A quick look at Chad Durbin

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

With the Yankees still mired in a never-ending search for quality bullpen help, one name on the free agent list caught my eye the other day and I’m just now getting around to writing about him: Chad Durbin. He and the Phillies tried to work out a deal earlier in the offseason but they just couldn’t get it done, and eventually the team declined to offer him arbitration as a Type-B free agent who earned $2.125M in 2010.

The right-hander ran three-fifths of the AL Central circuit earlier in his career, bouncing from the Royals to the Indians to the Twins with a brief stop in Arizona mixed in along the way. It wasn’t until he signed with a Phillies before the 2008 season as a non-tendered player that Durbin actually started to experience some sustained success. They put an end to his days as a starter, using him exclusively in relief for the first time in his career.

Durbin’s first season as a reliever went very well. He struck out just 6.47 batters per nine innings but made up for by limiting walks (2.87 uIBB/9) and getting some ground balls (45.6%). His FIP was a rock solid 3.77 in 87.2 innings, third most thrown among big league relievers, and Charlie Manuel certainly went to Durbin in big spots: his 1.47 leverage index when entering the game was one of the highest in baseball among non-closers. And, of course, the Phillies won the World Series that year, which I’m sure is one of his career highlights.

Unfortunately Durbin took a pretty significant step back in 2009, unintentionally walking 5.81 batters per nine innings and getting a grounder just 39.5% of the time. He did up his strikeout rate to 8.01 per nine, but his 5.14 FIP in 69.2 innings was below replacement level. Durbin did miss more than two weeks with a strained lat, so maybe that’s to blame. The good news is that he bounced back rather well in 2010, striking out 8.26 per nine, walking 3.28 per nine unintentionally, and generating 42.4% ground balls. His 3.97 FIP was the second best of his career, though the 68.2 innings he threw were even less than he contributed in 2009. Blame that on a strained hamstring that required a three-week stint on the disabled list.

So going forward, who is the real Durbin, the 2008, 2009, or 2010 version? It’s probably a combination of all three, really. The horrible walk rate in ’09 is clearly an outlier compared to the rest of his career, so I feel confident in saying that won’t be an issue going forward. His strikeout rate has steadily improved throughout his career, so his 7.49 K/9 over the last three seasons is likely his true talent level, ditto the 42.8% ground balls. Homeruns haven’t been much of a problem (0.80 HR/9 since 2008 with half his games coming in Citizens Bank Park) and even though he’s been hurt the last two years, he’s still provided a healthy amount of innings. Among pure relievers, only Carlos Marmol has thrown more over the last three seasons.

At 33 years old, Durbin is what he is, and that’s a pretty solid middle relief option. He’s not the sexy name setup man, but he’s a viable big league reliever that can absolutely make the Yankees’ bullpen deeper and more effective. And for what it’s worth, he’s spent the last three years playing in pressure games, going to World Series twice, so he knows what that kind of atmosphere is all about. If nothing else, it’s a little comforting.

The problem is probably cost, however. Look at the deals given to guys like Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Pedro Feliciano, and Randy Choate this offseason, all of whom are at that 3.75ish FIP level over the last three years, if not worse. There’s really no reason to believe that Durbin will take anything less than a two-year contract. That’s a going rate for decent relief help this year, and at 33 years old this is probably his one and only chance at a significant free agent pay day. I’d be all for signing Durbin to beef up the relief corps, but the price has to be right.

Sabathia shedding pounds this offseason

Via Janie McAuley, CC Sabathia has dropped 15 pounds through a combination of cardio workouts and weight training this offseason and is aiming to drop 15 more before Spring Training begins. “I’m turning 30 this year, getting a little older,” he joked. “Hopefully [the weight loss] will take some pressure off my knee and extend my career.” Sabathia had surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his right knee after the season, but his rehab was complete in less than a month and he’s well into his offseason routine and playing some light catch.

CC’s always going to be a big guy, that’s just his body type and it’s part of the reason why he’s so insanely durable. Shedding some pounds to reduce the general wear and tear is a great move though, it can only help.

The idea of re-acquiring Johnny Damon

Gone? Gone. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Yesterday evening Newsday’s Ken Davidoff reported that the Yankees “have been communicating with free agent Johnny Damon about a possible return to the Yankees for 2011.” A few minutes ago, Mark Feinsand said Damon “won’t rule out” a return to the Bronx but wants a full-time job somewhere. If Damon could be convinced to return to the Bronx, should the Yankees take him back?

