What Josh Willingham’s contract tells us about Swisher’s

While filing the position in right field presents no problems for the 2012 Yankees, the 2013 team could have a vacancy there. After the 2011 season the Yankees exercised Nick Swisher‘s $10.25 million option, keeping him in the Bronx at least one more year. But after this season he reaches free agency, at which time his value on the open market might be more than the Yankees are willing to pay him. After all, if the Yankees really do plan to get under $189 million in 2014, Swisher just might not fit into the plans. That is, if he’s due a raise over his current salary. Given the current market, that might not be the case.

This week the Twins signed Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract. That looks like a bargain, since they reportedly had a three-year, $25 million out to Michael Cuddyer. Willingham has been a quality hitter in his six major league seasons, compiling a .262/.361/.475 slash line and a .364 wOBA (123 wRC+). He’s had some health issues, and he’s not the greatest outfield defender. But there’s little question about his bat. His worst major league season came last year, when he played half his games at the Oakland Coliseum, and even then he produced a .350 wOBA and 123 wRC+.

If Willingham’s career numbers look familiar, it might be because they resemble someone else’s:

It’s pretty crazy how those numbers match up almost exactly, save for Swisher’s poor 2008 season. They also share eerily similar platoon splits, about .350 wOBA against right-handed pitching and .375 against left-handers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’re in line for the same payday. There are a few factors, beyond offense, that separate Willingham and Swisher.

  • Willingham is, by the numbers and the eye test, not a very good defender. Swisher might not be a gem, but he’s serviceable in right. That gives him a leg up on Willingham.
  • Swisher will be a year younger hitting free agency. Willingham will be 33 next year, while Swisher’s first year after hitting free agency will be his age-32 season.
  • Swisher has a far better health record. He’s played in at least 150 games in every season since 2006. Willingham has yet to hit the 150-game mark.
  • Swisher already makes $10.25 million, so it’s not likely he gets a pay cut, especially from the Yankees.

Still, even with the advantages Swisher holds over Willingham, it’s not likely he’ll fetch a significantly more lucrative contract next off-season. Perhaps Michael Cuddyer getting three years at $30 million might change the equation, since Swisher is a better hitter than Cuddyer, is younger, and has had fewer poor seasons. But since it’s likely that Cuddyer gets something in Willingham’s range, it’s reasonable to expect Swisher to receive something in that range when he hits the open market.

If the Yankees could lock down right field from 2013 through 2015 at $11 million per season, would that work? One big issue at play here is a potential replacement. There are a few corner outfielders whom the Yankees could pursue, but they’re all flawed in their own ways. Josh Hamilton has injury concerns and will still likely get paid far more than Swisher. Andre Ethier will likely get a decent payday by reputation, but he’s only one year younger than Swisher and has nearly identical career numbers. Carlos Quentin will also hit free agency, but he has longstanding injury issues. Since the Yankees have no viable internal replacements, that means either trading prospects for a right fielder or re-signing Swisher. At $11 million per season that could be a viable proposition.

We can be sure that nothing will come of this until next off-season. The Yankees aren’t eager to deal with any player under contract, and Swisher certainly isn’t a priority. But when the time comes they might find that, even at three years and $33 million, he’s the most reasonable on the market.

On Montero and opposite field power

Over the last few years, we’ve heard quite a bit about Jesus Montero‘s power to right, the opposite field for him. We caught a glimpse of that opposite field power in September, when three of Montero’s four homeruns were hit out to right. For some perspective, Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp tied for the league lead in opposite field homers hit by right-handed batters in 2011. They each had nine, or three times as many as Montero in roughly ten times as many plate appearances.

Opposite field power is generally more impressive than pull power because for one, it takes a ton of raw strength. Making contact with a pitch that is essentially behind you and still driving it 350-feet isn’t something most baseball players can do with regularity. Secondly, it supposedly indicates a better approach and the willingness to wait on a pitch, letting it travel deep in the zone before swinging. That part is more up for debate that the raw strength part, but I certainly think it passes the sniff test.

