Of all the bad contracts…

The Yankees currently have a need, and for once they’re not throwing money at it. According to some reports, it’s not because they haven’t found anything they like, but rather because they’re unwilling to raise payroll any further. They’re already at around $200 million for 2012, and we’ve already heard more than enough about the possible austerity budget for 2014. Whether they’re really trying to get payroll to a certain level by 2014, of they’re just getting out of the habit of giving out big-money, long-term contracts, it means that their biggest need this off-season, pitching, won’t get typical Yankee attention.

While avoiding long-term contracts for pitchers such as C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, and Edwin Jackson make sense to varying degrees, what’s striking about this off-season is the Yankees’ reluctance to explore short-term deals that could boost the 2012 rotation. They’ve distanced themselves from Roy Oswalt even after learning he seeks only a one-year deal. More alarmingly, they’ve backed off Hiroki Kuroda, a pitcher who is not only seeking a short-term deal, but is also a pitcher the Yankees reportedly like.

Why would the Yankees choose not to pursue a pitcher they like if he only requires a one-year contract? There are a few reasons, but these seem the most plausible.

1. They’re not interested in paying the price for Kuroda plus the luxury tax. The contracts on the book are already there and can’t go anywhere. Adding Kuroda will effectively add nearly $17 million to total 2012 expenditures.

2. They’re worried that Kuroda won’t handle the transition to the AL in general, and the AL East specifically, well. If he’s not measurably better than Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett, he’s not worth much, never mind $17 million. Since the Yankees clearly have a budget this winter, that $17 million could effectively wipe out any remaining flexibility, which could affect other aspects of the team. In other words, it’s a bigger risk than they’d normally consider for a player on a one-year deal.

Unfortunately, this ties the Yankees hands. They can’t do anything with the big contracts currently on the books. The players have no-trade clauses, play an integral role on the 2012 team, or are untradeable. That money is on the books and is not going anywhere, much to everyone’s chagrin.

We can look back through recent Yankees history and take umbrage with certain contracts. The A-Rod contract stands out. The Yankees not only had him on what was, at the time, a fairly reasonable contract, but they also had payments coming fro Texas to help offset the costs. When he opted out and re-signed they lost it all. Now they’re paying luxury tax on a $27.5 million average annual contract for the next six years. While Rodriguez played an integral role on the 2009 championship team, it’s still pretty clear that the Yankees will later suffer for that contract. It’s certainly one that is holding them back from making other moves.

Yet if you look at the contracts doled out after A-Rod, it’s hard to find complaints. The Yankees needed CC Sabathia in the worst way following 2008. While no one wants to hear it now, they also needed A.J. Burnett. At the time they had two returning starting pitchers, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain, both of whom were coming off fairly major injuries. Cashman said at the outset that he was signing two starting pitchers. Sabathia and Burnett were hands down the best available. The Yankees did take a gamble on Burnett’s health, though that has rarely been an issue in his three seasons with the team. It’s easy to hate the contract now because of his performance, but at the time it made total sense. The Yankees simply needed talented arms at that exact moment.

Then there’s the Mark Teixeira contract, another one that’s coming under increased scrutiny after two disappointing seasons. But as with Burnett, it’s tough to look back on that and see a folly. The first baseman at the time was Nick Swisher, a player the Yankees apparently held in lesser regard than Xavier Nady. Their 3-4-5 hitters were going to be Hideki Matsui, A-Rod, and, well, probably Nady or Swisher. That might not be horrible, but it’s not the formidable core we’d seen from past Yankees teams. Bringing in Teixeira beefed up the offense in a significant way.

The Yankees remained quiet in 2010, though they did trade for Curtis Granderson. Yet his contract is relatively reasonable — he far outperformed it in 2011. The following off-season, though, the Yankees did hand out some big contracts. Mariano Rivera got two years and $30 million. Derek Jeter got three years and $51 million. It’s easy to complain about that contract, since Jeter will probably never provide production commensurate with his salary. It’s tough to say what they were going to do in that situation. Would they have let him walk? Would he have walked? Who would have played shortstop? There are just too many questions involved with that deal.

That leaves just one big-money contract from last winter: Rafael Soriano. Bringing him in wasn’t a bad move, per se. After all, he’s capable of legitimate shutdown performances. But at the time the Yankees already had a quality setup corps in Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson. Adding Soriano wasn’t exactly necessary. As I wrote at the time

In terms of the 2011 team, there are no complaints. The Yankees had plenty of money to spend, and they certainly upgraded the back end of the bullpen. This will lead to a greater enjoyment of the 2011 season. The Yanks might win a few games that they otherwise would have lost, and we will all be a little less irritable the next mornings. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is what this means for the 2012 and 2013 teams.

