Once more unto the breach

In many respects the current Yankee offseason has been remarkably similar to last year’s. While the team hasn’t been spurned by the biggest free agent starter available this time around, for a second straight year they’ve been notably cautious with upgrading the roster (well, with the exception of the ill-advised signings of Pedro Feliciano and Rafael Soriano), as Brian Cashman seems determined not to overpay for anything other than the closest he can get to as sure a thing as there is in baseball.

This approach is fairly sound from a pure baseball operations perspective, although it’s left factions of the fanbase a bit skittish (especially in the aftermath of the John Danks extension), particularly with regards to a perceived lack of interest in the still-available starters on the board despite Cashman’s repeated public declarations of wanting to improve the pitching staff.

In trying to make sense of the Yankee front office’s increasing reluctance to be in on, well just about anyone, I keep coming back to the one event that has ostensibly dictated every move (or non-move) the team has made during the last calendar year, and that’s missing out on Cliff Lee. In hindsight I don’t think the team ever really thought Lee wouldn’t take its offer — especially considering it wound up representing the most years and guaranteed money (seven years, $148 million) — and what we’ve seen since is an organization that’s had to completely revamp its roster planning on the fly.

We saw fliers taken on Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia — neither of whom end up being Yankees if the team signs Lee — but they came exceptionally cheap and with little risk. If they didn’t work out, all the team had to do was eat a minimal amount of cash and dump them. We watched them sit tight at last July’s trade deadline, unwilling to overpay for less-than-sure-thing Ubaldo Jimenez.

This offseason many are now clamoring for the team to try Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt on one-year deals, and while I won’t go so far as to build a case against either, as either hurler appears to make a a good amount of sense as a one-year stopgap for the Yankees (and for the record, I’m fine with signing either one), the fact that the Yankees haven’t been terribly aggressive on either player should also signal that maybe these right-handers aren’t the no-brainers they would appear to be on paper. There’s a lot to like about Kuroda, but while the difference in environments is often overstated the relative difficulty level between pitching in the NL West and AL East is still very real, and I’d imagine the Yankees’ internal projections see Kuroda as more of a #4 than the #2 type many are hoping he could be. How many teams in 2011 paid their number-four starter the $12 million many presume the 36-year-old Kuroda is seeking?

As for Oswalt, consider this — the Yankees decided to roll the dice on Bartolo Colon last winter despite having not pitched in the Majors in over a year and a set of medicals that would make Ben Sheets envious. While the Colon move worked out far better than the Yankees ever could have expected — and cost nothing — the reticence on Oswalt would seem to indicate that the team doesn’t believe Oswalt’s asking price matches up with his questionable health.

The other side of the Lee coin is that, as a general manager with a fair number of high-profile free agent pitching signings that haven’t worked out — Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Kei Igawa and A.J. Burnett immediately spring to mind, not to mention two failed Javier Vazquez deals (though both were defensible at the time) — I think Cash is now hellbent on not overpaying another team’s free agent for past production. It’s why he’s stayed away from the Wilsons, Buehrles and even Darvishes of the world this winter, and why he’s (to this point) ignored Edwin Jackson.

Should the market for, say, Oswalt somehow fall below the $5 million threshold, Cash (and every other GM in the game) would undoubtedly be all over it, but until that point I’m not sure I’d expect to see Oswalt in pinstripes. Same goes for Kuroda. When you consider that the Yankees got Colon and Garcia for a combined $2.4 million (pre-incentives) and turned them into 5.8 bWAR, that tells me that the team feels confident enough in its in-house options that it doesn’t feel like it has to make a free agent upgrade, or is only interested in backfilling the back of the rotation with pitchers on the team’s terms.

With no sure thing available for just money since Lee last year, the Yankees have had to forge a very different path for themselves. Many of us spent a lot of time looking at potential low-cost options for the rotation last offseason — I for one wrote up Jeff Francis, Brad Penny and Justin Duchscherer among others last winter — and it appears that’s exactly what the Yankees intend to do once again. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wound up with Rich Harden, who I looked at back in November; or maybe even someone completely off the radar like Joel Pineiro (not saying I endorse this, but maybe he’s worth a shot on a Colon/Garcia-type deal); or the oft-injured Chris Young.

Or maybe Cash stands pat, happy to go into the season with a rotation of CC SabathiaIvan NovaPhil Hughes-A.J. Burnett-Freddy Garcia, with Hector Noesi waiting in the wings. Many are expecting the bottom to fall out on Nova, but I’ve begun to wonder if, in the desire to rein in expectations, we’re actually underrating what Ivan can do. I’m also — perhaps foolishly so — bizarrely optimistic on Hughes and Burnett. If either or both can turn in a season of starting with an ERA under 4.50, the robust Yankee offense will still be in position to win a lot of their starts.

