The strategy of a second Wild Card team

The final game of the 2011 season was one for the ages. Using no starting pitchers or really any Major League relievers, the Yanks blew a big lead to the Tampa Bay Rays while the Red Sox coughed up a ninth-inning lead over the Orioles. The Rays made the playoffs while Boston completed a historic September swoon. In the NL, the eventual World Series winners shut out the Astros as the Phillies downed the Braves, and Atlanta too blew a seemingly insurmountable late-season lead that proved to be anything but that. Next year or the year after, those Game 162 losses would have been meaningless.

As we all know, MLB has decided to expand the playoffs by adding a second Wild Card team. The second-place club with the second best record will square off in a one-game playoff against the second-place club with the best record in a contest that will determine who advances to the ALDS. This year, the Braves and Red Sox would have played the Cardinals and Rays respectively no matter the outcome of Game 162. Some says it cheapens the regular season while allowing competitive teams to take a crack at the crown while others say it adds the excitement two Game 163s to every baseball season. Either way, it changes late-season strategy.

Right now, according to a report in Sports Business Journal, MLB is attempting to decide when to add the extra playoff team. The owners and players would love to see the new format in 2012 because it means more money for all, but timing is tight. The owners meet this week, and if they can’t figure out the TV and scheduling logistics for this season before March 1, the new format will have to wait until 2013.

According to Eric Fisher and John Ourand, two items may hold up the extra game. First, the games must be assigned to a TV network. As Turner holds the rights to all Game 163s and the League Division Series, it appears as though they would be the ones to air the so-called play-in. Next, MLB must fit in another game before the start of the Division Series two days after the regular season ends. Perhaps I’ll finally get my wish of a more condensed playoff schedule. As sticking points go, though, these two are hardly major obstacles, and it’s likely that we’ll see a new playoff format this year.

So how then does this impact the regular season? For one, the second place teams will play simply for one of the top two records. There will be fewer win-or-go-home scenarios. In 2011, for instances, the Angels were four games behind the Red Sox, and the Giants were three games behind the Braves. The Wild Card play-in contests would have been set days earlier, and teams would have been prepared for the new contest.

Next, managers will have to assess their starting rotations. To win a Game 163, would the Wild Card managers try to line up their aces, knowing that another round of the playoffs awaits a day or two later? They have to sacrifice an edge in the next round to simply make it there, thus further rewarding the division winner. It might not be far to the Wild Card team, but it adds more than just one home game to the division winner’s advantage.

That, then, is the new baseball world in which we live. Ten of 30 teams will play more than 162 games, and late-season strategies will shift. Winning the division will become even more important, but Yankee fans wouldn’t have it any other way now, would they?

New/Old Feature: Team Blogs Page

When we got serious about our Series Previews last year, we included a link or two promoting blogs for whatever team the Yankees happened to be playing next. We kept a masterlist of these sites and it’s been available for everyone to see the whole time, but the problem is that it was hidden away and never promoted. That’s about to change, as you can now find our Team Blogs Page under the Resources tab above. Consider it the official list of RAB-endorsed blogs. We enjoy them all and suspect you will too.

Open Thread: 1979 Yankees @ Royals

Every once in a while, I stumble across something on the internet that restores my faith in humanity. The video above is one of those things.

Just check that out, it’s the entire June 9th, 1979 game between the Yankees and Royals in Kansas City. All 13 innings, including Willie Wilson’s walk-off inside-the-park homer off Ken Clay. Tommy John started for the Bombers and Jim Kaat eventually pitched in relief. The starting lineup featured Mickey Rivers, Willie Randolph, Thurman Munson, Lou Piniella, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, and Bucky Dent. George Brett battled cleanup for the Royals, and Pete LaCock came off the bench. This is gold people, internet gold.

Once you’re done watching all four hours of that video, use this as your open thread. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, but Time Warner customers are still MSG-less thanks to the Dolans. Apparently the two sides are negotiating again, so that’s cool. The BCS Title Game is also on (LSU vs. Alabama, 8:30pm ET on ESPN). Anyway, you folks know what to do, so have at it.

(Video via YouTube user 22glew)

Scouting the Market: Mark Teahen

Unless they make a move for a pitcher in the next month and change, the Yankees are pretty much done assembling their 2012 team. In terms of position players they’re pretty set. You can already pencil in the nine starters, and three of the four bench slots are already filled. That last bench spot is pretty much a toss-up. With Andruw Jones and Eduardo Nunez, the Yankees already have backups for every position. That last player can come from nearly anywhere, and can play nearly any role.

Hiroyuki Nakajima might have filled that spot, but he’s headed back to Japan for one more season. Eric Chavez seems like the frontrunner for it now, but his fragility works against him heavily, since part of his job would be subbing for the unreliable Alex Rodriguez. There are some other internal options, such as Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson, but the Yankees might want someone who plays the infield. Better yet, someone who can play the corners in both the infield and outfield. As it happens, someone who fits that description just became available.