Maybe the Yankees really do have a limitless budget. Maybe they can raise it to $220 million if the right players become available. Brian Cashman has always asserted that he operates under a strict budget, but Brian Cashman also said that he wasn’t going to surrender his first round pick in this year’s draft. If Soriano’s contract doesn’t prevent the Yankees from making a move in the next three years, it’s hard not to like it. But if they can’t or don’t make a move because of payroll concerns, then the contract becomes a problem.

Now the Yankees have a legitimate need. The $11 million they’re paying Soriano this year could easily buy them a stopgap solution for the 2012 rotation. But they’re now holding back, because the payroll is already high enough. Of course, the other contracts are holding them back as well. Rodriguez, Teixeira, Jeter, Rivera, Cano, Sabathia, and Burnett all make more than Soriano. But when they were signed they at least filled areas of need. Soriano did not. The Yankees could have passed on him and had just as much success in 2011. Yet they did sigh him, and now they can’t or won’t make a move because of payroll concerns.

Perhaps at the time the Yankees didn’t plan to significantly stifle payroll starting this off-season. Maybe they thought they could continue to add players as needed, even with Soriano on the payroll. Either way, the Yankees are suffering currently because of this move. The Soriano signing, while not bad at the time, was unnecessary. That unnecessary contract is apparently the difference, right now, between adding a needed player and not.

Guest Post: The Lottery Ticket

The following is a guest post from Tyler Wilkinson, the madman behind all but one of the graphics available at The RAB Shop. He wrote about everyone’s favorite topic, Joba the Starter. If you’re uninterested in living through that discussion again, then just skip right over this post.

(AP Photo, Tony Gutierrez)

Joba Chamberlain’s ascent and decline have been well documented. He was a fire-balling 21-year-old bubble wrapped to protect him from his manager. A reliever. A starter. A reliever again. Hurt. Fat. Hurt again. And now, four and a half years after being fit for pinstripes, nearly forgotten.

We have seen the mountain top. We know what waits there. We know that in 2008, a 22-year-old Joba with all the pressures of New York on his back threw 65 innings over 12 starts for the Yankees, striking out 10 and walking 3 per game. We know that in 2009, his 31 starts didn’t go as well, with the strikeouts dropping to 7.4 and walks climbing to 4.4. He also hit 12 batters, presumably all of them Youkilis.

A pitcher who at age 23 had started 43 games with varying levels of success, striking out 9.6 batters per 9 innings. That’s more than Clemens at his age. More than Nolan Ryan, Koufax, Maddux and other arbitrary Hall of Famers that were all given more of a chance than Joba. Would Chamberlain have reached their level? Almost certainly not. Should 221.2 innings as a starting pitcher determine an inability to succeed? Almost certainly not.

As Chamberlain recovers from the Tommy John Surgery that cut his 2011 campaign short, it is easy to look back on the potential he exuded and wonder where it all went wrong. It is also easy to write his Yankees obituary. But as we embark on a 2012 season with a Yankees rotation infested by doubt and A.J. Burnett’s ghost, now is the time to exhume the corpse of Joba and give it one more try.

There’s no excuse not to. For one, Joba’s mere presence is a luxury. Relegated to the sixth inning behind David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera, Joba’s anticipated contribution to the 2012 squad is negligible. As witnessed when Joba went down last season, Joe Girardi is more than capable of filling innings with spare part relievers. Losing him to the starting rotation would have virtually no affect on the bullpen and if it becomes evident that the experiment is failing, Joba can go right back to the pen with no harm done.

The main reasons to try it are the current state of the rotation and the now omnipresent budget. Joba Chamberlain at his peak is the number 2 starter the Yankees are searching for. In an offseason where the Yankees have chosen not to throw money at big money targets like C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle, or even one year deals for the likes of Hiroki Kuroda or Roy Oswalt, Chamberlain lays in the weeds as a cost-controlled option already on the books. A lottery ticket sitting in the Yankees’ wallet that doesn’t even require a trip to the store. If the 2008 version of Joba the Starter turns up, he’s an improvement over every non-Sabathia member of the current rotation. If 2009 Joba turns up, he still may be an improvement over back-end question marks like Phil Hughes, Burnett and an even older Freddy Garcia.

There is no downside. Joba will not be ready for Opening Day, so start him in AAA. He has minor league options left. Let him prepare as a starter, get reacclimated to the schedule, the pitch counts, the feeling of losing a game in which you pitched well enough to win. If he gets hurt, the Yankees are where they were in 2011; a playoff team with a shutdown bullpen and question marks in the rotation. If he pitches terrible, same deal. But, on the microscopic chance he succeeds, the Yankees have their coveted pitcher. Cheap. For the 2013 season as well, before he becomes a free agent. An answer to an offseason of questions. A cost-effective solution for the suddenly thrifty Steinbrenner boys. Joba is a lottery ticket worth scratching, now more than ever. Here’s hoping for the jackpot.

