Remember Hideki’s arrival as Darvish slips away

All of the recent brouhaha over Yu Darvish, I got to thinking about Hideki Matsui. Unlike many high-profile Japanese players who made the jump to the states, Matsui hit the Majors as an unrestricted free agent. There was no blind bidding process and subsequent negotiation. Hideki was free to pick whatever team he wanted. It almost made sense.

For Darvish, the decision to push his team to post him was a calculated risk. As ESPN.com’s Patrick Newman and Eno Sarris showed (in an Insider-only piece) on Tuesday, Darvish probably could have made more had he waited a few more years. If his deal with the Rangers ends up being at an annual level of around $12 million, there’s a good chance he would earn more in the long term by returning to Japan this year and entering the States via bidding process. Teams wouldn’t have to pony over sunk dollars on a posting fee, and Darvish would stand to make all of the money from his contract.

Yet, the allure of guaranteed dollars is a tough one to resist. It’s why pitchers are willing to sign seemingly below-market deals earlier in their careers. The threat of injury lurks, and easy access to millions is too tempting to turn down. Darvish will sign a deal that locks him up for five or six years, but if he’s as good as advertised, he’ll cash in again in his early 30s. That said, he would be wise to sign a high-dollar, low-year deal with the Rangers and hit free agency at 29. Texas, though, would rather lock him up for longer.

Anyway, I digress. The erstwhile World Series MVP was my original focus. I realized a few days ago, as the Yanks continued through a silent off-season, that I missed Matsui. Now, I don’t believe the Yanks should bring him back, but I miss his presence in left field and his bat in the lineup. Bring back the glory days of Matsui, the player who hit .292/.370/.482 on the Yanks, and I’ll be happy.

So how anyway did the Yanks land Hideki? It was the more traditional path. By the end of 2001, Matsui’s name was bandied about as a future Major Leaguer. He was the highest paid Japanese player at the time, and the next stop for him would be the States. The first time the Yanks were tied to him arrived in August of 2002 when Jack Curry reported that Jean Afterman was scouting Matsui. Over the next few months, rumors of the Yanks’ interest hit the news. Would the Bombers land both Jose Contreras and Hideki Matsui prior to 2003?

Hideki was a new — and seemingly rare — breed of Japanese players. He used a quick bat to pull the ball and was a power hitter more in the American baseball mode. As the offseason wore on, both the Yankees and the Mets emerged as potential suitors for Matsui’s services. As the Yankees tried to determine if they wanted Bartolo Colon or Roger Clemens for 2003, they stepped up their pursuit of Matsui as well, and by mid-December, they seemed poised to land him for three years and $20-21 million. It was an easy negotiation and an easy deal. Godzilla came to New York.

Since Matsui’s arrival, no Japanese player has made quite the same impact on Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka and, to a greater extent, Kei Igawa failed to deliver as advertised, and no power hitters or All Star position players in the Ichiro or Matsui mold have arrived on U.S. soil. Now, it’s Darvish’s turn, and in Texas, where the defending AL Champs are in bad need of pitching, he’ll get a chance to star. The whole world will be watching.

Prospect Injury News: Adams, Slade, Murphy

We’re all focusing on the big league team right now, but Chad Jennings took some time to check in with VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman about some minor league business. I suggest heading over and reading the whole thing, but the important stuff I want to highlight are the injury updates…

  • David Adams is still rehabbing from that brutal ankle injury he suffered in May 2010, and he’s scheduled to arrive in Tampa for early Spring Training work next month. The Yankees added Adams to the 40-man roster last month, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Slade Heathcott figures to be behind other position players in Spring Training as he rehabs from his second left shoulder surgery in as many years. It’s his third left shoulder injury since 2009, his senior year of high school, and they’ve limited him to just 132 games over the last 2+ seasons. They’re a very real problem.
  • J.R. Murphy is 100% ready to go after missing the end of last season due to a foot/ankle injury suffered when he apparently fouled a pitch off himself. Newman says he will “predominantly” catch in 2012, as he should given the significant improvement in his defense.
  • Remember Jeremy Bleich? The Yankees highest signed pick from the 2008 draft hasn’t pitched since May 2010 due to major shoulder surgery, and Newman says he’s still rehabbing.

Open Thread: Tony Womack

(Richard Perry/The New York Times)

The 2004-2005 offseason was quite ridiculous in Yankeeland. They (theoretically) reinforced the rotation with Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson, brought back Tino Martinez, and thought they found someone to replace Miguel Cairo at second base. Seven years ago today, the Yankees signed Tony Womack to a two-year deal worth $4M, apparently mesmerized by his .307/.349/.385 batting line with the Cardinals in 2004 while ignoring the .262/.303/.352 he hit in the 2,193 plate appearances prior to that.