The Blue Jays designated Mark Teahen for assignment this morning, after he came to the plate just 47 times for them. Really, Teahen had no part in the Jays’ plans; they only took on him, and his salary, to make the Edwin Jackson acquisition easier. With a full roster and nowhere to put Teahen, a DFA was almost inevitable. No one’s going to claim him and his $5.5 million salary, but the Yanks might have interest should he clear waivers and reach free agency. Here’s the breakdown.

Pros

  • He’s versatile. While he has limited experience at first base and left field, he has plenty at third base and right field. That gives the Yankees a backup to A-Rod who can also sub in the outfield if need be.
  • He’s left-handed. The three current bench players — Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez, and Francisco Cervelli — all hit right-handed. The Yankees also got a bit more right-handed in general by swapping Jesus Montero for Jorge Posada. They’d probably prefer a lefty for that last bench spot.
  • He can take a walk: 8.2 percent career walk rate, and it’s been at or above 9 percent in each of the last two seasons.
  • He’s relatively healthy. An oblique injury kept him out for a bit in 2011, but otherwise he’s been pretty healthy. His most significant injury has been a fractured middle finger, suffered in 2010, but that’s more of a freak thing. His shoulder, surgically repaired in 2006, hasn’t been an issue since.

Cons

  • He’s not that good with the bat. After a very good 2006 season, at age 24, it appeared that Teahen — who was part of the A’s Moneyball draft — might be coming around. He’s been a complete disappointment, though, producing below average offensive numbers every year since. Last year was a low point: 52 wRC+.
  • He plays terrible defense. While defensive metrics can portray players inaccurately, it’s tough to argue when they all agree. All major defensive stats rate him as a patently horrible third baseman, and a barely passable outfielder.
  • He’s not even that good on the platoon split. He has a career .322 wOBA, .328 against righties. If he’s going to be a generally mediocre player, he might as well at least mash righties. Alas.

That cons list might contain only three items, but they’re three pretty damning ones. Teahen might be worth a sniff on a minor league deal, but his name value could fetch him a major league contract. The Jays might even trade him during the DFA period. If he’s not worth signing to a major league deal, he’s certainly not worth trading for living, breathing players.

In essence, Teahen’s value is mostly associated with his name recognition. If he were just some random John Smith with those numbers, he wouldn’t get a sniff — never mind the $5.5 million he’ll make this year. The Yanks might desire to add a left-handed bat to the bench, but Teahen shouldn’t be that guy. Even Eric Chavez, for defensive value if nothing else, would provide more value than Teahen.

Barry Larkin elected to Hall of Fame

The BBWAA has announced that Barry Larkin is the lone inductee into the Hall of Fame this year. He received 495 votes (86.4%), well above the 75% required for induction. Larkin spent his entire 19-year career with the Reds, hitting .295/.371/.444 with 198 homers, 379 stolen bases, 939 walks, and just 817 strikeouts. During his peak from 1991-2000, Larkin hit .304/.392/.478. He made a dozen All-Star Teams and won the 1995 NL MVP. Needless to say, he’s very deserving of this honor, so congrats to him.

Yankees great Bernie Williams headlined the newcomers on the ballot, but he received just 55 votes (9.6%). That’s enough to keep him on the ballot another year. Tim Raines received 48.7% of the vote while Jeff Bagwell received 56.0%, up from 37.5% and 41.7%, respectively. That’s progress. Don Mattingly received 17.8%, up from 13.6% last year. Former Yankees Tony Womack and Ruben Sierra received zero votes. The full voting result can be found at the BBWAA’s site.

Baseball America’s Conor Glassey published a (free!) collection of old scouting reports for some players on this year’s ballot, including one on a 22-year-old Williams from 1991. That’s a worthy read.

Snakebitten

(Schilling photo by The AP; Johnson photo by Harry How/Allsport; IPK photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty; Haren photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty)

In the aftermath of the Arizona Diamondbacks non-tendering Joe Saunders — the mediocre left-handed pitcher who was the only Major Leaguer in the package sent by the Angels to the Snakes for Dan Haren in July 2010 — last month, it occurred to me that despite the fact that the franchise has only been in existence for 14 seasons, there’s a strong possibility that the Diamondbacks have been the greatest off-the-field thorn in the Yankees’ side of any team in Major League Baseball in recent history*.

* Though it’s not as if they’ve been pleasant to deal with between the lines either, given that they were responsible for perhaps the most heartbreaking loss an entire generation of Yankee fans have ever experienced in the form of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories detailing a mutual dislike on the part of former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo and George Steinbrenner, both known for their hard-nosed ownership styles, and as best I can tell the problem initially stemmed from a now-famous meal shared by Steinbrenner and David Wells in January 2002, in which the Boss re-signed Wells four days after the burly lefty reached a handshake agreement with the D-Backs.