Additionally, for what it’s worth — and depending on your opinion on forecasting systems, it may not be much — as rosters currently stand the Yankees are projected to win the AL East by both CAIRO (with a 94-68 record) and Oliver (92-70). While the usual projection caveats of course apply, and rosters will obviously change prior to opening day, that the Yankees would appear to have a roughly 93-win team on paper even if they don’t add a single piece the rest of the winter should be pretty heartening, all things considered.

While we’ve grown accustomed to splashy acquisitions, Cashman has proven himself fairly adept at dumpster diving in the wake of the Cliff Lee saga, and it seems like Yankee fans may once again have to forgo filet mignon in favor of dog food for a second straight offseason.

Mailbag: Hudson, Dempster, Chen

There’s nothing quite like the Friday before a holiday weekend. These are the best days to work if you’re stuck in a traditional office because no one’s around and the phones aren’t ringing. Save that vacation time for the busy weeks in the spring and summer. Anyway, just three simple questions this morning, I want to enjoy the holiday too.

(AP Photo/John Amis)

Simon asks: With Danks off the list and the Yankees reportedly not exactly impressed with Kuroda/Oswalt, could Tim Hudson become available?

I can’t see that happening. Hudson is a damn good pitcher and Atlanta’s ace, and they are going to contend next year. Or at least they should contend, they have a good team. They moved Derek Lowe in a salary dump and are trying to move Jair Jurrjens because they know his knee is a grenade with the pin pulled, but they’ll keep Hudson and try to build their rotation around him and a hopefully healthy Tommy Hanson. Hudson on a one-year deal would make a lot of sense for the Yankees, but I just can’t see the Braves being open to moving him without a major haul in return.

Mark asks: Does Ryan Dempster seem like a Cashman-esque acquisition? Proven veteran, one year left on deal, could stabilize the 3-4 slot in the rotation.

The Cubs are very much in sell mode, and Dempster is one of their more attractive pieces. I wrote a Scouting The Market post on him back at the deadline, and for the most part it still applies. He gives up homers and has a big platoon split, but he also strikes out a ton of batters and throws 200 IP like clockwork. Dempster unsurprisingly picked up his $14M player option for 2012, so he’s not exactly easy on the wallet, but it’s a one-year deal and it’s shouldn’t take a ton of prospects to acquire him. He’s worth looking into, definitely, but he’s not without risk.

(The Japan Times/AP)

Greg asks: Seeing as how Yu Darvish is most likely not to be had by the Yanks, is there any insight on Wei-Yin Chen? Could this guy be what the Yankees are looking for?

Greg sent this in before the Rangers won the bidding for Darvish, obviously. I wrote about Chen last month, so let’s recap…

Other than Darvish, Chen is probably the most coveted Asian pitcher this winter. The 26-year-old lefty was born in Taiwan but has pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan for a few years now. He got Tommy John surgery out of the way in 2006. “He had been sitting low-90s and touching 95 in past years but was more 88-92 early in 2011, and his slider didn’t have its usual bite,” said KLaw, who ranked him 19th on his top 50 list. “By the end of the year, he was back up to 92-94 and the slider was sharper … He has a decent split-change that should make him more than just a lefty specialist, although it’s not an out pitch for him. Chen still has plus control.” He is a true free agent thanks to some contract shenanigans.

The Orioles have interest in signing him, or at least they did at one point this month. I look at Chen almost like a prospect, as in he might need some time in the minors before being ready to contribute to the big league team. Even if he doesn’t need time in the minors, I’m not sure they should count on him for immediate impact. He’d be another arm for the stable with the potential to help more down the road, if anything.

Open Thread: Westbrook & Lilly

Photo Credits: Suzanne Plunkett (Westbrook) & John Froschauer (Lilly), AP

Right now, the Yankees have one veteran ace and about a dozen #4/5 type starters in their rotation mix, most of them young. Twelve years ago, it was the other way around. They had about four veteran aces and little depth, which is what they sought to acquire when they traded the late Hideki Irabu to the Expos. On this date in 1999, the Yankees sent Irabu to Montreal for prospects Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker.

