What Went Wrong: The Cliff Lee Non-Trade

I imagine the scene would have been different had Lee been a Yankee (Eric Gay/AP)

They couldn’t have known it would happen at the time, but they had to know it was a possibility. When the Yankees found out that Seattle would send Cliff Lee to Texas rather than New York, the thought of facing Lee in the playoffs had to cross their minds. By that point, though, it was too late. The process was already far enough along that we could have called it a done deal. Cliff Lee was heading to Arlington, while Seattle would receive a package featuring 2008 first rounder Justin Smoak. The Yanks had lost out.

That day represented perhaps the most exciting and disappointing one of the regular season. When I went to bed on July 8 the only thought of Lee was that the Yankees were to face him the next evening. When I woke up on the 9th I realized that he wouldn’t. It sounded pretty certain that the Yankees and Mariners would finalize a swap sometime during the day. Jesus Montero, David Adams, and Zach McAllister would go to the Mariners, and the Yankees would add a second lefty ace to the staff. World Series, here we come.

A few hours later we would learn that the trade fell apart. The Mariners didn’t like the medicals on David Adams. At the time it sounded like an excuse to bring other teams into the bidding, but as we found out later Adams did have significant ankle issues. The Mariners, so the story goes, asked the Yankees to add Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees declined. The Yankees suggested Adam Warren. The Mariners weren’t interested — though perhaps by that time their disinterest was due to Texas’ new offer, which included Smoak. Not long after we heard that the deal with the Yankees fell apart, we heard that Cliff Lee would be Arlington-bound.

The reaction to this non-trade has two strong sides. One lamented the missed opportunity, because of its implications for the 2010 team. The other celebrated it, because it meant holding onto the team’s prospect while retaining the ability to sign Lee during the off-season. Mike will cover the latter point shortly. This will focus only on the lamentation.

At the time

At the time of the non-deal, the Yankees had five starting pitchers. CC Sabathia had been his regular self for most of the season and Andy Pettitte was keeping runs off the board, but beyond them there were a number of questions. Javy Vazquez had recovered from a poor start, though he still seemed to be the odd man out. A.J. Burnett had just come off what was probably the worst month of his career, but the Yanks couldn’t move him. Phil Hughes had struggled, but to move him would be to further stunt his development. They wanted him to get a full year in the rotation. Something would have to change, but for Cliff Lee that’s not much of an issue. You move mountains to make room for Cliff Lee.

We knew then what Lee would bring to the Yankees. He would turn the starting staff into the best in the AL, perhaps the best in the majors. It already ranked among the top, but there were still weaknesses, described above. If Javy broke down again, if Burnett didn’t fully recover, if Hughes ran into problems as he entered uncharted territory — all of these what-ifs had to weigh on the front office’s mind. Acquiring Lee would render these questions less meaningful. The Yanks would then have six starters, so if something went wrong they would have a fill-in ready to go.

The Yankees also had to know how acquiring Lee would make it easier to re-sign him during the off-season. This isn’t scientific fact, of course, but rather an intuitive connection. If the Yankees traded for Lee and then won a World Series with him, how could he then turn down the sack of money the Yankees would hand him? If he went elsewhere and won a World Series there, well, maybe he’d be more inclined to take a bit less to stay in place where he has experienced the ultimate success. The Yankees’ willingness to pay twice for a player in this instance suggests that they thought along these lines.

In hindsight

The at-the-time case seems easy enough. Adding Cliff Lee would have greatly increased the Yankees chances of winning the World Series. They would have received a proven veteran in exchange for a player whose career is nothing but potential right now. Little did we know at the time that the hindsight argument would be even stronger.

The Yankees lost the ALCS because they couldn’t hit a lick, but the pitching staff didn’t help matters. CC Sabathia got knocked around in Game 1, and Phil Hughes got hit harder in Game 2. A.J. Burnett has a solid Game 4 until the Molina homer, and then Hughes was again shaky in Game 6. Imagine the staff had they added Lee.

