Open Thread: Winter Meetings Day Three

Oh great, he can bunt too. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Three days into the Winter Meetings, we finally have some actual news. First we learned that the club was willing to eat a bunch of money to trade A.J. Burnett, then we found out that they’d won the bidding for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The latter certainly came as a surprise, and I’m not sure the Yankees were confident they’d win with a $2M bid. Here’s a little more on the 29-year-old, courtesy of Baseball America (subs. req’d)…

According to one Pacific Rim observer, Nakajima does not have any standout carrying tools but possesses a well-rounded package. He has the range to stick at shortstop but his fringy arm will most likely force a shift to the other side of the bag. “To me, he’s a second basemen over here. He gets on base, grinds out at-bats, and plays solid defense but there will not a be a lot of home runs or stolen bases … I don’t think he is a high impact guy.”

The whole “grinding out at-bats” thing is Yankees 101, so that right there is part of the reason they liked him enough to bid. The fact that no other club topped $2M also gives you a pretty good idea that everyone expects him to be a bench guy, and Brian Cashman said today they view him as a backup only. We’ll see what happens now, the two sides have 30 days to hammer out a contract. I suspect that in two weeks we’ll hear they haven’t had any talks whatsoever, then two weeks after that they’ll get serious. That’s how these things tend to go.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. None of the local hockey clubs are in action, so you folks are pretty much on your own. Talk about anything you like (four years for Mark Buehrle!), it’s all good.

Girardi Notes: Rotation, Hughes, Nakajima, Burnett, Montero, A-Rod, Darvish

All 30 managers meet with the media at some point during the Winter Meetings, and Joe Girardi just wrapped up his little press conference not too long ago. As expected, he was asked quite a bit about the Yankees rotation and whether or not he expects the team to acquire a starter.

“You always look to improve your club, but sometimes the asking price is too much,” said Girardi, “and if that’s the case, I do feel good about our rotation. [An acquisition] has to make sense for us. We’re not just looking for a one-year deal, we’re looking long-term as well.”

By long-term, he didn’t just mean signing a free agent for the next five years or whatever. “We feel we have some pretty good prospects in the minor leagues that are going to be able to help us this year,” he added, indicating that the club does want to have an opening for some of their prospect at some point relatively soon. Girardi didn’t mention them today, but he has brought up Hector Noesi, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances as guys that could help the rotation next season earlier this winter.

Girardi went on to speak about the different look Freddy Garcia gives opposing batters compared to everyone else on the staff as well as A.J. Burnett‘s ability to occasionally dominate a game. “Part of it is Phil Hughes, how does he bounce back? Is he going to be able to be the guy we had in 2010? And if he is, to me that’s almost like going out and making another move,” said Girardi. “He can be really important to us. I do consider him a big part of our rotation.”

The skipper went on to dance around a question about concerns surrounding the conditioning of some of his pitchers, specifically Hughes and CC Sabathia. He likened Sabathia to David Wells, who used to joke that his conditioning was only a problem when he wasn’t getting outs. “I thought [Hughes] got behind the 8-ball because he got hurt, and he never really caught up last year.”

The audio file is way too big to upload at the moment, but I’ll get it up on here eventually. Update: Audio! Apologies for the sound quality, there were a ton of people there and some the questions came from far away.

[audio:http://riveraveblues.com/podcasts/Girardi2011WM.mp3]

Here’s the rest of the stuff Girardi spoke about, the important stuff anyway…

  • “This is about acquiring talented players to put them on our club,” said Girardi when asked about the recently kinda sorta acquired Hiroyuki Nakajima. “He’ll be asked to do a number of things, obviously, we will look at him. This is about acquiring talent, and we feel that we have a chance to sign a talented player.” He added that there’s room for both Nakajima and Eduardo Nunez on the roster, especially since they would like Nunez to become a bit more versatile.
  • As far as the report of Burnett being on the trading block, “Is there necessarily truth to the report about A.J.? I can’t tell you,” said Girardi. “As I said, we’ll always try to improve, no matter where it is, whether it’s the bullpen, a spot in the field, or in the rotation. We’ll look at every avenue.” Frankly, I’m stunned he didn’t come out and say they were trying to dump him. Stunned I tell you.
  • It’s possible the team could carry three catchers next year, namely Jesus Montero, Russell Martin, and Frankie Cervelli. Girardi made it clear that Martin is the everyday catcher, but they expect Montero to earn his spot in Spring Training and then get regular at-bats at DH. “We expect him to perform at a level where he helps us next year. We expect that.” Interestingly enough, Girardi said he’s brought up the idea of having Montero play first base, but developing him as a catcher remains the team’s goal. Brian Cashman later ruled out right field completely, so enough talking about that.
  • Robinson Cano finished the season as the regular three-hole hitter against right-handed batters, though the batting order is something they’ll continue to evaluate going forward. That includes every spot, from leadoff right down to the number nine guy.
  • “I don’t know about 150,” replied Girardi when asked about how many games he expects Alex Rodriguez to play. He did point out that Alex was playing well before the knee injury (.301/.377/.509 on July 1st), but they have to manage his DH days.
  • Girardi hasn’t seen Yu Darvish in person, but he’s heard all about him. If the Yankees need to call up a young pitcher at some point next season, they’ll have no problem doing so if they feel they’re ready.
  • As I reported earlier, the entire coaching staff will be back next season.

