Spending the Yankees’ dollars

As the Hot Stove League ambles ever onward toward the orgy of spending and free agent signings that is the Winter Meetings, one of the great pastimes of baseball fans involves spending their favorite team’s money. We spend countless hours on blogs, Twitter, sports radio, with our friends going over possible permutations. How much would we dole out for the Prince Fielders, the Albert Pujolses, the CJ Wilsons of the world? What trades would we make as GMs? What if reality were no obstacle?

Two of the more intriguing names this winter are unknown foreign commodities. We’ve heard about Yu Darvish for a few years. He is the most hyped Japanese pitcher since at least Daisuke Matsuzaka and probably since Hideki Irabu. Despite success in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, Americans haven’t seen much of him since the 2009 World Baseball Classic. With posting fees and Major League deals to hammer out, Darvish will command big bucks, and we still don’t know if he’s going to be made available for American bids.

The flavor du jour is Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old Cuban star who is drawing interest from everyone. While the Marlins appear to be a frontrunner for the outfielder’s services, the Yankees have reportedly hosted a private workout for Cespedes, but much like Darvish, no one knows when Cespedes will be available for Major League bidding. Similar to Darvish, most Americans last saw Cespedes during the 2009 World Baseball Classic when he hit .458/.480/1.000. He has also excelled playing in Cuba and in international competitions.

Both of these players carry a lot of risk, and yet, both are in the eye of Yankee fans. We see Darvish’s overwhelming success in Japan and a young slugging outfielder with Gold Glove potential as ideal pieces for a team with unlimited money. These guys certainly carry a lot of risk, but for a team like the Yankees, they seem to be prime spending targets. The Yankees, who never land top first-round draft choices, should be using their dollars to soak up talent on the international free agent market, and while they’ve done so on the (relatively) lower ends of the spectrum with signings such as Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez, they haven’t made a huge splash with a multi-million-dollar deal since landing Kei Igawa back in 2007.

So now, Yankee fans want to spend on these players. Let’s up the bidding for Darvish; let’s go hard after Cespedes. The Yankees have a very solid core of Major Leaguers for 2012 and could spend their money on some medium-to-high risk investments that could also turn out to be high reward guys. Spend those dollars, folks.

Of course, reality has to intervene, and the Yankees have been shying away from risky deals. That doesn’t mean the Yanks don’t spend. Over the past three years, they’ve doled out big contracts to Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, Rafael Soriano and CC Sabathia again. They gave Pedro Feliciano a two-year deal for $8 million and heaped a three-year deal on Damaso Marte. In some cases, the Yankees are seemingly spending for the sake of spending, but in each case, the investment is a conservative one on a proven player. It is, in the parlance of economics, safe spending.

It’s not easy to pinpoint why the Yankees, who spent so much on Orlando Hernandez, Hideki Irabu, Jose Contreras and other less successful international headliners, have been reticent to go hard after a Darvish or Cespedes. Perhaps they’re playing it close to the vest to avoid a Matsuzaka-type situation; perhaps without George Steinbrenner driving the need to buy up every shiny new international toy, the various factions aren’t in sync on spending; perhaps the new generation of Steinbrenners would rather spend safely with a ceiling on rewards than risky without. C.J. Wilson, after all is a known commodity, but Yu Darvish, with all of his risk, offers the potential of higher rewards.

So ponder that over as we plan out the Yanks’ off-season. Should the Yanks spend safely on known commodities or go hard after the sexy headline-grabbers with all of the risk involved? There is no easy or right answer in this debate, but the spending choices made this winter could impact the franchise for years to come.

A special thanks to RAB regular Andy In Sunny Daytona for inspiring this post. You should follow him on Twitter right here.

Open Thread: Offseason Reminder

I probably should have done this last Monday, when the offseason officially started, but I guess a one week delay won’t hurt anyone. If you’re new to RAB, first let me say welcome, and second, let’s talk about all the different ways you can use this site.

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We have two separate Twitter feeds here. Our main feed is @RiverAveBlues, where the three of us will muse on various topics, post any breaking news, engage in discussions with readers, stuff like that. Our second feed is @RABfeed, which will automatically link to all of our posts as they go up. That’s pretty much all it’s there for, but it’s useful.

