Open Thread: Spring can’t come soon enough

(Photo Credit: Yankees PR Dept. on Twitter)

That picture of a snow-covered Yankee Stadium is both beautiful and depressing at the same time. Pitchers and catchers are just 17 days away from reporting, but nothing really happens that day. For us fans, the fun will really start four weeks from tomorrow, when the first Spring Training game will take place, a game the YES Network will air. You marked your calendar, right?

Here’s tonight’s open thread. The NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft is on Versus at 8pm ET, plus the Nets are visiting the Pacers. Talk about whatever your heart desires, go nuts.

KLaw’s Top Sleeper Prospects For 2011

Now that his organizational rankings and top 100 prospects list is out, Keith Law is closing out his week of prospect coverage with an Insider-only piece looking at sleeper prospects for the upcoming season. He listed one player for every team, and went with 2010 fourth round pick Mason Williams for the Yankees. “[He] was one of the best athletes in the 2010 draft, with plus speed and a plus arm,” said KLaw. “He has good instincts for a multi-sport guy, especially in center field and he makes his raw speed play up on the bases. He’s got surprising pop for his size but will have to prove he can maintain his approach against decent pitching.”

Williams signed for $1.45M not long before the deadline, the largest signing bonus the Yankees gave out this year. Here the prospect profile I put together for him back in November.

The RAB Radio Show: January 28, 2011

Brian Cashman has made headlines lately, and a contingency of the fan base has taken it the wrong way. Is Cashman trying to get himself fired? Is he planning for life after the Yankees? That doesn’t sound likely. Mike and I examine the case.

Towards the end we talk about the possibility of televised baseball in a week or two. Can’t wait.

Podcast run time 20:45

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Intro music: “Smile” by Farmer’s Boulevard used under a Creative Commons license

Mailbag: Contract extensions

Posada and Bowa high-fived 20 times in 2007. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Brandon writes: What if you discussed the Yankees policy on not extending players until their current contracts run out. It obviously has its benefits, where the team can ensure a player is un-injured/capable of playing at a high level before re-upping. However, it also has a dark side in that the Yankees are going to experience a Jeter-like scenario with almost every big name guy on their team. Look at the A-Rod saga back when that happened, the most recent Jeter situation, etc. The idea behind the post would be to kind of analyze the pros and cons of each big name guy and determine if the Yankees could have avoided some headaches by re-upping guys a year/6months before their contract expired.

The origins of the policy Brandon mentions seem to stem from the 2007 season. Both Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada had one year left on their deals, and Alex Rodriguez had a clause in his contract that allowed him to opt out after the season. Amid questions regarding extensions during spring training, Brian Cashman said that he wouldn’t negotiate until the deals had expired. For Jorge and Rivera, this made sense. They were both older players, and the Yankees didn’t want to risk giving them another contract prematurely.

In the case of Posada that backfired, as he had a career year in 2007 and earned a four-year, $52 million contract. Rivera, too, received a sizable raise: his previous contract was essentially for three years and $31.5 million, while his new contract was three years and $45 million. In this instance, the Yankees would have done better to lock them up before the season, since they might have been cheaper then. (And Posada certainly would have been.) But that doesn’t negate the risks inherent in extending contracts for older players.

The decision to not extend those players came during spring training, and that has to serve as our timeline for analyzing the decision. No one could have predicted that Jorge, at age-35, would have produced a career year. In fact, it was much more likely that his numbers would decline. After all, he did have a mediocre 2005, and most catchers are in decline as they enter their mid-30s. The idea was to lessen the inherent risk by waiting until Posada’s contract expired. That is a sound idea. The Yankees got bitten by an outlier and ended up on the other end of the risk curve. But they couldn’t have known or even reasonably forseen that in February 2007. That is why the decision is justified.

The situation goes similarly for Mo. In fact, at the beginning of the season he made the Yankees look good for their decision to not extend him. His April was so bad that even though he produced Mo-like results from May through September, his ERA was still around a run and a half above normal levels. Still, his typical Mo finish led to another big contract. Thankfully, he has lived up to it — as much as any closer can live up to a $15 million annual salary.

With Jeter, the situation the Yankees faced this winter was far preferable to the one they would have faced after the 2009 season. He produced incredible numbers that year, leading AL shortstops in WAR by no small margin (Jason Bartlett trailed by 2.2 WAR). If the Yankees negotiated a contract with him last winter, he would have gotten far more than the three years and $51 million he got this winter. It was almost the anti-Posada situation. The Yankees didn’t want to risk a premature extension with an older player, and instead of him going and producing an outlying season, he declined. It wasn’t exactly expected, but it was certainly within the realm of possibility.

