A parable: From riches to Rags

Dave Righetti amidst his July 4, 1983 no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine)

Once upon a time, the Yankees pulled off a coup. In November of 1978, the Yankees traded Mike Heath, Sparky Lyle, Larry McCall, Dave Rajsich, Domingo Ramos and some cash to the Texas Rangers for Juan Beniquez, Mike Griffin, Paul Mirabella, Greg Jemison and former first round draft pick Dave Righetti. When the Yanks signed Goose Gossage, incumbent closer Sparky Lyle wanted out, and the Bombers, as Murray Chass wrote, “salivated over Righetti.”

“All of the reports on him are super,” team president Al Rosen said. “He might be the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues. [Scout] Jerry Walker thinks we have another Guidry, but I don’t think that’s possible.”

Righetti, then just 20, made his debut as a September call-up in 1979. He started three times that fall and went 0-1 but with a 3.63 ERA. He walked 10 in 17.1 innings — six in his Major League debut — and struck out 13. But in 1980, he hit a roadblock. Expected to make the team out of Spring Training, he struggled during the Grapefruit League and spent the year at AAA Columbus. Faced with what his pitching coach called “unreasonable expectations,” Righetti struggled to find consistency and would not return to the Majors until 1981 when he stuck around for good.

On May 23, Righetti came up to take a spot in the rotation vacated by a trade. The hard-throwing lefty dazzled. He had the command that had eluded him throughout 1980, and the Yanks stuck with him. In 105 innings spanning 15 starts, he went 8-4 with a 2.05 ERA, struck out 89 with a league-best 7.6 K/9 IP and walked 38. He beat Milwaukee twice in the ALDS and Oakland once in the ALCS before succumbing to the Dodgers in the World Series.

In 1982, his control eluded him a bit. He went 11-10 with a 3.79 ERA and struck out 163 in 183 innings, but he also walked 108. It was a down year, and one he would out-pitch in 1983. That year, he became the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game, and he did it on George Steinbrenner‘s birthday as well. He 14-8 with a 3.44 ERA in 217 innings, and the Yanks were well on their way to developing an ace.

Yet, after a 2.1-inning start against the Indians on September 18, 1983, Dave Righetti would not make another Major League start until 1992 when he was with the Giants, pitching 3000 miles away from the mercurial Yankees. The Yankees, you see, decide — or rather George Steinbrenner unilaterally decided — that, with the departure of Gossage, Dave Righetti would become the closer. And he would pitch only in the 9th inning, as the Boss made perfectly clear year after year.

“He is going to be the closer,” Steinbrenner said in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile on Rags. “He will be brought in in the ninth inning. Period. I’m the only one who knows how to use him. I’ve told my manager and coaches, ‘If you reach for him too early, you’ll be reaching for the next train home.'”

Six years before that proclamation though, the drama played out in the pages of the newspaper. Righetti found out that he would be closing when his brother read a report in the paper, and the Yanks’ explanation for it was quixotic at best. As Steve Aschburner wrote:

How smart is [Steinbrenner]? According to him, Righetti is a natural to replace Gossage. He breaks out the numbers: In the first two innings, Righetti had a 1.90 earned-run average. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than 4-1. Opponents batted just .190 in those innings. By contrast, Righetti’s ERA after his first two innings jumped to 4.06, his strikeout-walk ratio dropped to 2-1 and opponents averaged .255. If Righetti could do so well in the first two innings, Steinbrenner reasoned, he could do it in the last two.

And so a closer was born. Instead of finding another reliever to take over the ninth inning spot, George went with the hard-throwing left-hander who had enjoyed success as a closer. It was a typical George Steinbrenner Mid-1980s move.

