The idea of re-acquiring Johnny Damon

Gone? Gone. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Yesterday evening Newsday’s Ken Davidoff reported that the Yankees “have been communicating with free agent Johnny Damon about a possible return to the Yankees for 2011.” A few minutes ago, Mark Feinsand said Damon “won’t rule out” a return to the Bronx but wants a full-time job somewhere. If Damon could be convinced to return to the Bronx, should the Yankees take him back?

As a fan, the answer is easy. Do I want Johnny Damon back in pinstripes? Sure I want Johnny Damon back in pinstripes. Despite a blip at the beginning of 2007 he was everything the Yankees could have hoped for when they signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract before the 2006 season. During the life of the contract he produced 12.3 WAR, 18th among MLB outfielders in that span, but it was in the last two years that he really shined. In 2008 and 2009 he produced 7.1 WAR, fifth best among LFers. And, most importantly, his career-high 24 homers in 2009 helped lead the Yankees to a world championship.

As someone interested in how the Yankees perform in 2011, the answer is a bit different. Damon played his last contract at ages 32 through 35. He’ll play the 2011 season as a 37-year-old. Plenty changes at that age, especially for ballplayers. If Damon’s skills have declined, or we can forecast his skills to decline, then it doesn’t matter what he did in his previous stint. All the Yankees care about now is whether he can help the team in 2011. I propose that he can. The only problem might be convincing him to take on a reduced rule.

It’s true that Damon’s numbers suffered in 2010. After moving from Yankee Stadium to Comerica Park he had a season that looked more like 2007 than it did 2008 or 2009. In fact, his batting lines were nearly identical: .270/.351/.396 in 605 PA in 2007 and .271/.355/.401 in 613 PA in 2010. Park adjustments helped him a bit, but his 2010 was certainly below the bar he set in his final two seasons with the Yankees. He also played just 268.1 innings in the field, likely because he developed a reputation as a poor defender in 2009. While I won’t ignore this evidence, I do think there might be factors that help explain the dip, and might also mean a bounce back for Damon in 2010.

First, take a look at this image.

This might appear a bit damning. You can clearly see that Damon didn’t hit with nearly as much power to right field. That’s his bread and butter. If he can’t do that any more, then of what help is he to the Yankees?

I don’t think this is the case. While there is a clear drop-off in distance on balls to right field, there might be good reason for that. At Yankee Stadium Damon had the porch 318 feet away. The left-center field alley might be 399 feet away, but there is plenty of space where the wall is far, far closer. Damon clearly used that to his advantage and popped plenty of balls over that wall. In Comerica the right field line is 345 feet away, and while it extends to only 370 in left-center, it continues back to 420 feet in dead center. Many of the home runs Damon hit in 2009 would have been fly outs in 2010 at Comerica. It’s my position that he adapted his style to the park.

My only supporting evidence is on the left side of the batted ball chart. You’ll notice that Damon hit quite a few balls deeper to left field in 2010 than in 2009. I can’t be completely certain, but it does appear to be the result of a slightly different approach at the plate. If he knows he can’t just pop flies over the wall, why try for that? I think that a return to Yankee Stadium could mean a return to his short porch swing, which could again lead to bigger power numbers. He won’t do what he did in 2009, but if he does what he did in, say, 2006, he’d be worth having on a one-year contract.

If the Yankees did re-sign Damon it would be as a fourth outfielder, with the possibility for more playing time should something go wrong. In other words, he’s Brett Gardner and Jorge Posada insurance. While I doubt there will be vocal opposition to the latter, the former might make some people cringe. The story during 2009 was Damon’s tenuous defense in left field, and that reputation followed him into the off-season. I’m not sure that his deficiencies are as pronounced as we had originally thought. Yes, he did look lost out there at times, but I also think that he did get better as the year went along. As regards his defensive numbers, they’re really not all that bad.

Before some changes to the UZR output, Damon had something like a -16 UZR in left — though I’m not sure of the exact number. To correct for a few deficiencies the formula was tweaked, and it gave quite a different answer this time: -4.4 UZR. DRS had him at just -1. Total Zone actually liked his defense, giving him +6. If we combine the last three years of data, and we weigh it by giving last year more precedence than the years before, I think we’d come out somewhere around league average. That’s all the Yanks really need from a fourth outfielder, especially if he can fit.

