A Detox

It’s odd to think that not too long ago – maybe five or six years – basically all our sports information came from the mass media. If there were blogs, they were primitive at best, and I think it’s safe to say there was certainly no Twitter where we knew everything immediately, which is not always a good thing. These days, it takes perhaps an hour to figure out how people feel about every move and quote. As a kid, I woke up every morning and read the Star Ledger and watched ESPN, and that was my daily feed of information. Nothing like the waves of quotes from the beat writers, news and opinion from the blogs, and so on.

Imagine for a second that all your sports information pipelines – even the newspaper and the TV – are cut off except the barest of minimums. Weird, huh? What would I do with all those extra hours I waste reading blogs? This past week, I went on vacation with my mom, who I rarely see because she lives on the other side of the country, and my older sister. I let my mom pick the vacation type, and she settled on a cruise ship. This sounded fun, except for one thing: if there is internet on the ship, it’s most likely obscenely expensive, and the last place I want to be on a cruise ship is chained to some slow, old machine, running Internet Explorer. It would be a stark, cold-turkey change from my usual of having an IV of tweets and news feeding into my system. Neither of the people on the trip with me were into baseball (my sister asked me once why the Yankees didn’t get Tim Lincecum), and trying to discuss the possibility of Montero breaking camp or the Yankees fifth starter would have begun with making fun of me for my general baseball devotion and ended with me getting extremely exasperated.

The vacation was nice. There was lots of mother-daughter bonding. We laid in the sun together, talked about books, and so on. My only source of baseball information, though, was the ESPN ticker that I would get glimpses of as I passed the tiny little sports bar-esque area in between our stateroom and our favorite restaurant. During that week, I learned a grand total of two pieces of information: Miguel Cabrera got a DUI, and Albert Pujols declined the Cardinals’ offer. That was it. A whole week without reading absolutely anything about the Yankees.

Maybe for some of you dear readers who aren’t crazy Yankees people, this would mean that baseball as a habit might sit by the wayside for a week, but for a blogger like myself, it’s not that easy. I thought about the Yankees constantly. I tried to guess what they would be talking about over at this absolutely amazing Yankees blog you all read. I wondered if Mark Prior and Eric Chavez had fallen apart yet. I wondered what awkward thing A-Rod would do – and guessed right when I went with ‘avoid journalists.’

About halfway through the trip, as we were passing an internet cafe during a stop in a Mexican port, I was talking to my older sister about how much I missed the constant stream of information. “It’s a detox!” she told me, “When you go back, you’ll be less addicted!” This proposition, as you can imagine, just made me roll my eyes and laugh. I’d fallen much closer to the ‘absence makes the heart grow stronger,’ category of cold-turkey quitters of things. By the end of the vacation, I was practically aching to get online and see what was going on. Maybe this means I have a problem, but I was willing to ignore it in favor of the enormous bundle of Spring Training pictures I knew awaited me, all the miscellaneous information I’d missed out on.

Sports have been changed by the internet, and as a modern-day sports fan, I was accustomed to always having what I needed at my fingers. It was extremely strange to not be able to open my computer to look at the stats of any particular player or even check the latest breaking news. It was an experience, to say the least, to be lingering around to read the two scrolling lines of the ESPN ticker and know that was all I was going to be able to get for a week. I had a lot of fun on vacation, certainly, but it was a strange kind of culture shock to not read anything about my beloved Yankees. I’m sure you can all imagine what I did when I got home, though, and I’m quite to say that despite that I have to go back to work on Monday, I can also be hooked into Twitter, read blogs, and talk about baseball with friends. Thank Mo.

Will They Panic?

What if the unthinkable happens? What if…

…On the morning of June 17th, Brian Cashman stumbles through his master suite at the Four Seasons and goes old-school: He eschews his iPhone and its screaming in-box for the soothing, grammar school comfort of multicolored pie charts and bar graphs scattered across the complimentary USA Today sports section. The Yankees’ lame duck GM cracks the paper, hoping to confirm that he’s not, in fact, trapped inside a real-life Kafka-esque nightmare after all. But after glimpsing the current AL East standings, his worst fears are realized.