Sometimes, the decision to wait out a player’s contract will come back to bite the Yankees. More often, though, it will end up benefiting them. They avoid the unnecessary risk of giving a player money while they still have him under contract. If something goes wrong, they’re off the hook. If things go right, or even better than right, they can use their greatest strength, their capital, to make things right. In fact, given the Yankees’ financial situation it’s tough to argue against this policy. For other teams it might make sense to lock up players early, when they might get a slight discount. But for the Yankees, with their financial prowess, they can afford to wait things out.

How greatly did Burnett’s 2009 affect his 2010?

(Charles Krupa/AP)

Something got lost amid A.J. Burnett‘s struggles in 2010. Had he pitched effectively, I feel as though it would have gotten a lot more play this off-season. For the third straight season, Burnett started more than 30 games. When the Yankees signed him, most fans had legitimate concerns about his health. Before 2009 he had started 30 games in a season just twice, but during his Yankees tenure he has missed few starts — the only one I can remember is the Sunday start against the Red Sox when he had back spasms. But just because he has taken the mound every five days doesn’t mean he his body was ready for the rigors of a 33-start season.

Burnett’s injury history left him with fewer innings than a typical pitcher of his age. After the 2007 season, when he turned 30, he had accumulated just 1,155 big league innings. As a counter example, CC Sabathia just pitched his age-29 season and already has 2,127 innings. Burnett, of course, is not a 23-year-old whose innings need monitoring. But his relatively low level of activity before age 30, followed by two straight seasons with 34 and 33 starts, might have affected him physically. That effect might have been amplified in 2009, when Burnett pitched more innings than he had previously in his career.

To cut off questions, no, I am not a doctor. Nor do I believe that what follows fully explains Burnett’s struggles. It just seems to me that when Burnett flopped in 2010, the media pointed to his head as the reason. Apparently speaking with a southern drawl and having an arm full of tattoos causes writers to look down on your intelligence — and, taking it a step further, blame said lack of intelligence for your struggles on the mound. Maybe Burnett does have mental issues that clouded his 2010, but I don’t think that fully explains it. His struggles could just as easily been physical.

The idea of overworking Burnett came up in the middle of the 2009 season. He was a bit above league average in terms of pitches per inning pitched, which is certainly taxing on the arm. He finished the season with 16.7 pitches per inning, which was a bit above league average rate. Still, that doesn’t represent the biggest concern. In 2009, for the first time in his career, Burnett pitched in the playoffs. That added another 27.1 innings and 459 pitches (16.8 per inning) to his total. Moreover, it had led him to exceed his previous pitch and innings pitched totals. I mentioned this when previewing Burnett for 2010, but took the optimistic route:

There are concerns that career highs in innings pitched could adversely affect Burnett and Sabathia. Neither set career highs during the regular season. In fact, both had set that mark in 2008, when Sabathia pitched 253 innings and Burnett pitched 221.1. In 2009 the Yankees had leeway later in the season to give them a rest, and it led to Burnett pitching 14 fewer innings, while Sabathia, not pitching every fourth day in a tight pennant race, managed 23 fewer innings. The playoffs, of course, pushed them both above their career highs. Sabathia threw 36.1 innings in the playoffs for a total of 266.1, 9.2 innings over his career high. Burnett threw 27.1 playoff innings for a total of 234.1, 13 more than his career high.

Put this way, it doesn’t appear either pitcher worked much harder than in 2009. In fact, they might have put less stress on their arms. Sabathia’s 2008 season started on March 31 and ended on October 2, 186 days. That works out to 6.9 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 6 and ended on November 1, 210 days. That works out to just about 6 1/3 innings every five days. Burnett’s 2008 season started on April 2 and ended on September 24, 176 days, or just under 6 1/3 innings every five days. In 2009 he started on April 9 and ended on November 2, 208 days, or just under 5 2/3 innings every five days. Both of their workloads, spread over time, were lower in 2009 than in 2008.

One factor I didn’t acknowledge was that Burnett and Sabathia both had less rest then normal. This was a bigger factor for Burnett, who, again, had never pitched into October before in his career. Instead of pitching 135 or 165 innings over six months and then resting four and a half months before pitchers and catchers reported, Burnett threw 234 innings over seven months and had just three and a half months until he had to report again. I can imagine that would take a toll on his body, not unlike working out harder than you ever have, and then going back to the gym after a less than customary rest time. That second workout isn’t going to feel as strong as the previous one.