If the plan is to sign Damon and then trade Gardner for a pitcher, well, that certainly changes things. I’m not sure that Gardner is tradable, anyway, because of his wrist. But if that is the plan upon acquiring Damon, I’m not sure I like it. It puts Damon into a necessary role, and I’m not quite that high on him. As a fourth outfielder and insurance policy, I think he’s worth a slight overpay on a one-year deal. With plenty of available funds I think it’s a decent signing. If he regains some power at Yankee Stadium it will be a worthy deal. If he doesn’t, then he’s the fourth outfielder for a year and moves on. I don’t see much downside to this.

Open Thread: Rock

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Hall of Fame ballot is a hot topic these days, and one of the more obvious candidates for induction this year is Tim Raines. Although Rock made his name with the Expos, he was a great part time player with the Yankees from 1996 through 1998. In those three years, he hit .299/.395/.429 with more walks (130) than strikeouts (112). They just don’t make bench help like they used to. I definitely don’t have a signature Tim Raines moment, but holy crap was he a good player. He just had the misfortune of being the second best leadoff hitter in baseball history at the same the best leadoff hitter in baseball history was in his heyday. Tough break.

Anyway, here is this evening’s open thread. The Islanders, Knicks, and Nets are all in action, so talk about whatever your heart desires.

With estate tax restored, a look at George’s passing

When George Steinbrenner died in early July, many commentators noted his perfect timing. The Boss passed away during the one year in which Congress had allowed the estate tax to lapse, and it seemed to be the perfect Steinbrenner coda to a long and controversy-filled life in baseball.

Of course, at the time, we knew Congress wouldn’t be silent on the matter forever. Even though the estate tax would been restored by default in 2011, Congress acted to restructure the estate tax and make it retroactive for 2010. For the next two years, the estate tax will be collected at 35 percent of all probate assets with a $5 million exemption. Only around one-half of one percent of Americans will have to pay the tax, but with the way the new tax bill is structured, the Yankees and its owners will have to pay something even though George passed away while the tax had lapsed.

Paul Sullivan of The Times explained what this means for those who died with large estates in 2010. He wrote late last week:

Under the estate tax wording in the bill, the heirs of people who died this year will have two options for a tax bill. If they chose to treat the estate by the tax laws in place in 2010, they will have to calculate the capital gains on all assets in the estate to determine if the value is above a level the Internal Revenue Service is allowing. This “artificial step-up in basis” is $1.3 million to any heir and $3 million to a surviving spouse.

The other option is to apply the 2011 law, which would exempt the first $5 million of the estate and impose a rate of 35 percent on anything above that. This is far more generous than the 2009 law — a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent tax rate — which many people thought would be reinstated.

Leading estates lawyers, including Ed Koren, a Holland & Knight attorney who represented Steinbrenner, said that folks with estates over $10 million would opt to pay the capital gains tax at 15 percent. Koren spoke to the point about the Yankees as well, and it sounds as though the team and family were well prepared for the Boss’ death.

“I can assuredly say that the Yankees wouldn’t have been on the block this year if there was an estate tax. It has to be an aggressive and ongoing approach,” he said of insulating as much a portion of a large estate as possible from the tax. “I represented George for 22 years.”

George had become, for better or worse, the poster child for the lapsed estate tax, but even as Congress has restored the tax, the Yankees and the family should be just fine. They have money and access to very good lawyers. I’m not at all surprised.

Yankees sign Steve Evarts to minor league deal

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed 23-year-old left-hander Steve Evarts to a minor league deal. He selected 43rd overall by the Braves in the 2006 draft, taken two spots after Joba Chamberlain. Evarts ranked as Atlanta’s 15th best prospect before the 2008 season, and Baseball America lauded his feel for pitching, his upper-80’s fastball, and a dynamite changeup that acts like a screwball. In 98 professional innings, he’s struck out 81 and walked just 16 unintentionally. The problem is that he hasn’t pitched since 2008 due to varying injuries (including at least one elbow surgery) and disciplinary problems. The Braves released him at some point in early 2009.

Evarts has a pretty spotty record; he was charged with criminal mischief after smashing someone’s car with a bat in high school, and earlier this year he was arrested on felony battery and marijuana possession charges. I assume all of that stuff is cleared up and the Yankees did their homework. Chances are they’ll get absolutely nothing out of Evarts, but at some point he was a very promising prospect. No harm in trying.

Why the Mariners won’t trade Felix Hernandez

(Amy Sancetta/AP)

The No. 1 question we receive every day is some variant of, why don’t the Yankees trade for Felix Hernandez, or the Yankees should trade the farm for Felix. This is an understandable reaction to a rough situation. Many fans had so vividly imagined Cliff Lee in pinstripes that the reality of him going to Philadelphia has caused a bit of a blinder. The most prominent such blinder is the thought that Seattle might trade Hernandez to the Yankees.

