The Expensive Luxury will return

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Brian Cashman didn’t want Rafael Soriano, and frankly, the Yankees didn’t really need him. Ownership, or more accurately team president Randy Levine, wanted Soriano after losing out on Cliff Lee and various other free agent pitchers, and he who signs the checks makes the rules. Soriano agreed to a three-year contract worth $35M in mid-January, and the Yankees had themselves a shiny new eighth inning toy. A few month later, the right-hander was out with an elbow problem and eventually relegated to seventh inning worth.

Andrew Marchand reported on Wednesday that no, Soriano will not opt out of the two years and $25M left on his contract. The move isn’t official, but I’m not sure if something like this is ever officially reported anyway. Marchand just told us what we already knew though. There’s almost no chance Soriano would get that kind of cash on the open market after dealing with more injury troubles in 2011, so even if he’s unhappy, there’s a financial incentive to stay in New York. We’ve all been stuck at jobs we didn’t like, this isn’t much different.

I didn’t like the contract and chances are you didn’t like the contract either. There’s so little chance of a middle reliever being worth that kind of money; it basically takes optimal usage and the highest of high-leverage spots each time out, something no manager in history ever does. Soriano is overpaid, yes, but he’s not useless. He was pretty good in the ALDS for one, and the Yankees have to expect David Robertson‘s performance to decline next year just because relief pitchers never repeat seasons like that. That doesn’t mean Robertson will be bad in 2012, he just won’t be as amazing as he was in 2011. Soriano provides some high-end insurance.

At the end of the day, Soriano is luxury pretty much no other team can afford, and he’ll continue to be one next year. The Yankees didn’t need a new eighth inning guy … heck, they didn’t even need a new seventh inning guy, but they got one anyway simply because they can. They had the money to spend so they spent it on the biggest name left on the market, even if he was a square peg forced into a round hole.

Noesi roughed up in winter ball debut

The 2011 MiLBY Awards are out, and you can vote for the various categories by clicking the link and sorting through the tabs. A few Yankees farmhands are up for awards, including Mason Williams (Best Short Season Hitter), Ryan Flannery (Best High-A Reliever), Branden Pinder (Best Short Season Reliever), and Abe Almonte (Best High-A Game). Voting ends tomorrow.

In other news, Marty Caswell reports that Triple-A Scranton hitting coach Butch Wynegar interviewed for the Padres vacant hitting coach position today. Wynegar has been coaching Yankees minor leagues since 2008, I believe.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (11-10 loss to Scottsdale in ten innings) Tuesday’s game
Corban Joseph, 2B: 3 for 6, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 E (throwing, missed catch) – three errors in nine games, a Nunezian pace
Rob Segedin, LF: 0 for 4, 1 R, 2 BB, 2 K
Dan Burawa, RHP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HB, 1-0 GB/FB – 26 of 47 pitches were strikes (55.3%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2-0 GB/FB – ten of 17 pitches were strikes (58.8%)

DWL Licey (9-4 loss to Toros) Tuesday’s game
Hector Noesi, RHP: 1.1 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 3-1 GB/FB – he’s on a strict pitch count while pitching out of Licey’s rotation … hopefully he’s just shaking off some rust after not pitching for about three weeks … I usually update all the Caribbean leagues on Sundays, but Noesi’s important enough for mid-week updates whenever he starts

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (6-3 loss to Peoria) Wednesday’s game
Rob Segedin, LF: 1 for 4, 1 K
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 2 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B – broke up the no-hitter with a fifth inning single
David Phelps, RHP: 3.1 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 4-1 GB/FB – 49 of 75 pitches were strikes (65.3%) … the desert hasn’t been kind to him so far, but at least he got stretched out to 75 pitches this time
Chase Whitley, RHP: 2.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-1 GB/FB – 19 of 31 pitches were strikes (61.3%)

Open Thread: World Series Game One

Damn hippies. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

So, who ya got? I’m thinking Rangers is seven. I don’t think they’ll run away with it mostly because the middle of the Cardinals order won’t flail at the same junk off the plate like the non-Miggy Tigers hitters did in the ALCS, and that alone will keep them in games. It’s worth mentioning that three of Texas’ four starters are left-handed, and that will neutralize a big bat in Lance Berkman. Octavio Dotel will be pretty important because he destroys righties and outside of Josh Hamilton, all of Texas’ big bats are right-handed. I’m just hoping for good games more than anything, no lopsided blowouts please.