Actually, that’s not completely accurate.

Cash’s worst fears were realized in the clubhouse the previous night. Following a six-run, eighth-inning implosion against a depleted Rangers lineup, Rafael Soriano leapt onto the edge of a training table and screamed, “Look at me! Look! I am Rafael! I have only closer’s genes!” It took nearly twenty minutes and four Abba-Zabas for Mo to finally talk him down.

But Soriano’s performance thus far has the Yankees rethinking his role as preordained eighth-inning assassin as well. After a stellar three-week stretch in April, in which he pitched 12 consecutive hitless innings, the Yankees’ $35 million set-up man has seen his K/9 droop to 5.1 and his HR/9 spike to 2.2 (versus career rates of 9.6 and 0.9 respectively). Some trace Sori’s recent struggles back to his first official save attempt of the season, a June 1st ninth-inning, four-homer meltdown in front of a capacity Sunday afternoon Stadium crowd against Toronto.

Unsurprisingly, the rump of the following day’s Daily News depicted a close-up of a crestfallen Soriano beneath a screaming headline that read: “Sori-Performance.”

But while the Soriano situation is disconcerting, it’s hardly dire. More than anything, it reflects the inherent Jekyll-and-Hyde volatility of relievers. As inauspicious as his season has been, Soriano could strikeout the side today and remain virtually unhittable for the remainder of the season. Or, he could completely flame-out.

But back to the now and the reality wrought by the polychromatic wonderland of the USA Today’s MLB standings pages. The Yankees’ current record stands at 31-38, which puts them in fourth place, 15 games behind the surging Red Sox. Though not insurmountable, it’s the club’s worst start since 1992, when the team found itself at 31-34 on June 19th while stammering to a 76-86 overall record. But that was a rare Yankee team in upheaval and transition, one that was expected to make due with a combined 37 starts from Greg Cadaret, Shawn Hillegas, Sam Militello, and Jeff Johnson.

The premature grave dancing this time around has been frenetic. In a bloviating drive time rant, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd has referred to the Yankees as “old, dead, and not cool anymore” and to Mariano Rivera as “cooked.” Peter Gammons has already called the Red Sox’s third World Series championship in eight years a fait accompli. “Yankees suck” has become the universal battle cry for baseball fans everywhere. Its chants have broken out during MLB games where the Yankees aren’t even participants and in minor league ballparks across the country in which neither team has a Yankee affiliation.

A seven-and-under T-ball team named the Yankees were even Yankees Suck’ed off the field in Lansing, Michigan.

As dark as things seem at the moment, Cash can’t help but crack an impish smile. June and July are always such heady times for Red Sox fans; it’s when their team inflicts its damage and sows its consternation among the Yankees’ fan base. Somewhere in New England, there must be an exhibit of all the bejeweled mid-season MLB championship trophies the Sox have captured throughout the years, alongside mid-season MVP and CY Young awards inscribed with the names of Benzinger, Gedman, Everett, Hurst, and Beckett. Hermetically secured and displayed behind four-inch-thick bulletproof glass cases, they comprise the Wailing Wall of Red Sox Nation, as fans travel from as far away as Newton and drive up to two-and-a-half hours to pay homage to their splendor and glory.

In other words, Boston will collapse. They always do.

But while a June 9th sweep at the hands of Boston unleashed both a rapacious local press and the new media jackals, a recent four-game sweep, meted out by the hapless Indians and culminated by a Justin Germano four-hit complete game shutout on getaway day, was what set the baseball world into an overdrive of roofie-like Yankee-hating ecstasy.

