The Advantage of Money

Worth every penny. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

For the last decade and a half, the Yankees have had two very distinct and undisputed advantages over every other team in the league. They are the only club with Mariano Rivera working the ninth inning, and they have the most money. The former has given them countless stress-free innings and wins, but the latter has brought both good and bad. You don’t need to do much more than take a cursory look around the league to see that it’s easy to spend money, but much more difficult to spend money wisely.

Like every other team, the Yankees have had their fair share of free agent duds. Mistakes come with the territory, but the Yankees have made bigger mistakes because they play in the deep end of the talent pool. The Carl Pavanos and Jaret Wrights and Kei Igawas … there’s only one team that can make mistakes like that and not miss a beat, but those mistakes aren’t without consequence. Contrary to popular belief, the Yankees do have a finite amount of money, and blowing $40M on Pavano means you have $40M less to spend elsewhere. That’s the reality of the situation.

Over the last three offseasons, the Yankees have shied away from free agency to a certain extent. They did offer Cliff Lee more guaranteed money ($148M) than either the Rangers ($138M) or Phillies ($120M), but otherwise they’ve signed just one free agent to a contract worth $10M+ over the last three years*, and that was the ownership-mandated Rafael Soriano. Pedro Feliciano is the only other player they’ve signed to a multi-year contract since the ’08-’09 offseason. The batch of non-Lee free agent pitchers during the last three winters is highlighted by John Lackey, Randy Wolf, Erik Bedard, Joel Pineiro, Mark Buehrle, Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt, C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, and Edwin Jackson. There are no CC Sabathia‘s in that group, no one comparable to Lee.

* Not counting the new contracts for Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Derek Jeter. Those are clearly special cases.

There’s only one team that could afford to offer Sabathia the richest pitching contract in history on the first day of free agency and use it as a starting point for negotiations, and sure enough that’s the team that got him. That is the advantage of money. Having the ability to blow everyone else out of the water for elite talent. Those last two words are key, because those players are in short supply. The one or two or three win type players are interchangeable in a sense, because there are other guys capable of providing the same production at similar prices. The Sabathias and Lees, those fellas are far from interchangeable. If you don’t get them, you’re out of luck, as the Yankees learned last winter. Everyone else, eh not so much.

There were no available elite players who fit the Yankees needs this offseason, at least not in their eyes. I think Darvish is going to be pretty good and you probably do as well, but at the end of the day we really have no idea. I don’t know, you don’t know, and the Yankees don’t know either. But they do know more about him that you or I probably ever will, and they obviously felt he wasn’t worth the price, a price commonly associated with elite pitchers. Given how much success the team’s pro scouting department has had lately, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Same deal with Gio and Wilson, those were two non-elite players at elite cost. Having the advantage of money is marginalized when you start overpaying for players that aren’t worth overpaying for.

Is this slow offseason a bore? Of course. Are the Yankees still a really good team? Obviously. They need a starting pitcher, really just one to bump Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia down to the three and four spots of the rotation, where they belong. Anything after that is gravy. As I’ve said before, the Yankees don’t need that pitcher today, just at some point later in the season and before the playoffs. I think we’d all have realized by now the World Series isn’t won in the offseason after living through it so many times. The Yankees have the ability to top any offer for elite players, but just one of those guys have fit their needs in the last three offseasons. Spending big on second and third tier players just because they fit a need often winds up being counterproductive at this point of the year.

Update: Yankees, Nakajima still far apart in talks

Monday: Heyman issued a correction; the deadline is Friday, not Tuesday. I knew it was later in the week, that made more sense based on when the winning bid was announced.

Sunday: Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees and Hiroyuki Nakajima are still far apart in their contract talks. The CBS Sports scribe says the deadline to get a deal worked out is Tuesday, not later in the week like I’d assumed. The Yankees won the infielder’s negotiating rights with a $2.5M bid in early-December.

Andruw Jones agreed to terms on Friday, just two days after we heard the two sides weren’t close to a deal. So yeah, this stuff can come together quickly. Nakajima is apparently “highly motivated” to play in MLB next season, and his agent even broached the idea of a sign-and-trade a few weeks ago. The Yankees haven’t discussed the idea with anyone though. I’m guessing he’ll sign for three years and about $7.5M, and not be traded before the season. Very curious to see how this whole thing plays out.

Open Thread: Scott Proctor

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

In a lot of ways, Scott Proctor personifies the Joe Torre era bullpens. He had a modicum of success in 2006 (3.96 FIP) but was overworked to the extreme, appearing in 83 games and throwing 102.1 relief innings. Unsurprisingly, his performance suffered in the next year (5.56 FIP) and he was traded to the Dodgers for Wilson Betemit at the deadline. Proctor, who battled alcoholism during his time in New York, then bounced from the Dodgers to the Marlins to Tommy John surgery to the Braves then back to the Yankees last year.

