The Price for Matt Garza

With Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and John Danks now off the board, the trade focus has shifted to Jair Jurrjens and Matt Garza. The former is a no-no in my eyes, but the latter’s a pretty damn good fit for the Yankees. David Kaplan reported yesterday that talks involving Garza are heating up, with the Yankees and two other clubs involved. The price is “incredibly high” though, and Jon Heyman says the Cubs are prioritizing young pitching in return.

The Yankees have plenty of pitching at the upper levels, enough that they could trade three young arms and still have enough depth in Triple-A to support the big league team this summer. They appear to be a match in that regard, it’s just a question of whether or not the two sides can find a middle ground. I’m guessing no, because the price of pitching is ridiculously high right now and the Cubs hold all the cards. Once upon a time two top prospects and miscellaneous pieces got you Dan Haren or Cliff Lee. Now it gets you Gio Gonzalez.

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Yankee relief pitching over the years: A graphical look

In the comments of my graphical look at Yankee starters’ ERAs over the last several years, reader Mike Myers asked if I could do a headshot graph for the Yankee relievers or bench players. Well, in the spirit of the holiday, ask and ye shall receive, and as a follow up to our graphical look at the Yankee benches from earlier this week, today comes a graphical look at the primary players the Yankees have employed as members of their bullpens since the 2003 season.

However, before we get to the headshots, here’s an updated chart showing how the Yankee relief corps have fared since the advent of divisional play:

With a 3.12 ERA, the 2011 relief corps was the best the Yankees have fielded in at least a decade, and represented the 8th-lowest lowest bullpen ERA a Yankee team has put up since 1969. The lowest? The strike-shortened 1981 team’s absurd 2.26, though that was of course compiled in only 107 games. The lowest full-season relief ERA since 1969 was the 1970 team’s 2.34 mark. However, this is extremely weird when you consider that the very next season the Yankees recorded both their worst ERA- and FIP- of all 43 teams surveyed here. I don’t know if they either blew the bullpen up following 1970 or all of the holdovers simply forgot how to pitch come 1971, but that is a pretty crazy one-year increase.

The next-best relief corps of the last 20 Yankee seasons was the 2001 ‘pen, which put up a 3.42 ERA, and they don’t check in until 18th on the list, which really drives home just how great the 2011 Yankee bullpen was. In terms of ERA relative to the league, the 2011 team checked in tied for 5th, with a 74 ERA-, with the 1981 and 1970 teams again at the top. In terms of FIP, the 2011 team fared a bit less impressively, with its 3.65 mark coming in at 18th-best (1972 led this list with a 2.85 FIP, which further begs the question what on earth was going on with the Yankee bullpens from 1970 through 1972? One year they’re incredible, the following year atrocious, then back to incredible), though its FIP relative to the league (88 FIP-) was tied for 10th-best, with 1982 topping the list with a 76 FIP-.

Now on to the individuals who comprised recent Yankee bullpens. In order to define who made the cut, seeing as how the Yankees can go through up to 30 pitchers (or more) over the course of the season between cuts, trades and September call-ups, I initially used 30 innings pitched as a benchmark. While I mostly stuck to that parameter, I did end up getting a bit lenient so that I could include some memorable names that perhaps didn’t quite reach that threshold, but came close enough. I did not end up using anyone below 20 IPs, so this should at least be a fairly representative sample of the primary players the Yankees utilized in relief during their respective seasons.

As for how I graded them out, I decided to go with FIP-, as neither ERA nor WAR are particularly great at telling us how effective relievers were. Focusing solely on what the pitcher was responsible for and comparing it against the league seemed like the most intuitive way to show just how good (or bad) the Yankee relief corps have been over the years.

