2010 Minor League Free Agents

The one and only Matt Eddy of Baseball America compiled this year’s list of six (or more) year minor league free agents, a list that runs 533 players deep. The Yankees lost 20 players, the most notable of whom are Jason Hirsh, Jon Ortiz, Wilkin DeLaRosa, P.J. Pilittere, Marcos Vechionacci, and Justin Christian. Former Yankee farmhands T.J. Beam, Eric Duncan, D’Angelo Jimenez, Mitch Jones, Edwar Ramirez, and some guy named Brian Bruney also hit free agency.

If you’re looking for some sleepers, the one name that stands out is utility guy Drew Sutton (plays all four infield spots plus the outfield corners). He’s got a .381 OBP in more than 1,200 plate appearances at Double- and Triple-A, and he’s recently worked with the guy that turned Ben Zobrist into an All Star. If nothing else, that’s a prime piece to stash in Scranton. I guess LHP Clay Zavada, RHP Jesus Delgado, OF Wladimir Balentien, and RHP Jay Sborz are interesting as well, but none of them are forgotten gems.

If they were free agents today: Lee or Sabathia?

Sometimes the choice is obvious. After the 2008 season the Yankees needed an ace. CC Sabathia had just become a free agent. After 2010 the Yankees have their ace, but certainly need a pitching upgrade. It just so happens that Cliff Lee is a free agent. In both instances the top pitcher was the Yankees top target. It didn’t take all-night strategy sessions to determine their interest. But what if the two had become free agents in the same off-season, and the Yankees had enough payroll for just one? Which one would they sign?

(Duane Burleson/AP)

In terms of current abilities Lee holds the advantage. Over the last three seasons Lee has a better ERA, FIP, and xFIP. He also has walked fewer batters and had allowed fewer home runs. He also has the second highest WAR during that period, 0.6 behind Roy Halladay, despite having pitched 53.1 fewer innings. That isn’t to knock Sabathia’s abilities. He has been phenomenal in his own right during those same three years, producing a 3.07 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3.55 xFIP. But in terms of the guy you want starting 30-plus games in 2011, Lee is the superior choice.

When we consider a long-term contract Sabathia gains some ground. He is a full two years younger than Lee, which helps mitigate a multi-year deal. Then there’s the matter of track record. The Indians put Sabathia in their rotation to start the 2001 season, and he’s been a mainstay ever since. Lee, on the other hand, had cups of coffee in 2002 and 2003 before breaking in full-time for 2004. He also wasn’t spectacular in his early years and eventually needed a minor league assignment in 2007 to figure himself out.

(Mark Duncan/AP)

In his career Sabathia has pitched 2127 innings in 10 seasons. In those innings he has produced a 3.57 ERA, 3.58 FIP, and 3.80 xFIP. Those are excellent career numbers, and Sabathia has outperformed them ever since entering his prime (circa the 2006 season). Lee has thrown 1409 innings in nine seasons total, though he has pitched more than 179 innings in just six. Even with his recent dominance his career numbers do not stack up to Sabathia’s: 3.85 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 4.16 xFIP. Over the long haul, Sabathia is clearly the more proven pitcher.

Health also works in Sabathia’s favor. In his 10 seasons he has missed just 110 days total due to injury, and has never spent a day on the 60-day DL. The last time he hit the disabled list was at the start of the 2006 season. Since then he has missed zero days — the only time he showed he was even remotely injured was when he was pulled from a start in Florida last year. That is literally his entire injury history since April 2006. Lee, on the other hand, has missed 141 days in his career, including one 60-day DL stint, though that was all the way back in 2003. Still, the difference is huge. Sabathia’s 110 missed days are spread over 10 years of service. Lee’s 141 days are spread over seven years.

Cliff Lee might be the guy to choose on a one-year deal. In terms of current abilities, it does appear that he’s a better pitcher than CC Sabathia. But when choosing which player more deserves a multi-year deal, the advantage shifts to Sabathia. He’s been at it longer, is younger, and has a cleaner injury history. Lee’s numbers in the past three years might be better, but not to the degree that would make him a better long-term risk. Thankfully, the Yankees don’t have to make this choice. They can have both pitchers in their 2011 rotation. But forced to choose between the two for a free agent contract, give me Sabathia every day.

What Went Wrong: Winn & Kearns

You hit it in the wrong direction, Randy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Given the general construction of their roster, it’s always difficult for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents in the offseason. No one in their right mind wants to sit for weeks at a time behind a cast of All Stars, especially when their playing time will impact their future earnings. As a result, the Yanks have had to resort to signing cast-offs late in the offseason and/or trading for help at midseason. They did both in 2010, signing a reserve outfielder right before pitchers and catchers reported, then replacing him with a trade deadline pickup. Unfortunately, neither worked.

