Past Free Agent Review: Kenny Lofton

Visual proof that Kenny Lofton was indeed on the Yankees.

For the Yankees, the 2003-2004 offseason was an adjustment period. After an emotional victory over the Red Sox in the ALCS, they had fallen flat to the Marlins in a six-game World Series. Andy Pettitte would decamp for Houston; Roger Clemens would retire for the first time; David Wells was persona non grata. With prized Cuban hurler Jose Contreras in tow, the Yankees had to restock the club.

That winter would be George Steinbrenner‘s last hurrah. Before taking a step back due to his health, the Boss went on a rampage. Marginalizing Brian Cashman to an extent, Steinbrenner brought in Gary Sheffield instead of Vladimir Guerrero and oversaw a trade for Javier Vazquez. Jeff Weaver, goat of the 2003 World Series, wound up in Los Angeles in exchange for the perennially disgruntled Kevin Brown. Steinbrenner, who banned Yankee officials from attending the Winter Meetings that year, had one more player in mind, and despite objections from Joe Torre, he brought him in.

That player was ticketed for center field. For Bernie Williams, 2003 was a turning point. Williams hurt his knee early in the year, and he would never be the same offensive force again. After the season, it was clear the Yanks needed some outfield help, and so the Boss brought in Kenny Lofton, against everyone’s wishes. Bernie was one of Joe Torre’s guys through and through, and the Yankee skipper wanted little to do with a 37-year-old interloper.

From the start, the Lofton relationship seemed strained. Despite assurances during a press conference that he would even park cars if the Yanks wanted him to, Lofton never really fit. He played in just 83 games for the Yanks, often sitting for stretches at a time because Torre often wouldn’t play him. He hit .275/.346/.395 but brought in for his speed, he was successful in just seven of ten stolen base attempts. He battled some injuries throughout the year and never seemed to fit.

When the postseason rolled around, Lofton had a bare role to play. He appeared in three of the Yanks’ seven games against the Red Sox, and despite some limited success at the plate, he made no appearances between games 2 and 7. When the Yankees could have used his speed, Torre kept him on the bench. The decision still haunts Yankee fans today as they assess the missed opportunities and blown chances from that historic ALCS.

When the season ended as it did, it was clear that things would change in the Bronx, and Lofton became one of the scapegoats. During the first week of December, the Yankees shipped him to the Phillies for Felix Rodriguez. Yet, Lofton had no love lost for the Yankees. He become enmeshed in controversy when he sounded off with Gary Sheffield against Joe Torre and reportedly urged CC Sabathia to turn down the Yankees. Bad feelings, it seems, run deep.

The bad feelings left over from Lofton’s tenure in New York weren’t entirely his fault. He arrived at a time of conflict between warring factions in the Front Office, and Joe Torre wasn’t about to let George Steinbrenner dictate his starting lineup. Still, the Yankees had a potential weapon in Lofton, and their field general didn’t want to recognize that. Today, the Yanks’ roster is far more balanced, and the players all have their roles. The team has certainly come a long way since the days of Kenny Lofton.

Open Thread: Rob Cano

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Over the last two season, no player has been more integral to the Yankees’ success than Robinson Cano. Well, maybe CC Sabathia, but we’ll stick to position players tonight. Cano, who turned 29 back in October, has hit .311/.365/.533 with 87 doubles and 57 homers since the start of the 2010 season. In terms of fWAR (12.1) and bWAR (10.9), Robbie’s been the 10th and 11th best position player in all of baseball over the last two seasons, respectively.

Eleven years ago today, the Yankees signed Cano as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic for just $150k. That’s $25k less than they gave Melky Cabrera the very same year. Cano has been the Yankees’ best homegrown position player since Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, an MVP candidate who’s come into his own as one the game’s best players over the last few seasons. Is there a player on the team more fun to watch hit? I don’t think so.

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Here is tonight’s open thread. The only local team in action is the Rangers, who Time Warner customers still won’t be able to watch because the Dolans pulled MSG. Use this thread to talk about anything your heart desires, it’s all good.

Next Up: Eric Chavez

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees are now turning their attention to Eric Chavez after failing to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima. The Nationals, Rays, and Padres also have interest in the corner infielder. If he wants to win, he’ll sign with the Yankees or Rays. If he wants to be close to home, he’ll sign with San Diego.