The reason the Yankees won’t acquire Felix, at least in the near term, relates more to Seattle than it does New York. After all, they’re the one that holds the prized player. They have a number of reasons to hold Felix rather than cash him in for prospects. Given Felix’s ability and contract, along with the team’s overall situation, I can’t see them making a trade any time soon. I won’t go so far as to guarantee it — baseball is a weird game — but I’m confident that Seattle will hold onto Felix through at least 2013.

The first and most obvious reason for Seattle holding onto Felix is his ability. Whether or not you think he deserved the AL Cy Young Award, he is still a top five pitcher. He’s probably a top three pitcher. In the past two seasons he’s shown improvements in both his strikeout and walk rates, and now has the lethal combination of 8-plus strikeouts per nine and a 50-percent-plus ground ball rate. Only four pitchers in the majors accomplished this in 2010. Oh, and he’s only 25 years old. It would take quite the set of circumstances for any team to consider trading such an elite young pitcher.

Considering his performance and service time, Seattle has Felix signed to a team-friendly contract. After the 2010 season Felix has five years of service time, meaning he’d have been a free agent after the 2011 season had he not signed an extension. What kind of contract would Felix command if he hit the free agent market as a 26-year-old? I imagine he might have become the first $200 million pitcher. Yet he signed an extension with Seattle that covers five years and pays him $78 million. That will cost the Mariners just $10 million in 2011 before it jumps to $18.5 million in 2012 and gets to $20 million in 2014. He is the consummate bargain, even at $20 million annually.

Seattle can easily afford this contract. They’re not the Marlins; they’re not the Pirates; they’re not the Indians. They play in a fairly robust market and can certainly afford to keep elite players under contract. Their payroll is actually a bit down now, $91 million in 2010 after approaching $120 million in 2008. Furthermore, they have few large commitments in the future. The 2012 payroll has just $54 million committed, mostly to Felix and Ichiro, and after that their only big obligation belongs to Felix. Why, then, would they trade an elite pitcher? They can clearly afford him.

At this point we can turn to Zack Greinke to answer the previous question. The Royals could afford to keep him, but instead traded him to the Brewers. Kansas City is a bottom dwelling team, but has a big set of eyes on the future. Their farm system ranks as the best in baseball by no small measure, and they could start seeing those players pay off in 2012. Even then, it’s tough to expect a crop of 20- and 21-year-olds to bring a team into contention. The more realistic impact year is 2013, and at that point Greinke would have been a free agent. Trading him now, then, theoretically provides Kansas City with the best return, since they’re providing two years of Greinke at a below market rate. This is not the same situation Seattle faces.

Yes, the Seattle offense was historically bad in 2010 — often bad enough to negate the benefits that Felix brought. But this won’t always be the case. As with the Royals, the Mariners will rebuild. They might not have the same caliber system, but it still has a few strong prospects at the top. In June they’ll draft second overall, and they figure to have another decent pick in 2012. This will help them reload the system. Given their current young talent, their talent on the farm, and the talent they can afford on the free agent market, I imagine that Seattle will be back in the contention conversation before 2014. If they plan to contend before then, they have even less of a reason to trade Felix.

Let’s just imagine for a moment that Seattle’s target contention year is 2014, the final year of Felix’s contract. Might they then decide to trade him and fortify the team for a run that year? Again, I don’t think so. No player they can acquire will provide the impact that Felix himself can. They might be able to shore up multiple parts, but they’ll be left weaker at starting pitcher. That brings me to the final point: Seattle can, in all likelihood, sign Felix to a mega deal once he hits free agency, or perhaps before. He’ll be just 29 at the time, so he’ll probably be in line for a Sabathia-like deal if the current baseball economic structure holds up. Why wouldn’t Seattle give it to him? In fact, if they didn’t I’d suspect that they know something that we don’t, and are holding off on a big offer for that reason.

When an opportunity arises to trade for a pitcher of Hernandez’s age and ability, any team will jump all over it. They might even empty the farm. It would be a justifiable move. But there’s a reason that pitchers of Hernandez’s age and ability typically do not become available in trades. Seattle has little reason to trade him. Maybe if they catch a few terrible breaks he’ll become available in a couple of years. But right now the team simply has no reason to trade him. I’d love to see him in Yankee pinstripes as much as the next guy. But let’s be realistic. It’s just not happening.