If you want, you can also follow the three of us on our personal accounts: @bkabak, @joepawl, and @mikeaxisa. I can’t promise everything we tweet about will be about the Yankees, or even baseball for that matter, but you won’t regret it. All of the recent additions to the site can be found here: @Larry_Koestler, @MosheRAB, @Matt_Warden, @sprotster (Stephen), @firtheart42 (Hannah), and @BronXoo (J.R. O’Grady).

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* * *

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can move on to the open thread. The Monday Night Football game is the Bears at the Eagles (8:30pm ET on ESPN), plus the Islanders are playing as well. You guys know what to do by now, so have at it.

Shocker: Yankees have talked to Edwin Jackson already

Via George King, the Yankees have been in contact with the agent for right-hander Edwin Jackson, a reasonable fellow named Scott Boras. Brian Cashman said his priority this winter will be pitching, which is why he’s been in contact with Jackson, Roy Oswalt, and C.J. Wilson already.

This is still the time of the offseason when teams and free agents are just feeling each other out, gauging interest and whatnot. It’s not a surprise that the Yankees have already gotten in touch with basically the three best free agent starting pitchers, but we’re a long way from offers and bidding wars and all that fun stuff. It’s an underwhelming class of starters, but I think Jackson is the best bet to be worth his contract going forward. Doesn’t make him a bargain or a must-have, though.

Scouting The Trade Market: Gio Gonzalez

Late last week, word got out that the Athletics are open to trading pretty much everyone on their roster not named Jemile Weeks as they continue to remain in a holding pattern with their stadium situation. Since Weeks is a second baseman like his older brother, that means Oakland’s entire starting rotation is up for grabs, the same rotation that is chock full of young arms with upside.

I plan on exploring the rest of A’s starting staff later in the week, but I’m going to start today with Gio Gonzalez since he’s generated the most buzz in Yankeeland during the last few weeks. The left-hander has quietly developed into Oakland’s ace after being acquired from the White Sox in the Nick Swisher trade, the third time he was traded before his 23rd birthday. He’s been a 3+ fWAR and a 4+ bWAR pitcher in each of the last two years, his first two full seasons in the big leagues. Let’s break down the good and the bad….

The Pros

  • Working with two fastballs (two- and four-seamer) in the 91-94 mph range a hammer curve with two-plane break in the upper-70’s, Gonzalez misses plenty of bats (career 8.59 K/9 and 9.1% swing-and-miss rate) and generates a health amount of ground balls (47.5%). That’s helped keep his FIP comfortably better than league average, 7% better in each of the last two seasons.
  • Gio’s changeup isn’t much more than a show-me pitch, a low-80’s offering he’s thrown fewer than 7% of the time in the big leagues. Despite that, he actually has a reverse split because his curve is that good. Righties have posted a .321 wOBA against him in 1,786 plate appearances while lefties have gotten him to tune of .341 wOBA in 547 plate appearances. I suspect the platoon split will even out a bit once he starts facing more same-side hitters.
  • Other than a bout with shoulder stiffness during Spring Training in 2009, Gonzalez has been perfectly healthy as a pro. He’s never been on the DL and has eclipsed the 200 IP plateau in each of the past two seasons. He’s thrown at least 150 IP every year since 2006.
  • MLBTR projects Gonzalez to earn $3.6M in 2012, his first time through arbitration as a Super Two player. He’ll be arbitration-eligible three more times before becoming a free agent after the 2016 season. That’s as friendly as contract situations get.

The Cons

  • Gonzalez has fought a career-long battle with his fastball command, and it shows in his walk rates. His 4.05 BB/9 in 2011 was his lowest since 2007, but it was still the highest in the AL (A.J. Burnett was second at 3.92 BB/9) and second highest in MLB among qualified starters. His 91 walks led the league this year, one year after his 92 walks finished second to C.J. Wilson. Gio’s career unintentional walk rates are 4.35 uIBB/9 in the bigs and 3.97 uIBB/9 in the minors.
  • Although his walk rates have improved each year in the show, Gonzalez has also thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone each season. He bottomed out by throwing just 42.5% of his pitches in the zone in 2011, down about 2.5% from two years ago. In ten career starts against the patient offenses of the Yankees and Red Sox (five each), he’s managed to complete six innings of work just four times.
  • It happened more than seven years ago, but Gonzalez did get kicked off his high school team following an altercation with his coach that actually had to do with his brother’s playing time. He fell a bit in a draft because of the subsequent makeup concerns.
  • Gonzalez is a bit on the small side, listed at 6-foot-0 and 205 lbs. on the Athletics official site. Old school types will question his durability because of that, fair or not.