(click to enlarge)

A few observations:

  • The Yankees, like every team in baseball, have had a lot of crappy relievers.
  • My primary memory of Juan Acevedo was of him botching one of Roger Clemens’ 8,000 attempts at getting his 300th win in a blown save against the Cubs on June 7, 2003.
  • Remember Felix “Run Fairy” Heredia, Felix Rodriguez and Luis Vizcaino?
  • I still hate Phil Coke, even though the 38 FIP- he put up in 14.2 innings in 2008 tops the list. Even though his ’08 season didn’t make the 30-IP innings cutoff, his 2009 season obviously did, and I wanted to show how bad he actually was in comparison.
  • The Yankees had a lot of crappy relievers in the middle of the aughts. Between bad pitching and awful defense, it still amazes me that the 2004-2007 teams still made the playoffs every year.
  • If you lower the innings cutoff to 20, Joba Chamberlain‘s 42 FIP- in 2007 is the second-best FIP- on this chart after Phil Hughes‘ 41 in 2009. In fact, those two are the third- and second-best relief seasons in all of Yankee history (going all the way back to 1871) in terms of FIP-. The best? Why, Mariano Rivera‘s 1996, in which he put up a 40 FIP- in 107.2 innings.
  • David Robertson‘s 2011 FIP- was the 5th-best relief season in all of Yankee history on the aforementioned list of 258 relief seasons of 20 innings pitched or more.

Mailbag: Josh Hamilton, Part Deux

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Mike asks: What kind of contract Josh Hamilton could get when he’s a free agent next year?

I wrote about Hamilton last year right around the holidays, so this is a good chance to go back for an update. The now 30-year-old outfielder followed up his 2010 MVP campaign by having the second worst year of his career, at least offensively. That’s relative to his lofty standards of course, because in no world is a .371 wOBA and a 129 wRC+ bad. He hit .290+ with 30+ doubles and 25+ homers for the third time in four years, and continues to be rated as a strong outfield defender by the advanced metrics.

The other thing Hamilton did in 2011 was get hurt, yet again. He missed more than a month early in the season after breaking his arm sliding into home plate, and he played through a sports hernia in the playoffs before having surgery after the season. Hamilton has been on the DL five times since resurfacing in 2007, including at least once in each of the last three seasons. Ailments include gasteroenteritis (2007), a wrist sprain (2007), fractured ribs (2009), a sports hernia (2009), more fractured ribs (2010), and then the broken arm and second sports hernia this year. He’s also been day-to-day with various leg problems (hamstring, knee, Achilles) about a dozen times since coming back into the league. Only once in his five-year career has he managed to play more than 135 games in a season, only twice more than 125 games.

Hamilton’s past is well known, and it’s fair to question how he’ll age after all he’s put his body through. This isn’t just an injury prone player now on the wrong side of 30, it’s an injury prone player with years of drug and alcohol abuse taking a toll on his body now on the wrong side of 30. The risk level is astronomical. Hamilton’s a great, great player on both sides of the ball, but he’s unable to maximize his talent because he can’t stay on the field all season. I know his left-handed pop would look great in Yankee Stadium, but signing a player like this would be a classic old Yankees move, if you catch my drift. Anyway, that wasn’t the question.

I think a nine-figure contract is out of the question for Hamilton next winter, even though his raw production probably warrants a payday like that. The Jayson Werth (seven years, $126M) and Carl Crawford (seven years, $142M) contracts seem excessive, but the Josh Willingham (three years, $27M) and Michael Cuddyer (three years, $31.5M) contracts seem too light. Perhaps the Jason Bay (four years, $66M) and Torii Hunter (five years, $90M) deals serve as a decent middle ground, four or five years and something like $16-18M per season. Sounds somewhat reasonable, no?

I don’t know what the Yankees are going to do in right field after next season, when Nick Swisher becomes a free agent with no obvious in-house candidate to replace him, but I sure hope Hamilton isn’t on the short list of solutions. Him and Andre Ethier, who will also be a free agent, are two guys I’m very much against signing. I’m sure the Yankees can fashion a platoon that’s as reasonably productive as those two guys over 162 games for a third of the cost on a one-year commitment. Hamilton’s a great hitter, but it’s a safe bet that his best years will be behind when by the time he hits the open market next winter. You don’t want to be the one on the hook when his body finally goes overboard and completely breaks down.

Open Thread: Rock Raines

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Tim Raines has the unfortunate distinction of being the second best leadoff hitter in baseball history, which is only unfortunate because he was overshadowed by the best leadoff hitter in baseball history, who was playing at the same time. He also spent much of his career tucked away in Montreal and never won a major award. Raines did reach base 3,977 times in his career though, the 46th most in history and more times than Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. During his five-year peak from 1983-1987, he hit .318/.406/.467 with 355 steals, 433 walks, and just 311 strikeouts in 3,394 plate appearances.