Anyway, here is your open thread for the night. Game One of the 2011 World Series starts at 8pm ET and can be seen on FOX, and the weather in St. Louis

The Biggest Hit of the Season

Earlier this morning I listed the five biggest hits of the Yankees season using WPA, but I think we all know that isn’t a perfect metric. It’s great for reference but has little analytical value because it lacks context. Context in terms of who is batting, who is pitching, the team’s place in the standings, so on and so forth. The biggest hit of the Yankees season, or at least what I think was the biggest hit of the Yankees season, didn’t make this morning’s list.

Let’s set the stage. The calender had just flipped to September, and there was much rejoicing because Jesus Montero was finally a big leaguer. The Yankees were in Fenway Park and were one game back of the almighty Red Sox in the loss column, having closed the gap in the AL East from two games to half-a-game over the four previous days. We had no idea the Sox were in full collapse mode at the time, and this game was one New York really needed if they were serious about winning the division.

The Yankees scored one-run off Jon Lester in the first inning, but it could have been more had Montero not struck out with the bases loaded in his first career at-bat. Boston scored a pair of runs off A.J. Burnett in the fourth inning on a Dustin Pedroia homer to dead center, and the score remained 2-1 into the seventh inning. Former Yankee Al Aceves was on the mound was on the mound for the Sox, having just pitched around two singles, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch the inning prior.

The seventh inning started with a six-pitch strikeout by Nick Swisher, but Andruw Jones got the party started by drawing a one-out walk after a 14-pitch at-bat, the second longest plate appearance of the Yankees season. In came pinch-runner Chris Dickerson, who moved to second after Aceves hit Montero with a pitch. That’s what the box score says, but in reality the pitch just grazed the front of his jersey. The Yankees needed baserunners at the time, so they were taking them any way they could. After 42 pitches and four outs, Aceves was done and Daniel Bard marched out of the bullpen.

(click to embiggen)

Russell Martin was up next, having singled to left last time up after a ground out and strikeout in his first two at-bats. Bard was not messing around, starting Martin off with two sliders down and away for two quick swings and misses. The Yankees’ catcher was already down in the count 0-2, and he had yet to see the triple-digit heat. Bard’s third pitch was a 97 mph fastball up for ball one, the fourth pitch a 98 mph fastball just off the plate for ball two. I remember watching that pitch on television and wondering how in the world he laid off it. The fifth pitch was another 98 mph fastball, this one well outside for another ball. Just getting the count back full after falling into an 0-2 hole against a dominant power pitcher was a minor miracle.

The fastball wasn’t working, so Bard went back to the down and away slider. Martin fouled it off to stay alive, stretching the at-bat to at least seven pitches. The next pitch, a 97 mph heater was a mistake pitch up the zone, but that’s the point of working the count. The more pitches a pitcher has to throw in an at-bat, the more likely he is to make a mistake. Martin jumped all over the pitch, driving it into the right-center field gap. Both Dickerson and Montero were running on the 3-2 pitch, perhaps to avoid the double play, and both came around to score. Martin doubled but it was effectively a triple because he took third on the throw to the plate.

The hit, which registered at +0.37 WPA, turned that 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. Eric Chavez pinch-hit for Eduardo Nunez one batter later and drove in Martin for an all-important insurance run, but that’s almost an afterthought. Martin’s hit gave his team the lead and completely silenced the Fenway crowd, a crowd that came to the park knowing the Sox were 11-3 against the Yankees at that point of the season. That record didn’t matter though, because a few innings later, after Mariano Rivera froze Adrian Gonzalez with a cutter for strike three, the two teams were tied atop the division.

The Yankees never looked back after that. They took over sole possession of the AL East three days later with a win over the Blue Jays, and they did nothing but increase that lead the rest of the way. The Red Sox spiraled into a tailspin in September, losing 19 of their final 26 games to complete The Collapse. Martin’s go-ahead double on that Thursday evening in New England didn’t start the fall of the Red Sox, but I sure love pretending it did. That one swing seemed to change everything for both teams.

Yankees decline Damaso Marte’s 2012 option

The Yankees have declined their 2012 club option for Damaso Marte, the team announced today. This should not be a surprise as there was no chance they were going to bring the lefty back at $4 million after missing the majority of the last three seasons with shoulder troubles. He will receive a $250,000 buyout instead.

The Yankees signed Marte to a three-year deal worth $12 million after the 2008 season, a rather curious decision since they could have simply picked up his $6 million option for 2009 and avoided a long-term deal. He gave them just 31 innings during the life of the contract (6.39 ERA), and none this past season. On the bright side, he was pretty awesome in the 2009 playoffs, retiring all twelve men he faced in the ALCS and World Series. Just say no to multi-year contracts for relievers, folks.