After losing 15 of 20, a verbal undressing would normally be in order. It seemed to have worked well enough back in ’09. But an epic tirade won’t bring C.C. back from the 15-day D.L. (shoulder fatigue), fix A.J.’s mechanics (5.22 ERA, 1,555 WHIP), or turn back the clock on Jeter’s bat speed (.254/.325/.370 and deposed from the leadoff spot).

Some of this was inevitable, the trickle-down effect of a porous starting rotation and a roster that expected key contributions from aging, brittle stars. Jeter has already spent time on the DL, as has Sabathia, A-Rod, and Andruw Jones. And the third and fourth rotation slots have been a revolving door of Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia, Hector Noesi, Bartolo Colon, and even Doug Davis. “Paging Donovan Osborne” jokes abound.

Unfortunately, Brett Gardner (.262/.354/.368), and Nick Swisher (.251/.351/.457) have regressed from their stellar 2010 seasons; and Phil Hughes has lost bite from his curve while adding points to his WHIP (1.421).

Not all has gone bad. Robbie Cano still thinks it’s 2010, as he continues to thrash AL pitching staffs. A-Rod’s been dutifully spitting on his Marcel projections, despite a series of nagging early season injuries. Tex has miraculously averted his typical early-season swoon (.288/.371/.588), and Posada has adapted nicely to the DH role (.270/.349/.543).

So what’s the solution? Should Brian Cashman hold steady, saving resources and prospects for an offseason in which he may not even play a role? Or should he go all-in at the deadline, dealing an A-prospect or two for an undisputed number two starter? Should they look to shed payroll, or would that be a panic move? It is, after all, only June 19th which means  there’s still enough talent and time to surge through the remainder of the season en route to Wild Card contention – regardless of what the sports punditocracy says. Isn’t there?

Report: Millwood rejects Yanks’ MiLB deal

The Yankees recently offered Kevin Millwood a non-guaranteed minor league deal, but the 36-year-old right-hander has rejected that offer, Joel Sherman of The Post reported this morning. Millwood, coming off a season in which he went 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA and a FIP nearly to match, wants a guaranteed Major League deal while the Yanks are “adamant” that Millwood not receive one. Rather, the team wants to structure his potential deal as they did with Freddy Garcia who will make $1.5 million if he makes the club and can earn $3.6 million more in performance bonuses.

Millwood’s refusal to take a minor league deal strikes me as a clear sign of a player who doesn’t know his own value after a five-season run of below-average pitching. The Yanks are quite content to let Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova battle it out for rotation spots while Millwood remains unemployed.

Open Thread: February 19th Camp Notes

Save those legs for the season, or something. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Today’s news…

  • For the most part, all the position players reported on time and took their physicals today. The one exception is Robbie Cano, who mixed up his dates and will take his physical when he reports tomorrow. Brian Cashman said his second baseman will not be fined even though he did not have permission to report late. (Mark Feinsand)
  • The first full squad workout will take place tomorrow, but a few guys were seen taking grounders and batting practice and what not. Derek Jeter will hold a press conference on Monday, Alex Rodriguez on Tuesday. No particular reason, they’re just two high-profile players that will be popular media targets, so they’re going to meet with them in an organized setting. (Chad Jennings)
  • Mark Prior was among the pitchers that got individual attention from Larry Rothschild in a bullpen session this morning. Those two know each other from their days with the Cubbies. (Jennings)
  • “It’s fun because this year, we’re the underdogs,” said Mark Teixeira, who acknowledged that no one will feel sorry for a team with a $200M payroll. We had some more Tex-related news this morning. (Mark Feinsand & Marc Carig)
  • “Last year for me, on a personal note, was a great year, almost kind of like a breakout year,” said Nick Swisher. “So now it’s time to add on to that … That’s the great thing about playing for the Yankees; every year you take the field you feel you have a chance to win the World Series.” (Erik Boland)

Here’s your open thread for this windy Saturday night. Both the Devils and Islanders are in action, plus there’s the NBA Skills Competition or whatever they call it as well. Talk about whatever, just don’t be a dick.

