Open Thread: So long, Sax

Melido! (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

My new thing is looking back at historical transactions, so sue me. Anyway, 18 years ago today the Yankees traded Steve Sax to the White Sox for three players: Melido Perez, Bob Wickman, and Domingo Jean. Sax’s three seasons in New York were productive (102 OPS+, two All Star Games), but he was on the downside of his career at (soon-to-be) age 32. Sure enough, he played full-time for just one more season (71 OPS+) before fading off into obscurity.

Perez, just 25 at the time, spent the 1991 season as Chicago’s swingman, but he moved right into the Yanks’ rotation in ’92. He threw 247.2 IP that year, easily the best season of his career (138 ERA+). Three seasons later (another 383.2 IP with a 92 ERA+) he was out of baseball. Wickman was a middling prospect that pitched to a 106 ERA+ in 419.1 IP in pinstripes, and was traded to the Brewers in August of ’96 for what amounted to Graeme Lloyd. He had himself a nice long big leaguer career, banking over $42M with five different teams. Jean was just an A-ball prospect at the time, but he reached the big leagues in 1993 and pitched to a 94 ERA+ in 40.1 IP for the Yanks. That was the only major league action of his career, and he was traded to the Astros after the season for Xavier Hernandez.

The Yankees were the big winners of this swap, though from what I remember people either absolutely loved Steve Sax or hated him with a passion. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember there being much of a middle ground.

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Here’s tonight’s open thread. None of the hockey or basketball locals are in action, but the National Championship game (Oregon-Auburn) is on ESPN at 8:30pm ET. I’m going to pick the Ducks just because it’s a cooler mascot than a lame old tiger. Chat about whatever, enjoy.

Putting a dollar value on the Yankees farm system

Prospects are great, we all love to follow their progress and stuff, but it’s always tough to gauge their value. It’s even tougher to gauge the value of a team’s farm system as a whole. Doug Gray at Reds Minor Leagues did just that however, using Victor Wang’s research and John Sickels’ latest round of farm system rankings to put a dollar value on each team’s far system. The Yankees check in at $140.8M, the sixth highest in the game. Interestingly, it’s split almost evenly between pitching and hitting, at $71.5M and $69.3M, respectively. Jesus Montero really has that much value, at least compared to his peers historically.

Unsurprisingly, the Royals top the list at a ridiculous $245.3M. The Rays are a distant second at $184.2M, but that doesn’t include the haul from the recent Matt Garza trade. I just wrote about the fantasy impact of Kansas City’s system at RotoGraphs, and it’s probably the best farm system I’ve ever seen. Not that I’ve been doing this minor league thing long, but damn. It’s that good.

The RAB Radio Show: January 10, 2011

Today we’re taking my post on the Yankees and Red Sox free agency spending and expanding on it a bit. I left a couple of items out, including posting fees, so Mike and I discuss those issues and others. The best part, of course, is why the Yankees have spent so much more in free agency over the last five years.

To keep up with the news, we revisit the Rafael Soriano topic for the millionth time. It seems as though people are trying to concoct different ways to get him on the team. Mike and I wonder, do they even want him in the first place?

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The major difference in spending between the Sox and Yanks

To date this winter, the Yankees have spent $12 million on other teams’ free agents. That covers just two players, Russell Martin at $4 million and Pedro Feliciano at $8 million. The Red Sox have spent just a little bit more, $157 million on Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler. It made me wonder how the teams have approached the free agent market during the last five years. We know the Yanks have spent more in general, but how much more than the Sox have they spent?

That’s where we get this little spreadsheet, which covers each team’s free agent outlays during the last five years. That is, from the winter following the 2006 season through the current off-season. You can click for a larger version.

It does seem a bit surprising that the Yankees have spent just $33.9 million more in free agency than the Sox. While fans and the media perpetually accuse the Yankees of buying their teams, the Red Sox aren’t that far behind in spending on other teams’ talent. The difference, as is made clear, comes from how each team handles its own free agents.

In those five years the Yankees have spent $477.5 million more on retaining its own free agents as the Red Sox. True, the Sox never had a Rivera, or a Jeter, or an A-Rod reach free agency, so the situations aren’t exactly comparable. The point, I think, is that much of the Yankees’ spending goes to towards retaining the players on their roster.

No one is trying to deny the Yankees’ monetary advantage. They can do things that other teams cannot. But it’s not as though they’re poaching other rosters. One winter they went nuts and spent $423.5 million on free agents — or 89 percent of their total free agency outlay over the last five years. For the most part, the Yankees use their most abundant resource as a tool to retain their own players. Most other teams don’t have that luxury.

NOTE: I forgot Kei Igawa on the Yanks’ side of the table. But I also didn’t include the posting fee for Matsuzaka. Mike and I tackled this issue on the podcast.

The Yankees’ defensive improvement since 2008

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Brian Cashman has been running the Yankees since 1998, but it wasn’t until the after the 2005 season that he gained autonomy and full control of the baseball operations. Ownership was constantly dipping its toe in the baseball ops pool before then, and the Tampa faction of executives and team officials were meddling as well. The three-year contract Cashman signed after 2005 changed all that, but he was still stuck with the same team. Jason Giambi was just four years into a seven year contract and bitter old Gary Sheffield was still around. Carl Pavano was still under contract, ditto Bernie Williams and Jaret Wright. As much as he probably wanted to, Cashman couldn’t just flip a switch to make these guys go away.