Predictably, Womack was terrible. He had three hits on Opening Day but then fell into a 14-for-55 funk that brought his batting line down to .233/.292/.283 on April 23rd. As an added bonus, his defense at second was rather atrocious. The Yankees needed just a month to pull the plug, moving Womack to left field and calling up Robinson Cano soon after the calendar flipped to May. Cano finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting with his strong rookie showing, and Womack finished the season by hitting .238/.257/.262 in his final 257 plate appearances, reduced to part-time duty.

Brian Cashman managed to turn Womack into two real live players after the season, trading him to the Reds for non-prospects Ben Himes and Kevin Howard. He was out of baseball a year later. The best thing Womack ever did in New York was unite Yankees fans, who hated him universally. No one liked the signing, no one liked him at second base, no one liked him in the outfield, and not one liked him at the plate. No one liked the guy at all. It was a beautiful thing, the united hatred.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. All three hockey locals are in action, but that’s pretty much it. You can talk about whatever you want here, so have at it.

Add Roy Oswalt to possible Yankee targets

AP Photo

Years ago he might have topped the list of Yankee targets. Today he’s having trouble getting a multiyear offer from any team. Roy Oswalt’s first foray into the free agent market couldn’t have come at a worse time. The market for pitching is relatively thin, yet he’s coming off a season during which he missed 53 team games with lower back injuries. Making matters worse, two years ago he was diagnosed with two degenerative discs in his back. That makes it difficult for any team to justify a multiyear offer. Now it appears that Oswalt is ready to face reality.

This morning ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick reported that Oswalt wants only a one-year deal. The idea: show his back is healthy so that he can reenter the market next year and hopefully score the multiyear deal he sought this off-season. Apparently six teams are in conversation with him, and while we don’t know the Yankees level of interest it’s difficult to see them standing on the sidelines. In some ways Oswalt fits their needs.

Despite his recent history of lower back issues — he has missed almost 100 games since 2008 with lower back injuries — Oswalt has rarely suffered in terms of performance. In 2009, when the issues really started to crop up, he produced a career worst ERA, but even then it was 4.12. He then bounced back in 2010 to start 32 games, pitch 211 innings, and finish the season with a 2.76 ERA, his best in any season since a 2.73 ERA in 141 innings in 2001. Of course, he followed that with only 139 innings in 23 starts last season, though he did still manage a 3.69 ERA and 3.44 FIP. In 2012, his age-34 season, we can still expect a certain level of effectiveness when he’s on the mound.

Even on a one-year deal, Oswalt’s back issues present a problem. We heard earlier in the off-season that the Yankees were concerned about Oswalt’s back. That matters more in terms of a multi-year deal, but it also plays a part in a one-year arrangement. The Yankees would still rely on Oswalt to make 30 starts, so if he comes up short due to the same back issues they’ll have to rely more heavily on Plan B — and then Plan C, and Plan D, and so on. That is, if the Yankees are truly concerned about the state of Oswalt’s back, they should probably stay away regardless of contract term.

Still, of all the remaining pitchers on the market Oswalt has the highest ceiling. He might be a career National Leaguer, but he’s passed through a number of tests along the way. He pitched in the hitters’ park known as Minute Maid Park, and then graduated to another hitters’ park, Citizen Bank Ballpark. He’s appeared in the postseason four times, pitching to a 3.73 ERA in 72.1 innings. He also has about a season’s worth of interleague starts, pitching to a 3.70 ERA in 199.1 innings (30 starts). His impeccable control, 2.09 BB/9 for his career, could also help him manage the transition between leagues.

One major question regarding Oswalt: why would he want to rebuild his value in New York? This isn’t an end-of-career deal, where he’s just looking to catch on with a strong contender for one last hurrah. This is a player seeking to rebuild his value and get a multiyear contract next off-season, at age 35. While it might not behoove him to hide out in a known pitchers’ haven, such as San Diego, facing the AL East offenses frequently might not be the best idea, either. He wouldn’t have to face the Yanks offense, a major plus, but he’d have a number of starts against other above-average offenses. He might prefer to remain in the NL for this reason — or, if he’d like to prove he’s not just an NL guy, he could seek a rotation spot in the much less vicious AL Central.