Sabathia still would have gone Game 1, and perhaps it would have unfolded similarly. Lee taking Hughes’s place would have been an enormous upgrade. That would have pushed Hughes to Game 4, at which time the Yankees might have been in a better position. That’s not only because Lee likely would have been more effective in Game 2, but because the Yankees might not have lost Game 3, because Lee wouldn’t have been pitching for the Rangers.

That brings up another hindsight point. The Rangers wouldn’t have been nearly as strong a playoff team without Lee. They almost certainly would have made the playoffs without him — at the time they acquired him they were already running away with the division. But once they got to the playoffs they wouldn’t have been as well prepared.

In fact, I’d bet that had the Yankees acquired Lee, they would have won the AL East. That would have set them up against a Lee-less Texas in the first round; that would have been something of a mismatch. Sabathia-Lee-Pettitte, and then Hughes if necessary. They would have faced Wilson-Lewis-Hunter, though missing out on Lee might have motivated Texas to work out something for Roy Oswalt. That would have been a bit difficult, though, given Texas’s financial situation at the time. Getting approval for $3 million or whatever they ended up paying Lee is one thing; getting permission for the $10+ million they’d have to pay Oswalt over the next two years is quite another.

The benefits, as you can see, would have cascaded. The Yankees would not only strengthen their own team with Lee, but would have left competitors scrambling for another solution. That would have left the Yankees in the best possible position.

In terms of how it would have helped the 2010 team, missing out on Lee is one thing that went terribly wrong. They would have been sacrificing a potential piece of their future, but they would have added a Top 3 pitcher for 2010, and then given themselves a better chance to re-sign him during the off-season. After missing out, the Yankees just have to hope they can convince Lee to come to New York in the same manner they convinced CC Sabathia.

Could Mo seek a two-year deal?

How long can Rivera keep pitching? After the Yankees won the 2009 World Series, a jovial Mo said he would do this for five more years if he could. But during the season Mo was a bit more subdued about his future. One year at a time, he said. From a recent New York Post report, it sounds like he’s now thinking somewhere in the middle; “…there is talk within the organization that the future Hall of Fame closer wants a two-year deal.” Joel Sherman and George King call this a “minor hurdle,” but I’m not sure it would be much of a hurdle at all. The Yanks want Rivera to pitch for them as long as he’s physically capable, and it appears he wants the same.

The article also brings up an interesting point. For a few days now we’ve heard that the Yankees and Girardi are close to a deal. There is a chance that the deal has been finalized, but because of the World Series the team has not announced it. Don’t be surprised if we hear something on Friday, the first off-day.

Past Trade Review: Jay Witasick

(Photo Credit: checkoutmycards.com)

Coming off their third consecutive World Series victory, the Yankees found the 2001 season to be a little more difficult than the previous three. Their record was a solid 39-31 on June 20th, but they were three-and-a-half games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, the same Red Sox team that had gone 15-5 in their previous 20 games and showed no signs of slowing down.

The Yanks were operating with the same formula as always, a deep lineup full of players that work counts and get on base, and a powerful pitching staff highlighted by a strong back-end of the bullpen. Righty Jeff Nelson fled for the Mariners after the 2000 season, but Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza were still doing fine work in front of the unmatched Mariano Rivera. Randy Choate had his moments as a lefty specialist/occasional mop up man. The middle innings, though, they were a generally a problem.

Brian Boehringer was solid for the first six weeks of the season (0.83 ERA, .578 OPS against in 21.1 IP) but fell apart in mid-May (6.92 ERA, .899 OPS against in 13 IP). He was jettisoned off to San Francisco in July. Journeyman Todd Williams had a shiny ERA (2.38) but was allowing batters to reach base 41.9% of the time, so he was sent to the minors right about the time Boehringer turned into a pumpkin. Carlos Almanzar impressed pretty much no one with his inability to miss a bat, and other fill-ins like Brandon Knight and Adrian Hernandez were completely forgettable.

The Yankees needed bullpen help to solidify those middle innings, so Brian Cashman swung a pair of trades in late-June/early-July in an attempt to shore things up. Let’s cover the first one now, and come back tomorrow for the second.