Over the next few years, the Yankees would toy with the idea of moving Righetti back into the rotation. The team could never quite find the starting pitcher they needed to overcome years of missing the playoffs, but the Boss always wanted to keep Righetti in that ever-important closer role. He never wanted to be a reliever. “David didn’t want to become a reliever. He was worried he would fail and be out of baseball. He could probably have been a 20-game winner for five or six years and made twice as much money,” Righetti confidant Bill Goodstein said to Sports Illustrated.

Yet, as 210 other players wore pinstripes throughout his tenure as a Yankee reliever, Righetti bore the brunt of Spring Training rumors. Will he or won’t he start? “People always ask me how I can keep so quiet,” Righetti said. “Well, sooner or later, you cause yourself more problems by talking.”

But by 1990, he was clearly fed up with it, and after the season, he jumped to the Giants as a free agent. A Yankee fan by birth, he left behind the pinstripes. “I wish Yankee fans appreciated me as a reliever. They’ve never accepted me because the team has never stuck behind me as a reliever. And because I’ve never complained, they think I don’t stand up for myself. They think I’m a patsy,” he said a few months before leaving.

Righetti’s Yanks finished second twice as he closed, but then they slipped down in the standings. By 1990, they were a seventh place team with their homegrown closer and erstwhile starter logging just 53 innings on a staff that put together a league-worst 4.21 ERA.

This year, Righetti triumphed. He won the World Series as the pitching coach of the Giants, and he captured the ring that had eluded him while a member of the Yankees. He did so with four homegrown starters pitching on a staff modeled after Guidry. They lead the NL in ERA and strike outs and allowed the second-most walks in the NL. The Yankees of the 1980s meanwhile always had to grapple with a harsh reality: Perhaps moving a hard-throwing left-handed starter to the bullpen to fill a role that didn’t need filling by such a promising young arm was not the best move for a franchise always searching for homegrown pitching.

Open Thread: One Year Ago Today

(AP Photo)

That was a good day, wasn’t it? If you want to re-live the magic, here’s our World Champions thread. If you want to go back even further, here’s the Game Thread. We needed seven freakin’ spillovers that night. To be quite honest I don’t remember much of the game itself. I certainly remember Hideki Matsui‘s two-run homer to open the scoring, Damaso Marte striking out Chase Utley and Ryan Howard on six total pitches, and of course the final out. I remember some other stuff (Matsui’s double to right-center, Howard’s homer), but that’s what jumps to mind immediately. What about you?

Once you’re done reminiscing, use this as your open thread. The Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are all playing, so at list there’s some decent local sports action on the tube. Talk about whatever, just be cool.

Says Joe: You all have an assignment for the open thread. You are to watch this video:

And then tell us which commenter Carl most resembles.

How big a role will income tax play in Cliff Lee’s decision?

We’ve heard about this one before, and we’ll surely hear plenty about it in the next month-plus. Residents of Texas pay no income tax to the state. The Rangers, therefore, have a competitive advantage. They can offer a player slightly less money than a rival and still have a better overall offer, since the player will not have to deduct those taxes from his paycheck. CNBC’s Darren Rovell breaks down the issue for what certainly won’t be the last time.

Normally this is where I’d blockquote a relevant portion of text and then elaborate, but I’m not sure that’s appropriate here. Rovell gets something wrong early in the article: “So assuming Lee moves residency from Arkansas, which has a top individaul tax rate of seven percent, to somewhere in Texas, he’d save a significant amount of money over living in New York.” The problem with that statement is that baseball players are not taxed based on residency. They are taxed on the location at which they earned their salaries. That doesn’t just include the home state, but all the states they visit throughout the season. It does change the situation a little bit.

Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times covered the issue last spring in regards to then-Angels pitcher Darren Oliver.

If opening day is the best day of the year for professional athletes, then April 15 — tax day — is probably the worst. Especially now that 20 of the 24 states with franchises in at least one of the four major pro leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball — have laws that require visiting athletes to pay state income tax for each game they play there.

