Levine: We have money to improve the team

Via Mark Hale, team president Randy Levine confirmed that the team has money left to upgrade the roster despite reports to the contrary. “There’s obviously room to improve the team,” said Levine. “I don’t like to get into the amounts, but obviously there’s room to improve the team … We intend to always improve in whichever way we can. So far, after [CC Sabathia], as far as large contracts, we haven’t done anything. But that’s really our choice.”

I roughly estimated that the Yankees are sitting on a payroll of about $197MM right now, but I wouldn’t take that number as gospel. It’s just an estimation and the error bars are probably in the $10M range. There’s really only three players left on the market that would require a contract in excess of $10M per year (Hiroki Kuroda, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt), but I don’t see the Yankees going after any of those guys at that price. The bench still has to be addressed, but so far the Yankees haven’t spent any money because there really hasn’t been anyone worth spending it on.

Mailbag: Danks, Kuroda, Oswalt, AL East

Just three questions today, but they’re good ones. After you recover from New Year’s, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send your questions along.

(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Peter asks: Does Danks’s extension really spell the end of the Yanks interest in him? Or is this the White Sox trying to get a MUCH better haul for him than if he only had one year of control on him left? Does the length of the contract now scare the Yanks (and other teams) away or does the price in potential prospects for a number 2 starter for half a decade do it instead? Thoughts?

Kenny Williams and the White Sox are very hard to figure out. They say they’re going to rebuild, act like they’re rebuilding by letting Mark Buehrle walk and trading Sergio Santos, then they turn around and sign one of their most tradeable assets long-term. I don’t get it. What’s the plan, sign Danks and hope you’re competitive by year four of his five year deal? This isn’t the first time they’ve done this either. They said they were going to rebuild a few years ago as well, then ended up signing Buehrle and Paul Konerko long-term. Doesn’t make any sense.

Anyway, yeah I think that contract effectively halted any interest the Yankees had in the left-hander. Danks for one year was not only cheaper (in terms of salary and trade cost), but it also gave the team time to evaluate him in Yankee Stadium, the AL East, New York, the whole nine before deciding if he was worth that kind of commitment. Now they’d be locked into the guy until 2016 in a sink-or-swim type deal. I’m a big John Danks fan, but no thanks.

Late add: Apparently Danks has a full no-trade clause in year one of his contract, so so much for that. It’s a partial no-trade in years two through five, allowing him to block trades to six teams.

Anthony asks: I fully understand (and agree with) the Yankees stance on the free agent and trade markets. I don’t think John Danks was worth any 2 of Jesus Montero, Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos and I feel the same towards Gio Gonzalez. But why do they *seem* hesitant with going after guys like Hiroki Kuroda and Roy Oswalt on 1 year deals? Banuelos and Betances are most likely not ready to bring Spring Training as the 4-5 starters. So, what gives?

I think it’s because they just don’t see Kuroda or Oswalt or even Edwin Jackson as clear upgrades, or at least big enough upgrades to invest something like $16-17M in them (including the luxury tax). Do I think they should sign one of those guys (preferably Kuroda)? Yes. Can I understand why they’re hesitant to sink that much cash into someone that’s not guaranteed to be any better than the six or seven pitchers they have already lined up for the 2nd through 8th rotation spots? Also yes.

That money is money they won’t be able to use later. Sign Oswalt and his back goes out (again), and they’re out of luck. They won’t have that cash available to them at the trade deadline if something comes along. It’s the same situation with lesser pitchers like Paul Maholm, Jeff Francis, Joe Saunders, Joel Pineiro, etc. Yeah they’d cost less money and add a smidgen of depth, but where’s the upgrade? The Yankees need someone better than Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia, and although I think Kuroda and Oswalt are, you can certainly make a case they aren’t.

Dennis asks: Since the Yankees won 97 games in the AL East, which is easily the best division in baseball, how many games do you think the Yankees would win if they played in each of the other 5 divisions in baseball – ones with with much weaker competition?

A lot, almost certainly over 100 on an annual basis if they played in another division. The Yankees have gone 122-94 (.565) against the AL East and 173-97 (.641) against everyone else over the last three seasons, and a .641 winning percentage is a 104-win pace. That’s pretty nuts when you consider that we’re talking about a three-year sample.

Just think, while the Yankees are busying playing the Red Sox and Rays a combined 36 times next year, the Angels and Rangers will each get to play the Mariners and Athletics a combined 36 times. Then starting in 2013, the Angels and Rangers will each get the M’s, A’s, and Astros a combined 54 times. That’s a third of their schedule against teams that apparently have no interest in being competitive. Some life, huh?

The Development of Mariano Rivera

Mariano Rivera is the most successful one-trick pony in baseball history, throwing cutter after cutter and mowing down big leaguers for the last decade and a half like no one else. David Laurila of FanGraphs recently spoke to Mariano and a few others about the cutter and his success, and the most interesting part to me was what they had to say about Rivera’s development as a pitcher over the years.

“The game alone will teach you a lot,” said Mo. “I’ve learned from a lot of people, but I’ve especially learned from situations, You won’t have a person who can sit with you and tell you what to do or what not to do. The best teacher is the game itself. When you go through tough times, and tough years, that will teach you. It will guide you in the right way … Earlier in my career, I threw the ball and it moved inside to lefties and away from righties. That’s how I thought about it. I didn’t use it as effectively as I could have. Now I vary [the break] and throw it in different areas.”