At the same time, Oswalt could view New York as the perfect place to rebuild his value. Remember, he did talk about retirement last year while his back ailed him. Perhaps he wants to go all-in with this last attempt. If he succeeds, he extends his career by a few years. If he fails, he rides into retirement. In that case, the Yankees could be a good fit. He’d have a chance to be the No. 2 on a sure contender. Furthermore, a solid performance on the Yankees could turn a lot of heads. It could even entice the Yankees themselves to offer him a contract after the season. Even a slightly above average performance for the Yankees could be more attractive next off-season than a well above average performance elsewhere.

Oswalt’s newfound availability puts him in the same league as Hiroki Kuroda: risky, but with plenty of upside. Oswalt has a higher ceiling, but also has the greater risk of giving you nothing. Kuroda is the better bet to give you 30 starts, but his ceiling is lower than Oswalt’s. His age is also a concern; any decline will greatly affect his performance for the Yankees. The Yankees might not end up with either, but they’d do just fine by signing either to a one-year deal.

Mailbag: Yoenis Cespedes

Run like the Cuban government is chasing you. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

Mark asks: Hi guys, just read the homegrown outfielder story and I was wondering if signing Yoenis Cespedes this winter and getting him to replace Nick Swisher next winter makes sense; perhaps in some sort of platoon with Zoilo Almonte?

Between my post on a homegrown outfielder for 2013 and Larry’s post on Swisher, we had a whole lotta comments focusing on Cespedes and his possible future role yesterday, so it’s worth a follow-up post. For what it’s worth, Kevin Goldstein reiterated yesterday that the Yankees continue to be the early favorites for the Cuban outfielder, at least as far as the consensus goes. Enrique Rojas reported that Cespedes is close to being granted residency in the Dominican Republic on Monday, which he must do in order to be declared a free agent. After the Office of Foreign Assets Control clears him and MLB gives their blessing, he’ll be free to sign. That’s expected to happen in January.

Now, assuming all that happens without a hitch, of course it would make some sense for the Yankees to sign Cespedes with an eye towards a full-time job in 2013. Considering the money he’s likely to get, I would hope they won’t need a platoon partner for him, whether it’s Almonte or someone else. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to “break him in” slowly, perhaps playing him three-quarters time rather than full-time at first, just to let him get his feet wet. But he should still play against both righties and lefties, especially since he’s a right-handed batter and would get the short end of the platoon stick.

Forgetting about the contract for a moment — just because we have no idea what it will take to sign him — let’s assume the Yankees sign Cespedes sometime in late-January or early-February, for argument’s sake. Based on these over-the-top workout videos, it’s pretty safe to assume that the guy is in “baseball shape,” meaning he can report to Spring Training on day one and not be behind the other players. In a perfect world, the Yankees would start Cespedes in High-A Tampa next season (mostly because of the weather) before moving him up to Triple-A Scranton later in the summer. It’s the same thing they did with Orlando Hernandez back in the day, and the same thing the Rangers and Angels did with Leonys Martin and Kendrys Morales. Alexei Ramirez is the best (and pretty much only) example of a Cuban position player stepping right into MLB and having instant success.

I don’t know why I’m wasting my breath saying this, but we have to be very careful to manage the Cespedes hype. The vast majority of us don’t know anything about the guy beyond those two fun YouTube videos, which were conveniently edited to make him look like a star. Ben Badler (subs. req’d) spoke to scouts who backed up the hype not too long ago, so that’s somewhat reassuring. I just get the feeling that a lot of people are expecting Cespedes to be the next Vladimir Guerrero or something, which is so ridiculously unlikely. In fact, the odds are against him even being as productive as Swisher, the guy he’d be expected to replace in 2013.

Report: Several teams kicking the tires on Burnett

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

While we all focused on which starting pitcher could join the Yankees at the Winter Meetings, a rumor about a pitcher that could be leaving the team caught us (or at least me) somewhat by surprise. The New York Post reported that the Yankees were shopping A.J. Burnett in Dallas, and that they were willing to eat $8M of the $33M left on his contract to facilitate a trade. Burnett was and probably still is considered untradeable because of his contract and poor performance over the last two years, but that wasn’t going to stop the team from trying to move him.

Today, buried in an article about the Rangers winning the negotiating rights to Yu Darvish, George King says that several teams are “kicking the tires” on acquiring Burnett, but the Yankees will have to eat more than that $8M if they want to get serious about a trade. Joe wrote exactly that earlier this month, suggesting they may need to pay about two-thirds of the remainder of his contract to make a deal happen, a la the Derek Lowe trade. Even then, they’re likely to get little in return, a fringy prospect or maybe a spare bench piece in the best case. Either way, if the Yankees intend to move the righty, they’re basically going to have to give him away.