June 23rd: Acquired Jay Witasick from San Diego for D’Angelo Jimenez

The 28-year-old Witasick had bounced around a bit in the years before coming to the Yanks, landing in San Diego in 2000 after a trade with the Royals and before that spending time with the Athletics. He was lights out for the Padres in the first half of the season, striking out 53 batters against just a dozen unintentional walks in 31 appearances (38.2 IP). Jimenez, once one of the team’s very best prospects, had been toiling away in Triple-A for a few seasons and was deemed expendable with Alfonso Soriano establishing himself as a bonafide big leaguer in 2001.

Witasick did a poor job of introducing himself to the New York faithful, blowing a four run lead in the sixth inning of his first game in pinstripes. Granted, he did inherit a first-and-third, no outs situation from Randy Keisler and got no help from a Scott Brosius error, but still. It was a poor first impression. Witasick settled down a bit and fired off five consecutive scoreless innings (9 K in 5.1 IP), but the wheels really came off the wagon on July 13th against the Marlins.

(Photo Credit: yankees.com)

Brought into the seventh inning of a semi-blowout (Florida was up 6-0 at the time), Witasick tossed up a scoreless frame before taking a pounding in the eighth. The first four, and five of the first six batters of the inning picked up a hit, and he was left in to wear it all. The end result was a five run inning and a season ERA that climbed just about a full run.

Witasick didn’t see an ounce of high leverage work the rest of the season, throwing 31 innings with a solid 3.77 ERA after that game with the Marlins, but it was all mop-up work. In one particularly brutal outing, Witasick was left in to throw 84 (!!!) pitches in relief of a lit up Ted Lilly (five runs in two innings to Oakland), walking six and allowing three runs in 3.2 innings of work.

Witasick made the playoff roster but only appeared in three games (one each round), the closest of which was a three run deficit to the A’s in Game One of the ALCS. His farewell moment came in Game Six of the World Series, when he allowed nine runs and ten hits to the Diamondbacks in just one-and-a-third innings of work. The Yanks traded him to the Giants for John Vander Wal after the season.

Jimenez, meanwhile, stepped right in as the Padres every day shortstop after the trade, and hit .276/.355/.367 the rest of the way. He was unable to repeat that success in 2002 and was dealt to the White Sox at midseason. All told, Witasick was worth -0.2 bWAR with the Yanks, Jimenez -0.3 bWAR with San Diego. That obviously doesn’t count the production of the players each was later traded for, but it doesn’t really matter. This trade was pretty much a dud for both teams.

Pirela smacks a pair of doubles in loss

Via Josh Norris, Mark Newman confirmed that Slade Heathcott will be ready for Spring Training according to (what I assume are) doctor’s estimates. Heathcott has his shoulder scoped a few weeks ago.

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (5-4 loss to Peoria)
Austin Romine, C: 2 for 4, 1 BB, 1 K – two stolen bases in two attempts in this one
Jose Pirela, 2B: 3 for 4, 1 R, 2 2B, 1 CS, 1 E (fielding) – two doubles? he’s one fire! /NBA Jam guy
Craig Heyer: 2 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2-2 GB/FB – 22 of 41 pitches were strikes (53.7%) … small sample, but I figured he’d be a much more extreme strike thrower (68-72%) given his microscopic walk rates

Open Thread: World Series Game One

Slider, strike three. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

It sucks that the Yankees aren’t in the World Series this year, but what can you do. It’s the nature of the game; no matter how  good they are, they simply won’t win every year. It’s a fact of life.

The Giants and Rangers are meeting in a matchup of teams that haven’t won a World Series in their current locales (the Giants haven’t won a title since moving to San Francisco), so someone’s making history in the next week-and-a-half. I’m halfheartedly pulling for the Giants just because, though I’m really indifferent about who wins. I just hope it’s an entertaining series that goes the full seven games for what I hope are obvious reasons. If Texas dominates like they did in the ALCS, it would be a rather boring Fall Classic.

Anyway, talk about the game or whatever else you want right here in the open thread. Enjoy.