Gonzalez just turned 26 in mid-September, so (theoretically) his best years are still ahead of him and any team that trades for him would be getting basically all of his peak seasons. That means he will not be easy to acquire, and Billy Beane would have every right to ask for Jesus Montero as part of a package to acquire the southpaw. For comparison’s sake, the Mariners turned Doug Fister and his four years of team control into three young, big league ready players (a starting pitcher, a reliever, a platoon corner outfielder) and a top five caliber prospect (in a typical farm system, not all of baseball), and he didn’t have the same kind of track record as Gonzalez at the time of the deal, plus he’s 18 months older. The first Dan Haren trade is an apt comparison as well, though he had three years of team control left, not four.

I’m very much on the fence with Gonzalez. Lefties that can miss bats with many peak years ahead of them are about as  valuable as baseball commodities get, but the lack of control is very scary. Let’s put it this way, I have an easier time envisioning Gio developing into Oliver Perez than I do Randy Johnson. Gonzalez has ace-potential, I’m not denying that one bit, but he has a major hurdle to clear before reaching that ceiling. If you’re giving up multiple young players and high-end prospects, I feel like you need to get more certainty in return. Gio would undoubtedly improve the Yankees rotation, but by no means is he a sure thing.

The Yankees’ ever-so-slight decline against righthanded pitching

The Yankees were, once again, a superb offensive team in 2011. It can be easy to take the team’s offense for granted considering how good Yankee fans have had it over the last decade. To wit (MLB rank in parentheses):

wOBA wRC+
2011 .346 (3) 113 (2)
2010 .347 (1) 112 (1)
2009 .366 (1) 117 (1)
2008 .338 (6) 104 (6)
2007 .362 (1) 120 (1)
2006 .358 (1) 115 (1)
2005 .350 (2) 116 (1)
2004 .350 (2) 113 (2)
2003 .352 (3) 115 (2)
2002 .352 (1) 116 (1)

This table is absurd. The Yankees have been the best offensive team in all of baseball in terms of wOBA in five of the past 10 seasons, and after adjusting for park and league they come out on top in six of the past 10 years. Those numbers appeared poised to rise to six and seven years, respectively, as they led the AL in both wOBA and wRC+ as late as August 23, but a quiet offensive September combined with a lightning-hot Texas offense saw the team fall to third overall by season’s end. Still, in the few years they didn’t field the very best offense in baseball, they finished in the top three every season save one — 2008, when they finished 6th.

So yes, clearly we Yankee fans have been spoiled on the offensive front. I consider myself a pretty reasonable fan regarding most aspects of the game, although given the team’s embarrassment of offensive riches the one area in which I do occasionally veer into irrational territory is when they do things like get shutdown by Jeremy Guthrie. But that’s just me.

The point of this preamble is to acknowledge that trying to poke holes in the Yankees’ robust offensive attack is nit-picking at its best, but being the offseason and all I still find it interesting to compare and contrast how the team fared in a variety of splits. In the case of facing right-handed pitching — and especially in the aftermath of the Yankees’ ALDS loss to the Tigers, in which they saw zero left-handed starters — I thought it might useful to try to find out why the 2011 Yankees posted the team’s worst numbers against RHP in the last five seasons.

(click to enlarge)

As you can see in the above chart, the 2007 and 2009 teams annihilated right-handed pitching, outhitting the league by 24% and 22%, respectively. The RHP decline began in 2010, and continued into 2011, as the team posted five-year lows in all three triple-slash categories vs. RHP as well as sOPS+.

