Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle and the hunt for pitching

Every now and then, I think back to July 9 and 10 of 2010. That weekend, the Yankees were on the West Coast, visiting the Mariners, and as Saturday dawned, it appeared as though the Yanks would leave Seattle with Cliff Lee in tow. In exchange, they would have to give up Jesus Montero and a middle infield prospect named Eduardo Nunez, but the spoils would be tremendous.

We know how that story ended for the Yankees. The Mariners wouldn’t accept David Adams who was dealing with an ankle injury and played in just 12 games this season, and the Yanks weren’t, for some reason, too keen on giving up Nunez. In fact, according to some stories, Nunez was more of a deal-breaker than Montero. Lee escaped their grip that July, and he went on to beat the Yanks as a member of the eventual AL Champion Rangers.

A few months later — nearly a year ago — the Yanks were attempting to lure Lee to the Bronx again. They didn’t quite put on the full court press, but all indications were that the Yanks offered Lee six years at $22 million with a seventh year player option for $16 million. For reasons of dollars and comfort, Lee went to the Phillies instead. Maybe the Rangers led to Lee’s decision; maybe he just wanted to go back to Philadelphia. Either way, neither team escaped their respective Division Series match-ups this year, and the Yanks are still struggling to find another starting pitcher.

For the Yankees, losing out on Cliff Lee seemed to indicate a sea change within the organization. Lee was, by all accounts, the best pitcher available either by trade or free agency, since CC Sabathia, and unless Cole Hamels hits the open market next season, it’s tough to find a comparative starter. The Yankees were willing to give up the farm, extend their budget to land Lee or both. But for the first time since Greg Maddux spurned a rebuilding Yankee team in the early 1990s to head to Atlanta, the Bombers were left empty-handed.

This year, the pitcher is kinda sorta out there. In 2011, after Lee left them empty-handed and Andy Pettitte retired, the Yanks somehow made it through the year with CC, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova. As things stand now, they’re gearing up to do to the same for 2012. I always thought they had another move in them last year, but they never found the right trade partner for a pitching upgrade. This winter, things are shaping up similarly.

The pitching is almost out there. Roy Oswalt, who hasn’t popped up in any rumors, is available. C.J. Wilson, another Texas ace, is looking for job security. Mark Buehrle recently landed with the Yankees South Miami Marlins. Maybe a few young pitchers such as Gio Gonzalez or John Danks could be had on the trade market. But none of these guys are that exciting. They’re supporting cast members, not aces, who carry a price tag that often exceeds their value.

Buehrle, in particular, strikes me as a guy the Yanks would consider. He signed a four-year deal worth $58 million with the Marlins, and the Yanks had only “early conversations” with Buehrle’s representatives. Yet, they passed even though he’s an innings eater with some AL success. Sure, his strike out numbers are down, but he’s thrived by keeping the bill in the park and on the ground. He might fall off a cliff, but he’s just as likely to continue to excel despite saber skepticism over his peripherals.

But the Yankees passed. They want a Cliff Lee type, a difference-maker, not an overpaid cog. They think they can approximate Buehrle’s 2012 production for $10 million less by using Freddy Garcia, and they have their eye on some elusive starter who might become available as they try to usher Manny Banuelos through their organization. Once, the Yanks overpaid for A.J. Burnett because they needed a pitcher. Now, they’re willing to wait and wait and wait for the next must-have Cliff Lee type. It might be a prudent move, but for a fan base used to getting what they want (and need), it makes for a slow wait. I almost miss those Yankees who dove right in. Almost.

Report: Yankees have called Mets about Jon Niese

Via Andy Martino, the Yankees have called the Mets about Jon Niese after seeing that the left-hander has been made available in a trade. Talks are nothing more than preliminary at the moment though. Joel Sherman says the Amazin’s want “a place holder starter” and a “main prospect piece” in return, which sounds reasonable.

I might do a longer breakdown of Niese’s game if talks intensify, but I am a fan. He’s a 25-year-old left-baller that doesn’t walk many and gets ground balls with a better-than-average strikeout rate. Like the more-hyped Gio Gonzalez, Niese is under team control through 2015, though he still has one year at the league minimum left before arbitration. The only problem is that he’s thrown more than 170 IP in a season just once in his career thanks to hamstring and oblique problems. Cross-town trades don’t happen often, but I think this is one worth pursuing.

Cashman: Yankees only had “early conversations” with Buehrle

The Miami Marlins continued ruining baseball today by signing free agent lefty Mark Buehrle to a four-year contract worth $58M. Brian Cashman told reporters (including Mark Feinsand and Joel Sherman) that he had nothing more than “early conversations” with Buehrle’s camp, and they didn’t want to go more than two years on the veteran southpaw. I have to say I can’t blame them, the guy’s already teetering on the edge stuff-wise and has allowed an average of 4.22 runs per nine innings over the last three years in a division with some wimpy offenses. Nothing about that screams four years.