Randy Winn

The Yankees signed Winn to a relatively cheap contract in February, a one-year pact worth just $1.1M guaranteed, though there was another $900,000 tied up in incentives based on plate appearances against left-handed pitchers only. That told everyone right away that they viewed him as some sort of a platoon bat, not to mention a defensive specialist and occasional pinch runner.

As it turned out, Winn’s tenure in pinstripes lasted less than two months. He was designated for assignment on May 28th, less than 50 games into the season. His time with the Yanks featured just 71 plate appearances (0-for-11 vs. LHP) and a lowly .276 wOBA, though I will say that I thought he had some decent at-bats. He seemed to work the count well and at least make the pitcher work, though the results just weren’t there. Perhaps even more damning is that the supposed defensive specialist cost the team 1.2 runs in 162.2 defensive innings. Mash it all together, and Winn was worth three-tenths of a win below replacement level during his time in New York. Thankfully the Cardinals lessened the blow somewhat by assuming roughly $270,000 of Winn’s contract when they signed him in June.

Austin Kearns

Fans know Kearns' strikeout face well. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

After Winn flunked out of pinstripes and it became painfully obvious that Marcus Thames was a hazard to himself and anyone around him defensively, the Yanks went out and acquired Kearns from the Indians in exchange for a player to be named later (Zach McAllister) at the trade deadline. The former Red had rebuilt his value with the Indians in the first half, wOBA’ing .343 overall and (more importantly to the Yanks) .353 against southpaws.

Kearns instantly improved the team’s bench and overall depth, and his first three weeks in pinstripes were superb: .434 wOBA in 45 plate appearances while filling in at both outfield corners and occasionally pinch-hitting. That was basically all the Yankees would get out of Kearns though, as his production simply cratered after that. His final 74 plate appearances of the season featured just 24 times on base (inflated by four hit by pitches and one reached on an error) and 26 strikeouts, or one every 3.08 times to the plate. Although he made the postseason roster, Kearns didn’t make it into a single game even after Mark Teixeira‘s injury.

Kearns wasn’t a total loss for the Yankees (.310 wOBA) because his defense was rock solid (1.6 runs better than average), coming in at three-tenths of a win better than some replacement level scrub. In his defense, he was battling some sort of hand/wrist injury down the stretch that I’m sure hampered his swing, but still. Kearns was as close to useless as it gets in the last six or so weeks of the season.

* * *

A pair of approximately replacement level fourth (or fifth, depending on your point of view) outfielders didn’t sink the Yankees’ season, though they certainly didn’t help. Thankfully the starting trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher were all above average performers this year, ditto Thames in a reserve role, so the lack of a true outfield bat off the bench wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been.

Prospect Profile: Mason Williams

(Photo Credit: West Orange Times)

Mason Williams | CF

Background
Born and raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Williams grew up a Red Sox fan and later moved to Winter Haven, Florida with his family when he was 13. His father Derwin was drafted by the Reds out of college, but he instead pursued football, playing 42 games at wide receiver for the New England Patriots from 1985 to 1987. Mason starred both on the mound and in the outfield for West Orange High School, leading the Warriors to district championships as a sophomore, junior, and senior. During the summers he played for the Midland Redskins, a competitive travel team based out of Cincinnati, who helped to a pair of Connie Mack championships.

Committed to South Carolina, Baseball America ranked Williams the 145th best prospect in the draft this spring. The Yankees selected him with their fourth round pick, which sure enough was #145 overall. In a beautiful little slice of baseball symmetry, Williams signed right on the August 16th deadline for (you guess it), $1.45M. It was the largest bonus given to a draftee by the Yankees this year by half-a-million dollars.

Pro Debut
Williams reported to New York’s rookie level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League after signing, where he picked up four singles and a walk in just 19 plate appearances spread across five games. He struck out four times and stole a base, getting caught twice. Williams then participated in Dominican Instructional League after the season.

Scouting Report
Long and lanky, Williams checks in at 6-foot-0, 150 lbs. and is an outstanding athlete. He’s a legitimate prospect at both shortstop and in centerfield because of fast-twitch quickness, closing speed, good hands, and a powerful arm that unleashed upper-80’s fastballs in high school. The Yankees had him play strictly centerfield with the GCL Yanks, and chances are he’ll remain there. Regardless, Williams has the tools to be a well-above average defender at either position.

His offensive game is built around everything but power, which isn’t surprising given his build. Williams has a sweet lefty swing geared for hard contact, and he gets himself into good hitter’s counts with an advanced approach. His speed is an asset on the bases, though he can get a little reckless at times and run himself into outs. Future power may or may not come, it depends entirely on how Williams matures physically. Still just 19, he could grow into a 15 homer hitter, but otherwise cracking double digits will be a chore. There are no concerns about his makeup, and he obviously has good athletic bloodlines.

