Mailbag: Joe Blanton

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Angelo asks: I live in Philadelphia, and there’s been some talk on sports radio of the Phillies dealing Joe Blanton to the Yankees. I don’t personally care for him, but he’d be cheap considering the Phillies desperately want salary relief. I don’t recall seeing any mention of him on RAB as of yet – if you’ve already discussed him, my apologies.

We haven’t discussed him yet, and that’s partially by design. As soon as the Phillies signed Lee everyone and their mother knew they’d have to trade Blanton just to keep the payroll in check. They signed the big right-hander to a three-year contract extension before last season, and there’s still two years at $8.5M annually left on the deal. Their payroll is already approaching $160M according to Cot’s and that’s only because Lee’s deal is so back-loaded. They still owe Ben Francisco and Kyle Kendrick arbitration raises as well.

Anyway, back to Blanton. He’s a pretty generic righty in that nothing stands out about him. His fastball is mostly in the upper-80’s and occasionally the low-90’s, and neither his slider, changeup, or curveball is a legit put-away pitch. Blanton’s strikeout rate unsurprisingly jumped once he got the National League, but it’s been decidedly below average over his entire career (just 5.82 K/9). He atones for that slightly by limiting walks, issuing just 2.33 unintentional free passes for every nine innings pitched in his career, and that number has been pretty steady over the last two or three seasons. The groundball rate has dropped off since his days with the Athletics, sitting around 41% now after being at ~44% for most of his career.

Blanton’s best quality is his ability to eat a boatload of innings. The 175.2 innings he threw in 2010 was the lowest full season total of his career, and that’s because he missed all of April with an oblique strain. That is the only disabled list stint of his career, and otherwise he’s thrown no fewer than 194.1 innings in any of his other five seasons as a big leaguer. I mean, that’s really it, there’s not much more to know about Blanton. He’s a decidedly average pitcher, with no more than 2.1 fWAR and no less than 1.9 fWAR in each of the last three seasons. Dead, solid, average.

Is Blanton better than Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre? Certainly. He could be a fine innings guy in the fourth or fifth starter’s spot, giving the team someone they can run into the ground to spare the bullpen every so often. The AL East will probably knock him down the peg into the 1.5 fWAR range, but that’s nothing more than my speculation. Don’t expect greatness, because you won’t get it.

As always, cost is the most important thing. Everyone knows the Phillies have to move Blanton because of their payroll situation, so their hands are tied. No one will give up anything of value, especially if they have to eat the contract. Philadelphia would preferably pay at least part of the $17M that Blanton is owed over the next two years, but even if they eat $5M or so, they’re still not going to get anything great back. I’m not a big fan, but he makes sense for the back of the rotation to a certain degree. The Yankees just have to make sure they get him almost for free. Ruben Amaro’s hands are tied, so take him to the cleaners. Anything more is an overpay.

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.