The Spending Spree, Three Years Later

Bumping this back up top because it quickly got buried by the Hiroyuki Nakajima news this morning.

(Nick Laham/Getty Images)

This is RAB’s fourth year at the Winter Meetings and my third year, personally. The first time we were here was the 2008-2009 offseason, which is easily the most memorable winter in recent Yankees memory. Brian Cashman famously left Las Vegas and headed to Northern California to put the finishing touches on CC Sabathia‘s contract, and a few days later they added A.J. Burnett to the mix as well. Nick Swisher had joined the team a few weeks earlier, and Mark Teixeira was still a few weeks away from spurning the Red Sox at the last minute.

That was a franchise-altering week, one that contributed to the 2009 World Championship and still affects the Yankees’ moves today. They’re reportedly willing to eat money to move Burnett and the two years left on the contract he signed during that week in Vegas, and the opt-out clause Cashman gave Sabathia in NorCal resulted in a new extension a few weeks ago. The Yankees are flirting with a $195M payroll at the moment, thanks in large part due to the 2008-2009 offseason.

“We had a lot of money coming off of our payroll in ’08,” said Cashman to reporters yesterday. “So the decisions we made in the winter of ‘09, that was kind of like our 2010 and 2011 Winter Meetings combined. We’re still living off a lot of those decisions that we made that winter, and it’s benefited us. We’ve improved our club or tried to in various ways since then, but that obviously was a big, defining winter for us, no different than what Miami seems to be trying to do right now for them.”

Cashman stuck with the company line yesterday, reiterating that he is not optimistic about making any kind of significant deal this week. The team appears unwilling to open its wallets for anything less than a pitcher they consider a frontline guy in the AL East, but maybe that would be different if they didn’t already have so much money on the books. That’s the downside of selling out for big name free agents three years ago, though the upside was oh so good.

Scouting the Trade Market: Scott Baker

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

I’ll preface this by saying that nowhere have I read that the Twins are interested in moving Scott Baker, nor have I read that the Yankees would have any interest in acquiring him. This is simply pure Hot Stove speculation, taking a statistical look at whether or not a given player fits the team’s needs.

Mike reviewed a potential Baker acquisition last offseason, and concluded that, while the fly-ball percentages have been downright scary (his 45.0% FB% since 2007 is the 3rd-highest among AL pitchers during that time; though interestingly Jered Weaver tops the list), the minuscule walk rate (9th-lowest in the AL during that same time, and four of the players ahead of him on that list are no longer in the junior circuit) has helped mitigate some of the long ball damage, the right-handed Baker would be an asset to the Yankee rotation, fly-ball tendencies be damned. Mike also noted that the Twins’ asking price would likely be Banuelos or Betances due to Baker’s solid track record and team-friendly contract, and while Baker could be a helpful mid-rotation piece, there’s obviously zero chance the Yankees would surrender either pitcher for a slightly above-league average pitcher with a fly-ball rate that would make Phil Hughes (45.2% since 2007) jealous.

However, Baker just concluded the finest season of his career, and with the Twins a few years away from returning to contention no matter how wide-open the AL Central always seems to be, perhaps they’d entertain the thought of moving Baker, who, it should be noted faced the third-toughest Quality of Opponent in all of MLB in 2011 (which admittedly was the impetus behind this post). After all, they finally traded the long-rumored-to-be-on-the-move Kevin Slowey to the Rockies yesterday, and while Slowey and Baker aren’t quite in the same league pitching-wise, they’re also not that different.

Additionally, were the Twins open to trading him there’s no way they could realistically expect a Killer B, now that he has one year left on the extension he signed back in 2009 that will pay him $6.5 million for his services this coming year — his age 30 season — with a $9.5 million option for 2013. Not only that, but I’m actually fairly surprised that Baker hasn’t already been run out of town given that his K/9 jumped up above 8.0 per nine to a career-high 8.22 that would’ve been the 10th-best rate in the AL had he had enough innings to qualify. Certain Twins fans may realize the importance of the almighty K, but Minnesota’s modus operandi has been pitching-to-contact for as long as I can remember.

