What Went Wrong: Aceves & Marte

The 2009 Yankees were a club that relied heavily on its bullpen, and for the most part to great success. Chien-Ming Wang was horrific before being sidelined with a shoulder issue, Joba Chamberlain was perpetually bumping up against some kind of limit, and the fifth starter conglomerate of Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin were hardly reliable. The bullpen picked up the slack, and the Yanks were able to ride that bullpen right to a World Championship.

The bullpen was again a strength in 2010, especially in the second half, but two key contributors from the previous year were essentially non-factors after the first few weeks of the season, and the Yankees suffered because of it.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Al Aceves

Maybe not the most valuable member of the 2009 bullpen, Aceves was certainly the most versatile and relied upon. His 80.2 relief innings were by far the most on the team (Mariano Rivera was second at 66.1 IP) and he pitched in every possible role. Long-relief, righty specialist, middle relief, setup man, four-inning closer, you name it and Aceves did in the 2009. The Yankees penciled Ace in for a similar role this season, but it was not meant to be.

The Mexican Gangster missed the end of Spring Training with a stiff lower back, a sign of things to come. He was healthy enough to crack the team’s Opening Day roster, and proved his value in the second game of the season, firing two perfect innings in a tie game against the Red Sox in Fenway Park on just 23 pitches. He was used somewhat sparingly through April and early May, perhaps held back because of lingering issues with his back that we didn’t know about, but when he pitched he was pretty good: nine games, eleven innings, and just four earned runs allowed, all of which came within his first three outings of the season. The only concern was his lack of strikeouts (just one compared to four walks), but that early in the season no one thought much of it.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The Yankees were again in Fenway on May 8th when a rain delay forced starter CC Sabathia from the game. Aceves was brought in to pick up the slack, his third appearance in five days, and after recording the final out in the fifth, he went back out for the sixth. Kevin Youkilis led off the frame with a single, and two batters later J.D. Drew singled as well. Boston was mounting a mini-rally with the Yanks up by three. Jeremy Hermida stepped to the plate with men on the corners and two outs, and one pitch later Aceves was done for the season.

A first pitch curveball to Hermida dropped in for a strike, but it also dropped Aceves to the ground. Okay, not really, he never went down. But he did buckle at the waist and limp off the mound in a way that made you think it was a hamstring or quad or something like that. Aceves immediately left the game with what turned out to be the same thing that hampered him in March: a stiff lower back. Three days later he was placed on the disabled list with a bulging disc, and two weeks after that he reaggravated the injury while rehabbing in Tampa. Aceves had a few epidurals throughout the summer but nothing worked, and he was eventually shut down for the year after re-injuring himself in a minor league rehab start.

The Yankees were never able to replace Aceves in that jack-of-all-trades role, instead relying on several pitchers to pick up the slack. Gaudin and Mitre were given opportunities to do it, but they just couldn’t replicate the Gangster’s success. The Yankees had a solid setup crew for the seventh and eighth innings, but the gap between them and the starter was largely a revolving door all season.

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Damaso Marte

Marte’s absence wasn’t as damning as Aceves’, nor was it as unexpected. After all, he did miss a huge chunk of the 2009 season with a shoulder issue before returning for that brilliant playoff run. The 35-year-old lefty specialist not only managed to stay on the field into July this season, he was also pretty effective. His overall numbers (4.08 ERA with a dozen strikeouts and eleven walks in 17.2 IP spread across 30 appearances) don’t really tell the story given the nature of his job. Marte faced 45 lefty batters in 2010 and just nine reached base. They hit just .146/.200/.268 against him, which works out to a .227 wOBA. He did a fine job neutralizing lefthanders, exactly what he’s supposed to do.

Marte pitched a scoreless inning in Oakland on July 7th, but that was the last time we’d see him this season. He was placed on the disabled list the very next day with shoulder inflammation, an issue that just kept lingering all summer. The Yankees eventually ruled him out for the season in early September, and he had surgery to repair a torn labrum just last week. Damaso won’t return until after the 2011 All Star break at the very earliest.