Yankees sign Hideki Okajima to a minor league deal

If the Yankees feature a second lefty in the 2012 bullpen, they’ll do so on the cheap. Earlier in the off-season they signed Mike O’Connor and selected Cesar Cabral in the Rule 5 Draft, and now they’ve added Hideki Okajima to the list of non-roster spring training invitees (via David Waldstein). Okajima pitched well for the Red Sox in 2007 and 2008 before declining steadily. He missed some time in 2010 with a lower back injury, which might explain his horrible performance. Last season went a bit better, though it was mostly spent in AAA. The chance of Okajima making the Opening Day roster is slim, but he’s as good a bet on a minor league deal as any.

A-Rod undergoes experimental knee procedure

One of the keys for the 2012 Yankees is getting a healthy Alex Rodriguez. It’s unrealistic to expect him to play 150 games, since he hasn’t done that in the last four seasons. But getting to 135 games seems like a reasonable goal, and it will help the Yankees immensely. Rodriguez has taken a big step in that direction already this winter. According to a report in The New York Post, he underwent “experimental therapy called Orkine” on the right knee that caused him to miss 38 games in July and August.

While the Post termed Orkine experimental, it’s something that’s really been around for a while. It’s a platelet-rich plasma therapy, something we’ve seen other athletes undergo in the recent past. Takashi Saito made headlines in 2008 when he had the procedure in lieu of Tommy John surgery. Yankees fans will remember when Xavier Nady tried it in 2009, only to eventually require TJS. Several athletes have used platelet-rich plasma for knee and ankle injuries. Notables include Troy Polamalu, Tiger Woods, and Kobe Bryant. Rodriguez actually underwent the procedure on the advice of Bryant — whom is reportedly “looks pretty damn spry,” according to at least one NBA fan.

The Post got an excellent quote from Dr. Jonathan Glashow, who is the co-chief of sports medicine at Mout Sinai Hospital.

A lot of athletes I’ve talked to really think this stuff works, but we really don’t have a lot of scientific knowledge behind it of exactly what’s happening. It’s a great way to reduce inflammation and therefore pain, and that’s the essence of it. I think a lot of the athletes who have wear-and-tear on their knees benefit from this. You do it for a while and if it doesn’t stay good you do it again in a few years.

Even more encouragingly, it doesn’t appear that A-Rod will spend much time on the sidelines following the procedure. He underwent it within the last month, and recovery time isn’t very long. Bryant played in a game mere weeks after the procedure. Rodriguez still has a month and a half before he even reports to spring training. That should give him time to get in condition for the season.

Lest anyone think this is repeat of the Gallea or even the Bartolo Colon situation, Alex did get the Yankees’ blessing before getting the plasma injection. The Yankees also cleared it with the commissioner’s office, so there will be no surprise investigations popping up.

Open Thread: Ed Whitson

(Bettmann/CORBIS)

You won’t find many Yankees fans with fond memories of Ed Whitson, but the Yankees signed the right-hander to a five-year contract worth $4.4M on this date in 1984. Whitson was expected to help anchor the rotation, but he instead pitched to a 5.38 ERA in 195.2 IP for the Yankees before being traded back to the Padres just a year and a half into the deal. People will blame it on him being unable to handle New York and all that stuff, but you’ll rarely see anyone acknowledge that Whitson wasn’t even all that good in the first place.

Coming into the 1985 season, his first with the Yankees, Whitson owned a career 101 ERA+ in over 1,000 innings spread across eight years. He was almost perfectly average. Yes, Whitson did post a 3.24 ERA in 189 IP for San Diego in 1984, but he struck out just 103 batters (4.9 K/9) and his 2.45 K/BB that year was easily the best of his career up to that point. Still, that’s roughly equivalent to what Phil Hughes has done so far in his career (2.36 K/BB). Whitson was so bad the year before (1983) that he was demoted to the bullpen at midseason, and the year before that (1982) he was a mop-up reliever that made some spot starts down the stretch. He was an average pitcher at best, but one that happened to have the best year of his career (up to that point) at the right time.

After flopping in New York and going back to San Diego, Whitson went back to being perfectly average in a roundabout way. He pitched to a 4.46 ERA in the two and a half seasons immediately after the trade, then had the two best years of his career at age 34-35 (2.63 ERA in 455.2 IP from 1989-1990). He posted a 5.03 ERA in 1991 and done with baseball after that, out of the game at age 36. In terms of bWAR — which is based on results (runs allowed) and not process (FIP) like fWAR — Whitson had five seasons worth 2.0+ bWAR  of in his 15-year career. Javy Vazquez has eleven such seasons (including one with the Yankees!) in his 14-year career, for some perspective. A.J. Burnett has six such seasons in his 13 years. Whitson retired with a career 98 ERA+ in over 2,200 IP after the 1991 season, an almost perfectly average pitcher that was supposed to be more for the Yankees.