Over the last three seasons, Nelson Cruz leads all right-handed hitters with a .417 wOBA to the opposite field. Miguel Cabrera is second at .409, and Derek Jeter of all people is third at .398. I only say “of all people” because we don’t think of Jeter as a power guy, but he certainly does a ton of damage the other way. That’s a good reminder that having opposite field power doesn’t necessarily have to mean just homers, it could also means doubles and triples. I don’t expect to see many three-baggers out of Montero, though. Over the last three seasons, righty hitters have averaged a .274 wOBA on balls hit the other way. Clearly, opposite field pop for a righty bat is a pretty scarce and valuable commodity.

Not to rain on the parade, but we have to remember that Montero still has a long way to go before proving that his opposite field pop is a sustainable thing in the big leagues. He had 69 plate appearances and put 44 balls in play in September, which is nothing. Five of Travis Snider’s first eleven homers in the show were hit to the opposite field, and none of the 17 he’s hit since them have gone the other way. This could vanish quick. It was fun to see Montero launch some bombs the other way late last year, and the scouting report indicates that this could be something more than a fluke. The kid sure does seem to have a swing geared for the small part of Yankee Stadium, and that’s pretty exciting.

Nakajima and the sign-and-trade possibility

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

The Yankees have a very interesting situation on their hands with Hiroyuki Nakajima, the 29-year-old Japanese shortstop whose negotiating rights they won with a $2.5M bid last week. Brian Cashman and Greg Genske (Nakajima’s agent) continue to negotiate a contract, but late last night Ken Rosenthal reported that Genske has broached the idea of a sign-and-trade scenario, in which the Yankees would sign his client before flipping him to another club.

Obviously Nakajima wants to play everyday, but we’ve heard over and over again that the Yankees view him as a bench player, a utility infielder. Nakajima has indicated a willingness to sign, and Rosenthal even says he’s intrigued by the idea of wearing pinstripes and playing behind Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees don’t necessarily want to trade him though, and the FOX scribe goes on to quote a “rival scout” who raves about Nakajima’s makeup. There’s that makeup thing again, the Yanks really seem to have placed an emphasis on it lately.

Anyway, a sign-and-trade sounds like a wonderful idea, but we have to remember that Nakajima probably has very little trade value. I doubt the Yankees aren’t going to be able to flip him for a starting pitcher or anything substantial like that. Rosenthal says the Giants and Cubs have interest in trading for him, but apparently not enough interest to bid more than $2.5M during the posting process. Jed Lowrie is a decent comp as a middle infielder with three years of contractual control and questions about his game (defense, ability to hit righties, health), and he got traded for a middle reliever yesterday. Not even straight-up either; he had to be paired with an okay-ish pitching prospect. That’s basically our benchmark for a Nakajima trade, which means he’d likely have to be the second or third piece in a package of players if the Yankees want to receive anything meaningful.

The last two infielders to come over from Japan — Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Akinori Iwamura — signed three-year contracts worth $9M and $7.7M, respectively. Their posting fees were a little larger than Nakajima’s ($5.3M and $4.5M, respectively), but that gives us an idea of the kind of contract it will likely take to sign him. Would a club rather have Nakajima at something like three years and $8M, or one of the various middle infielders that signed two-year contracts in the $5-11M range this winter (Aaron Hill, Clint Barmes, Mark Ellis, Jamie Carroll)?  I think they’d prefer Nakajima since it’s basically the same money spread out over one more year, plus he’s several years younger than those folks. Now, would you rather have Nakajima at that price, or Eduardo Nunez? Remember, Nunez is five years younger, substantially cheaper, and under team control for another five years. ZiPS projection for Nakajima (.276/.322/.389) is almost exactly what Nunez hit this past season (.265/.313/.385).

You folks know I’m not Nunez’s biggest fan, but I think he offers more trade value than Nakajima, so perhaps the best thing for the Yankees would be to deal him and keep Nakajima. Then again, the market has shown that the trade return is likely to be underwhelming unless there are a few more players included in the package. The sign-and-trade idea suggest by Genske is a nice option for the Yankees to have, but I’m not quite sure it’s much of a help unless they sweeten the pot with some other players. That said, the Yankees did acquire a trade chip for essentially nothing, even if they get stuck paying the $2.5M posting fee, and that’s pretty awesome.