As a fan, the answer is easy. Do I want Johnny Damon back in pinstripes? Sure I want Johnny Damon back in pinstripes. Despite a blip at the beginning of 2007 he was everything the Yankees could have hoped for when they signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract before the 2006 season. During the life of the contract he produced 12.3 WAR, 18th among MLB outfielders in that span, but it was in the last two years that he really shined. In 2008 and 2009 he produced 7.1 WAR, fifth best among LFers. And, most importantly, his career-high 24 homers in 2009 helped lead the Yankees to a world championship.

As someone interested in how the Yankees perform in 2011, the answer is a bit different. Damon played his last contract at ages 32 through 35. He’ll play the 2011 season as a 37-year-old. Plenty changes at that age, especially for ballplayers. If Damon’s skills have declined, or we can forecast his skills to decline, then it doesn’t matter what he did in his previous stint. All the Yankees care about now is whether he can help the team in 2011. I propose that he can. The only problem might be convincing him to take on a reduced rule.

It’s true that Damon’s numbers suffered in 2010. After moving from Yankee Stadium to Comerica Park he had a season that looked more like 2007 than it did 2008 or 2009. In fact, his batting lines were nearly identical: .270/.351/.396 in 605 PA in 2007 and .271/.355/.401 in 613 PA in 2010. Park adjustments helped him a bit, but his 2010 was certainly below the bar he set in his final two seasons with the Yankees. He also played just 268.1 innings in the field, likely because he developed a reputation as a poor defender in 2009. While I won’t ignore this evidence, I do think there might be factors that help explain the dip, and might also mean a bounce back for Damon in 2010.

First, take a look at this image.

This might appear a bit damning. You can clearly see that Damon didn’t hit with nearly as much power to right field. That’s his bread and butter. If he can’t do that any more, then of what help is he to the Yankees?

I don’t think this is the case. While there is a clear drop-off in distance on balls to right field, there might be good reason for that. At Yankee Stadium Damon had the porch 318 feet away. The left-center field alley might be 399 feet away, but there is plenty of space where the wall is far, far closer. Damon clearly used that to his advantage and popped plenty of balls over that wall. In Comerica the right field line is 345 feet away, and while it extends to only 370 in left-center, it continues back to 420 feet in dead center. Many of the home runs Damon hit in 2009 would have been fly outs in 2010 at Comerica. It’s my position that he adapted his style to the park.

My only supporting evidence is on the left side of the batted ball chart. You’ll notice that Damon hit quite a few balls deeper to left field in 2010 than in 2009. I can’t be completely certain, but it does appear to be the result of a slightly different approach at the plate. If he knows he can’t just pop flies over the wall, why try for that? I think that a return to Yankee Stadium could mean a return to his short porch swing, which could again lead to bigger power numbers. He won’t do what he did in 2009, but if he does what he did in, say, 2006, he’d be worth having on a one-year contract.

If the Yankees did re-sign Damon it would be as a fourth outfielder, with the possibility for more playing time should something go wrong. In other words, he’s Brett Gardner and Jorge Posada insurance. While I doubt there will be vocal opposition to the latter, the former might make some people cringe. The story during 2009 was Damon’s tenuous defense in left field, and that reputation followed him into the off-season. I’m not sure that his deficiencies are as pronounced as we had originally thought. Yes, he did look lost out there at times, but I also think that he did get better as the year went along. As regards his defensive numbers, they’re really not all that bad.

Before some changes to the UZR output, Damon had something like a -16 UZR in left — though I’m not sure of the exact number. To correct for a few deficiencies the formula was tweaked, and it gave quite a different answer this time: -4.4 UZR. DRS had him at just -1. Total Zone actually liked his defense, giving him +6. If we combine the last three years of data, and we weigh it by giving last year more precedence than the years before, I think we’d come out somewhere around league average. That’s all the Yanks really need from a fourth outfielder, especially if he can fit.

If the plan is to sign Damon and then trade Gardner for a pitcher, well, that certainly changes things. I’m not sure that Gardner is tradable, anyway, because of his wrist. But if that is the plan upon acquiring Damon, I’m not sure I like it. It puts Damon into a necessary role, and I’m not quite that high on him. As a fourth outfielder and insurance policy, I think he’s worth a slight overpay on a one-year deal. With plenty of available funds I think it’s a decent signing. If he regains some power at Yankee Stadium it will be a worthy deal. If he doesn’t, then he’s the fourth outfielder for a year and moves on. I don’t see much downside to this.