Lee would still pay a lower state income tax as a Texas Ranger, but it’s not to the level Rovells suggests, which is $15.13 million over a five-year span. That changes the result of Rovell’s analysis, which has the Rangers needing to offer $107.2 million against a New York offer of $120 million.

I’m also surprised that Rovell didn’t bring up the endorsement difference. I’m not sure what that difference would be, but I would assume that there are more, and more lucrative, endorsement opportunities in New York. As we saw with Sabathia and Subway, there doesn’t seem to be a waiting period. If a name as big as Lee signs in New York, he’ll probably make endorsement dollars fairly quickly. Endorsements, however, are where residency comes into play. Those are taxed based on your state of residence. But there are a number of states that don’t require residents to pay income tax — including Florida, where Derek Jeter has established residency.

During the negotiations, though, this matter probably won’t matter much. A 2007 study notes that, “Unlike the pre-tax salaries reported in the media, MLB players compare after-tax salaries when considering offers, according to the authors.” In other words, this issue will be out in the open as Lee negotiates with potential suitors. It won’t be something that the Yankees leave out or anything like that.

Given all that we know and have read about this situation, it doesn’t appear as though there is an enormous advantage to living in tax-free Texas. While Lee would pay no state taxes for 81 games, he’d still pay other states’ income taxes for road games. The added endorsement opportunities in New York, then, could cover some, if not all, of the difference. And whatever is not covered will be by the New York checkbook.

I wouldn’t give this issue much more thought going forward.

Baseball America’s Top Ten Yankee Prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The gang at Baseball America is currently in the process of posting their individual top ten prospects lists for each team, and so far they’ve covered the Orioles and Red Sox. The Yankees’ list is scheduled to go live on their website next Wednesday (it was supposed to be this Friday, but they re-arranged the schedule), but the print edition of the magazine already contains the list. I got my hands on it with some help from reader Avi, so here it is with a tiny little snippet from the scouting report…

  1. Jesus Montero, C: “may be the best all-around hitter in the minors, capable of hitting .300 with 30-plus homers annually … best-case scenario is that he develops into the second coming of Mike Piazza”
  2. Gary Sanchez, C: “has a higher ceiling than anyone in the organization, including Jesus Montero”
  3. Dellin Betances, RHP: “If Betances can build on the progress he made last season, he’ll be a frontline starter for New York … he still could wind up in the mix to eventually replace Mariano Rivera
  4. Manny Banuelos, LHP: “has the poise to move quickly, and now he has frontline stuff”
  5. Andrew Brackman, RHP: “For some scouts, Brackman’s whole is less than the sum of his parts, earning comparisons to A.J. Burnett and Kyle Farnsworth”
  6. Austin Romine, C: “Montero has more star potential with his bat, Romine is a more well-rounded player … may become trade bait”
  7. Hector Noesi, RHP: “lacks the breaking ball to pitch near the front of a rotation, but his fastball command should allow him to be a No. 4 or 5 starter”
  8. Eduardo Nunez, SS: “Yankees see him in the Chone Figgins mold as a utility player”
  9. Slade Heathcott, CF: “physically resembles Brett Gardner and has some similarities to New York’s left fielder, but Heathcott should develop  more power and has a stronger arm”
  10. Brandon Laird, 3B: “profiles as a third baseman in the Kevin Kouzmanoff mode … could become trade fodder”

Montero’s a no-brainer at the top spot, and really the next four guys are interchangeable in my eyes. You could have pulled their names out of a hat and ranked them two through four that way and I wouldn’t have made much of an argument. At that point you’re splitting hairs and going by personal preference, and I prefer the three Double-A arms to the kid that has yet to appear in a full season league. That’s just me though.

Romine’s a natural fit at six, and after that you could go in any number of directions. I prefer Heathcott in that spot because of the upside, but there’s nothing wrong with Noesi, who’s a surefire big leaguer in some capacity. You all know how I feel about Nunez, so I don’t think I need to comment on him. Laird had a huge year and made some improvements defensively, so it’s not a surprise to see him jump into the top ten.