Chavez was decent for the Yankees in 2011, especially before a 5-for-29 finish the season uglified his batting line. He played surprisingly strong defense at third (not so much at first), had a few big hits, and of course got hurt. Hopefully he’s willing to take a minor league deal with a similar salary as last year ($1.5M), because anything more is probably pushing it. If he takes that and makes the team, his inevitable injury will give Brandon Laird a chance, so hooray for that.

The difficulties of building a quality bench

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the mid 2000s the Yankees had a penchant for building weak benches. Players such as Matt Lawton, Bubba Crosby, Mark Bellhorn, Miguel Cairo, Craig Wilson, Nick Green, and Wil Nieves routinely sat near Joe Torre during those years. It wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw; the Yankees did manage to make the playoffs basically every year in that span, and it’s not as though the bench makes a huge difference in the postseason when a team has nine clearly superior starters. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Yankees actually managed to assemble some talent to back up their starters.

While the 2009 bench, highlighted by Erik Hinske and Jerry Hairston, was built through mid-season trades, the 2011 bench, perhaps the Yankees’ strongest in a decade, came fresh out of the box on Opening Day. In a way the Yankees got lucky there. The circumstances happened to line up. They needed a right-handed fourth outfielder, since two of their three starters were lefties and the other was a switch-hitter. A left-handed infielder came in handy, too, because most of his work came spelling the right-handed Alex Rodriguez and the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira. It was mere chance that a solid-hitting right-handed outfielder, Andruw Jones, and a reclamation project infielder, Eric Chavez, happen to be not only available, but willing to take on a reduced role.

For the most part, the bench moves worked out. After struggling in the first half, Jones came back with a huge second half performance. Chavez did miss considerable time with a foot injury — worse, because it overlapped with Alex Rodriguez’s knee surgery — but he still managed to hit .263/.320/.356 when healthy. Considering the playing time available and the playing time they actually got, Jones and Chavez were two of the better bench players in the entire league last year.

It’s tough to mete out actual bench players. We can look at plate appearances, but there are so many variables that we can’t control for. Some bench players turn into starters when the player they back up gets hurt. Some players begin the season as a starter only to lose the job. There are also mid-season call-ups who are actually starters, but end up with a number of plate appearances similar to a bench player. And, of course, some bench players do get hurt, and others are so bad that they’re replaced — in which case neither of a team’s backups might fit into a plate appearance range. This is a long way of saying that it’s tough to place Chavez and Jones among their peers.

Keeping the above caveats in mind, Chavez fared very well compared to other infielders who got between 100 and 250 plate appearances in 2011. His .320 OBP in 175 PA ranked seventh in that group, all but a couple of the players ahead of him were injured starters (Casey Blake) or late call-ups (Brett Lawrie, Jason Kipnis, Dee Gordon). Using the same parameters for outfielders, Jones fares even better. His OBP ranked third among that group, and his SLG ranked second (by 25 points to a guy whose BA was 80 points higher). You can sort it out any way you want, but when you look at non-starters and compare them to Jones and Chavez, they come out looking great.

This is actually a remarkable feat for the Yankees, especially considering these players came from the free agent market. After all, who wants to sit on the bench while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano play every day? Perhaps Jones made sense, because he could play platoon caddy to Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. But before that the Yankees have had pretty solidly set outfields, which hurt the market for free agent backups. Remember, before the 2009 season both Hinske and Hairston signed elsewhere. It took a trade to get them in pinstripes, and even then it lasted just half a season.

The Yankees failure to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima now re-opens the door for Chavez, and the Yankees would do well to bring him back. He’s not ideal in many ways, particularly his penchant to land on the DL every year, but seeking out bench players is essentially choosing which ones have the most manageable flaws. If Chavez can avoid hurting his foot while running the bases, he could be one of the more productive infield options, both offensively and defensively. It’s hard to see any options on the free agent market, or any worth their price in a trade, who has the potential to add as much as Chavez.

(And that’s most certainly a commentary on the quality of bench players and not on Chavez himself.)