This incident no doubt left Colangelo steaming, and it would come back to bite the Yankees in the 2003-2004 offseason, as the team desperately needed to upgrade a rotation that was losing three-fifths of its members. The Yankees were very interested in Curt Schilling, but the talks didn’t go anywhere as Arizona’s asking price — which appeared to include both Nick Johnson (coming off a 2.1 fWAR season) and Alfonso Soriano (5.0 fWAR), at the very least — was rightly deemed excessive. It’s unclear who Cash may have been willing to part with, and whether talks ever progressed between the two teams, but before they even had a chance to Theo Epstein and Boston swooped in, joined the Schillings at their Thanksgiving table, and somehow convinced the Diamondbacks to trade Schilling, coming off thee seasons in which he racked up 7.6, 9.7 and 5.9 fWAR, respectively, for a package headlined by Casey Fossum and rounded out by Brandon Lyon and minor leaguers Jorge De La Rosa and Michael Goss.

In a vacuum I suppose that’s a fair amount of talent for Boston to have surrendered, but in hindsight it turned out to be an absolute steal for the Red Sox, as Fossum was basically never an effective pitcher again following the deal; Lyon’s carved out a career as a pretty good middle reliever, the most fungible asset in all of baseball; De La Rosa’s been a #3-ish starter at best in the National League and Goss never made it to the Majors; while Schilling accumulated 17.8 fWAR in four seasons with the Sox while helping lead the franchise to its first World Championship in 86 years and another three seasons later.

While you could drive yourself crazy playing the what-if game, it’s probably fairly safe to say things would’ve unfolded quite a bit differently had the Yankees acquired Schilling that offseason instead of the Red Sox.

Of course, the Yankees finally did get a Diamondback ace of their own the following offseason, in Steinbrenner’s long-coveted Randy Johnson. The Big Unit had a strong debut season in pinstripes in 2005, but was pretty mediocre in 2006, and famously flubbed both of his postseason appearances. Fortunately the Yankees likely didn’t regret the cost to acquire Johnson — Javier Vazquez, coming off an execrable first season in pinstripes, along with Brad Halsey and Dioner Navarro — especially considering that prior to the deal being executed Robinson Cano had been a long-rumored chip in a potential Johnson trade, but in hindsight I think this can still be considered another low point in the Yankees’ and Diamondbacks’ mutual history.

Following his disappointing 2006, the Yanks decided they’d had enough of Johnson — who, as it so happens, expressed a desire to return to Phoenix — and shipped him back to the Diamondbacks for nothing special in Alberto Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, Ross Ohlendorf and Luis Vizcaino. I suppose receiving four warm bodies for a pitcher who appeared to be well past his glory days is somewhat commendable, though Johnson still went on to put up two more decent (if injury-plagued) years out in the desert, while the 2007 and 2008 Yankee pitching staffs weren’t exactly anything to write home about.

The Yankees and Diamondbacks hooked up again in December of 2009, in the three-way trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York and shipped Ian Kennedy to Arizona, a deal that also saw Detroit send Edwin Jackson to the D-Backs but also gain Austin Jackson and Phil Coke from the Yankees and heist Max Scherzer from the Snakes. Two years later this would appear to be the rare three-way trade in which all involved parties appeared to benefit. I’d do this deal all day every day, although it somehow figures that Arizona would wind up turning Ian Kennedy — who I maintain would never have become a 5.0 fWAR player in the Bronx — into a frontline starter.

This brings us back to the Saunders-Haren trade of July 2010. Granted, the Angels also sent Tyler Skaggs — currently ranked by Baseball Americas as Arizona’s 3rd-best prospect — Patrick Corbin (10th in the system) and Rafael Rodriguez to the desert in the deal, so it’s not quite as cut-and-dry as just “Saunders-for-Haren,” but given that Saunders wasn’t even retained by the D-Backs a mere year-and-a-half after being acquired, while Dan Haren has been a top 10 pitcher in baseball the last two seasons, it’s difficult not to wonder how things might have played out had the Yankees and Diamondbacks managed to consummate a deal.

It’s difficult to say given that all we really know is that Joba Chamberlain‘s name was the primary one bandied about during the trade talks of July 2010. If we were to try to build a comparable package to the one Arizona received, the Yankees’ #3 prospect at the time (per our own Mike Axisa) was Manny Banuelos, while #10 was Jose Ramirez. At the time, would you have been willing to trade a package of Joba Chamberlain, Manny Banuelos, Jose Ramirez and some low-level filler for a 29-year-old Dan Haren? Pretty sure I’d have been willing to pull the trigger on that one.

Again, we have no idea whether something like that was ever offered and/or whether it would have been an acceptable haul for Arizona, but on paper it seems like a pretty fair swap, especially when you consider that Saunders has been worth 2.7 fWAR in two full seasons of starting while Joba has been worth 1.8 fWAR in a season-and-a-half of relieving during that same time period. You have to figure Arizona almost certainly would’ve given Joba the chance to start that the Yankees never will, and the Yankees would’ve had a right-handed ace to complement CC Sabathia.

Of course, at the end of the day the majority of this is hearsay and conjecture, and there’s no way of really knowing whether Arizona has had it in for the Yankees over the years. However, as I’ve illustrated above, the two teams’ transaction history — and it certain cases, lack thereof — would make me considerably wary of doing business with Arizona in the future.