Just think, the Yanks have three pitchers in Adam Warren (2.66 FIP), David Phelps (2.65), and Ivan Nova (3.54 in Triple-A) who had great years and are knocking on the door of the big leagues, but couldn’t even crack their top ten. Then there’s Graham Stoneburner (2.73 FIP) and J.R. Murphy (.320 wOBA in Low-A as a 19 year old). The farm system is in very good shape these days;  the Yanks plenty of depth to trade from and use to plug holes at the big league level.

The Official “Don’t Even Think About It” Post

It happens every offseason. Out of nothing but pure boredom and an overdose of creativity, we’ll see suggestions about oddball players the Yankees should acquire to improve their team. Last year’s the fetish was Mark DeRosa, who would have presumably played every position under the sun while giving the regulars a chance to rest and play designated hitter for a day. Nevermind the tendon sheath he tore in his wrist late in the 2009 season, he was a perfect fit as a super-sub!

Sure enough, DeRosa played just 26 games (.241 wOBA!) in 2010 before rupturing that same tendon sheath, ending his season in early-May. All for the low low price of $6M. Rich Harden as a setup guy was another popular one, and the “trade Robbie Cano and sign Orlando Hudson” scenario had a two or three year shelf life. And, of course, there’s the always popular “sign a closer and make them a setup man” routine. As much as we might want these things to happen because we believe they make the Yankees better, they never do happen for a multitude of reasons. I doubt I need to explain them all.

Consider this post a preemptive strike. I want to cut off some of the dumb ideas before they even start, using some good old logic and reason. The offseason is a cruel mistress, it makes us think crazy things that make us wonder what the hell we were thinking when we look back on them. So let’s get to the list …

Get the trainer. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Erik Bedard

There’s no denying that Bedard is a special talent. His last two seasons with the Orioles were preposterously good (3.40 FIP, 9.3 K/9, .298 wOBA against), but you know what? That was three full years ago. Bedard has dealt with a barrage of injuries since 2008, the most serious of which were a pair of shoulder surgeries: one to repair a debridement and remove a cyst, the other to repair a torn labrum.

Bedard has made just 30 starts in the last three years, including zero in 2010. The Mariners shoveled $16.25M into his pocket since acquiring him before the 2008 season, and all they’ve gotten in return is 2.9 fWAR. There’s a ton of talent here, no denying it, but it’s bottled up in a big glass container of risk.  The heath of Bedard’s shoulder is a total unknown, and the chance of getting zero return is rather large. There’s no reason for him to receive any kind of guaranteed contract this offseason.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Vlad Guerrero

Texas unsurprisingly declined Big Vlad’s $9M option after the World Series, during which he reached base twice (one single, one walk) in 16 trips to the plate. He got some attention after putting up a monster first half (.339/.383/.580 with 18 homers and a .405 wOBA through June 30th), but he was rather pedestrian down the stretch (.327 wOBA after June 30th) and straight up terrible in the postseason (.243 wOBA in 62 plate appearances with 16 strikeouts). Vlad’s had an awesome career, but he’s a shell of his former self and the risk of total collapse is just too great at age 35 (36 on Opening Day).

Gerald Laird

(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The defense behind the plate was a sore sight for Yankee fans in 2010, and Brandon Laird’s older brother is generally considered one of the best defensive backstops in the game. He threw out 34.1% of basestealers in 2010, and over the last five years that number is a whopping 37.6%, truly top-of-the-line.

But there’s a little of a catch, and that’s that Laird can’t hit. Like, at all. He put together a whopping .207/.263/.304 (.256 wOBA) batting line in 2010, and over the last three seasons he’s hit just .238/.303/.342 (.293 wOBA). If you take out the hit by pitches and intentional walks, his on-base percentage since 2008 drops to just .269. Yeah, terrible. No amount of catcher’s defense is worth that kind of offensive cipher.