The Yankees acquired Rock from the White Sox on this date in 1995, sending a minor league pitcher named Blaise Kozeniewski to Chicago. Kozeniewski didn’t even play baseball in 1996 or ever again for that matter, so the Yankees basically got Raines for free. He spent three years as a platoon left fielder in the Bronx, helping the Yankees to the 1996 and 1998 World Series Titles. He posted a .299/.395/.429 batting line in pinstripes, a 115 OPS+ that is probably more than I think anyone could have expected back them, his age 36-38 seasons.

Raines is again eligible for the Hall of Fame this year after being unjustifiably left out last year, so hopefully this is the last time we have to see his name on the ballot. Rock obviously won’t wear a Yankees hat into Cooperstown whenever he does get elected, but we’re going to remember him for his only two World Series rings. That’s more important around here.

* * *

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The Rangers, Devils, and Knicks are all playing tonight, but talk about whatever you want here. Anything goes, so have at it.

Cashman Notes: A-Rod, Andruw, Nakajima

Brian Cashman spoke to reporters earlier today, mostly about the experimental knee procedure Alex Rodriguez underwent in Germany earlier this month. Let’s recap the news…

  • “He had recovered we felt fully from his [knee] surgery,” said Cashman, who confirmed that Alex also had the procedure on his left shoulder. “I think this is more about maintaining health going forward.” The GM said A-Rod has already resumed physical activity, and for some reason he’s working out in Boise of all places (h/t Don W). The procedure was apparently taped to ensure there was no funny business. (Mark Hale, Marc Carig, Will Carroll)
  • “Nothing to report,” said Cashman about Andruw Jones, “other than I’m still talking to him.” A week or two ago we found out that the two sides hadn’t made much progress towards a new deal (Hale)
  • One way or the other, the Hiroyuki Nakajima situation will be wrapped up by next week. The two sides have 30 days to hammer out a contract after the Yankees won the infielder’s negotiating rights in early-December, and that window closes either Friday or Saturday of next week. It sounds like Cashman is waiting to see what happens with Nakajima before pursuing a new deal with Eric Chavez. (Bryan Hoch)

Of all the bad contracts…

The Yankees currently have a need, and for once they’re not throwing money at it. According to some reports, it’s not because they haven’t found anything they like, but rather because they’re unwilling to raise payroll any further. They’re already at around $200 million for 2012, and we’ve already heard more than enough about the possible austerity budget for 2014. Whether they’re really trying to get payroll to a certain level by 2014, of they’re just getting out of the habit of giving out big-money, long-term contracts, it means that their biggest need this off-season, pitching, won’t get typical Yankee attention.

While avoiding long-term contracts for pitchers such as C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson make sense to varying degrees, what’s striking about this off-season is the Yankees’ reluctance to explore short-term deals that could boost the 2012 rotation. They’ve distanced themselves from Roy Oswalt even after learning he seeks only a one-year deal. More alarmingly, they’ve backed off Hiroki Kuroda, a pitcher who is not only seeking a short-term deal, but is also a pitcher the Yankees reportedly like.

Why would the Yankees choose not to pursue a pitcher they like if he only requires a one-year contract? There are a few reasons, but these seem the most plausible.

1. They’re not interested in paying the price for Kuroda plus the luxury tax. The contracts on the book are already there and can’t go anywhere. Adding Kuroda will effectively add nearly $17 million to total 2012 expenditures.

2. They’re worried that Kuroda won’t handle the transition to the AL in general, and the AL East specifically, well. If he’s not measurably better than Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, he’s not worth much, never mind $17 million. Since the Yankees clearly have a budget this winter, that $17 million could effectively wipe out any remaining flexibility, which could affect other aspects of the team. In other words, it’s a bigger risk than they’d normally consider for a player on a one-year deal.

Unfortunately, this ties the Yankees hands. They can’t do anything with the big contracts currently on the books. The players have no-trade clauses, play an integral role on the 2012 team, or are untradeable. That money is on the books and is not going anywhere, much to everyone’s chagrin.