Building a better posting system

As the afternoon hours tick away in Japan, Major League Baseball and its fans are eagerly awaiting word of the Yu Darvish sweepstakes. The bidding ended at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and we know the Yankees posted a bid. Some reports say the Yanks’ bid isn’t very substantial, and Jon Heyman called it a “modest bid.”

Right now, all we know is basically nothing. No one has yet leaked the winning figure or the winning team. We don’t know what the Yanks submitted. Maybe they went low in the hopes of preempting a skittish field. Maybe, after four years of scouting Darvish, they weren’t willing to bid high and then follow up that bid with an equally lucrative deal for an unproven commodity. Of course, the recent failures of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa could be fresh in their minds, but those are inexact comparisons at best.

As we wait out the results, though, I pondered the posting system earlier today. Spurred on by an article in The Times, I realized just how ludicrous a system this is. A team in Japan posts a player, and then Major League Baseball clubs submit a blind bid for the exclusive right to negotiate a deal. If the negotiations fail, that player simply returns to Japan, and the team gets its money back. There’s no incentive to give the player a fair market deal, and the team winds up spending its assets on the posting fee rather than the player.

The agents certainly don’t like the system as they suffer tremendously. “The system has already failed,” Scott Boras said to The Times, “and that type of thing is only going to increase. I lived through it with Matsuzaka. As it stands, this system doesn’t benefit anyone.”

So what might happen? In the piece, David Waldstein noted that changes may be coming to the posting system. He writes:

The posting system was introduced after the experiences of Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano, who escaped their Japanese teams via loopholes. Then in 1997, the Chiba Lotte Marines, who had a working agreement with the San Diego Padres, agreed to let them sign Hideki Irabu, who refused to play for San Diego and forced a trade to the Yankees. “It wasn’t fun,” recalled Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers, who was the Padres’ general manager at the time. “I think that episode annoyed a lot of people, and that’s why we have the system we have now, as flawed as it might be.”

But it might change within a couple of years. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, a committee will be established to discuss a worldwide draft, including changes to the current system along with Nippon Professional Baseball.

Boras suggested a sliding scale whereby Japanese players can negotiate with any team and their Japanese teams would receive a percentage of the contract. For instance, if a player leaves after one year, the Japanese team would get 80 percent of the contract, 50 percent after five years and 20 percent with just one year remaining before free agency. “A lot of Japanese players aren’t successful here because they aren’t comfortable in their situation,” Boras said. “If they could choose where they want to play, their success rate would definitely increase.”

Who knows if Boras, as he often does, is just selling a load of hooey. Maybe Japanese players aren’t successful because they are siphoned off to one team and have to negotiate with little leverage. Maybe they’re not successful because they just can’t beat Major League competition. Either way, the posting system is a bit of a strange beast, more akin to the amateur draft than anything else. Veteran players aren’t given the option to pick their next team. How peculiar.

For now, though, we’ll wait it out for a little while longer. At some point soon, Yu Darvish’s potential future employer will be announced. I’m not too optimistic it will be the Yankees, but as a famed broadcaster likes to say, sometimes, you just can’t predict baseball.

Yankees made bid for Darvish, high bidder could be announced tonight

7:49pm: Via Buster Olney, the Yankees did in fact place a bid for Darvish. No word on the size of the bid, but David Waldstein hears it was “not huge.” Jack Curry says they discussed the right-hander at a meeting today, then decided to make a bid within the last two hours before the deadline.

5:30pm: The posting period for Yu Darvish officially came to an end at 5pm ET this afternoon, so teams are no longer allowed to submit a bid. Jack Curry says at least one team did submit a bid for the right-hander, but that team is not the Red Sox according to Nick Cafardo. They didn’t submit a bid at all, which is kinda surprising. The Orioles didn’t place a bid either, according to Roch Kubatko.

Usually the Japanese team gets four business days to mull things over and then the high bid is announced — which is  exactly what happened with Hiroyuki Nakajima — but Adam Kilgore heard from an MLB official that they might announce the high bidder for Darvish as soon as tonight or tomorrow morning. That would be pretty cool.