Open Thread: Winter Meetings Day Three

Oh great, he can bunt too. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Three days into the Winter Meetings, we finally have some actual news. First we learned that the club was willing to eat a bunch of money to trade A.J. Burnett, then we found out that they’d won the bidding for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The latter certainly came as a surprise, and I’m not sure the Yankees were confident they’d win with a $2M bid. Here’s a little more on the 29-year-old, courtesy of Baseball America (subs. req’d)…

According to one Pacific Rim observer, Nakajima does not have any standout carrying tools but possesses a well-rounded package. He has the range to stick at shortstop but his fringy arm will most likely force a shift to the other side of the bag. “To me, he’s a second basemen over here. He gets on base, grinds out at-bats, and plays solid defense but there will not a be a lot of home runs or stolen bases … I don’t think he is a high impact guy.”

The whole “grinding out at-bats” thing is Yankees 101, so that right there is part of the reason they liked him enough to bid. The fact that no other club topped $2M also gives you a pretty good idea that everyone expects him to be a bench guy, and Brian Cashman said today they view him as a backup only. We’ll see what happens now, the two sides have 30 days to hammer out a contract. I suspect that in two weeks we’ll hear they haven’t had any talks whatsoever, then two weeks after that they’ll get serious. That’s how these things tend to go.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. None of the local hockey clubs are in action, so you folks are pretty much on your own. Talk about anything you like (four years for Mark Buehrle!), it’s all good.

Girardi Notes: Rotation, Hughes, Nakajima, Burnett, Montero, A-Rod, Darvish

All 30 managers meet with the media at some point during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi just wrapped up his little press conference not too long ago. As expected, he was asked quite a bit about the Yankees rotation and whether or not he expects the team to acquire a starter.

“You always look to improve your club, but sometimes the asking price is too much,” said Girardi, “and if that’s the case, I do feel good about our rotation. [An acquisition] has to make sense for us. We’re not just looking for a one-year deal, we’re looking long-term as well.”

By long-term, he didn’t just mean signing a free agent for the next five years or whatever. “We feel we have some pretty good prospects in the minor leagues that are going to be able to help us this year,” he added, indicating that the club does want to have an opening for some of their prospect at some point relatively soon. Girardi didn’t mention them today, but he has brought up Hector Noesi, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances as guys that could help the rotation next season earlier this winter.

Girardi went on to speak about the different look Freddy Garcia gives opposing batters compared to everyone else on the staff as well as A.J. Burnett‘s ability to occasionally dominate a game. “Part of it is Phil Hughes, how does he bounce back? Is he going to be able to be the guy we had in 2010? And if he is, to me that’s almost like going out and making another move,” said Girardi. “He can be really important to us. I do consider him a big part of our rotation.”

The skipper went on to dance around a question about concerns surrounding the conditioning of some of his pitchers, specifically Hughes and CC Sabathia. He likened Sabathia to David Wells, who used to joke that his conditioning was only a problem when he wasn’t getting outs. “I thought [Hughes] got behind the 8-ball because he got hurt, and he never really caught up last year.”

The audio file is way too big to upload at the moment, but I’ll get it up on here eventually. Update: Audio! Apologies for the sound quality, there were a ton of people there and some the questions came from far away.

[audio:http://riveraveblues.com/podcasts/Girardi2011WM.mp3]

Here’s the rest of the stuff Girardi spoke about, the important stuff anyway…

  • “This is about acquiring talented players to put them on our club,” said Girardi when asked about the recently kinda sorta acquired Hiroyuki Nakajima. “He’ll be asked to do a number of things, obviously, we will look at him. This is about acquiring talent, and we feel that we have a chance to sign a talented player.” He added that there’s room for both Nakajima and Eduardo Nunez on the roster, especially since they would like Nunez to become a bit more versatile.
  • As far as the report of Burnett being on the trading block, “Is there necessarily truth to the report about A.J.? I can’t tell you,” said Girardi. “As I said, we’ll always try to improve, no matter where it is, whether it’s the bullpen, a spot in the field, or in the rotation. We’ll look at every avenue.” Frankly, I’m stunned he didn’t come out and say they were trying to dump him. Stunned I tell you.
  • It’s possible the team could carry three catchers next year, namely Jesus Montero, Russell Martin, and Frankie Cervelli. Girardi made it clear that Martin is the everyday catcher, but they expect Montero to earn his spot in Spring Training and then get regular at-bats at DH. “We expect him to perform at a level where he helps us next year. We expect that.” Interestingly enough, Girardi said he’s brought up the idea of having Montero play first base, but developing him as a catcher remains the team’s goal. Brian Cashman later ruled out right field completely, so enough talking about that.
  • Robinson Cano finished the season as the regular three-hole hitter against right-handed batters, though the batting order is something they’ll continue to evaluate going forward. That includes every spot, from leadoff right down to the number nine guy.
  • “I don’t know about 150,” replied Girardi when asked about how many games he expects Alex Rodriguez to play. He did point out that Alex was playing well before the knee injury (.301/.377/.509 on July 1st), but they have to manage his DH days.
  • Girardi hasn’t seen Yu Darvish in person, but he’s heard all about him. If the Yankees need to call up a young pitcher at some point next season, they’ll have no problem doing so if they feel they’re ready.
  • As I reported earlier, the entire coaching staff will be back next season.