Burnett seemingly broke down in June. Through his first 11 starts he had thrown 71.1 innings to a 3.28 ERA. His strikeouts were a bit down, but so were his home runs, perhaps due to an increased ground ball rate. In other words, his peripherals checked out (3.36 FIP). When his ERA shot up by two full runs in June, the easy explanation was pitching coach Dave Eiland’s absence. After Eiland returned Burnett had a few good starts, but he still wasn’t very effective. From July through the end of the season he pitched 92.1 innings to a 5.26 ERA. And still, even though Eiland had returned, the media still pointed to his head and not to any physical issues.

Maybe this all is in Burnett’s head. Maybe he had a major distraction during the season and couldn’t keep his focus on the mound. Of this we just can’t be sure. But we can be sure that in 2009 Burnett not only experienced an unprecedented workload, but he also had less time to recover. With that in mind, it is just as easy to blame his struggles on a physical issue as it is on his mental state. In fact, it’s a bit easier to blame it on a physical issue, since we can measure his workload and recovery.

The good news, then, is that Burnett had plenty more time to rest this year. He threw 192.2 innings and 3,217 pitches last season (16.7 per inning), including the postseason, both of which are reductions from his 2009 workload. He also made only one postseason start, and the Yankees’ season ended a few weeks earlier. The hope is that the combination of Burnett’s body becoming used to the increased stress, plus the increased recovery time, will make him stronger in 2011. If nothing else, it makes me a bit more confident that he’ll recover and again provide the Yankees with quality innings. They need it this year more than ever.

Hal: “I think Brian does a great job”

(Seth Wenig/AP)

We are indeed plodding through the worst six weeks of the year. In fact, right now we’re at the halfway point. There is sunshine neither behind us nor ahead of us. In many years this leads to idle chatter, but this year, after a rough off-season that saw Cliff Lee snub the team’s millions, fans are starting to get cranky. Despite having made overhauls to the team in the last two years that resulted in a World Series title and an ALCS appearance, Brian Cashman has come under fire. But if we’re to believe Hal Steinbrenner, this vitriol comes from only the fans. He has no problem with his general manager.

Despite Cashman’s recent outspokenness, which consisted of him honestly answering questions, Hal says that he and the GM continue working together as normal. Joel Sherman of the Post has Steinbrenner’s exclusive comments.

[Cashman] and I have a great working relationship. There is no problem, right now. I think we have a bunch of drummed-up drama.

I value his opinion and his advice. That does not mean that I am always going to go with that advice and all of my VPs know that I might go a different way. There are no hard feelings between Cash and I. There never was. Reasonable men can differ in opinions.

I keep reading about dissension and discord. We are a well-functioning company. The bosses have a decision to make. Sometimes people don’t agree with those decisions. So I told him, “You are always honest with the media, be honest now. Tell them what you have to tell them.” I was already onto the next decision. I told him, “You and I are fine. Answer in any way you want.” We are not always going to be on the same page. It is my job to think what is best for the family, partners and company.

Hal also said that he wants to keep Cashman beyond 2011, but that “now is not the time for that.” It would be quite hypocritical, indeed, if the Steinbrenners extended Cashman’s contract before it expired, when Cashman refuses to do so for his players.

When reading these comments, it is important to remember that Hal has every reason to say what he did. The franchise does not benefit from the perception of internal unrest. Hal’s comments are meant to smooth over what has been seen as a rough patch for the organization. Continued silence would only lead to further speculation. In that way, Hal did a good job of quieting doubters and maintaining an image of solidarity in the front office. But I’m not convinced he actually means it. Nor am I convinced that he doesn’t mean it.

This is merely the media’s nature. Sometimes we get exclusive information. Other times we get a long PR spiel. This was certainly the latter. It is nice to hear the owner of the team backing up his GM, but to take this at face value is a mistake. After all, how often do we see a GM or owner give a public vote of confidence to an employee, only to fire him within days? I do hope that Hal is sincere in his words, but experience studying the media tells me to take his comments lightly.

In his column today, Joel Sherman offers a sober look at the situation. It doesn’t make me think Hal’s comments are any more sincere, but reading it reminded me of one thing. There might be a perception of turmoil right now, but it won’t affect how the Yankees approach the season. They’re still going to look for a pitcher, whether that’s in February or it’s in June. If there is a front office issue to deal with, it will come in October or November. Which serves as a reminder that we have seven months of baseball between now and then. That’s the sweetest reminder of them all.