Not Fun Fact: On a dollars-per-inning basis, Marte ($387k/IP) was a worse deal than Carl Pavano ($275k/IP). Yikes. Pedro Feliciano will fill the designated injured LOOGY role next season.

Why Darvish makes sense for the Yankees

It appears that the free agent starting pitcher market will gain one more member. While C.J. Wilson appears to head the class currently, we’ve long heard that Japanese phenom Yu Darvish could go through the posting process and head stateside this winter. According to Kyodo News, via JapanBall.com, Darvish plans to ask his team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, to post him after his season ends early next month. A team source says that Nippon Ham will grant the request should Darvish officially make it. Darvish has since denied the report, but he has every reason to do so. Again, his season is not over, as the Fighters still have the Climax Series ahead of them, and perhaps the Japan Series.

At this point it’s difficult to determine exactly how interested the Yankees are in Darvish’s services. As Moshe Mandel wrote on Monday, it’s tough to believe what anyone says regarding Darvish. The blind posting system lends itself to misinformation campaigns. If the Yankees truly are interested, they have no reason to broadcast that fact. They’ll certainly put in a bid, even if it’s only to drive up the price by feigning interest. It’s the aggressiveness of the bid that’s in question.

Yesterday on The Yankee Analysts, David P of Yankees Source provided first-hand scouting information on Darvish. It’s worth the full read, since it reveals information we likely won’t see anywhere else. My two main takeaways: 1) Though he’s an established star in Japan, to an MLB team he’s really a top-tier prospect, and 2) he’s already answered a number of challenges in his career. Again, the entire article gets RAB’s highest level recommendation.

Now that you’re more familiar with Darvish himself, let’s place him in the context of the Yankees needs and resources. Obviously they’ll hunt for pitching this off-season. Even if they bring back CC Sabathia they could certainly use another arm atop their rotation. C.J. Wilson is the only other realistic possibility on the free agent market, and he’d likely cost the Yankees in the $100 million neighborhood (I’d still consider 5/90 the most likely case). He’ll also cost the Yankees a first-round draft pick in 2012, making for the second straight first rounder they’ll have lost. That’s usually a worthy sacrifice for a top-flight pitcher. But the Yankees might do better with Darvish.

For starters, the posting system provides the Yankees a huge advantage. That’s straight money, with no luxury tax or payroll implications attached. If they want to pull a Red Sox and plunk down a $50 million bid, they can do that with no additional penalty. As we saw with Daisuke Matsuzaka, the ensuing contract likely won’t come near the deal that Wilson will eventually sign. That means a lower overall payroll, which allows the Yankees more resources to fill out other roster spots. At this point we can loop back to David’s scouting report and see that there’s a chance that Darvish is straight better than Wilson. Baseball provides little in the way of guarantees. A smart gamble can make all the difference, and it appears that Darvish could be that smart gamble.

At the same time, a smart gamble is still a gamble. Darvish faces many challenges when coming to the US. All around the baseball world, from reporters to fans, I’ve seen the sentiment that the Kei Igawa experience has scared off the Yankees from Japanese pitchers. Few have had long-term success, and two of the most recent transitions, Matsuzaka and Igawa, have flopped badly. Even more recently, Kenshin Kawakami spent his second American baseball season in AA, while Koji Uehara had to make a bullpen transition. But at the same time, we don’t exactly have a long track record of Japanese pitchers to judge. Only 37 Japanese-born players have ever pitched an inning in the majors, and only 14 have topped even 200 career innings. Narrowing the field further, only six have made 100 or more career starts, and only one has made more than 200 starts.

Part of the narrative explaining Japanese pitchers’ relative lack of success is the wholesale changes they face when coming to the States. Culture shock is but one aspect. A change in routine might be more important. Japanese pitchers throw once a week and spend their days training for that routine. It takes a complete change in routine and training regiment to pitch on the MLB five-day schedule. Many pitchers cannot make that adjustment — Matsuzaka, reportedly, would not change his routine despite the different environment. But I refer to the second takeaway from David’s post. Darvish has already answered a number of challenges in his career. It gives me more faith that he can successfully transition to MLB.

The Yankees’ most abundant asset is their capital. Their win-now, win-always management style means draft picks become scarce. That style can also lead to an out-of-hand payroll. With Darvish the Yankees have a perfect opportunity. They can add a potential star — a young potential star — using only their most abundant resource. They also avoid payroll bloat, since Darvish’s contract figures to come in much lower than Wilson’s. There are risks involved, for sure. While there are indications that Darvish can handle the transition, there is no guarantee. There’s also no guarantee that his stuff plays up in the majors. But there are no guarantees with Wilson, either. It’s not an either-or, in that the Yankees can decline to pursue both. But if they do want to add a top-flight starter to the rotation, Darvish could be the man. He fits their M.O. perfectly.