Proctor turns 35 today, and there’s a pretty decent chance he’s thrown his last Major League pitch. If so, his final act on a big league field will be giving up Evan Longoria’s walk-off, wildcard clinching homerun in Game 162 to cement The Collapse. It was his 56th pitch of the game, as he was again laying it all out there and doing what the team asked. More important relievers were resting up for the playoffs and Proctor was disposable, so he bit the bullet and threw the most pitches he’d thrown in a single game since Sept. 16th, 2005. That was also part of the problem, Proctor never refused the ball and was always available. Honorable, yes, but chances are he cut his own career short.

* * *

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Nets, Knicks, and Devils are playing tonight, but Time Warner customers won’t be able to watch those last two teams because the Dolans pulled MSG due to a contract dispute. You folks can talk about whatever you like here, just be cool.

John Sickels’ Top 20 Yankees Prospects

John Sickels of Minor League Ball published his list of the top 20 Yankees prospects over the weekend, a list that is unsurprisingly topped by Jesus Montero. Montero, a Grade A prospect, is followed by Gary Sanchez (B+) and four B-prospects: Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Mason Williams, and Dante Bichette Jr. Click through for his brief individual write-ups and grade explanations. I’ve found myself disagreeing with Sickels more than any other publication because I think he relies on stats a little too much, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to see different opinions of players.

Soriano saving the Yanks from Edwin Jackson

Via Buster Olney, the Yankees like free agent starter Edwin Jackson, but they don’t have the room to add him because Rafael Soriano is taking up a big part of their budget ($11M in 2012, $14M in 2013). Joe wrote about Soriano and how his contract may be preventing moves last week, in case you missed it.

Would Jackson help the Yankees next year? Of course. Is he the one missing piece that would put them over the top? I doubt it, but stranger things have happened. I know he’s young and all that, but he is a classic “should be better than he is” type and I think the Yankees have about three of those guys in the rotation already. Being the best available anything has a way of distorting reality and making players seem better than they really are, which is what happened with Gio Gonzalez and is probably happening with Jackson. I’m terrified of ownership stepping in an ordering a signing here, frankly.

Splitting Burnett

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Back in November I took a deep dive into the numbers to see whether there were any positives to be gleaned from A.J. Burnett‘s lousy 2011 season and whether we could expect at least a slightly better performance from the enigmatic righty in 2012 (assuming the Yankees don’t eat his deal and decide to make him someone else’s problem). What I found was that Burnett’s season was utterly compromised by a brutal nine-start stretch he put together during July and August — which was in large part due to the fact that he lost nearly two inches of vertical break on his curveball — and that if you removed those performances from his ledger he actually¬†threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings. We all know baseball doesn’t work that way, but that would seem to indicate that there’s still a somewhat useful pitcher in there somewhere.

Today I wanted to examine a few key splits, in the hopes that there are some underlying trends that could bode well for A.J. going forward. For the masochists in the audience, feel free to download the spreadsheet I created which has the tOPS+ and sOPS+ data on pretty much every split you could want during the course of A.J.’s Yankee career. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on sOPS+, as in the case of a pitcher like Burnett I think we’ll get a better sense of just how effective/ineffective he’s been comparing his performances in various splits against the league instead of compared to himself.

Over the last two years, leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters and 5th-slot hitters have really given it to A.J. but good. For some reason, A.J. fared best against #2 hitters last season, and also handled them relatively well last year. While his performance against 1-2 hitters slightly worsened in 2011, his sOPS+ against 3-6 hitters was flat year-over-year and his numbers against 7-9 hitters actually improved over 2010 (although in the case of the latter, he was still only 3% better than league average). Still, none of this data is terribly optimistic.

Last year, Burnett was curiously effective with a runner on 3rd and less than two outs (53 sOPS+). He also fared well with runners on first and third (72 sOPS+). Though one would think that Burnett’s propensity for wild pitches — something that wouldn’t show up in the opposition’s cumulative OPS —¬† likely aided the opposing team’s opportunities with runners on third. Burnett has been atrocious with a runner on 2nd these last two seasons, posting a 143 sOPS+ last year and 152 this past season. Nothing to see here.

This past season A.J. appeared to save his best pitching for when the team was trailing, with an 80 sOPS+. However, as driven painfully home by the August 3 game against the White Sox, he was inexplicably terrible when pitching with a big lead, posting an sOPS+ of 195(!) when ahead by four-plus runs.

In 2011, A.J. saved his worst pitching for the middle innings collectively, although his worst performances came in the 2nd inning of games (154 sOPS+). Burnett was great in the 3rd inning (43 sOPS+), but that was one only three innings he was better than league average in, and one of those innings — the eighth — was one he rarely even saw.

Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be anything in the underlying data that might portend a brighter future for Allan James Burnett in 2012. I’ve been hoping against hope that A.J. can return to a level of effectiveness that he last evinced in 2009, and while I’ll continue to perhaps foolishly expect better from A.J., no matter which way you slice ’em the numbers tell a very different story.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 2nd, 2012

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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