Parker never amounted to much, appearing in just one big league game in his career. That came in April 2001, when he gave up seven runs in three innings to the Blue Jays. He hurt his shoulder and didn’t pitch again that season, and he missed all of 2002 as well. He’s been out of baseball since 2005. Westbrook, then just 22, pitched in three games for the 2000 Yankees (ten runs in 6.2 IP) before being traded to the Indians as part of the package for David Justice at the deadline. He went on to have a long and successful career with the Tribe and now with the Cardinals, though Justice helped the Yankees to their third consecutive World Championship that season. Flags fly forever, as they say.

Lilly, 23 at the time of the trade, stuck around for a while. He made six relief appearances for the 2000 Yankees (six runs in eight innings), then made 21 starts and five relief appearances for the 2001 Yankees (5.37 ERA). The next season he was in the Opening Day bullpen, but eventually moved into the rotation. Lilly made eleven starts and five relief appearances for New York that year (3.40 ERA), then was traded to the Athletics as part of that four-team humdinger that brought Jeff Weaver to the Bronx. Like Westbrook, Lilly went on to have a long and successful career following the trade, bouncing from Oakland to the Blue Jays to the Cubs to the Dodgers. In 205.1 IP for the Yankees, he posted a 4.65 ERA.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. For those of you with the NFL Network or in the local markets, you can watch the Colts and Saints at 8:20pm ET. The Rangers are also playing the Islanders, which should be fun. Talk about that or anything else you like here, the thread is yours.

Nats pay the price, get Gio Gonzalez from the A’s

Everyone thought Billy Beane was nuts when he asked the Yankees for Jesus Montero and top pitching prospects for Gio Gonzalez, but he stuck to his guns and ended up getting a monster haul for the walk prone left-hander. Keith Law reports that Gonzalez has been traded to the Nationals for four prospects: catcher Derek Norris and right-handers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, and Tom Milone. Peacock, Cole, and Norris were recently ranked as the numbers three, four, and nine prospects in Washington’s system by Baseball America.

Since I know so many of you will ask, a comparable Yankees package would have been something like Manny Banuelos, David Phelps, Adam Warren, and Austin Romine. I’m not Brad Peacock’s biggest fan, so chances are I’m underselling the comparable Yankees package a bit. There was a lot of speculation about Gio and the Yankees, but it was never much more than that. They never seemed hot on his trail, and I don’t blame them.

Report: Indians, others have interest in Swisher

Via Ken Rosenthal, the Indians are one of several clubs with interest in trading for Nick Swisher. The Tribe is apparently in the hunt for Carlos Beltran, and they see Swisher as a backup plan. Sounds great in theory, but Cleveland has little to offer the Yankees. Justin Masterson isn’t happening, and Fausto Carmona isn’t an upgrade over what they already have in their rotation. He probably isn’t even available anyway.

Josh Willingham is a very similar player to Swisher as Joe wrote last week, and last year he got traded for two Grade-B prospects when he had one year left before free agency like Swisher does now. Hard to see how that would help the Yankees more than their current right fielder in 2012. The Indians are just doing their due diligence more than anything, but it’s really tough to find a trade match involving Swisher that makes sense for both sides.

One way to add a frontline pitcher

Moshe Mandel contributed to this post.

At this point four years ago, the Yankees faced a difficult choice. They were among the few potential landing spots for Twins’ ace Johan Santana. The match seemed perfect. The Yankees desperately needed an ace. They had just re-added Andy Pettitte, but they still needed someone to slot in ahead of him and Mike Mussina. Santana was there for the taking — Minnesota had made it clear that he would not be with them to start the season. But the Yankees had other plans.

Why trade prospects and sign Santana to a big money contract, when they’d have to wait just one year for another left-handed ace to hit the free agent market? And so they spurned the Twins and waited for CC Sabathia. That was a risky move for sure, but a calculated one. There was no way that Sabathia was signing an extension before his free agency. The Indians had offered him one, but it wasn’t even close to the offers he’d get after the 2008 season. There was also no chance they’d trade him before the season, because they were just one game away from the World Series in 2007. And so the Yankees waited.

We can look at the current market similarly, but it’s not at all the same. Yes, there are a number of high-end pitchers scheduled to reach free agency following the 2011 season. If this were 2008, and the circumstances were similar to Sabathia’s, the Yankees might be justified in sitting it out this winter, sticking with their internal options, and waiting to nab a starter from the free agent market. But as we saw with John Danks’s extension, this is a different game. There might not be any top-end starters left for the Yanks once the 2011 season ends.

Matt Cain: The Giants have some good and expensive pitching, but chances are they’ll work to hold onto Cain. Recent reports indicate that they’ll try to get something done before spring training.