Open Thread: John Axford

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Relievers have a tendency to pop-up out of nowhere, which is exactly what happened with John Axford. The Brewers’ closer has been one of the very best relief pitchers in baseball over the last two and a half years, pitching to a 2.26 ERA (2.33 FIP) with 11.05 K/9 and 48.2% grounders in 139.1 IP since making his debut in 2009. He also led the league with 46 saves in 2011.

Of course, Axford was a Yankee once upon a time, or at least a player in the Yankees organization. They signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2006 after seeing him pitch for the Melville Millionaires of the Western Major Baseball League, a summer college league way up Canada. Axford was 24 at the time, and the Yankees used him as a classic organizational arm. His first appearance of the 2007 season came with High-A Tampa, his second with Triple-A Scranton, his next eleven with Low-A Charleston, his next eight with Short Season Staten Island, his next two with Low-A Charleston, and his final four with High-A Tampa. Twenty-seven total appearances across four levels in the span of six months.

Four years ago today, after just one season in the system, the Yankees released Axford. The Brewers signed him about three months later and stuck him on their High-A affiliate as (primarily) a starter for most of 2008. Milwaukee sent him back to High-A the next year, but this time as a reliever. A few weeks into the season, pitching coach Fred Dabney and pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell told Axford to “try to pitch like [Roy Halladay]” during a bullpen session. He lowered his arm slot, and the rest is history. Axford’s low-90’s fastball suddenly jumped into the 95-98 mph range, and his curveball had a bit more bite. Three years later, he’s an All-Star closer. Funny how that works, eh?

* * *

Here’s your open thread for this chilly evening. You’re pretty much on your own as far as entertainment goes, but you folks are resourceful, I’m sure you’ll find a way to entertain yourself. Talk about anything you like here, it’s all fair game.

The $189M Payroll: Part 2 of 2

This post was written by Moshe Mandel and Stephen Rhoads

In part 1 of this series we went through six different payroll scenarios for the Yankees over the next decade. We were careful to distinguish between total savings and CBA savings, noting that how you treat the difference in payroll can make a big difference. Where you come down on the question of how much the Yankees can save is very much determined by which figures you’re examining. Let’s use Scenario 1 as an example. In this Scenario, payroll goes from $210M in 2013 to $189M in 2014, and then goes back to $210M in 2015. We summarized the savings accordingly:

2014: Payroll at $189M
Payroll savings: $21M
Revenue sharing refund: $10M
Luxury tax savings ($21M*50%): $10.5M
Total saved: $41.5M

2015: Payroll back at $210M
No payroll savings
No refund
Luxury tax savings ($21M*50%) – ($21M* 17.5%): $6.825M
Total saved: 6.825M

2016: Payroll stays at $210M
No payroll savings
No refund
Luxury tax savings: ($21M*50%) – ($21M*30%): $4.2M
Total saved: $4.2M

2017: Payroll stays at $210M
No payroll savings
No refund
Luxury tax savings: (21*50%) – (21*40%): 2.1M
Total saved: $2.1M

TOTAL SAVINGS: $54.625M
CBA Savings: $23.125M

Now, how you account for 2014 really determines whether the savings are significant or not. We peg the initial savings figure for 2014 at $41.5M saved. This number is comprised of a $21M reduction in payroll, a $10M refund from revenue sharing, and a $10.5M savings in luxury tax. However, the $21M reduction in payroll and the $10.5M reduction in luxury tax don’t really have anything to do with the new CBA per se. This $30.5M savings is a savings they could have gotten at any point in the last decade simply by reducing payroll. Thus, the $30.5M is comprised of savings prompted by the CBA, but it’s not comprised of savings emanating from the new CBA. It’s a $30.5M they could have gotten at any point in the last few years and chose not to. It’s still a cash item – it’s not depreciation in a cash flow statement – and it still means more money in the coffers, but it’s not a CBA savings per se, at least in our estimation. This is an important distinction.