Here’s a snapshot of Baker’s career:

Baker posted career-bests nearly across the board in 2011, although while he had a very nice (if injury-shortened) year I don’t think we can reasonably conclude that Baker’s all of a sudden now a true talent 3.14 ERA/3.45 FIP pitcher unless he’s found something/made some kind of adjustment that will limit the home runs going forward. His 2011 BABIP was right in line with his career mark even though his strand rate was at an all-time high, yet he posted a lower GB% rate (34.3%) than he did in 2010 and a slightly higher FB% (44.7%). xFIP saw him as a 3.61 ERA pitcher, which seems a bit more realistic, although those expecting the career 4.12 hurler to post a mark in the mid-3.00s could be a bit disappointed.

Given that his rate stats don’t appear to be able to explain Baker’s improvements across the board, I was curious to see whether he’d made any adjustments to the way he went after hitters. Here’s a breakdown of Baker’s repertoire over the last three seasons, courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com:


According to the PITCHf/x data, current-day Scott Baker is ostensibly a three-pitch pitcher: two fastballs, the requisite four-seamer and a sinker, and a slider. He has a changeup, but only threw it 5% of the time last season. However, if the PITCHf/x data is to be believed, Baker completely overhauled his arsenal in 2011.

In 2010 he threw a four-seamer 44.4% of the time; according to this data in 2011 that fell all the way down to just 8.5%. Apparently all those heaters were replaced with what the system classified as a sinker (though the previous two years of data had it as a two-seamer), which Baker threw 57.7% of the time this past season, up from 18.1% in 2010 and just 4.1% in 2009. Now, the usual caveats with pitch classification apply, and it’s likely that a fair percentage of Baker’s four-seamers were misclassified as sinkers, although per this article from July, it sounds like Baker does actually throw a sinker now.

Still, even if he did increase his sinker deployment, it seems highly unlikely he threw them nearly 60% of the time this past season, as he almost certainly would’ve generated a higher ground-ball rate. The 10.2% Whiff% on the sinker lends additional credence to the misclassification, as it seems highly unlikely that Baker would double the league-average Whiff rate on a pitch that carries the lowest average Whiff rate among all pitches for right-handed pitchers.

So assuming Baker hasn’t turned into Chien-Ming Wang — and the 8.22 K/9 further suggests this to be the case — we have a right-hander with a below-average four-seamer velocity-wise (only 90.7mph), a sinker/two-seamer that doesn’t even get ground balls 40% of the time, and a slider that appears to be right around league average. I have to say I’m a bit baffled at how Baker managed such a robust K rate given this information — I suppose the movement on his four-seamer, as cited in the aforelinked article from Twins blog Twinkie Town, is outstanding, and results in a lot of weak contact, although that 30.2% foul-ball rate is not only pretty out-of-control but would also make Phil Hughes blush.

I entered into this analysis hoping to uncover something about Baker that could make me endorse a trade for him, but I’m coming up empty. CAIRO projects him as a 3.90 ERA/3.74 FIP pitcher over 159 innings for next season, while Bill James has him at 3.99/4.05 in 140 innings with a 7.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 1.2 HR/9.

Those are fine mid-rotation numbers, but the Yankees have enough internal candidates who can attempt to put up reasonable facsimiles of those projected lines; I can’t see moving anyone for a 30-year-old with one very good year under his belt and nothing in the numbers that would indicate continued higher-level success.

Yankees win bidding for Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima

Nakajima during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

12:18pm ET: The Yankees have won the bidding according to Ken Rosenthal, and the two sides now have 30 days to negotiate a contract. Jon Heyman says the bid was approximately $2M, which is nothing. The bids for fellow infielders Akinori Iwamura and Tsuyoshi Nishioka were $4.5M and $5.3M, respectively. They then agreed to three-year contracts worth $7.7M and $9M with the Rays and Twins. Iwamura was posted during the 2006-2007 offseason, Nishioka last winter.

Rosenthal says that Nakajima strongly prefers to the play on the West Coast, so it might be tough for the Yankees to convince him to be their utility guy.

12:01pm ET: Via David Waldstein, the Yankees have placed a bid for Japanese shortstop Hiroki Nakajima, who they apparently like as a utility guy. Given the trade interest in Eduardo Nunez, I suppose landing Nakajima would make it easier for them to deal the incumbent utility man. Nakajima’s posting period ended on Saturday, though the high bid has not been announced.

I don’t know much about Nakajima, but last year NPB Tracker called him the second best hitter in Japan. The 29-year-old right-handed batter hit .297/.354/.433 with 16 homers and 21 steals for the Seibu Lions in 2011, and he’s consistently been a .300 average/15+ homer/15+ steal/50+ walk guy in his career. From what I can tell, he’s played shortstop exclusively over the last four or five years. Here’s his Under Armour commercial, which is seriously the best video I can find.

Should the Yankees win the bid, the question will then focus on Nakajima’s willingness to be a bench guy right smack in the prime of his career. He did ask to be posted last year but was rebuffed by the Lions, so he’s been thinking about coming stateside for a while. Is he willing to do so as a utility guy? I guess there’s nothing we can do other than wait.