Golden Albatrosses?

Dead weight can't do this. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)

Like anything that can be reduced to shrill sound bytes, the Albert Pujols ordeal is especially fertile territory for the junior high dialectics of talk radio, where calling somebody an idiot qualifies as a rhetorical flourish. In a span of five minutes this past Tuesday morning, ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd – ring leader du jour for the cult of “Now This Is Just Off The Top Of My Head, But…” – weirdly dubbed himself as something akin to the thinking man’s sports call-in host, dismissed statistical analysis (or, what he more pejoratively referred to as memorizing the backs of baseball cards) as an infatuation in which only people with no lives engage, and then, for his coup de grace, fired off this nifty little beauty while weighing in on the Pujols saga:

I’m not a sabermetrics guy, but it has some value. Let me tell you what Albert Pujols is: he’s a boat or a hot tub. Looks great in your driveway, looks great on your deck, adds nothing to your net worth…Edgar Rentereia, a situational hitter – a clutch hitter – is more valuable in the postseason than Albert Pujols. Think I’m wrong? In three World Series, he’s hitting .333, five doubles, two homers, ten RBIs, World Series MVP. He’s a great situational hitter. And when you face elite pitching, that’s more important than power hitters.*

My apologies for the I.Q. mugging, but I was forced to endure the same thing on Tuesday. (Not surprisingly, L.A. only has one 24-hour sports radio station.) As for worth, Mike succinctly explained in yesterday’s mailbag that a player who posts an exceptional WAR has more value than multiple players who would achieve the equivalent. That means, career-wise, Pujols has been more valuable than two Jim Edmondses or three Adam Dunns or, you’ve guessed it: four Edgar Renterias.

Still, if we can somehow summon the will to dig through the layers of Cowherd’s bombast, maybe we’ll discover a kernel of rational thought in his drive time rant. Assuming there’s veracity to the 10-year, $300 million asking price that Pujols’ camp has reportedly floated, the slugger’s next deal would ostensibly become the most onerous sports contract ever signed. So in a sense, Cowherd’s likely right: Inking Pujols to a contract of such epic expense and length at this stage of his career is fiscally brazen, if not downright irresponsible. But it’s not because he lacks the clutch-ocity of Edgar Renteria (who, I’m telling you, has a World Series MVP for God’s sakes!) but because we may have already glimpsed shades of Albert’s physical decline. In 2009, he finally had surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament; possibly even more alarming, early last season, at age 30, he was nagged by lower back pain – the canary in the coal mine for power hitters on the wane. Go ahead and break out your Don Mattingly Yankeeography for a stark reminder of this. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Pujols’ injuries over the past two seasons probably don’t presage a career downturn – at least not yet. What can be counted on is the volatility in production that afflicts players entering their thirties. Juan Gonzales, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells Eric Chavez, and Alfonso Soriano were all special players who, immediately following stellar seasons, drove Vanishing-point-style off the ravine of thirty-something. (In case you’re wondering, the average age for their respective cliff-dives was 32.)

Organizations see this, and it makes them justifiably reticent to allocate precious resources to a surefire hall-of-famer who could, in less time than it takes to say “nagging groin,” somehow morph into a lead-footed Juan Pierre. It’s something from which few players in the history of baseball are exempt, advances in nutrition, fitness, and medicine notwithstanding.

Not long ago, Yankees fans could stake a claim to having their very own version of the best all-around player in the game, proving that things can change in a hurry once a player hits his mid-thirties. Unlike Pujols, A-Rod was a picture of health leading up to his 10-year $27.5 million AAV deal with the Yanks in 2007. Since then, he’s been dogged by a series of lower-body injuries, most notably a torn labrum for which he’s needed two surgeries. Beyond impacting Alex’s power numbers, which have revealed an ISO dip of .271 to .236 over the past three seasons, these injuries have forced him to miss 87 games since ‘08, leading to more instances in which replacement-level icons like Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena become the Yankees’ de facto $27 million man for a day. While still an elite offensive force at 35, it’s unlikely that Rodriguez’s health will improve with age. (For what it’s worth, the uber-conservative Marcel projects an underwhelming but strikingly similar 2011 output for Alex.)