It took a few years for Cash to get rid of those guys and replace them with players he wanted, but by the end of the 2008 season the process was pretty much complete. Sheff, Bernie, and Wright were long gone, and the contracts of Pavano and Giambi had mercifully expired at long last. That allowed Cashman to seek younger players at several positions, and he did just that by acquiring Nick Swisher and signing Mark Teixeira. Robbie Cano had established himself as no worse than a legit everyday second baseman with the potential for more, and one of the outfield spots was going to Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner, whoever happened to be playing better at the time. And that was just that one offseason.

As a result of all the new blood, the team’s defense improved. It was hard not to, frankly. The Yankees were probably the worst defensive team of the decade up to that point, and bringing in just average defensive players would have been a big time help. The table on the right compares the team’s defense from 2006 through 2008 (a period starting when Cashman got his autonomy and ending with a host of albatross contracts expiring) to the defense they’ve played since. I used UZR/150 instead of straight UZR because we’re dealing with a three-year sample vs. a two-year sample, so the rate stat makes more sense. In fact, they always do, but I digress.

The scary part is that this data does not include the 2005 Yankees, which may have been the worst defensive team in the history of baseball. If we include them, we’re looking at an improvement of 70.4 runs saved per 150 defensive games, a simply staggering amount. As it stands, the Yankees made what amounts to a five win improvement defensively thanks to the moves made in recent years, all because a few more of  batted balls are converted into outs on a nightly basis.

Just three of the team’s eight fielders on Opening Day 2006 were playing the same position on Opening Day 2009, though we really should consider it four because of Alex Rodriguez. He was on the shelf in early ’09 recovering from his hip procedure, but he obviously would have been at the hot corner in Game One if healthy. The other holdovers were Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and Cano. The entire outfield alignment changed during that three year period as did the first baseman.

The change continues as well. The presumed 2011 Opening Day defensive lineup figures to have just four players playing the same position that they did on Opening Day 2009, and that includes A-Rod. The entire outfield alignment changed again, going from Johnny Damon-Brett Gardner-Xavier Nady (LF-CF-RF) to Gardner-Curtis Granderson-Nick Swisher. Jorge Posada has been replaced behind the plate by Russell Martin. Just the infield remains intact, as they will for at least the next three seasons.

The cool part is that the Yankees made all this defensive improvement without sacrificing offense. In fact, they actually got better with the bats. They led baseball with a .353 wOBA from 2006 through 2008, an offense that was 15% better than league average according to wRC+. That improved to a .356 wOBA in 2009 and 2010, 19% better than average. Younger, more athletic players led to better defense and even improved what was already the game’s best offense, who’d a thunk it?

Fan Confidence Poll: January 10th, 2011

Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card, lost in ALCS

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Matt Garza and the travails of intra-division trades

The Yankees were not particularly fazed by Matt Garza or that thing he had growing off of his chin this year. In three starts against the Yanks, Garza threw 16.2 innings of 8.10 ERA ball. Despite 14 strike outs, the Bombers drew seven walks and blasted five home runs in those three starts, and Garza hardly resembled the pitcher who threw a one-walk no-hitter against the Tigers in July.

Still, three starts does not a pitcher make, and over the past few seasons with Tampa Bay, Garza has been a reliable right-hander who has succeeded in the AL East. In his three full years with the Rays, he put up a combined 7.9 fWAR by missing bats and keeping the ball in the park. His numbers slipped a bit in 2010, but his 200 innings of pitching well above replacement level makes him a valuable commodity.

Last week, then, it was only natural for Yankee fans to ask if Garza would be a potential target. After all, he’s far better than Sergio Mitre or Ivan Nova, two pitchers still projected to be in the Yanks’ Opening Day rotation, and in fact, in his mailbag on Friday shortly before the Cubs landed Garza, Mike fielded a Garza-related question. Mike wrote an answer one could call prescient today:

He’d be an ideal target, but I can’t see the Rays trading him within the division. Andrew Friedman’s been calling the shots in Tampa Bay since the end of the 2005 season, and he’s made exactly three trades within the AL East: He acquired Chad Bradford and Gregg Zaun from the Orioles in separate deals, and he also dealt Nick Green to the Yankees. Just not gonna happen, not at a reasonable cost anyway.

As Garza went to the Cubs in the NL, the point was a moot one fairly quickly, but as fallout from the trade percolated over the weekend, the ties that bound the Yankees to Garza were perhaps a bit stronger than we first expected. The Yanks and Rays had briefly talked about Garza, but Tampa Bay wanted too much from their intra-division rival.

“We never got off the dime,” Brian Cashman said to reporters, “but strong impressions were that it would be something that would cost us more because we are in the division, kind of like Roy Halladay. We like Matt Garza and I had a conversation early in the winter and it was clear that what it would take would be more significant than I wanted to do. And there was also reluctance from them to trading within the division.”

That’s the business of baseball in a nutshell. The Mariners were so eager to trade Cliff Lee to the Rangers because it netted them one of their key division rival’s top prospects. The Blue Jays wanted Jesus Montero plus more for Halladay because such a move would have left the Doc in the AL East. In a vacuum, the Yanks knew what Garza was worth on the open market, and they knew what his AL East asking price would be. It wasn’t worth the further discussions.

Now, the Yanks and Rays could, as Chad Jennings explored this weekend, fight over some remaining pieces. Both teams have some dollars to spend and both teams need a right-handed bat and some bullpen arms, and for the Yanks, the hunt for a pitcher continues with one less arm on the market.