Open Thread: Rock

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Hall of Fame ballot is a hot topic these days, and one of the more obvious candidates for induction this year is Tim Raines. Although Rock made his name with the Expos, he was a great part time player with the Yankees from 1996 through 1998. In those three years, he hit .299/.395/.429 with more walks (130) than strikeouts (112). They just don’t make bench help like they used to. I definitely don’t have a signature Tim Raines moment, but holy crap was he a good player. He just had the misfortune of being the second best leadoff hitter in baseball history at the same the best leadoff hitter in baseball history was in his heyday. Tough break.

Anyway, here is this evening’s open thread. The Islanders, Knicks, and Nets are all in action, so talk about whatever your heart desires.

With estate tax restored, a look at George’s passing

When George Steinbrenner died in early July, many commentators noted his perfect timing. The Boss passed away during the one year in which Congress had allowed the estate tax to lapse, and it seemed to be the perfect Steinbrenner coda to a long and controversy-filled life in baseball.

Of course, at the time, we knew Congress wouldn’t be silent on the matter forever. Even though the estate tax would been restored by default in 2011, Congress acted to restructure the estate tax and make it retroactive for 2010. For the next two years, the estate tax will be collected at 35 percent of all probate assets with a $5 million exemption. Only around one-half of one percent of Americans will have to pay the tax, but with the way the new tax bill is structured, the Yankees and its owners will have to pay something even though George passed away while the tax had lapsed.

Paul Sullivan of The Times explained what this means for those who died with large estates in 2010. He wrote late last week:

Under the estate tax wording in the bill, the heirs of people who died this year will have two options for a tax bill. If they chose to treat the estate by the tax laws in place in 2010, they will have to calculate the capital gains on all assets in the estate to determine if the value is above a level the Internal Revenue Service is allowing. This “artificial step-up in basis” is $1.3 million to any heir and $3 million to a surviving spouse.

The other option is to apply the 2011 law, which would exempt the first $5 million of the estate and impose a rate of 35 percent on anything above that. This is far more generous than the 2009 law — a $3.5 million exemption and a 45 percent tax rate — which many people thought would be reinstated.

Leading estates lawyers, including Ed Koren, a Holland & Knight attorney who represented Steinbrenner, said that folks with estates over $10 million would opt to pay the capital gains tax at 15 percent. Koren spoke to the point about the Yankees as well, and it sounds as though the team and family were well prepared for the Boss’ death.

“I can assuredly say that the Yankees wouldn’t have been on the block this year if there was an estate tax. It has to be an aggressive and ongoing approach,” he said of insulating as much a portion of a large estate as possible from the tax. “I represented George for 22 years.”

George had become, for better or worse, the poster child for the lapsed estate tax, but even as Congress has restored the tax, the Yankees and the family should be just fine. They have money and access to very good lawyers. I’m not at all surprised.

Yankees sign Steve Evarts to minor league deal

Via Matt Eddy, the Yankees have signed 23-year-old left-hander Steve Evarts to a minor league deal. He selected 43rd overall by the Braves in the 2006 draft, taken two spots after Joba Chamberlain. Evarts ranked as Atlanta’s 15th best prospect before the 2008 season, and Baseball America lauded his feel for pitching, his upper-80’s fastball, and a dynamite changeup that acts like a screwball. In 98 professional innings, he’s struck out 81 and walked just 16 unintentionally. The problem is that he hasn’t pitched since 2008 due to varying injuries (including at least one elbow surgery) and disciplinary problems. The Braves released him at some point in early 2009.

Evarts has a pretty spotty record; he was charged with criminal mischief after smashing someone’s car with a bat in high school, and earlier this year he was arrested on felony battery and marijuana possession charges. I assume all of that stuff is cleared up and the Yankees did their homework. Chances are they’ll get absolutely nothing out of Evarts, but at some point he was a very promising prospect. No harm in trying.

Why the Mariners won’t trade Felix Hernandez

(Amy Sancetta/AP)

The No. 1 question we receive every day is some variant of, why don’t the Yankees trade for Felix Hernandez, or the Yankees should trade the farm for Felix. This is an understandable reaction to a rough situation. Many fans had so vividly imagined Cliff Lee in pinstripes that the reality of him going to Philadelphia has caused a bit of a blinder. The most prominent such blinder is the thought that Seattle might trade Hernandez to the Yankees.