Willie Bloomquist

Yep. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

When rumors circulated that the Yanks were interested in acquiring Bloomquist at the trade deadline this year, I almost quit being a fan. Okay not really, but seriously, it was bad. Bloomquist has been worth a total, a total of -0.7 fWAR over the last four seasons, during which he’s received 1,047 plate appearance. There’s a reason teams like the Mariners and Royals are bad, and that’s because they employ players like Willie Bloomquist.

Unable to hit for power, get on base at a decent clip, or play passable defense at any of the seven defensive positions he plays, Bloomquist has basically no redeeming qualities. His versatility just means he can suck at more positions. There’s nothing to like about the guy, and if the Yanks were to sign him as a free agent, his very presence on the roster would be an insult to my intelligence and fandom. Yeah, I’m not a Bloomquist fan, but it’s justified.

* * *

The pool of free agents is something like 200 players deep this year, and that’s before non-tenders hit the market in a few weeks. These four players have very little if anything to offer the Yankees, and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. There’s either too much risk or too little return, and in some cases both. Finding better options at the same price won’t be difficult at all, and that’s the avenue the team needs to pursue.

Yankees talking sense, unlikely to pursue Crawford, Werth

Crawford could round the bases plenty of times in New York, but it doesn't seem likely (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

The Yankees would be a better team with Carl Crawford. Given his pull tendencies, Carl Crawford might be a better player with the Yankees. But that doesn’t mean that the two sides will match up for a free agent contract. Crawford might have concerns other than how many home runs he hits. The Yankees have to look at the overall picture and determine what positions most need an upgrade. This week the team has met to determine a course of action, and according to a report by Mark Feinsand of the Daily News those plans will not include Crawford or the other big name outfielder on the market, Jayson Werth.

One of Feinsand’s sources nails the issue with two crisp sentences:

“We are better with Crawford, but at that price?” a Yankees source said. “I’m not sure it’s that good of an upgrade.”

The biggest difference between Crawford and Brett Gardner is power, and even then the difference might be overstated with this year’s results. Crawford produced a career high .188 ISO, while Gardner barely cracked the .100 mark. There’s a chance that Crawford, 29, could improve on that mark, especially with the move to Yankee Stadium. But considering his .148 career ISO, I’m not sure that the Yankees can bank on that. Gardner has been the better on-base guy, at least in the past two years, while Crawford again produced a career high this year, .356. Even during his first full season Gardner was at .345, and last year produced a .389 OBP.

There are other issues with Crawford, too. While he ranked just below Gardner in UZR, Gardner can take that excellent range into center field. Crawford has expressed a desire to stay in left. He also prefers not to hit leadoff, which is perhaps the best spot for him. There’s a good chance that Gardner will take over the leadoff spot at some time in the next year or two.

The biggest advantage Crawford has is his track record. Gardner fell off in the second half, which has led many to believe that he cannot handle a full-time starting gig. Whether he can or not remains to be seen, though it’s hard to argue with the numbers he has produced in the past two seasons. Crawford, on the other hand, has been in the league since 2002, at age 20, and has had only a few truly poor seasons. He’s more of a sure thing than Gardner, but he’ll also be roughly nine times more expensive.

There is also the matter of need. All three of the Yankees outfielders produced 4 or more WAR this season, the only MLB outfield unit to do so. They can, in other words, stick with the same guys and look elsewhere for ways to improve the team. Upgrading the pitching staff, in other words, will have more of a net effect on the team’s wins and losses, since there is more room for improvement on the pitching staff. Adding an outfielder would provide improvement on the margins.

Feinsand also mentions Jayson Werth, who recently retained Scott Boras to seek out the best possible deal. He’s said to be seeking a Matt Holliday type deal, but that seems out of reach for the soon-to-be 32-year-old. Werth has thrived during his time in Philadelphia both on offense and on defense, but he faces the same issues as Crawford. Adding him provides only a marginal improvement over the current outfield corps, and he will cost more than any of them — even if he settles for a Jason Bay type deal rather than a Matt Holliday one.