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Here is your open thread for the night. The Nets are playing tonight, and they’re the only local sports team in action. Hooray for that. Talk about that game or anything else here, it’s all good.

Once again, Beltran came to the Yankees at the last minute

Seven years ago, Carlos Beltran and Scott Boras famously came to the Yankees during the final minutes of the outfielder’s free agency, offering to join the team at the discount rather than sign elsewhere. The Yankees said no thanks, and off went Beltran to the Mets for seven years and $119M. Jon Heyman says Beltran (no longer a Boras client) did the same thing this year, offering himself to the Yankees at the last minute for the same two years and $26M he got from the Cardinals. The Yankees again declined, and now he’s in St. Louis.

I still think that passing on Beltran before the 2005 season was one of the biggest mistakes the Yankees have made under Brian Cashman, though in hindsight you can say they dodged a bullet given all his injuries in recent years. This time around it’s a different story, because he is older with bad knees and the Yankees don’t need the offense or an outfielder. It’s pretty clear that Beltran wants to wear pinstripes though, it just doesn’t look like he’ll ever get the chance.

Why not pursue Hiroki Kuroda?

For a while we’ve waited for the Yankees to make a move. They’ve made a couple, sure, and one was quite the splash. But none of the moves really changed the outlook for 2012. Since Brian Cashman probably didn’t mean “Freddy Garcia, Freddy Garcia, Freddy Garcia,” when he declared the team’s needs for the off-season, we continue to wait. Yet with each passing day it seems less and less likely that the Yankees make a move for a starting pitcher.

Those chances seemed even slimmer yesterday, when ESPN New York reported that the Yankees won’t bid on Hiroki Kuroda. This follows a period when the Yankees denied a connection with Kuroda. While by every indication they do like Kuroda, he just doesn’t appear to fit into their budget. That has, in some ways understandable, inflamed the ire of Yankees fans.

The issue isn’t necessarily with the $12 million base salary Kuroda seeks. In fact, for a one-year deal that’s a more than reasonable rate. The issue is the additional cost they bear. Since they’re over the luxury tax, each additional contract they sign actually costs them 40 percent extra. That turns Kuroda’s $12 million into $16.8 million in total expenditures. It’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s one the Yankees currently face.

It’s still likely, though, that the Yankees could, if they were so inclined fit Kuroda into the budget. They can definitely use another starter, and Kuroda has a very fine four-year MLB track record. Brian Cashman has said in the past — even as recently as this November — that he can takes cases for payroll increases to Hal Steinbrenner for approval. If Cashman can make a compelling case, Hal would make an exception. Yet can Cashman really make a compelling case for Kuroda?

Cashman might like Kuroda. Billy Eppler might like Kuroda. Even Hal himself might like Kuroda. But that doesn’t mean he warrants making a payroll exception. Exceptions come for pitchers like Cliff Lee, who don’t hit the market open. The Yankees were willing to make an exception for him last year, though it didn’t work out. Can Cashman really justify making a similar case for Kuroda?

Let’s just say that Cashman can and does make a compelling case for Kuroda, and Hal makes the payroll exception. That pretty much ties the Yankees’s hands financially. It might seem as though they have unlimited funds, but they clearly do not. Hal has said no before — see the proposed Mike Cameron trade from July, 2009 — and he’ll likely say no after bringing in Kuroda. That means Justin Maxwell as the righty outfielder off the bench. That means no other fringe improvements. Most importantly, it means no in-season improvements.

That is to say, the idea behind not pursuing Kuroda could be with an aim to stay as flexible as possible going forward. The Yankees do have five starters, and they do have a rotation full of worthy kids in AAA. There’s a case to be made, especially from those who want the kids to get a shot, that holding onto that money is good in two ways. It means that the kids will get a shot to prove themselves earlier in the year, and it means that the Yankees can afford to make in-season improvements if available and necessary.

Think about it this way, too. The Yankees have a ton of money already tied up in the 2013 payroll. Not only do they have the $127 million listed on their Cot’s page, but they have an additional $26 million for Cano and Granderson, plus three third-year arbitration players, plus holes at a few positions. And while a few pitchers from the free agent class have been locked up, the Yankees still might want to have some funds earmarked for them. Doesn’t it make some sense to show restraint with Kuroda if it means making an exception for a superior pitcher who will be around for longer?

It’s certainly frustrating to see the Yankees turn down short-term options due to financial constraints. They are, after all, a veritable money making machine. But even the Yankees have their limits. Apparently they have reached them, or are at least approaching them. Being prudent might hurt right now, but for all we know it could be part of something bigger. At the very least, it could help keep opportunities open that wouldn’t be otherwise.