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The Yankee bullpen managed to survive the injuries to Aceves and Marte, but there’s no denying they would have been a better team with those two healthy and performing like they’re capable of. We already know that Marte is basically a no-go next season, but Aceves’ status is still up in the air. Given the nature of back injuries, it’s wise to expect nothing from him in 2011 and treat whatever he gives the team as a bonus.

What Went Right: The Cliff Lee Non-Trade

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Earlier today Joe broke down the negative impact of the failed Cliff Lee trade, and that part is obvious enough. The Yankees lost out on a world class pitcher and ended up falling to Lee and the team that traded for him in the ALCS. We all know the Yanks would have been a considerably better team in 2010 if the trade had gone through, but there’s a chance the Yankees will be better off in the long-run.

The reason they might be better off down the road is quite simple: they get to keep top prospect Jesus Montero. Keeping the other prospects rumored to be involved in the deal – David Adams, Adam Warren, Eduardo Nunez, Zach McAllister, Ivan Nova, and whoever else’s name popped up at one time or another – is nice as well, but Montero’s the real prize. He is not only the team’s best prospect, but also their best offensive prospect since Derek Jeter, and it’s not hyperbole.

While certainly not over-the-hill, the Yankee offense is a bit … experienced, if you catch my drift. Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, arguably the Yanks’ two most important hitters, are 36 and 35-years-old, respectively. Jorge Posada is 39. Mark Teixeira will turn 31 less than two weeks into the 2011 season and Curtis Granderson hits the big three-oh a few weeks before that. Nick Swisher turns 30 next month. Robbie Cano (28) and Brett Gardner (27) will likely be the only regulars under 30 on Opening Day 2011, so clearly the Yankee lineup is going to need an infusion of youth at some point soon.

Montero figures to provide that. The soon-to-be 21-year-old catcher from Venezuela has already spent a full season at the Triple-A level, an age when most American kids are wrapping up their junior year of college. After a slow start (.312 wOBA through June) in 2010 (perhaps you could call it an adjustment period), Montero posted a .433 wOBA over the final two-plus months of the season. He hit 15 homers in 46 games after July 10th, almost matching his 2009 season total of 17 big flies. There’s little doubt that Montero can mash – Jim Callis of Baseball America recently called him the best hitting prospect in all the land – and while there are questions about his ultimate position, that will be nothing more than a formality if the bat lives up to the hype. The Yanks will find a spot for him, they’d have no choice.

It’s not just about pure production either. The Yankees aren’t cheap, with several contracts (Jeter and A-Rod again being the most notable) paying players premium dollars for their decline phases. The Yanks can certainly afford those contracts, but having Montero at a below market rate for six years (three pre-arbitration, three arbitration-eligible) helps offset some of the albatrosses. Those savings and surplus value give Brian Cashman the flexibility to shore up other areas of the team as needed.

Of course Montero isn’t guaranteed to hit or do anything really, which is what makes this so tricky. Lee is as close to a sure thing as there is in this game right now, prospects are just rolls of the dice. Montero is an elite offensive prospect, something the Yanks desperately need, and they’ll come out smelling like roses if he hits and they manage to sign Lee as a free agent this offseason. That’s far from a given, but considering the current construction of the Yankee roster, it’s easy to make a case that they’re better off keeping six years of Jesus Montero instead of trading him for four months of Cliff Lee.

Having Montero around is nothing more than a minor comfort as we watch Lee and Rangers compete in the World Series, but the kid has the potential to be a core piece in several future contending teams, and that’s what the Yankees are all about. Winning now, and winning every year.

Yankees, Girardi agree to three-year, $9M deal

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

After the Yankees were eliminated from the ALCS last week, Brian Cashman said his first order of business would be to re-sign manager Joe Girardi. Six days later, that’s been taken care of. Mark Feinsand reports that the two sides have agreed on a new three-year, $9M contract, exactly what’s been rumored for the last few days. Joel Sherman says there is another $450,000-$500,000 in bonuses related to ALCS and World Series finishes. The I’s are still being dotted and the T’s are still being crossed, but otherwise it’s pretty much a done deal. An official announcement could come as soon as today according to Feinsand, but tomorrow’s a safer bet since it’s the World Series off-day.