In 2015, the payroll goes back to $210M, which means there are no payroll savings and no revenue sharing refund. There is a luxury tax savings though, as the new CBA allows teams to “reset” the luxury tax by going under the threshhold in just one season, an option that was unavailable under the old agreement. This means that any savings reaped due to the reduced tax rate can be attributed to the new CBA and can therefore be included as “CBA” savings. In this particular scenario, these savings are comprised of a $6.825M difference in what their bill would have been had they not gone under $189M in 2014 compared to what it is since they did go below the threshold. In other words, had they not gone under $189M in 2014, their luxury tax rate in 2015 would have been 50%. Since they did, it’s $17.5%. The difference is $6.825M. This is a real CBA savings and it plays out over the 2016 and 2017 as well (rate goes up to 30% and 40%, respective, per the CBA). Thus, the total amount saved in Scenario 1 is about $55M, but only $23M of it is prompted by the new CBA. Here’s the summary, then, of all six scenarios and how much the team could save by going with each option.

Scenario 1 ($210M to $189M in 2014, returns to $210M in 2015 and beyond): total savings of $55M, CBA savings of $23M.

Scenario 2 ($210M to $189M in 2014, stays at $189 for 3 seasons): total savings of $147M, CBA savings of $53M.

Scenario 3 ($210 to $189M in 2014, stays at $189 for 2 of 3 seasons): total savings of $116M, CBA savings of $54M

Scenario 4 ($220M to $189M in 2014, returns to $220M in 2015 and beyond): total savings of $76M, CBA savings of 29M.

Scenario 5 ($220M to $189M in 2014, stays at $189M for 3 seasons): total savings of $199M, CBA savings of $59M.

Scenario 6 ($220M to $189M in 2014, stays at $189M for 2 of 3 seasons): total savings of $152M, CBA savings of $59M.

Clearly the Yankees would save the most total money in Scenarios 2, 3, 5 and 6. In these scenarios, they’re dropping their payroll down to $189M and keeping it there for a substantial amount of time. The most they could save would be in Scenario 5, in which they shave nearly $40M off their payroll and maintain the reduction. In this case they’d net nearly $200M more, $59M of which would be a derivative of the new CBA.

These gains would be real, but they’re not entirely relevant for our purposes. Saying the team could save nearly $200M in Scenario 5 is true, but it’s also true they could save $75M right this moment if they dropped their payroll down by $75M. Of course, they haven’t done that at any point in recent memory. Our concern is the CBA savings.

The team would obviously save the most by dropping the payroll and keeping it low. Their tax bill would be lower, and they’d receive money back from the revenue sharing refund. However, these CBA-related savings don’t seem to amount to more than $60M. If they don’t maintain the new low payroll, the savings are even less. In Scenarios 1 and 4, in which they drop the payroll for one year and return it to prior levels immediately after, they’d only save $23M-$29M over four years. At most, this amounts to a little over $7M per year. In the latter scenarios, this annual savings figure rises to a little less than $12 million per year.

It’s our opinion that if the Yankees were interested in saving fifteen to thirty-five million dollars a year in payroll and tax, they should have done it already. They could have done it at any point in the last decade. We’re told that the new CBA incentivizes them to get below $189M to incur specific savings, but we see that the only time those savings are truly noteworthy is in the unlikely scenario in which the Yankees stay under $189M for a significant amount of time. Furthermore, we see that the CBA-related savings, at their most extreme, are about $12M a year. Are the Yankees really concerned about $12M a year in “new savings”? Are they suddenly concerned about the fifteen to thirty-five million dollars a year that they could have been saving all along? Perhaps most importantly, are they willing to forgo top free agents and risk missing the postseason to garner those savings?

Without further guidance as to what the true long-term goal is, we can’t get more specific than this. But it seems to be the case that the team will only realize serious, significant gains if they make a permanent move towards a payroll level more reminiscent of the early part of the last decade. Perhaps we’re stuck in the denial stage of the 5 stages of grief. It’s hard for us to understand the prospect of a “new normal” in which the payroll drops 10-20% while the team simultaneously reaps greater and greater revenues from a lucrative television network and new stadium. It’s even harder for us to understand risking contention in an increasingly competitive American League with an already-expensive roster to simply eke out a pittance in savings relative to the team’s balance sheet. But this may be the new Yankees reality, in which the Steinbrenners reach for a modicum of fiscal responsibility at the expense of some performance certainty. If it is, we all need to adjust our expectations accordingly.