2011 Draft Order Tracker

Just a heads up, I’ve got the 2011 Draft Order Tracker up and running. You can get there at any time by clicking the link, or by using the button in the nav bar above (it’s right under the street sign in the banner). There are a total of four compensation picks for unsigned 2010 draftees this year, three in the first round. The Yanks’ first pick comes in at #31 overall, but chances are they’ll surrender that pick once they sign a Type-A free agent, whoever that may be. Their second round will be pushed back as the supplemental first round develops during the offseason.

As usual, I’ll update it throughout the winter to reflect draft picks lost and gained by all teams, so make sure you check it out from time to time.

Guessing on the years and dollars for Jeter

Yankee history, personified. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Derek Jeter and his legion of once-loyal fans are undergoing a rocky time in their relationship. After watching him hit .270/.340/.370 while playing creaky short stop defense in the final season of his ten-year mega-deal, Yankee fans haven’t figured out how to embrace the aging Derek Jeter. Many refuse to criticize a player who has gone all out for so many years and is an emblem of the Yanks’ 15 seasons of success. Others worry about the years and the money the Yankees will hand to him this season.

And hand it to him they will. Earlier this week, in discussing his off-season plans, Brian Cashman called Derek Jeter a “legacy” player. He won’t get paid as exorbitantly as, say, Cliff Lee will be, but he’ll earn his money. Plus, even as the Yankees remain rightly wary of Jeter’s decline, the Yankees need their Captain. They have no internal option at short, and the free agent market at short stop remains perennially weak. Cesar Izturis is not the answer.

Yet, questions about Jeter’s contract abound. Will the Yanks try to limit the years and promise him more money? Will they commit to a long-term investment and try to reduce the salary? And what of his ability to leadoff or play short stop? While that third question won’t factor heavily into the negotiations, it will determine Jeter’s role with and importance to the club over the next few seasons.

We don’t know yet what the Yanks’ initial offer to Jeter will be, and we don’t know what Jeter’s initial ask is. That doesn’t stop executives and agents from guessing. Today, Sweeney Murti of WFAN did just that, and he took his question to those very same execs and agents who enjoy the guessing game. He asked 26 folks — 13 agents, 13 executives, none involved with the Yanks or Jeter — for their takes on the Derek contract situation, and the results show a wide range of potential deals. The results? An average of three years at $17 million.

Murti offered up this analysis:

Of the 26 guesses, I tossed out the highest and the lowest. The highest was a $150 million dollar lifetime package, and the lowest was 2 years at $10 million per year. Both those guesses came from team executives. Of the remaining 24 figures, the average terms were 2.9 years at $17.1 million per year. The 13 agents averaged out at 3 yrs, $17.6 million, while 11 executives averaged out at 2.7 years, $16.5 million. Many of these people added possibilities for deferred income, a personal services deal after his playing days, and a 3000-hit marketing/bonus clause.

The year Jeter is coming off in 2010 is the main reason why this exercise is so intriguing. Of the 24 guesses used in the figures above, the AAV (average annual value) ranged as low as $10 million and as high as $23 million. If I polled the same people about Cliff Lee, I doubt I would get as big a disparity in the AAV. And while the agents’ AAV averaged slightly higher than the executives’ guesses, the $23 million guess came from a team exec, acknowledging the deep connection and the deep pockets that play into this equation.

Meanwhile, notes Murti, team executives aren’t the only ones hoping into the Jeter fray. Recently, the members of a sports management class at Manhattanville College proposed a median deal of four years with an $18 million annual salary.

What’s comforting about these proposed deals is how they can placate both sides of the Jeter divide. The salary range — $17-$18 million — is probably more than a team that isn’t the Yankees would pay him, but considering the Yanks’ deep pockets and Jeter’s place in team history, it’s a perfectly reasonable salary for the 36-year-old. The years concern me, but the years have always concerned me. I don’t expect the Yanks to sign Jeter to an optimal two-year deal, and if they go only to three, I can live with it.

In a sense, the handwringing over Jeter has been a true much ado about nothing. He probably won’t be as good as his career triple-slash line — .314/.385/.452 — but odds are good he won’t be as bad offensively as he was in 2010. For three or four years, for $17 or $18 million, for a crack at 3000 hits and another ring, it will work out just fine.