The 46-year-old Girardi has been managing the Yankees since the 2008 season, and has guided them to the game’s best record since taking over at 287-199. After the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years during his first season as manager, Girardi led the Yanks to their 27th World Championship in 2009 and owns a 16-8 record in the playoffs during his career. He’s been criticized for everything from being too uptight to getting too caught up in matchups to using a binder (oh noes!) to falling in love with his backup catcher, but to a man the players have all said they love playing for Joe since he’s gotten here, and that’s important.

Speculation was that he could bolt for his hometown Chicago Cubs after the season, who were looking for a manager following Lou Piniella’s sudden retirement earlier this year. That option vanished for Girardi two weeks ago when the Cubs removed the interim tag from Mike Quade and gave him the manager’s job outright. We’ll probably never know if Girardi intended to pursue that job, but we do know one thing, he lost some negotiating leverage when that option was taken off the table.

Although we don’t know the exact breakdown of the new deal, the average annual value is the sixth highest among MLB managers, tied with Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel. Girardi’s previous contract was for $7.5M over three years, so he’s getting a $500,000 a year raise. Honestly, that seems quite modest. I’m surprised it’s just a 20% raise. I guess that’s a result of the Cubs not being an option. Either way, welcome back Joe.

Update: Joel Sherman says Girardi will receive exactly $3M per season, so no signing bonus or anything like that.

What Went Wrong: The Cliff Lee Non-Trade

I imagine the scene would have been different had Lee been a Yankee (Eric Gay/AP)

They couldn’t have known it would happen at the time, but they had to know it was a possibility. When the Yankees found out that Seattle would send Cliff Lee to Texas rather than New York, the thought of facing Lee in the playoffs had to cross their minds. By that point, though, it was too late. The process was already far enough along that we could have called it a done deal. Cliff Lee was heading to Arlington, while Seattle would receive a package featuring 2008 first rounder Justin Smoak. The Yanks had lost out.

That day represented perhaps the most exciting and disappointing one of the regular season. When I went to bed on July 8 the only thought of Lee was that the Yankees were to face him the next evening. When I woke up on the 9th I realized that he wouldn’t. It sounded pretty certain that the Yankees and Mariners would finalize a swap sometime during the day. Jesus Montero, David Adams, and Zach McAllister would go to the Mariners, and the Yankees would add a second lefty ace to the staff. World Series, here we come.

A few hours later we would learn that the trade fell apart. The Mariners didn’t like the medicals on David Adams. At the time it sounded like an excuse to bring other teams into the bidding, but as we found out later Adams did have significant ankle issues. The Mariners, so the story goes, asked the Yankees to add Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees declined. The Yankees suggested Adam Warren. The Mariners weren’t interested — though perhaps by that time their disinterest was due to Texas’ new offer, which included Smoak. Not long after we heard that the deal with the Yankees fell apart, we heard that Cliff Lee would be Arlington-bound.

The reaction to this non-trade has two strong sides. One lamented the missed opportunity, because of its implications for the 2010 team. The other celebrated it, because it meant holding onto the team’s prospect while retaining the ability to sign Lee during the off-season. Mike will cover the latter point shortly. This will focus only on the lamentation.

At the time

At the time of the non-deal, the Yankees had five starting pitchers. CC Sabathia had been his regular self for most of the season and Andy Pettitte was keeping runs off the board, but beyond them there were a number of questions. Javy Vazquez had recovered from a poor start, though he still seemed to be the odd man out. A.J. Burnett had just come off what was probably the worst month of his career, but the Yanks couldn’t move him. Phil Hughes had struggled, but to move him would be to further stunt his development. They wanted him to get a full year in the rotation. Something would have to change, but for Cliff Lee that’s not much of an issue. You move mountains to make room for Cliff Lee.

We knew then what Lee would bring to the Yankees. He would turn the starting staff into the best in the AL, perhaps the best in the majors. It already ranked among the top, but there were still weaknesses, described above. If Javy broke down again, if Burnett didn’t fully recover, if Hughes ran into problems as he entered uncharted territory — all of these what-ifs had to weigh on the front office’s mind. Acquiring Lee would render these questions less meaningful. The Yanks would then have six starters, so if something went wrong they would have a fill-in ready to go.

