Four years later, revisiting the winter of Johan

For the Yankees, the off-season of 2007-2008 was practically the polar opposite of this year’s. That year, a good number of fans were rooting for the Yanks to do nothing whereas this year we’re rooting for them to do anything (as long as it’s sensible and short term). We didn’t want the Yanks to trade a package of pitchers centered around Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes for Johan Santana, and on a blustery night in February of 2008, we learned that the Mets, and not the Yanks, had secured the rights to Santana.

We staked out a position against a Santana trade. There was no doubt that Johan, a lefty, would have fit the Yanks’ needs, but he had a year remaining on his contract. According to the rumors, the Twins had asked for a lot for that one remaining season of team control, and the Yanks would have had to sign Santana to a lengthy contract as well. With CC Sabathia‘s free agency on the horizon and promising arms moving up the ranks of the farm system, we wanted the Yanks to wait, and they obliged.

Santana went to the Mets for a package of not much. Deolis Guerra hasn’t broken out of the minors yet while Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey aren’t pieces the Mets are missing. The Twins, it seems, were either willing to take less if it meant sending Santana to the NL or weren’t asking for the sky in the first place. The Mets gave Santana $137.5 million, and it kinda, sorta worked out for a little bit.

Over the first three years of his contract, Santana made 88 starts and had a 2.85 ERA for the Mets. Alarmingly, his strike out rate dipped by nearly 2 per 9 innings, and he has not made a professional appearance since September 2, 2010. Just three seasons into a six-year deal, Santana had to undergo shoulder surgery similar to Chien-Ming Wang‘s, and he’s still trying to make it back to the Mets’ mound.

On Thursday, Santana took the mound at Sun Life Stadium in Miami where he threw for teammates and reporters. Anthony DiComo was on hand, and he spoke with the Mets afterwards. They still do not know what the future holds for Santana. “How close is he going to be to where he was? I don’t know if anyone can tell,” manager Terry Collins said of his erstwhile ace.

Doctors too are cautious in their assessments. Santana was supposed to return last year but suffered through some setbacks. After a winter of rest, his arm either is ready now or may never be. “The beginning of next season is going to be telltale,” Dr. Jonathan Glashow said to DiComo. “After a long winter’s rest, if he’s not back to his level by Spring Training or beyond, I would be somewhat more pessimistic that he’ll ever get it.”

The Mets still owe Santana at least $54.5 million over the next two seasons, and had the Yanks made the move for Johan, fans would be screaming bloody murder over the dollars. Instead, the Mets are treated as the Mets. It was an expensive move that turned into an injury, and outside of the dollars, they didn’t lose much in terms of prospects. As Ian Kennedy turned into Curtis Granderson and a very respectable Major League pitcher and Phil Hughes has turned into an enigma, I’m still glad the Yanks never made that Santana trade. The price was just too high.

Open Thread: Ivan Nova

(Photo by Steve Ruark/Getty Images North America)

For all the talk about the Yankees’ inability to develop starting pitching over the last decade or so, they churned out a pretty good one in 2011. After a 42 IP cameo in 2010, Ivan Nova was handed a rotation spot in Spring Training last year and wound up being the team’s second best starter. He took his brief demotion to Triple-A like a champ and came back a better pitcher, finishing the year with a shiny 3.70 ERA and 4.01 FIP in 165.1 IP. His peripheral stats improved as the season went on as well.

Nova turns 25 years old today, making him the third youngest player on the projected Opening Day roster behind only Eduardo Nunez and Jesus Montero. Age is just a number though, and he’s arguably one of the five most important players on the team at the moment. If he continues to get some strikeouts with that improved slider and maintains his ground ball rate, the Yankees are going to have one hell of a cheap arm on their hands for the next five years.

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Here is your open thread for this chilly evening in New York. The Rangers, Islanders, and Knicks are playing, so non-Time Warner customers can enjoy that. If you’re still without MSG like me, tough luck. Talk about whatever you like here, the thread is yours.

Once again, YES tops regional spots network ratings list

For the ninth year in a row, the YES Network was the most-watched regional sports network in the country in terms of total day delivery in its home market. That’s a fancy way of saying more New Yorkers watched YES every day in 2011 than any other city watched its regional network(s). You can click through for all the stats, but I’ll save you time by saying they basically blew everyone out of the water. They were first overall by a wide margin.

And just for the record, we are taking full credit for that 52% increase in YESNetwork.com traffic. What’d you think that banner up there was for, aesthetics?