Zack Greinke: He has the best chance of anyone to reach free agency, but it’s not clear if the Yankees consider him an option in New York. Still, a pitcher with his track record at age 28 could be enticing.

Cole Hamels: The Phillies have spent tons of money building their roster. Why would they hold back when it comes to an ace-level left-hander?

That’s the extent of the high-end pitchers on the market — guys who could firmly step into the No. 2 spot, or even the No. 1 spot, for the Yanks. There are some other decent names on the list, such as Anibal Sanchez and Shaun Marcum, but it’s more difficult to see them atop the rotation. These three best fit as top of the rotation arms. Yet once free agency begins we might see only Greinke on the list of available pitchers.

If the Yankees do desire one of these pitchers, they might have to get creative. That would necessarily involve a trade, though it’s tough to envision any of the three pitchers becoming available in a trade — at least before July. But, since this is the time of year when crappy trade proposals run rampant, perhaps we can find something here. In fact, Moshe and I independently formulated the same framework for a deal that would bring Cole Hamels to New York. So, please indulge us for a moment.

Philadelphia gets: Gio Gonzalez, Austin Romine, another non-top-5 prospect from NYY

Oakland gets: Brett Gardner, Manny Banuelos

Yankees get: Cole Hamels

Our trade proposal sucks. But let’s examine it anyway.

Why it works for Philly: Instead of getting one more year of Hamels and then getting six to seven expensive years of free agency, they get four years of Gonzalez at arbitration prices. They also get a few prospects to help replenish their system. Romine in particular could entice them, because their starter, Carlos Ruiz, is 33 this season. The additional prospect helps replenish their system.

Why it works for Oakland: They get an absolute haul for Gonzalez. In fact, that might be the weakest part of this deal (other than the Phillies actually trading Hamels, of course). They get Gardner for three arbitration years and Banuelos for six. Perhaps the Yanks could sub out Betances here, but it still seems unlikely. I can’t imagine Oakland saying no to this.

Why it works for New York: They get a second ace lefty to complement Sabathia. In fact, Hamels is quite similar to Sabathia in terms of their pre-free agency numbers. Through 2008 Sabathia had a 3.66 ERA and 3.62 FIP, while Hamels has a career 3.39 ERA and 3.63 FIP. There are certain differences among them — Sabathia’s pre-free agency numbers came in a tougher offensive era, and he was in the majors longer — but all told they’re fairly even. With one more season along the lines of his 2010 or 2011 seasons, Hamels will be a perfect comp for Sabathia. They’ll both even hit free agency after their age-28 seasons.

Why Philly won’t do it: Philly might have a lot of money on the books, but there’s little stopping them from extending payroll further. They know the value of making the playoffs, having been there every year since 2007. It helps them sell out every game and will lead to a huge TV rights deal, if they don’t already have one. Additionally, after 2013 they have a lot of money coming off the books, so extending Hamels could cause complications in just one season, 2013. Plus, there’s plenty of allure in retaining a homegrown ace. They would probably rather just extend Hamels.

Why the Yanks won’t do it: They’d essentially be trading their No. 2 prospect, their starting left fielder, and a good catching prospect for one year of an ace. Of course, an extension would have to be part of this deal, but that just gives the Yankees the right to pay Hamels $23 million per season for the next six or seven years. There’s a legitimate chance that they don’t want to get bogged down in that kind of contract. There’s also the matter of Banuelos. Do the Yankees think that he can reach Hamels’s heights? That’s a pretty lofty ceiling, as his career numbers show. If they do think he can reach Hamels levels, how long will it take? Can they put together a rotation between now and then that will keep them in the postseason picture? There are tons of question to ask along with this. And that doesn’t even get into the hole in left field.

To reiterate, this will not happen. I’m certain that the Phillies will sign Hamels long-term. I’m also certain that Brian Cashman will not pay this type of premium for a pitcher just one year away from free agency. If anything, the players involved in this deal illustrate the value of developing pitchers internally. The Phillies have gotten several good to excellent years out of Hamels. If they can swing their final year of cost control for another young lefty, plus prospects, that’s a huge win. Even if Banuelos won’t reach Hamels’ production, even reaching 80 percent of it would probably make him more valuable as a pitcher to the Yankees.

It’s easy to become antsy at this point. The Yankees have some flaws in their rotation, and we’d prefer to see those addressed before the 2012 season begins. But given the asking prices of available pitchers, it just doesn’t seem likely. After all, would you give up all that even for Hamels?