The Yankees also had to know how acquiring Lee would make it easier to re-sign him during the off-season. This isn’t scientific fact, of course, but rather an intuitive connection. If the Yankees traded for Lee and then won a World Series with him, how could he then turn down the sack of money the Yankees would hand him? If he went elsewhere and won a World Series there, well, maybe he’d be more inclined to take a bit less to stay in place where he has experienced the ultimate success. The Yankees’ willingness to pay twice for a player in this instance suggests that they thought along these lines.

In hindsight

The at-the-time case seems easy enough. Adding Cliff Lee would have greatly increased the Yankees chances of winning the World Series. They would have received a proven veteran in exchange for a player whose career is nothing but potential right now. Little did we know at the time that the hindsight argument would be even stronger.

The Yankees lost the ALCS because they couldn’t hit a lick, but the pitching staff didn’t help matters. CC Sabathia got knocked around in Game 1, and Phil Hughes got hit harder in Game 2. A.J. Burnett has a solid Game 4 until the Molina homer, and then Hughes was again shaky in Game 6. Imagine the staff had they added Lee.

Sabathia still would have gone Game 1, and perhaps it would have unfolded similarly. Lee taking Hughes’s place would have been an enormous upgrade. That would have pushed Hughes to Game 4, at which time the Yankees might have been in a better position. That’s not only because Lee likely would have been more effective in Game 2, but because the Yankees might not have lost Game 3, because Lee wouldn’t have been pitching for the Rangers.

That brings up another hindsight point. The Rangers wouldn’t have been nearly as strong a playoff team without Lee. They almost certainly would have made the playoffs without him — at the time they acquired him they were already running away with the division. But once they got to the playoffs they wouldn’t have been as well prepared.

In fact, I’d bet that had the Yankees acquired Lee, they would have won the AL East. That would have set them up against a Lee-less Texas in the first round; that would have been something of a mismatch. Sabathia-Lee-Pettitte, and then Hughes if necessary. They would have faced Wilson-Lewis-Hunter, though missing out on Lee might have motivated Texas to work out something for Roy Oswalt. That would have been a bit difficult, though, given Texas’s financial situation at the time. Getting approval for $3 million or whatever they ended up paying Lee is one thing; getting permission for the $10+ million they’d have to pay Oswalt over the next two years is quite another.

The benefits, as you can see, would have cascaded. The Yankees would not only strengthen their own team with Lee, but would have left competitors scrambling for another solution. That would have left the Yankees in the best possible position.

In terms of how it would have helped the 2010 team, missing out on Lee is one thing that went terribly wrong. They would have been sacrificing a potential piece of their future, but they would have added a Top 3 pitcher for 2010, and then given themselves a better chance to re-sign him during the off-season. After missing out, the Yankees just have to hope they can convince Lee to come to New York in the same manner they convinced CC Sabathia.

Could Mo seek a two-year deal?

How long can Rivera keep pitching? After the Yankees won the 2009 World Series, a jovial Mo said he would do this for five more years if he could. But during the season Mo was a bit more subdued about his future. One year at a time, he said. From a recent New York Post report, it sounds like he’s now thinking somewhere in the middle; “…there is talk within the organization that the future Hall of Fame closer wants a two-year deal.” Joel Sherman and George King call this a “minor hurdle,” but I’m not sure it would be much of a hurdle at all. The Yanks want Rivera to pitch for them as long as he’s physically capable, and it appears he wants the same.

The article also brings up an interesting point. For a few days now we’ve heard that the Yankees and Girardi are close to a deal. There is a chance that the deal has been finalized, but because of the World Series the team has not announced it. Don’t be surprised if we hear something on Friday, the first off-day.

Past Trade Review: Jay Witasick

(Photo Credit: checkoutmycards.com)

Coming off their third consecutive World Series victory, the Yankees found the 2001 season to be a little more difficult than the previous three. Their record was a solid 39-31 on June 20th, but they were three-and-a-half games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, the same Red Sox team that had gone 15-5 in their previous 20 games and showed no signs of slowing down.

The Yanks were operating with the same formula as always, a deep lineup full of players that work counts and get on base, and a powerful pitching staff highlighted by a strong back-end of the bullpen. Righty Jeff Nelson fled for the Mariners after the 2000 season, but Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza were still doing fine work in front of the unmatched Mariano Rivera. Randy Choate had his moments as a lefty specialist/occasional mop up man. The middle innings, though, they were a generally a problem.