If the two sides don’t work out a deal, it won’t threaten the season. The Yankees will simply roll with Eduardo Nunez as their all-purpose infielder and perhaps carry another lefty, say Chris Dickerson, on the bench. But given their current options and needs, Chavez seems a nice fit. He’s not going to hit like a starter, but of course, few if any bench players do. He can, however, provide production superior to his direct peers. That’s really what matters in this situation. While there’s plenty of risk involved, he is once again a nice fit for the Yankees.

It’s official: Yanks fail to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima

(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Yankees announced that they’ve failed to come to terms on a contract with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. “We unfortunately could not come to an agreement with Hiroyuki,” said Brian Cashman in a press release. “We wish him the best of luck during the upcoming 2012 season.”

We heard the two sides were unlikely to reach an agreement before tomorrow’s deadline just yesterday. Since no deal was reached, the Yankees don’t have to pay the $2.5M posting fee they used to win the 29-year-old infielder’s negotiating rights last month. Jack Curry says they offered a one-year deal and nothing more, reiterating that they viewed him as a bench player. Cashman and the Yankees seemed surprised that they won the bid last month, and it’s fair to assume no other club viewed him as a starter given the lack of a significant bid.

Nakajima hit .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and 21 steals for the Seibu Lions in 2011, and he’s consistently been a .300 average/15+ homer/15+ steal/50+ walk guy in his career. That was before the new ball drained all of the offense out of Nippon Pro Baseball, however. Nakajima played short exclusively over the last few seasons, and although he expressed interest in signing, he didn’t seem all that enthused about being a reserve. His agent even broached the idea of a sign-and-trade. The infielder will now return to Japan for another year, then become a true free agent next winter.

Rolling the dice with Adam Miller

(AP Photo | John Raoux)

Now that the calendar has flipped over to January, teams will start to load up on players via minor league contracts. Most of the big free agents are off the board and most of the big trades have already taken place, so depth becomes the focus. The Yankees have signed a number of players to minor league pacts already, including former big leaguers Dewayne Wise, Hideki Okajima, Matt Daley, and Jayson Nix, but the most intriguing addition came yesterday: 27-year-old right-hander Adam Miller.

Miller, the 31st overall pick in the 2003 draft, is a classic Texas fireballer standing 6-foot-4, 200 lbs., and he’s ridden the career roller coaster over the last eight years. He dominated in 2004 — 10.2 K/9 (28.0 K%) and 2.7 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) in 134.1 IP split between the two Single-A levels — and was ranked as the fourth best pitching prospect in the game by Baseball America after the season. That’s when the injuries started to set in. Miller missed the first half of 2005 with an elbow strain, then dominated again in 2006 — 9.2 K/9 (24.5 K%) and  2.6 BB/9 (7.1 BB%) in 158.1 IP at mostly Double-A — before elbow and finger problems hampered him in 2007.

Click to embiggen. (Photo via TheClevelandFan.com)

Those finger problems almost ended Miller’s career. Damage to the pulley system and ligaments in his right middle finger required four surgeries and limited him to just 94 innings from 2007-2010, zero from 2009-2010. Replacement ligaments from his calf and wrist now hold together a finger with a tip that is bent at a 45-degree angle and slightly to the right (see right). The digit conveniently wraps right around a baseball now.

Miller returned to the mound this past April, pitching exclusively in relief and rarely more than two innings at a time. He did strike out 39 in 44 IP (8.0 K/9 and 19.5 K%), but he also walked 21 (4.3 BB/9 and 10.5 BB%) and plunked six batters. Rust probably accounts for some of the control problems, but he also had trouble taming his once lethal slider with the rebuilt finger. His fastball was still pushing 95-96 after sitting 95-97 with some 100’s back in the day, encouraging but not super surprising since he hasn’t had any shoulder problems. He also has a solid changeup, but the high-octane fastball and knockout slider were what gave him that top of the rotation potential.

The injuries have basically ended any chance Miller had of remaining a starter, but obviously the Yankees feel he still might have something to offer in relief, where he can go to town with his two best pitches. He has a lower arm slot than most (here’s video of him from camp last year), which when combined with his fastball-slider combo leads me to believe he might wind up having a platoon split. Sure enough, he handled righties better than lefties both last year and throughout his career. That doesn’t mean he’s destined to become a righty specialist, lots of great relievers have platoon splits. It’s just something to be aware of.