On Cespedes and Soler

It’s been more than two months since Yoenis Cespedes burst onto our radar with the first of his two highlight videos, and we’re all impatiently waiting for him to be declared a free agent. That’s expected to happen sometime this month, and in an effort to boost his stock, the outfielder will play winter ball in the Dominican Republic according to Kevin Goldstein and Enrique Rojas. He’ll make his debut tonight, and this will allow teams to see him in actual game situations rather than a bunch of workouts.

We know the Yankees have some level of interest in Cespedes, after all you can see bench coach Tony Pena and pro scouting director Billy Eppler watching his workout at the 4:17 mark of the second video. However, lost among the Yu Darvish hoopla last month was a report from Marc Carig indicating that the Yankees are likely to pass on the outfielder’s services. He says they came away from the workout thinking he can be an everyday center fielder, but again price appears to be an issue. Cespedes was reported seeking an eight-year deal worth upwards of $60M earlier this winter.

Cespedes is not the only Cuban outfielder on the market though. There’s also 19-year-old Jorge Soler, another player who has grabbed the Yankees’ attention. Here’s what Jim Callis said about the kid a month ago (no subs. req’d) …

Six-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Soler has explosive bat speed and power potential. He also has plus speed and arm strength and profiles as a classic right fielder, though he runs well enough to play center. Because of his youth, he’ll need some time to develop, but he should be worth the wait.

[snip]

Soler is four years younger and more talented than Leonys Martin, another Cuban outfielder who signed a $15.6 million major league contract with the Rangers in April. Once Soler is cleared to sign with a major league team, he’s expected to top Martin’s deal.

A year ago John Manuel quoted a scout who said he has “explosive power,” and Callis said he would have been a top five pick had he been eligible for the 2010 draft. As far as I know there isn’t any video of him publicly available, so this is basically all we know about the kid. It’s not much less than we know about Cespedes, frankly.

The spending cap implemented by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn’t take effect until July 2nd, so Soler will be able to sign for whatever he wants before then. Cespedes is not subject to the cap because of his age, so he can sign for whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I’m not totally in love with the idea of signing the guy though, but I am intrigued by Soler since he’s so young. Assuming the reports are legit and he has that kind of talent, getting him into the farm system at that age and allowing him develop normally can have some very real benefits, even if they have to wait a few more years for the return.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

On Tuesday Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com reported that the Phillies and Cole Hamels were not likely to reach a long-term extension before the start of the season and were more focused on inking Hamels to a one-year deal in 2012, which represents his final year of arbitration eligibility and team control. While assistant general manager Scott Proefrock insisted that there is plenty of time to reach a deal at a later date, this admission represented the strongest possibility yet that Hamels would reach free agency after the 2012 season and hit the open market as the best left-handed pitcher, if not best overall pitcher, available. Salisbury mentioned that Jered Weaver’s five-year, $85M extension with the Angels would be a reasonable comparable for the Phillies and Hamels, but Hamels may have something far more lucrative and long-term in mind.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled and a lot of hands have been wrung lately over the Yankees insistence on watching their payroll. At this point, no one knows whether they’re serious about a long-term reduction in payroll towards a $189M target, or whether they simply have disliked the prices on the free agent market thus far. In the past, the Yankees have always shown a willingness to pay a premium for what they deem to be premium talent. Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett are all beneficiaries of this approach, and Cliff Lee could easily have joined them. The operative turn of phrase though is “what they deem to be premium talent”. Their approach towards middle-of-the-road talent is far more mixed. The team has been slow this offseason to pursue current available pitchers Hiroki Kuroda, Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson, and they avoided spending $80 or $100M on C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish, respectively. Is this because they want to reduce payroll, or is it because they don’t deem them to be premium talent and want to keep their powder dry for bigger targets? No one seems to know.

If they’re keeping their powder dry for bigger targets, it would make sense why they haven’t been so eager to snap up one of the currently available pitchers. It would also explain their interest in a one-year deal with one of Kuroda or Oswalt, provided the salaries drop. It doesn’t mean that they’re cheap; it means they’re serious about getting good value for their dollars (A.J. Burnett laughs) and saving room for the players they deem to be truly worth a nine-figure investment. This is where Cole Hamels (or Zack Greinke or Matt Cain, if you prefer), come in. As pitchers go, Hamels would likely be the third best starting pitcher to hit the free agent market in the last decade, behind CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. As Joe noted to me, one Hamels will actually hit the market with a better track record than Cliff Lee. He would end the Yankees pursuit of a number two starter behind Sabathia. In fact, his career performance really makes him worthy of the title of co-ace with CC: 8.45 K/9, 2.26 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9 and a 3.39 ERA. If you’re going to spend on premium talent, Cole Hamels is at the top of the list.