It’s unlikely that the 2007 A-Rod signing would serve as an effective cautionary tale for prospective Pujols suitors, however. For one thing, as great as Alex is, when it comes to career offensive production, Albert stands alone. In fact, out of the all-galaxy quartet of A-Rod, Frank Thomas, Miguel Cabrera, and Manny Ramirez, none possesses a single significant advanced career metric that surpasses Pujols’.

There’s another A-Rod factor that might actually bolster the case for a long-term Pujols signing: A rebound. At this moment, it’s impossible to say for certain whether or not the Yankees’ third-baseman has entered his permanent decline phase. A 2011 return to form from Alex, to something approaching his career mean ISO of .269 makes a Pujols signing appear less daunting, as it would further the notion that some people are simply age defying freaks of nature. Thomas, Manny, and the perpetually wronged Garry Sheffield all fit neatly into this category: None of them displayed a hint of slowing down until their late-thirties and, at 37, Manny posted a 153 OPS+ in 431 PA for a playoff-bound Dodgers squad.

The obvious problem here is that there’s no conclusive way to predict Pujols’ longevity beyond his astronomical talent and superhero lats. The Orioles probably thought they had a steal when they signed then-surefire first-ballot hall-of-fame curmudgeon Albert Belle – who, physically, resembled Ray Lewis in stirrups – to a five-year, $65 million deal in 1998, only to witness their 31-year-old 145 career OPS+ investment fall to osteoarthritis two seasons later.

Even more disturbingly, the once great Mo Vaughn is now remembered more as a portly $80 million mistake, shoehorned into the late-90s eye-piercing pajama tops of the California Angels, than the offensive monster who put up six consecutive 139 OPS+ seasons in Boston – something that neither A-Rod, Belle, David Ortiz, nor Miguel Cabrera has ever done.

Still, when factoring in all-around performance (including defense), physiology, and longevity, A-Rod remains Pujols’ closest career comp among modern-day superstars of a similar age. The table below reveals this.

Clearly, you can’t go wrong with any of these guys. But although both Thomas and Manny are closer offensive comps to Pujols, WAR reveals that A-Rod and Albert are closer in type, since they can each also hold their own beyond the batter’s box.

Despite their four-year age difference, Pujols and Alex are also uncannily similar in stature (6’3” 230 per B-Ref’s “yeah right” specifications), athleticism, and physical fitness. Both have a history of relative durability, though A-Rod’s endured significantly more wear and tear due to his having to play shortstop for the first decade of his career. Alex also has more mileage relative to their respective ages: By the time Albert had taken his first major league hack, Rodriguez had already played in 211 games.

In entering only the fourth year of his ten-year deal, it’s still unclear as to whether or not the A-Rod signing will ultimately prove to be prudent investment or a half-insane albatross. But even assuming he spends the final two years of his contract as a hulking platoon DH and pinch-hitting power option off the bench, if A-Rod can once again resemble the player that annihilated American League pitching for a decade-and-a-half, it will be money well spent. Which, in turn, could mean more money spent on Albert.

*B-Ref spoiler alert: Renteria also has a .666 OPS in 242 postseason at-bats, proving that it isn’t the mark of the beast after all.

Gary Sanchez underwent heart surgery

Via George King, Yankees number three prospect Gary Sanchez underwent heart surgery at a New York hospital this week. A recent test revealed that the 18-year-old backstop had an extra nerve in his heart, something he’s had since birth. The surgery cauterized the nerve, and Sanchez has been cleared by doctors to resume workouts on Monday. It couldn’t have been that serious if he’s able to resume baseball workouts so soon after the procedure, but sheesh, heart surgery is always scary.