Here’s a video of one of Williams taking some hacks for his summer league team.

2011 Outlook
Williams could probably handle the jump into a full season league next year and survive on athleticism alone, but look for the Yanks to hold him back in Extended Spring Training before assigning him to Short Season Staten Island in June. If Williams performs well early in the year, they could be aggressive and bump him up to Low-A Charleston. Either way, don’t expect him to move that quickly, he’s a one level a year kind of prospect.

My Take
Depending on who you ask, Williams is the best prospect the Yankees drafted this summer. They went for upside and athleticism, and Williams offers the most well-rounded package of both, with good baseball skills and polish. I’m always concerned about low power guys because they could be prone to having the bat knocked out of their hands by good fastballs at the upper levels, but we’re a long ways away from having that be a real problem for Williams. If he can keep the strikeouts to a minimum and use his speed, he’s got a chance to be a game-changing force atop a big league lineup.

Yankees visiting Lee in Arkansas today

The Yankees are learning from past successes. Two winters ago the team made a splash on the first day of free agency, offering CC Sabathia the largest contract ever for a pitcher. Yet for the next three or four weeks we heard next to nothing. Sabathia and his agent acknowledged the offer, but after that they played the silent game. The two parties met on the eve of the Winter Meetings, but it didn’t appear to further the Yankees’ cause. A few days later, Sabathia left Las Vegas and returned home.

The next day or so was filled with uncertainty. Did Sabathia’s departure mean that he wasn’t interested in pitching for the Yankees? Had another team even made an offer? There was actually a report that Sabathia had rejected the Yankees offer upon leaving Vegas. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes. Sabathia went home so he could discuss the situation with his wife. That led to the infamous phone call in which Sabathia requested that Cashman come to Vallejo and meet the family. A few hours later they were putting together a seven-year, $161 million contract.

Today it appears the Yankees will try something similar. MLB Trade Rumors reports that the Yankees are flying to Arkansas for a face-to-face meeting with Cliff Lee. While there’s little chance that Cashman walks away with a signed contract, I have to think this bodes well for the team’s chances.

Money played the biggest role in Sabathia’s decision. It plays an enormous role in nearly every free agent decision. Players know that they’re getting ready for their one big pay day, and they want to make the most out of it. The Yankees, as we know, do not take kindly to getting outbid for a player they desire. We saw this as well two winters ago, when the Braves aggressively pursued A.J. Burnett. The bidding increased until the Yankees finally hit that $82.5 million mark. Contract signed. We saw it again a few weeks later, when the Yankees outbid the Red Sox for Mark Teixeira. I doubt they’ll let another team offer Lee more money.

What the Yankees should accomplish with this trip is what they accomplished by flying to Vallejo in 2008. That is, the purpose is to make Lee know that he’s the Yankees’ guy. After signing his contract, Sabathia said that what swayed him was his central role in the Yankees’ plans. Once Cashman revealed that they didn’t trade for Johan Santana because they wanted CC instead, the big man said he felt wanted. Again, money certainly played a bigger role. But there are certainly other factors to consider, and the feeling of being wanted — being needed, even — plays a part in that.

With Lee, the Yanks probably don’t have to do much work. They did, after all, offer up their best prospect for a half season of Lee. That should signal right there how much they wanted him. And now, presumably, Cashman will give Lee the Sabathia pitch. They wanted him then, and they want him now; they plan to pair him with CC for a top that can match with anyone else’s. There are plenty of other points to make, and I trust that Cashman will hit on all of them. Why else would he make such a personal visit?

Remember, though, that these types of visits are fairly routine at this time of year. In 2008 the Yankees paid a similar visit to Mark Teixeira and nothing came of it for another month or so. The Red Sox then tried a similar tactic and were rebuffed — if you’ll remember, at the time John Henry talked about how the two sides just weren’t going to fit. In a similar way, I don’t expect Lee to sign a contract any sooner than we previously expected. But I do appreciate Cashman’s approach to the matter. They want Lee, and they want to make it as clear as possible. That sounds like a plan.

Posada set for meniscus surgery of his own, DH spot

Jorge Posada, the Yanks’ incumbent catcher, will have surgery today to fix a torn meniscus in his left knee, The Times reported this morning. The Yankees determined yesterday that Posada needed the operation, and while the team expects a speedy recovery, as Michael S. Schmidt writes, “it underlines the age issues that the Yankees have to confront with Posada.”

Beyond the meniscus surgery, though, Schmidt’s story is intriguing as it sheds some light on the Yanks’ catching situation. Yanks GM Brian Cashman has told Posada that he will be competing with Jesus Montero in Spring Training for the starting job and, as one source said, “should prepare to DH a lot…Posada said great and he was willing to do it. He was happy to know what the situation is.” Many Yankee-watchers had predicted that Posada would not respond well to this news, but as Moshe Mandel said to me last night, “It’s almost like he’s a professional who is being paid a lot of money to help the team, and knows he is getting old to catch.”