Burnett has a partial no-trade clause in his contract, one that allows him to submit a list of ten teams he would reject a trade to each year. Clubs like the Padres, Nationals, Tigers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies are reportedly in the market for an arm, so I’m sure at least one of those teams kicking the tires is not on the partial no-trade list. The problem is that the Yankees aren’t exactly in the position to give away pitching away at the moment, and Burnett is still a safe bet to take the ball every five days and give the team innings. They might not be the highest quality innings, but they are innings. Trade him, and the rotation becomes CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and a bunch of kids in the three through nine spots. That can work, but it doesn’t mean it’s ideal.

Of course, there’s always the option of adding an arm while still trading Burnett. We know all the names by now — John Danks, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Gio Gonzalez, etc. — take your pick and that guy is almost guaranteed to be better than A.J. next season. The cost of acquiring each of those guys is very different, so at the end of the day the Yankees will have to decide between three options…

  1. Do nothing.
  2. Eat money to trade Burnett and acquire another pitcher
  3. Keep Burnett and acquire another pitcher

Number two is probably the most preferable because the team would save some money even if it’s just $6M a year for the next two years, but they would also be out an arm. Again, not the highest quality innings, but still innings. They’ll come in handy when one of the five projected starters inevitably gets hurt, and I say that only because no team makes it through the season with exactly five starters. Ultimately, I still don’t think any team will bite and trade for Burnett, and frankly the report of other teams kicking the tires isn’t all that surprising. Any decent organization would look into all available options, Burnett being one of them.

Yu Can’t Always Get What Yu Want

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

After months … hell, years of speculation, the Yu Darvish saga officially came to an end last night, at least as far as the Yankees as concerned. It was announced Monday night that the Texas Rangers won the negotiating rights to the Japanese right-hander with a $51.7M bid, the largest ever submitted in the relatively brief history of the posting process. The Rangers obviously decided Darvish would be a better investment than C.J. Wilson, a pretty darn good pitcher they know better than anyone. The Yankees, on the other hand, didn’t seem all that interested in getting involved in a bidding war.

Soon after the news broke, Marc Carig reported that the Yankees submitted what was essentially a safety bid. If other teams were tapped out financially this late in the offseason and Darvish fell into their laps, then great. Those were the terms under which they were willing to add the guy to their team. That obviously didn’t happen though, and it sure doesn’t seem like the Yankees will be terribly disappointed. They’ve been very passive in their pursuit of pitching this offseason, at least big name pitching like Darvish, Wilson, and Mark Buehrle. Call them cheap if you want, just don’t expect me to take you seriously if you do.

“I think like with anything else you learn over time … I think we’re more prepared today than we have been in the past,” said Brian Cashman when asked about the possibility of pursuing Darvish during his end-of-season press conference last month, obviously alluding to the Kei Igawa disaster. Cashman and then-manager Joe Torre reportedly had to ask Igawa what his best pitch was during his first season in New York, a clear sign they didn’t do their homework and based their decision to pursue the guy on emotional reaction rather than informed opinion. Emotional reactions are pretty much the worst kind of reactions, especially when it comes to making baseball decisions, but the Yankees have definitely moved away from that type of thinking in recent years. If they hadn’t, Jesus Montero would have been long gone, traded for whatever the flavor of the week was after Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies.

We know the Yankees had been scouting Darvish since at least 2008, so they certainly did their homework this time around. Special advisor and former GM Gene Michael saw him, both scouting directors Billy Eppler (pro) and Damon Oppenheimer (amateur) saw him, I’m willing to bet former Padres and current D’Backs GM Kevin Towers saw him (at least on video) when he was on the staff last year, and I’m sure a small army of scouts and other advisors saw him as well. The Yankees gathered information over a long period of time and made their decision, exactly like they should have. We might not agree with the decision to not make an aggressive play for Darvish (I don’t), but there’s nothing we can do about it.

From here, nothing changes for the Yankees. They still need pitching, still need to shore up the bench, still need to add some general depth pieces, stuff like that. Unless they decide to dance with Scott Boras about Edwin Jackson, any starting pitching solution will likely come on a short-term, relatively low-risk deal, which is definitely preferable at this point. Darvish is risky, but he’s also incredibly talented. The kind of talent you’d usually roll the dice with. There’s a chance Cashman and Yankees will end up regretting their half-hearted pursuit of the righty, but I also don’t blame them for not submitting a bid north of $50M.