We can look back through recent Yankees history and take umbrage with certain contracts. The A-Rod contract stands out. The Yankees not only had him on what was, at the time, a fairly reasonable contract, but they also had payments coming fro Texas to help offset the costs. When he opted out and re-signed they lost it all. Now they’re paying luxury tax on a $27.5 million average annual contract for the next six years. While Rodriguez played an integral role on the 2009 championship team, it’s still pretty clear that the Yankees will later suffer for that contract. It’s certainly one that is holding them back from making other moves.

Yet if you look at the contracts doled out after A-Rod, it’s hard to find complaints. The Yankees needed CC Sabathia in the worst way following 2008. While no one wants to hear it now, they also needed A.J. Burnett. At the time they had two returning starting pitchers, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain, both of whom were coming off fairly major injuries. Cashman said at the outset that he was signing two starting pitchers. Sabathia and Burnett were hands down the best available. The Yankees did take a gamble on Burnett’s health, though that has rarely been an issue in his three seasons with the team. It’s easy to hate the contract now because of his performance, but at the time it made total sense. The Yankees simply needed talented arms at that exact moment.

Then there’s the Mark Teixeira contract, another one that’s coming under increased scrutiny after two disappointing seasons. But as with Burnett, it’s tough to look back on that and see a folly. The first baseman at the time was Nick Swisher, a player the Yankees apparently held in lesser regard than Xavier Nady. Their 3-4-5 hitters were going to be Hideki Matsui, A-Rod, and, well, probably Nady or Swisher. That might not be horrible, but it’s not the formidable core we’d seen from past Yankees teams. Bringing in Teixeira beefed up the offense in a significant way.

The Yankees remained quiet in 2010, though they did trade for Curtis Granderson. Yet his contract is relatively reasonable — he far outperformed it in 2011. The following off-season, though, the Yankees did hand out some big contracts. Mariano Rivera got two years and $30 million. Derek Jeter got three years and $51 million. It’s easy to complain about that contract, since Jeter will probably never provide production commensurate with his salary. It’s tough to say what they were going to do in that situation. Would they have let him walk? Would he have walked? Who would have played shortstop? There are just too many questions involved with that deal.

That leaves just one big-money contract from last winter: Rafael Soriano. Bringing him in wasn’t a bad move, per se. After all, he’s capable of legitimate shutdown performances. But at the time the Yankees already had a quality setup corps in Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Adding Soriano wasn’t exactly necessary. As I wrote at the time

In terms of the 2011 team, there are no complaints. The Yankees had plenty of money to spend, and they certainly upgraded the back end of the bullpen. This will lead to a greater enjoyment of the 2011 season. The Yanks might win a few games that they otherwise would have lost, and we will all be a little less irritable the next mornings. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is what this means for the 2012 and 2013 teams.

Maybe the Yankees really do have a limitless budget. Maybe they can raise it to $220 million if the right players become available. Brian Cashman has always asserted that he operates under a strict budget, but Brian Cashman also said that he wasn’t going to surrender his first round pick in this year’s draft. If Soriano’s contract doesn’t prevent the Yankees from making a move in the next three years, it’s hard not to like it. But if they can’t or don’t make a move because of payroll concerns, then the contract becomes a problem.

Now the Yankees have a legitimate need. The $11 million they’re paying Soriano this year could easily buy them a stopgap solution for the 2012 rotation. But they’re now holding back, because the payroll is already high enough. Of course, the other contracts are holding them back as well. Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter, Rivera, Cano, Sabathia, and Burnett all make more than Soriano. But when they were signed they at least filled areas of need. Soriano did not. The Yankees could have passed on him and had just as much success in 2011. Yet they did sigh him, and now they can’t or won’t make a move because of payroll concerns.

Perhaps at the time the Yankees didn’t plan to significantly stifle payroll starting this off-season. Maybe they thought they could continue to add players as needed, even with Soriano on the payroll. Either way, the Yankees are suffering currently because of this move. The Soriano signing, while not bad at the time, was unnecessary. That unnecessary contract is apparently the difference, right now, between adding a needed player and not.