Brian Boehringer was solid for the first six weeks of the season (0.83 ERA, .578 OPS against in 21.1 IP) but fell apart in mid-May (6.92 ERA, .899 OPS against in 13 IP). He was jettisoned off to San Francisco in July. Journeyman Todd Williams had a shiny ERA (2.38) but was allowing batters to reach base 41.9% of the time, so he was sent to the minors right about the time Boehringer turned into a pumpkin. Carlos Almanzar impressed pretty much no one with his inability to miss a bat, and other fill-ins like Brandon Knight and Adrian Hernandez were completely forgettable.

The Yankees needed bullpen help to solidify those middle innings, so Brian Cashman swung a pair of trades in late-June/early-July in an attempt to shore things up. Let’s cover the first one now, and come back tomorrow for the second.

June 23rd: Acquired Jay Witasick from San Diego for D’Angelo Jimenez

The 28-year-old Witasick had bounced around a bit in the years before coming to the Yanks, landing in San Diego in 2000 after a trade with the Royals and before that spending time with the Athletics. He was lights out for the Padres in the first half of the season, striking out 53 batters against just a dozen unintentional walks in 31 appearances (38.2 IP). Jimenez, once one of the team’s very best prospects, had been toiling away in Triple-A for a few seasons and was deemed expendable with Alfonso Soriano establishing himself as a bonafide big leaguer in 2001.

Witasick did a poor job of introducing himself to the New York faithful, blowing a four run lead in the sixth inning of his first game in pinstripes. Granted, he did inherit a first-and-third, no outs situation from Randy Keisler and got no help from a Scott Brosius error, but still. It was a poor first impression. Witasick settled down a bit and fired off five consecutive scoreless innings (9 K in 5.1 IP), but the wheels really came off the wagon on July 13th against the Marlins.

(Photo Credit: yankees.com)

Brought into the seventh inning of a semi-blowout (Florida was up 6-0 at the time), Witasick tossed up a scoreless frame before taking a pounding in the eighth. The first four, and five of the first six batters of the inning picked up a hit, and he was left in to wear it all. The end result was a five run inning and a season ERA that climbed just about a full run.

Witasick didn’t see an ounce of high leverage work the rest of the season, throwing 31 innings with a solid 3.77 ERA after that game with the Marlins, but it was all mop-up work. In one particularly brutal outing, Witasick was left in to throw 84 (!!!) pitches in relief of a lit up Ted Lilly (five runs in two innings to Oakland), walking six and allowing three runs in 3.2 innings of work.

Witasick made the playoff roster but only appeared in three games (one each round), the closest of which was a three run deficit to the A’s in Game One of the ALCS. His farewell moment came in Game Six of the World Series, when he allowed nine runs and ten hits to the Diamondbacks in just one-and-a-third innings of work. The Yanks traded him to the Giants for John Vander Wal after the season.

Jimenez, meanwhile, stepped right in as the Padres every day shortstop after the trade, and hit .276/.355/.367 the rest of the way. He was unable to repeat that success in 2002 and was dealt to the White Sox at midseason. All told, Witasick was worth -0.2 bWAR with the Yanks, Jimenez -0.3 bWAR with San Diego. That obviously doesn’t count the production of the players each was later traded for, but it doesn’t really matter. This trade was pretty much a dud for both teams.

Pirela smacks a pair of doubles in loss

Via Josh Norris, Mark Newman confirmed that Slade Heathcott will be ready for Spring Training according to (what I assume are) doctor’s estimates. Heathcott has his shoulder scoped a few weeks ago.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (5-4 loss to Peoria)
Austin Romine, C: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 1 K – two stolen bases in two attempts in this one
Jose Pirela, 2B: 3 for 4, 1 R, 2 2B, 1 CS, 1 E (fielding) – two doubles? he’s one fire! /NBA Jam guy
Craig Heyer: 2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2-2 GB/FB – 22 of 41 pitches were strikes (53.7%) … small sample, but I figured he’d be a much more extreme strike thrower (68-72%) given his microscopic walk rates