Prospect Profile: David Phelps

(AP/File)

David Phelps | RHP

Background
Raised in the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood, Phelps attended Hazelwood West High School and starred both on the baseball field and on the basketball court. He was named to the All-Conference Team as both an outfielder and pitcher as a sophomore, and was then named All-Conference, All-Metro Performer, and team captain as a junior and senior. His career with the Wildcats featured a 2.96 ERA with 172 strikeouts in 109.2 innings pitched, and he also set a school record with a 30 inning scoreless streak as a senior. He was also a member of the National Honor Society.

Committed to Notre Dame, Phelps was ranked as the sixth best prospect in Missouri prior to the 2005 draft, though he went undrafted due to the strong college commitment. His older brother Mike was drafted out of Central Missouri State in the 11th round that year by the Cubs. Phelps was a sparsely used reliever in his first season with the Irish (though he did make three mid-week starts), striking out 23 and walking ten in just 26.2 innings (7.09 ERA). After the season he joined the Mat-Su Miners of the Alaska League, striking out 36 with 23 walks in 47.3 innings.

Phelps slid into Notre Dame’s rotation as a sophomore and establishing himself as the staff ace with one of the best pitching seasons in school history. He made 15 starts and threw five complete games, striking out 102 batters and walking just 30 in 110 innings (1.88 ERA). He became just the second pitcher in school history to record 100+ strikeouts with a sub-2.00 ERA in a single season, joining Aaron Heilman. As a reward, Phelps was named to the All-Conference First Team and received Academic All-District and Academic All-American honors. He joined the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod League after the season, but shut himself down to rest his arm after making just a pair of starts.

Expected to anchor the rotation again as a junior, Phelps was unable to match the success he had a sophomore, striking out 75 and walking 28 in 93 innings (4.65 ERA). Baseball America ranked him the fifth best prospect in the state of Indiana before the 2008 draft, expecting him to be drafted within the first eight rounds. The Yankees were able to select him in the 14th round with the 440th overall pick, later signing him for a $150,000 bonus, the maximum allowed after the fifth round without MLB’s approval.

Pro Career
Assigned to the Short Season Staten Island Yankees shortly after signing, Phelps made 15 starts for the Baby Bombers, making the All Star team after walking 18 batters and striking out 52 in 72.2 innings (3.27 FIP, 2.72 ERA). The Yanks were a tad conservative with Phelps in 2009, sending him to Low-A Charleston to start the season. After he pitched to a 3.41 FIP (2.80 ERA, 90 K, 25 BB) in 112.2 innings with the River Dogs he was promoted to High-A Tampa, where he struck out 32 batters and walked just six in 38.1 innings (2.34 FIP, 1.17 ERA). Phelps led all Yankee farmhands with 151 IP in 2009.

After just seven starts with Tampa to finish off the ’09 season, the Yankees sent Phelps to Double-A Trenton to begin 2010 and he just kept on pitching well. In 88.1 innings with the Thunder, he struck out 84 and walked just 23, good for a 2.44 FIP (2.04 ERA). He was promoted to Triple-A Scranton at midseason and again performed well, striking out 57 and walking 13 in 70.1 innings (2.92 FIP, 3.07 ERA). Phelps finished second in system with 158.2 innings this time around. His minor league career features a 7.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, and a 2.96 FIP (2.50 ERA) in 382.1 innings.

Scouting Report
Phelps has come a long way since high school. Once a scrawny kid that would sit in the low-90’s on a good day, Phelps has filled out his 6-foot-3 frame (190 lbs.) and now throws his fastball at 93-95 mph consistently. Minor league pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras made some minor adjustments soon after Phelps signed, leading to the improved velocity. He also throws a two-seam fastball right around 90 mph, a good curveball, and both a below average slider and changeup. The curve is the closest thing Phelps has to a strikeout pitch, but it still needs some more improvement. At the moment he’s a ground ball pitcher, but that can change if one of the offspeed pitches takes that step forward.

Although his secondary stuff is good but not great, it all plays up because Phelps has very strong control and pounds the bottom of the zone. His delivery is very simply and easily repeated, which bodes well for future command and health. He’s already demonstrated the ability to be a workhorse, logging no fewer than 151 innings in each of the last three seasons. Here’s a brief clip of Phelp’ delivery courtesy of Mike Ashmore, and you can see a few more on his YouTube channel.

2011 Outlook
Phelps will start the season back with Triple-A Scranton and should be among the first call-ups when the Yankees inevitably need a pitcher. He’s at a slight disadvantage because he’s not on the 40-man after the moment, though he’ll have to be added after the 2011 season to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 Draft. If the Yankees don’t sign a pitcher and both Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova have unimpressive Spring Trainings, Phelps has an outside chance at opening the season with the big league team. Very unlikely though.

