every opportunity. Very simple request. No ownership group in any sport has ever spoken this much and this openly about slashing payroll. I know the media asks about it and all that, but for once just say “I’ve said already I’ve had to say about it” and move on, please. No need to go through the rigmarole once a week. It’s very off-putting.

2. The playoffs have been incredibly entertaining so far, much more than usual for the LDS round, I believe. Watching all the young pitching — most notably Sonny Gray, Alex Cobb, Gerrit Cole, Michael Wacha, and the still-only-25 Clayton Kershaw — has been simultaneously awesome and depressing. Awesome because, well, they can really pitch and it’s fun to watch. Depressing because the Yankees have nothing close to a guy like that. Ivan Nova‘s had two good really second halves in three full years as a big leaguer now. Big whoop. David Phelps is alright but clearly not on the same level as those other guys. He’s not a notch below, he’s like five notches below. Amazing how the game has so clearly gravitated towards young players and yet the Yankees continue getting older and older.

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

(Jared Wickerham/Getty)

3. This is worth a full post (a series of full posts, most likely) at some point, but I’m really curious to see how the bullpen shakes out next season. You know David Robertson will be in there in some capacity, either closer or setup man, plus we can probably pencil Dellin Betances into a spot. I can’t imagine the team won’t carry him on the Opening Day roster unless he’s just awful and out of shape and whatever else in camp. Adam Warren would wind up as the long man again, assuming he isn’t needed in the rotation. That still leaves four three spots (forgot about Shawn Kelley) up in the air without a whole lot of options. Cesar Cabral and Preston Claiborne? Okay, what about the other two spots? Does Matt Daley survive the offseason? Does it even matter if he does? I’m sure Brett Marshall will be the sixth starter in Triple-A rather than a reliever in the big leagues, but we shouldn’t rule him out of the bullpen mix just yet. The Yankees are going to have to actually spend money on relievers (plural) this winter, which is something they haven’t really done in recent years (Rafael Soriano aside).

4. I was talking to Joe about this yesterday, but I’m legitimately surprised the Yankees have kept the entire front office intact. There is still plenty of offseason left and changes could still come obviously, but usually teams like to get these things out of the way early so they can proceed with everything else on the agenda. If they’re going to replace some people (amateur scouting and player development staff, hint hint), it should happen soon. The longer they wait, the longer it takes for any philosophical changes to be implemented and take affect. I guess this is more of a follow-up to item #3, but whatever. I’m surprised and pretty bummed no changes have been made. The lack of farm system production has been an ongoing problem for too long and apparently the Yankees are happy maintaining the status quo.

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