There are many ways the Yankees can improve this off-season, but they should be looking to improve areas where they can realize significant improvement. That falls to the pitching staff. There might be concerns about Gardner’s ability to maintain his high OBP, but those are theoretical concerns. The Yankees have actual pitching issues, and adding an arm can provide instant, tangible improvement. We pretty much knew this heading into the off-season, but it’s nice to hear the Yankees come out and say it.

Help at catcher: Miguel Olivo

Miguel Olivo ranked second in caught stealing percentage in 2010 (Tony Dejak/AP)

Yesterday was a big day for a number of teams. Anyone who reads MLB Trade Rumors knows that a number of players hit free agency after having their options declined. There are a few interesting names among them, perhaps a few that will draw interest from the Yankees. There’s one name, though, that stands out a bit — if for no other reason than his mention in a recent post about catchers.

I’ll defer to loyal commenter Ross in Jersey, who said: “Rockies released [Miguel] Olivo, go Cash go.” They didn’t technically release him, but rather declined his $2.5 million option for 2011, opting instead to pay him $500,000 to go away. It was the second consecutive year in which a team declined Olivo’s option; after the 2009 season the Royals paid him $100,000 instead of picking up his $3.3 million option. That does sound a bit damning, but in the latest incident, at least, the Rockies might have had reasons beyond Olivo’s performance for the release.

Why would the Yankees want Olivo? Because they have a peculiar catching situation in 2011. Jorge Posada hasn’t started more than 90 games behind the plate since 2007, and might be good for only 70 or so in 2011 — he started just 78 in 2010. That leaves the bulk of the catching duties to Francisco Cervelli, which is not an ideal scenario for the Yankees. Cervelli is certainly passable in a backup role, but his defensive lapses and complete lack of power make him a poor choice to start 90 games.

There is Jesus Montero, but the Yankees can’t really count on him in 2011. He’s just 21 years old and has well-publicized defensive issues. There’s a chance he could break camp with the Yankees and start as many games behind the plate as Posada, acting as a DH otherwise, but that’s not a situation the Yankees can assume. There’s also a chance that they could deal him this off-season. Given these parameters, acquiring another catcher does make sense. But does Olivo fit the bill.

He is basically the anti-Cervelli at the plate, in that he draws basically no walks but hits for plenty of power. His career ISO is .181 and he is coming off a season that equalled that mark. For those concerned that Coors Field inflated his power numbers, he did produce a career-high .241 ISO last year while playing in Kansas City. He has also hit for power at Petco Park, though that was back in 2005. Unfortunately, his OBP leaves much to be desired. In 2010, for the first time in his career, he broke the .300 OBP barrier. But that’s less of an issue for a part-time catcher and No. 9 hitter.

On defense it appears he’s a mixed bag. He’s prone to lapses, as he’s led the league in passed balls in four of the last five years. But otherwise he seems just fine. John Dewan’s +/- rates him highly — he led the league in Defensive Runs Saved by a long shot this past season. Tom Tango’s Fan Scouting Reports also rates him favorably. Olivo can certainly throw out runners as well. Last year 42 percent of base stealers headed back to the dugout, second best in the majors (again by a long shot). His career rate is 35 percent, which is 379th all-time and 12th among active players. In other words, while he does let a few too many balls get by him, he compensates in other areas.

No, Olivo is not a perfect fit should the Yankees need a catcher in 2011. Then again, there likely isn’t an available catcher who can hit, field, and accept a less than full-time role. Olivo is one of a few catchers who has enough positives going for him that the Yankees could use him to start 70, 80 games if need be. Chances are they won’t get him, though, as a number of teams need starting catchers. But should he remain on the free agent block while the Yankees take care of big business, they could certainly find use for him.