Chances are Miller won’t ever help the Yankees just because that’s usually how these minor league contract fliers on former top prospects tend to go. We know the Yankees have emphasized strong makeup in recent years, and I think Miller’s prolonged battle with his health shows that he’s a tough, resilient guy. I don’t think spending a few months in Triple-A and traveling all over the place will discourage him all that much. Think of him as this season’s Mark Prior, just younger and with a sound shoulder. If he stays healthy in the first half and shows some effectiveness, he’s got a chance to help the big league team at some point during the season.

Does the Zambrano trade tell us anything about Burnett?

We must kung-fu fight! (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Cubs’ new regime didn’t even give Carlos Zambrano a chance. After watching his numerous meltdowns and blowups from afar, the new Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer-led baseball operations department traded the right-hander to the Marlins yesterday. All they had to do was eat $15.5M of the $18M owed to Zambrano next year, the last one on his contract, and take back a player that was nearly non-tendered last month. Chris Volstad was so far out of Miami’s plans that they didn’t even invite him to their new jersey unveiling earlier this offseason.

The Yankees don’t have a new regime, but they are looking to move their own troubled right-hander. During the Winter Meetings we heard that they were shopping A.J. Burnett, reportedly willing to pay $8M of the $33M left on his contract. We know that amount won’t get it done, but it’s just a starting point for negotiations. A few weeks later we heard that a number of teams were mulling over the idea of trading for A.J., but so far nothing has materialized. Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that the Pirates were one of those clubs, but ultimately everyone is asking the Yankees to basically eat everything left on Burnett’s contract. As the Zambrano trade shows, that probably what it’ll take to facilitate a deal.

In terms of performance, Burnett and Zambrano have been very, very similar over the last three seasons. The former has stayed healthier so he’s thrown 140 more innings during that time, but the latter isn’t as homer prone (0.73 HR/9 vs. 1.25). Burnett has slight edges in strikeout (7.91 K/9 and 20.0 K% vs. 7.49 and 19.1), walk (3.91 BB/9 and 10.1 BB% vs. 4.11 and 10.5), and ground ball (45.6% vs. 43.6%) rates, though Zambrano has the sexier ERA (3.99 vs. 4.79). Obviously the whole NL Central vs. AL East thing plays some part in that. The two have similar BABIPs (.299 vs. .303), xFIPs (4.19 vs. 4.27) and SIERAs (4.15 vs. 4.33) as well.

Not a whole lot differentiates the two on the field over the last three seasons, but off the field they are quite different. Zambrano is a noted hot-head, getting suspended by his team multiple times for run-ins with coaches and teammates. He even had to attend an anger management class. Burnett showed up with a black eye and punched a wall in 2010, but he’s never had any problems remotely close to what Zambrano has put the Cubs through over the last decade. That’s not enough to overcome his poor performance, but it’s definitely not negligible.

Yesterday’s Zambrano trade doesn’t make it any more likely that the Yankees will be able to move Burnett, but it might tell us a little something about what it will take to make it happen. The Cubs ate 86% of the money left on Big Z’s deal and took an out-of-favor player with a smidgen of upside in return. The Yankees would have to eat $28.4M of the $33M left on Burnett’s deal to match that percentage, which I’m guessing is beyond where they’re willing to go. There’s also the whole one year of Zambrano vs. two years of Burnett thing, and we shouldn’t discount the Ozzie Guillen factor. He and Zambrano are friends and countrymen, so I’m sure he was consulted prior to the deal. The Yankees won’t have that Guillen-like edge when trying to trade the Burnett.

Much like the Derek Lowe trade — when the Braves ate two-thirds of his salary and received a fringe low-level prospect in return — the Zambrano deal gives us an idea of what it takes to move an underperforming, overpaid player like Burnett. The Yankees will have to eat upwards of $20-25M to make it happen, getting next to nothing in return. Volstad represents the best case return, and he’s back end of the rotation fodder. Is that worth it for the Yankees? Maybe, but I’m not 100% convinced of it. Either way, I’m not betting on A.J. getting traded anytime soon.