They did continue to outhit the league, this time by 14%, so it’s not as if they were anemic vs. right-handers, but the platoon split is quite a bit more dramatic when you look at how they’ve fared against left-handers of recent vintage:

The Yankees utterly destroyed left-handed pitching in 2011, leading the Majors in both OBP and SLG vs. portsiders, and posting five-year highs in both sOPS+ and tOPS+, outhitting the league by a whopping 28%.

Culprit #1: The Offense

So why the slight drop-off against righties? Perusing the lineup’s splits, it’s not too hard to see why, as Mark Teixeira put up a .337 wOBA against northpaws (including a meager .323 OBP), Nick Swisher a .335 mark, Brett Gardner a .328 and Derek Jeter a .298 wOBA, though in fairness, Tex, Swish and Gardner were all above league average. Still, given that Tex and Swish are going to get the majority of their PAs against RHP, they have to be better than ~108 wRC+ players. Swish seems a decent-enough bet to bounce back, and he’s only a year removed from putting up a 132 wRC+ against righties.

I’m a little less sure about Tex, who’s on a three-year decline against righties, and, as the entire Yankosphere has noted in every way, shape or form, has to figure out how to fix his woes from the left side of the plate. Being that Gardner’s bat is invisible against lefties (75 wRC+), you’d ideally like him to be a bit better than average (101 wRC+) against righties, but I suppose you take what you can get from Brett. As for Derek, while it didn’t really end up negatively affecting the team — especially after his second-half renaissance — if Derek continues to struggle against righties the Yankees may actually be hurting themselves if Girardi refuses to move Jeter out of the one-hole against right-handed pitchers, as .277/.329/.338 is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want out of your leadoff hitter.

Culprit #2: Opposing Pitching

For as much as certain members of the offense are culpable, we also do need to give some credit to the pitchers the team faced. The Yankees had 4,434 plate appearances against right-handed pitching in 2011. Josh Beckett accounted for 136 of those, and threw 34 innings of 1.85 ERA ball against the Yanks. The Yankees had 150 PAs against James Shields, who pitched to a 2.33 ERA against the Yanks over 38.2 innings. Brandon Morrow faced 80 Yankees, and threw to a 1.74 ERA over 20.2 innings. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren combined for 113 PAs against the Yankees, with the former throwing 15 innings of 1.80 ball and the latter 15 2/3 innings of 2.30 ball. Heck, R.A. Dickey’s 1.64 was the lowest ERA against the Yankees (min. 2 starts) in 2011, and he accounted for 46 PAs. And of course, the enigmatic Phil Humber managed a 2.70 ERA over 13.1 innings and 50 PAs.

Those seven pitchers represented 13% of the Yankees plate appearances against right-handed pitching, and while that’s obviously only a small portion of the overall universe of right-handers faced, that these righties combined for an insane 2.06 ERA over their148.1 collective innings certainly had some impact on the team’s overall numbers against right-handers.

Fun (if highly unlikely) Solutions

Using Baseball Musings’ Lineup Analysis tool, if you plug in the 2011 team’s most-frequently-used versus-right-handers lineup with their vs. right-handed pitching OBPs and SLGs, you get a lineup averaging 5.277 runs per game. If you use the team’s most-oft-used versus-left-handers lineup, and their vs. left-handed pitching splits, you get a lineup averaging an absurd 6.131 runs per game.

Now if we do the same exercise for the 2012 team, swapping Jesus Montero in for Jorge Posada/Andruw Jones, use the Major League Equivalencies for Montero’s 2011 AAA splits (using his actual September 2011 MLB splits isn’t helpful, given how insane his numbers were), and also sort the lineups by highest OBP to lowest, we get the following:

v RHP AVG OBP SLG
Curtis Granderson .258 .372 .531
Alex Rodriguez .276 .361 .487
Robinson Cano .296 .347 .537
Brett Gardner .265 .345 .393
Nick Swisher .232 .343 .420
Derek Jeter .277 .329 .338
Russell Martin .248 .327 .422
Mark Teixeira .223 .323 .450
Jesus Montero .236 .285 .336
v LHP AVG OBP SLG
Nick Swisher .327 .442 .516
Derek Jeter .349 .423 .523
Mark Teixeira .302 .380 .587
Alex Rodriguez .277 .367 .383
Robinson Cano .314 .354 .525
Curtis Granderson .272 .347 .597
Brett Gardner .233 .344 .272
Jesus Montero .282 .339 .532
Russell Martin .211 .316 .368