Laurila also spoke to Jorge Posada, who mentioned that Rivera uses both a tight and a big-breaking cutter depending on the situation these days. I think we’ve all kinda assumed that Rivera was a thinking man’s pitcher, using his years of knowledge and his historically great command to overwhelm hitters despite his advanced age, so this isn’t much of a surprise. It’s still interesting to read though. Just about all of Laurila’s interviews are great, and this one is no exception. Click the link and check it out, it gets RAB’s highest level of recommendation.

The Price for Matt Garza

With Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and John Danks now off the board, the trade focus has shifted to Jair Jurrjens and Matt Garza. The former is a no-no in my eyes, but the latter’s a pretty damn good fit for the Yankees. David Kaplan reported yesterday that talks involving Garza are heating up, with the Yankees and two other clubs involved. The price is “incredibly high” though, and Jon Heyman says the Cubs are prioritizing young pitching in return.

The Yankees have plenty of pitching at the upper levels, enough that they could trade three young arms and still have enough depth in Triple-A to support the big league team this summer. They appear to be a match in that regard, it’s just a question of whether or not the two sides can find a middle ground. I’m guessing no, because the price of pitching is ridiculously high right now and the Cubs hold all the cards. Once upon a time two top prospects and miscellaneous pieces got you Dan Haren or Cliff Lee. Now it gets you Gio Gonzalez.

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Yankee relief pitching over the years: A graphical look

In the comments of my graphical look at Yankee starters’ ERAs over the last several years, reader Mike Myers asked if I could do a headshot graph for the Yankee relievers or bench players. Well, in the spirit of the holiday, ask and ye shall receive, and as a follow up to our graphical look at the Yankee benches from earlier this week, today comes a graphical look at the primary players the Yankees have employed as members of their bullpens since the 2003 season.

However, before we get to the headshots, here’s an updated chart showing how the Yankee relief corps have fared since the advent of divisional play:

With a 3.12 ERA, the 2011 relief corps was the best the Yankees have fielded in at least a decade, and represented the 8th-lowest lowest bullpen ERA a Yankee team has put up since 1969. The lowest? The strike-shortened 1981 team’s absurd 2.26, though that was of course compiled in only 107 games. The lowest full-season relief ERA since 1969 was the 1970 team’s 2.34 mark. However, this is extremely weird when you consider that the very next season the Yankees recorded both their worst ERA- and FIP- of all 43 teams surveyed here. I don’t know if they either blew the bullpen up following 1970 or all of the holdovers simply forgot how to pitch come 1971, but that is a pretty crazy one-year increase.

The next-best relief corps of the last 20 Yankee seasons was the 2001 ‘pen, which put up a 3.42 ERA, and they don’t check in until 18th on the list, which really drives home just how great the 2011 Yankee bullpen was. In terms of ERA relative to the league, the 2011 team checked in tied for 5th, with a 74 ERA-, with the 1981 and 1970 teams again at the top. In terms of FIP, the 2011 team fared a bit less impressively, with its 3.65 mark coming in at 18th-best (1972 led this list with a 2.85 FIP, which further begs the question what on earth was going on with the Yankee bullpens from 1970 through 1972? One year they’re incredible, the following year atrocious, then back to incredible), though its FIP relative to the league (88 FIP-) was tied for 10th-best, with 1982 topping the list with a 76 FIP-.

Now on to the individuals who comprised recent Yankee bullpens. In order to define who made the cut, seeing as how the Yankees can go through up to 30 pitchers (or more) over the course of the season between cuts, trades and September call-ups, I initially used 30 innings pitched as a benchmark. While I mostly stuck to that parameter, I did end up getting a bit lenient so that I could include some memorable names that perhaps didn’t quite reach that threshold, but came close enough. I did not end up using anyone below 20 IPs, so this should at least be a fairly representative sample of the primary players the Yankees utilized in relief during their respective seasons.

As for how I graded them out, I decided to go with FIP-, as neither ERA nor WAR are particularly great at telling us how effective relievers were. Focusing solely on what the pitcher was responsible for and comparing it against the league seemed like the most intuitive way to show just how good (or bad) the Yankee relief corps have been over the years.

(click to enlarge)

A few observations:

  • The Yankees, like every team in baseball, have had a lot of crappy relievers.
  • My primary memory of Juan Acevedo was of him botching one of Roger Clemens’ 8,000 attempts at getting his 300th win in a blown save against the Cubs on June 7, 2003.
  • Remember Felix “Run Fairy” Heredia, Felix Rodriguez and Luis Vizcaino?
  • I still hate Phil Coke, even though the 38 FIP- he put up in 14.2 innings in 2008 tops the list. Even though his ’08 season didn’t make the 30-IP innings cutoff, his 2009 season obviously did, and I wanted to show how bad he actually was in comparison.
  • The Yankees had a lot of crappy relievers in the middle of the aughts. Between bad pitching and awful defense, it still amazes me that the 2004-2007 teams still made the playoffs every year.
  • If you lower the innings cutoff to 20, Joba Chamberlain‘s 42 FIP- in 2007 is the second-best FIP- on this chart after Phil Hughes‘ 41 in 2009. In fact, those two are the third- and second-best relief seasons in all of Yankee history (going all the way back to 1871) in terms of FIP-. The best? Why, Mariano Rivera‘s 1996, in which he put up a 40 FIP- in 107.2 innings.
  • David Robertson‘s 2011 FIP- was the 5th-best relief season in all of Yankee history on the aforementioned list of 258 relief seasons of 20 innings pitched or more.