What Went As Expected: CC Sabathia

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look back at what went right, what went wrong, and what went as expected during the 2011 campaign.

(AP Photo/Rob Carr)

There are few things in baseball than qualify as sure things, but CC Sabathia qualifies as a sure thing. The big left-hander can be counted for a plethora of high-quality innings year after year, and that’s exactly what he gave the Yankees in 2011. If you want to build a fun narrative, you can say Sabathia did it while performing with the pressure of having to be The Guy in a rotation that was full of question marks on Opening Day.

The season started with reports of weight loss, up to 30 lbs. thanks to a Captain Crunch-free diet. Sabathia cruised through Spring Training and opened the season with a win over Justin Verlander, holding the Tigers to two earned runs over six innings. He two-hit the Twins across seven scoreless next time out, then allowed one run in 5.2 IP to the Red Sox. CC finished the month of April with a 2.25 ERA in 40 IP, and he continued to pitch well into mid-June (3.39 ERA in 114 IP). Something seemed to click on June 25th, however.

Sabathia struck out nine Rockies across eight one-run innings that day, walking just one. Five days later he struck out 13 Brewers across 6.2 scoreless innings, tying his career high in strikeouts. Eleven whiffs in seven scoreless against the Indians followed that, then nine whiffs in a complete game shutout of the Rays followed that. On July 26th, Sabathia set a new career high with 14 strikeouts, flirting with a perfect game against the Mariners. From June 25th through July 26th, a span of seven starts, the big lefty allowed just five runs in 54.2 IP, striking out 72 and walking just 16. Opponents hit just .166/.232/.219 off him during those seven games. It was easily the best regular season stretch of his Yankees career.

That July 26th game against the Mariners featured a pair of rain delays, the first in the sixth inning (about 30 minutes) and the second in the eighth inning (about 14 minutes). Sabathia walked three batters in a row after the second delay, giving way to David Robertson in the eventual win. CC seemed to struggle with his control within the strike zone the rest of the season, because he still wasn’t walking anyone, just giving up a ton of hits. Sabathia allowed exactly ten hits in four of his next ten starts, plus nine and seven hits in the other two. He was still piling up a ton of strikeouts (45 in 42.1 IP) and not walking anyone (just five), but the hits were falling in and his homerun rate (six homers through his first 168.2 IP) had started to regress (nine in those 42.1 IP, including five solo shots by the Rays on August 12th).

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Sabathia stumbled to the finish, with a 4.30 ERA and a .314/.358/.502 opponent’s batting line through his final nine starts. Some blame it on the rain delay game, some blame it on his increasing weight, some blame it on the six-man rotation used in the second half, and some blame it on something else entirely. The ALDS was a total mess, Game One was postponed due to rain after an inning and a half, then CC lost to Verlander three days later in the “new” Game Three. He was one of many relievers to come out of the bullpen in Game Five as well. All told, Sabathia allowed six runs in 8.2 IP against the Tigers, uncharacteristically walking eight while striking out eleven. The Yankees lost the series in five, and that was that.

Despite the slow finish, 2011 was Sabathia’s best season in pinstripes. His strikeout rate (8.72 K/9) was the second best of his career, his walk rate (2.31 BB/9) was the third best of his career, his ground ball rate (46.6%) was the third best of his career, and his homerun rate (0.64 HR/9) was the best of his career. After three straight years of enjoying sub-.300 BABIPs, he had to live with a .318 mark in 2011. Sabathia logged 237.1 IP (!) during the regular season, his fifth (!!) straight season over 230 IP (!!!). Only twice all year did he fail to complete at least six innings in a start, and both times he went 5.2 IP.

Whether you prefer bWAR or fWAR, this was the second best season of Sabathia’s career (6.9 bWAR and 7.1 fWAR), trailing only that monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers (7.1 and 7.6, respectively). His 3.00 ERA was the best by a Yankees starter since David Cone in 1997 (2.82), and his 8.71 K/9 was the best since Roger Clemens in 2002 (9.50). He also became the first Yankee to throw 230+ IP in three straight seasons since Ed Figueroa (1976-1978). This is nothing new for Sabathia though, he’s spoiled us by being this great since the day he signed his contract, a contract he will inevitably opt-out of a few days after the end of the World Series.