That above  lineup vs. right-handers would only score 4.958 runs per game, while the “best” version of that lineup would score 5.135 runs per game. However, if you want to swap Montero’s actual AAA split against RHP (.272/.330/.399) you get 5.106 runs per game, with the “best” version — featuring Gardner leading off, followed by Grandy, Swish, Cano, A-Rod, Tex, Martin, Montero and Jeter — at 5.258 runs per game, or basically what the 2011 version did against RHP. That’s actually a pretty reasonable lineup deployment, and if you factor in presumed improved seasons from Tex and Swish I’d expect a superior 2012 team performance against righties.

While the lineup probably doesn’t need any tweaking against southpaws, just for fun, the above lineup vs. left-handers averages an insane 6.002 runs per game, and the “best” iteration comes in at 6.285 R/PG. If you swap in Montero’s actual AAA split against LHP ( .328/.392/.647), you get 6.160 runs per game, with a “best” version pounding out 6.526 runs per game, and featuring Montero at cleanup! If things go as planned, we may actually be closer to experiencing that particular bit of awesomeness than previously thought.

The Obligatory Yoenis Cespedes Post

Warning: The music in the video is totally NSFW.

If you were sleeping, you missed it. Cuban-defector Yoenis Cespedes became an overnight sensation last night, after Kevin Goldstein linked to the above video and provided a massive breakdown of the outfielder’s talent. It’s a Baseball Prospectus column, but you do not need a subscription to read it. Shortly thereafter, Jeff Passan reported that MLB and the Office of Foreign Assets Control is expected to declare Cespedes eligible for free agency in the next few weeks, adding that the Yankees are “particularly hot” for him. It’s like high school all over again.

The video is over 20 minutes long but between the opening monologue and closing credits, it’s about 15 minutes of Cespedes actually strutting his stuff. It’s more of a promo for a Michael Bay flick than a traditional scouting video, highlighting the purported 26-year-old’s insane athletic ability and the opposite field power that allowed him to hit 33 homeruns last season, a new single-season record in Cuba. We get to see him catch fly balls behind his back, run through a series of vertical jumps that put Cody Ransom to shame, roast a pig, and showcase an 80 hot dog tool as he admires his majestic homers.

Cespedes has a little bit of Sidd Finch in him at this point, that “shiny new toy” and “too good to be true” syndrome. Goldstein calls him “arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation … a legitimate center fielder with plus power and speed and is in his prime.” I have no reason to doubt him, but we don’t have the whole picture from where we sit. We don’t know if he can handle high-end velocity, sit back on offspeed stuff, actually take a ball (something many Cuban hitters refuse to do), so on and so forth. I don’t mean to rain on the parade, the kid is exciting, but a little dose of reality is needed here.

Passan says Cespedes is looking for a contract in line with Aroldis Chapman‘s, which means six years and about $30M. His agent, Andy Katz of the Wasserman Media Group (who also represents several other Cuban defectors, including Yunel Escobar and former Yankee Juan Miranda), has him working out for teams in the Dominican Republic. Adam Kilgore says the Nationals watched him recently while Juan C. Rodriguez reports that the Marlins are the early favorite to sign him. I suspect pretty much every team in the league will have interest in Cespedes at some point, just like the Chapman sweepstakes.

The Yankees are no stranger to the Cuban talent pool, paying millions of dollars to sign Miranda ($2M), Adrian Hernandez ($4M), Orlando Hernandez ($6.6M), and Jose Contreras ($32M) in the last 15 years alone. That doesn’t include the $54M they reportedly offered Chapman, though Brian Cashman shot that report down rather quickly. We’re going to hear a lot more of Cespedes in the coming weeks, I’m sure of it, and that’s a good thing because we really don’t know all that much about him. Money talks, and the offers he gets will tell us what teams think of him.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 7th, 2011

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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