Dancing with Derek for the first time

Now that Derek Jeter is a free agent for the very first time in his 16-year Major League career, Yankee fans are beside themselves. Some seem to wonder why the Yanks are intent on screwing over Jeter while others believe Jeter is being incredibly selfish. Most are just going to sit back and let the tale play out, calm in the knowledge that the Yanks and Jeter will reach a deal fair to both sides.

I fall in the third camp. Thus when a report comes out that says the Yanks will “overpay” for Jeter’s services, I sit back and yawn. This wasn’t news a year ago; it’s not news today. Of course, the Yanks will give Jeter more than he’d get on a purely open market. He’s a marketable face of the franchise, and as long as they overpay in dollars and not years, it won’t have a significant long-term impact on the Yanks’ chances on the field.

So as we wait for Jeter-mania to play itself out, let’s hop in the Wayback Machine and revisit Derek Jeter’s last contract negotiation. It was a different time for the Yankees. They hadn’t had embraced their financial might to the same extent that they do today, and baseball salaries hadn’t yet exploded as they would following A-Rod‘s, Manny Ramirez’s, Mike Hampton’s and, of course, Jeter’s deal during the winter of 2000-2001.

The story starts after the 1999 season. Jeter had just played his age 25 season, and he was already a Yankee legend in the making. With a .318/.389/.465 line and three World Series rings, the next great Yankee was staking his claim to a big pay day. He had earned himself a $5 million deal for 1999, and in his second year of arbitration, he had asked for a record-setting $10.5 million award.

The Yankees knew it would behoove them to act. They knew that A-Rod’s looming free agency following the 2000 season would set the market, and 12 months before A-Rod signed his deal with the Rangers, the $200 million figure swirled in the winter winds. But before that record-setting winter arrived, the Yankees and Casey Close tried to lock up Jeter to a long-term deal.

As Buster Olney reported in January of 2000, the Yankees were prepared to offer a record-setting deal to their young short stop. The two sides were expected to wrap up negotiations before the end of January, and the deal was believed to be for seven years and $118.5 million. Running from 2001-2007, it would have been the largest deal in baseball history and second in professional sports only to Kevin Garnett’s six-year, $126-million contract. While the average annual salary of $19.75 million seemed steep then, Yankee officials expected it to be a bargain by the time it expired after the 2007 season.

But George Steinbrenner got cold feet. At the time, Steinbrenner didn’t like to flaunt the Yanks’ fiscal might, and he never liked to saddle his young stars with long-term deals. He wanted them to earn it. That hesitancy combined with the fact that, as subsequent reports stated, he didn’t want to make Jeter the game’s top earner led the Yankees to wait on a deal. Bob Klapisch opined that the Boss never intended to make Jeter the highest-paid player and floated the figures to the media gauge the other owners’ reactions. Steinbrenner, wrote Klapisch, didn’t want to “be accused of buying championships” or “ruining baseball’s economy.” Those were the days.

After the Yanks downed the Mets in the 2000 Subway Series and Jeter took home the All Star and World Series MVP, the team acted. Jack Curry speculated that Jeter’s deal would be for eight or nine years at $18.5 million a pop. He wasn’t far off. Throughout the winter of 2000-2001, the New York media watched the Jeter negotiations closely, and a deal didn’t materialize quickly. Buster Olney noted how it would be costly to the Yanks, and as January wore on without a contract in place, Tom Keegan of The Post urged Jeter to hit free agency and sign with the Mets.

In early February, the deal was done. The Yanks and Jeter were in it for the long haul at 10 years and $189 million. Jeter wound up making, as Anthony McCarron noted, around $8 million more over the first seven years of his contract than he would have had the Boss not gotten cold feet a year earlier. The contract did not come with an opt-out and was heavily backloaded to allow the Yanks financial flexibility — for Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi — in the early years. “It’s lower in the early years to help us go out and sign guys,” baseball’s then-second-highest paid player said.

A handful of players — Mark Teixeira, Joe Mauer, CC Sabathia and Johan Santana, among them — have made more money on an annual basis than Jeter, but since Jeter signed that deal in 2001, only Alex Rodriguez has signed a longer deal for more money. I can’t help but wonder what deal Jeter would have signed after his 2007 campaign. It would have been a far better for his wallet had he hit free agency then. With A-Rod and Jeter both on the open market, the Yanks would have been in some financial pickle.

But now is the time of Jeter’s free agency, and we’ll keep waiting for that deal to be signed. It’ll happen before too long. I’m not worried.

Photo: Derek Jeter accepts his 1996 Rookie of the Year Award. He is 21. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)