My Take
Scouting director Damon Oppenheimer has proven to be very skilled at finding undervalued pitchers in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft, and Phelps is just another example of that. He was an absolute steal both in terms of draft round and bonus money, and climbing the ladder that quickly with so many other quality arms around him is pretty impressive. Phelps has already exceeded all possible expectations, and although I remain nothing more than cautiously optimistic because of his lack of a knockout offspeed pitch, he’s a quality pitching prospect that could contribute to the big league club either on the mound or as a piece of trade bait very, very soon.

Mailbag: Chad Qualls

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Rafi asks: If the Yankees are indeed still looking for a RH RP, allow me to throw out a name that seams to be totally off everyone’s radar: Chad Qualls. This guy has closer experience with a decent K (7.35/9) rate, good BB (2.5) rate, and of course, great GB rate (55% – the league leader this past year, was Tim Hudson at 64.1). He did walk 3.2/9 last season, but almost all his other numbers were the same. The biggest differences? A .399 BABIP leading to 13 H/9. While his 7.32 ERA was easily his high (almost double his previous), his FIP was 4.13, and xFIP was 3.91. Since he’s coming off such a poor looking year, and is a type-B, what kind of contract do you think he’ll get? I think he’s a great fit.

Qualls has been in the back of my mind all offseason mostly because his name stares me right in the face whenever I go to update the 2011 Draft Order page. Considering the season he had, which by most statistical measures was awful, I was stunned to hear that he turned down the Rays’ offer of arbitration. His stock was certainly down and accepting arbitration would have guaranteed him some sort of raise on this past season’s $4.185M salary. Is he going to get even $4M for one year on the open market? Hell no. Bad job by his agent declining.

Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Qualls’ ever since his playoff performance with the Astros during their run to the 2005 World Series. He threw 13 innings across nine appearances in Houston’s 14 postseason games, striking out ten, getting 68.8% ground balls, and holding opponents to a .233 wOBA. It was a beastly performance, no other way to put it. Unfortunately that was half-a-decade ago and not indicative of what he has to offer now.

As you said, Qualls’ underlying performance in 2010 wasn’t too far off from the rest of his career, he was just victimized by a .399 BABIP and a 53.0% strand rate (league average is 72%). There are legitimate concerns, though. His strikeout rate has declined in each of the last two seasons, from 8.67 K/9 in 2008 to 7.79 in 2009 to 7.47 in 2010, and unsurprisingly his swinging strike rate has declined as well (11.3%, 10.3%, 8.2%). His ground ball has also declined over the last two years, from 58.3% in ’08 to 56.9% in ’09 to 55% in ’10, and his walk rate was a career high 2.59 BB/9 (removing intentional walks). There’s a lot of stuff trending in the wrong direction here.

One thing to remember is that Qualls started the year coming off a very serious knee/leg injury that ended his 2009 season in late August. Jason Michaels hit him with a comeback line drive, resulting in a dislocated knee cap, a torn meniscus (in two places), and his quad muscle being partially torn off the bone. Ouch. There’s a chance the injury still hampered him a bit in 2010. Another thing to remember is that he’s 32, so his hellacious sinker might not be what it once was. Even if the pitch has lost just a little bit of sink, it’ll have a pretty big difference.

At his peak, from 2007 through 2009, Qualls struck out 8.38 batters per nine innings, walked just 1.77 per nine unintentionally, and got a ground ball 57.3% of the time. That’s an extremely valuable reliever, and any team that signs Qualls is banking on him returning to that level of performance, or at least thereabouts. Some normal BABIP and left-on-base rate regression will bring his ERA and WHIP back to reality, but the declining peripherals are enough to cast doubt on his ability to be effective going foward.

With all that said, I do prefer Qualls to all of the other right-handed relief options still on the market (Jon Rauch, Aaron Heilman, Octavio Dotel, etc.) and would be willing to roll the dice with him going into next season since it’s not my money. A ground ball pitcher does worry me a bit given the questionable defense on the left side of the infield, but seeing-eye singles are better than long fly balls that could go over the fence. Qualls is a Type-B free agent so it won’t cost a draft pick to sign him, and given how the rest of the relief market has played out this winter, a one year deal at $2-3M seems like a logical contract. I wouldn’t expect greatness, but I would expect a more than serviceable middle relief option with a chance for a bit more.