As the Yankees dance with Kuroda, Oswalt and Jackson over the next few weeks, it’s important to keep the long game in mind. If the team has no intention of moving the payroll permanently to the $225M+ range, then fans should root for them to preserve long-term payroll flexibility over the next ten months until Hamels becomes available. In fact, Joel Sherman noted that they appear to be doing just that and will be pursuing one year deals and one year deals only. If Kuroda or Oswalt can fit into this year’s budget as the team looks towards next winter’s bonanza, then great. If they sign elsewhere for $12M per year (an amount which would actually represent close to $16M to the Yankees with the luxury tax added in), then the team can make due with what they have now and retain the ability to add payroll in July or August via trade. Someone like Greinke or Cain could become available, or someone entirely unexpected such as Ubaldo Jimenez this past season. Regardless, there remains reason to be cautiously optimistic that this team’s rotation could see a temporary improvement this year and a serious long-term improvement next winter.

Sherman: Hal has yet to okay expanding payroll; only interested in one-year deals for pitching

Via Joel Sherman, Hal Steinbrenner has yet to approve an expanded payroll, and at the moment the team is only interested in signing a pitcher to a one-year contract. That includes Edwin Jackson, who I don’t think will take a one-year “pillow” contract given the pitching depth in next year’s free agent class. Right now is basically the only time he’ll ever be the best pitcher on the market.

This is great as far as I’m concerned, a one-year deal is the way to go given my affinity for Cole Hamels. I suspect the expanded payroll scenario works on a case-by-case basis, meaning they’ll add money for this guy at this price, another guy at another price, etc. They’re not going to sign someone like Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, or Roy Oswalt without adding significant dollars, so expanding the budget is basically a must if they want to augment the starting staff.

Edwin Jackson and falling prices

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Word got out late last night that Hal Steinbrenner met with Scott Boras during the quarterly owners meeting in Arizona, specifically to discuss free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson. The Yankees owner told Boras they would “think about the right deal” for Jackson, indicating that they “want to keep deals short.” Given all this talk about the 2014 austerity budget, that’s not a surprise.

Pitchers and catchers will report to camp in just five weeks, so the offseason clock is running out for teams that want to improve and players that want to be employed in 2012. We’ve already seen some prices drop in recent days, specifically that sweetheart one-year deal Ryan Madson (another Boras guy) took from the Reds. Paul Maholm also signed for less (one-year, $4.25M) than what he probably could have gotten earlier this winter, a contract that pales in comparison to what some comparable pitchers (Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Bruce Chen) received. It’s still a sellers’ market, just not as much of one as it was a month ago.

At this point, I’ve kinda resigned myself to the fact that the Yankees will end up signing Jackson. The parallels to Rafael Soriano last year are pretty staggering, and all the increased chatter over the last week only fuels that fire. He’s a fine pitcher and will undoubtedly help the team, so my only significant concern is the contract, and specifically its potential to hinder a pursuit of Cole Hamels next year. There’s no guarantee the lefty will even hit the market — right now the two sides are only talking about a one-year deal for 2012 — but I want them to be prepared if he does. Like CC Sabathia back a few years ago, Hamels is an elite arm that you have to prepare for in advance, not just someone you pursue because he just so happens to be the best guy on the market, kinda like Jackson now. A one-year deal for Roy Oswalt or Hiroki Kuroda both fits the Hamels plan and improves the rotation this year.

The report of ownership getting involved both does and doesn’t scare me. Obviously bad things tend to happen when owners play GM, but at the same time this doesn’t sound like an instance in which Hal sought out Boras. The agent showed up to the owners meetings to do his job, and that’s really it. Boras did meet with the Nationals’ owners about Prince Fielder yesterday, so it’s not like this trip was specifically designed to unload Jackson on the Yankees. Or maybe it was, we can’t be sure, but for some reason I feel more comfortable with this type of thing in Hal’s hands than I do some of the other higher-ups.

Everything we’ve heard over the past week, about the Yankees reevaluating their budget and this last stuff with Boras, sure makes it sound like something is go down with Jackson before long. All the evidence is pointing in that direction. I’ve made it no secret that I’m not Jackson’s biggest fan, but he is a worthy add to the rotation under the right terms. With prices starting to drop around the league, the chances of the Yankees getting him under favorable terms is going up just a tad, and every little bit helps.