The reason the Yankees won’t acquire Felix, at least in the near term, relates more to Seattle than it does New York. After all, they’re the one that holds the prized player. They have a number of reasons to hold Felix rather than cash him in for prospects. Given Felix’s ability and contract, along with the team’s overall situation, I can’t see them making a trade any time soon. I won’t go so far as to guarantee it — baseball is a weird game — but I’m confident that Seattle will hold onto Felix through at least 2013.

The first and most obvious reason for Seattle holding onto Felix is his ability. Whether or not you think he deserved the AL Cy Young Award, he is still a top five pitcher. He’s probably a top three pitcher. In the past two seasons he’s shown improvements in both his strikeout and walk rates, and now has the lethal combination of 8-plus strikeouts per nine and a 50-percent-plus ground ball rate. Only four pitchers in the majors accomplished this in 2010. Oh, and he’s only 25 years old. It would take quite the set of circumstances for any team to consider trading such an elite young pitcher.

Considering his performance and service time, Seattle has Felix signed to a team-friendly contract. After the 2010 season Felix has five years of service time, meaning he’d have been a free agent after the 2011 season had he not signed an extension. What kind of contract would Felix command if he hit the free agent market as a 26-year-old? I imagine he might have become the first $200 million pitcher. Yet he signed an extension with Seattle that covers five years and pays him $78 million. That will cost the Mariners just $10 million in 2011 before it jumps to $18.5 million in 2012 and gets to $20 million in 2014. He is the consummate bargain, even at $20 million annually.

Seattle can easily afford this contract. They’re not the Marlins; they’re not the Pirates; they’re not the Indians. They play in a fairly robust market and can certainly afford to keep elite players under contract. Their payroll is actually a bit down now, $91 million in 2010 after approaching $120 million in 2008. Furthermore, they have few large commitments in the future. The 2012 payroll has just $54 million committed, mostly to Felix and Ichiro, and after that their only big obligation belongs to Felix. Why, then, would they trade an elite pitcher? They can clearly afford him.

At this point we can turn to Zack Greinke to answer the previous question. The Royals could afford to keep him, but instead traded him to the Brewers. Kansas City is a bottom dwelling team, but has a big set of eyes on the future. Their farm system ranks as the best in baseball by no small measure, and they could start seeing those players pay off in 2012. Even then, it’s tough to expect a crop of 20- and 21-year-olds to bring a team into contention. The more realistic impact year is 2013, and at that point Greinke would have been a free agent. Trading him now, then, theoretically provides Kansas City with the best return, since they’re providing two years of Greinke at a below market rate. This is not the same situation Seattle faces.

Yes, the Seattle offense was historically bad in 2010 — often bad enough to negate the benefits that Felix brought. But this won’t always be the case. As with the Royals, the Mariners will rebuild. They might not have the same caliber system, but it still has a few strong prospects at the top. In June they’ll draft second overall, and they figure to have another decent pick in 2012. This will help them reload the system. Given their current young talent, their talent on the farm, and the talent they can afford on the free agent market, I imagine that Seattle will be back in the contention conversation before 2014. If they plan to contend before then, they have even less of a reason to trade Felix.

Let’s just imagine for a moment that Seattle’s target contention year is 2014, the final year of Felix’s contract. Might they then decide to trade him and fortify the team for a run that year? Again, I don’t think so. No player they can acquire will provide the impact that Felix himself can. They might be able to shore up multiple parts, but they’ll be left weaker at starting pitcher. That brings me to the final point: Seattle can, in all likelihood, sign Felix to a mega deal once he hits free agency, or perhaps before. He’ll be just 29 at the time, so he’ll probably be in line for a Sabathia-like deal if the current baseball economic structure holds up. Why wouldn’t Seattle give it to him? In fact, if they didn’t I’d suspect that they know something that we don’t, and are holding off on a big offer for that reason.

When an opportunity arises to trade for a pitcher of Hernandez’s age and ability, any team will jump all over it. They might even empty the farm. It would be a justifiable move. But there’s a reason that pitchers of Hernandez’s age and ability typically do not become available in trades. Seattle has little reason to trade him. Maybe if they catch a few terrible breaks he’ll become available in a couple of years. But right now the team simply has no reason to trade him. I’d love to see him in Yankee pinstripes as much as the next guy. But let’s be realistic. It’s just not happening.